In this Question & Answer series, I take tackle questions that I’ve been asked more than once and share my answer. This week’s question is one that I’ve been asked WAY more than once. Here is the original letter from “Feeling Guilty”.
I need your advice about something that has been on my heart lately.
I have been in a long distance relationship with the love of my life for about 10 months now. We met in college, and I truly do love him. He lives on the other side of the country.
A couple of months ago we went 4 months without seeing each other.
Unfortunately, I had a slip up during this time. I hooked up (kissing and touching only, but it was pretty intense) with someone I met at a friend’s party.
The next day, I went about my daily life without feeling much guilt. My boyfriend came to visit and we had an amazing time. I still didn’t feel guilty.
Then, about a month later, I saw the same guy I hooked up with at another party. He tried to hook up with me again at this party. I didn’t allow it to happen this time, but over the next couple of days I started to feel incredibly guilty—so much that I was basically having panic attacks.
It been about three weeks now since I saw this guy for the second time, but I am still feeling guilty. I am sometimes so ashamed about what I did.
I plan on seeing my boyfriend next weekend in his city. I feel like I have to tell him. But I think this is literally the only cheating that has occurred in our relationship, and I am not sure if telling him will help anything.
I feel absolutely terrible for what happened, and I plan on being much more aware about situations like these (drinking, partying with strangers, etc.) I really feel changed by this experience, and I am 100% sure this situation will never happen again.
What do you think I should do? Any thoughts are appreciated.
Dear Feeling Guilty,
Feeling guilty absolutely sucks, doesn’t it? Knowing we’ve done the wrong thing—that we’ve acted in a way that makes us feel ashamed of ourselves—is awful. And knowing that our actions would deeply hurt someone we love if they knew about what we’d done adds a whole extra layer of yuck to the mixture.
Towards the end of your letter you said you felt that you “had” to tell your boyfriend what happened.
There may be all sorts of reasons you feel that way. Maybe you’ve already promised each other full disclosure if something like this ever happened. Maybe you know you just couldn’t live with yourself if you don’t “’fess up” and tell him.
Let’s pause for a minute though and look at what happened. Based on what you’ve told me, your “slip up” did not involve sex (and so will not place your partner at physical risk). It was a one-time thing, despite the opportunity to double-up. Once you started feeling guilty, you have thought a lot about the encounter. You seem very committed to making sure nothing like this ever happens again.
In your situation, the question may be less whether you absolutely “have” to tell him, and more whether you “choose” to tell him.
If you choose not to tell him, you will pay a price.
It is possible to grow and learn from these sorts of mistakes even if you don’t tell your partner everything. However, you will probably always feel some guilt when you think of this in the future. You will always know that there is something significant you have kept to yourself. In addition, if you equate honesty with transparency, and if you feel that remaining silent is not being true to your core values, you will likely continue to feel guilty about your silence as well as what you’ve done.
If you choose to tell him, however, you will pay a different price.
He will probably be very hurt and (maybe) angry. It will erode his trust in you. It may damage your relationship in ways that are long-lasting and difficult to heal (although it may also open up a new level of communication and closeness if you work through it well.) Your boyfriend may even decide to end the relationship.
You need to weigh up which of those two prices you are willing/able to pay, and also what you feel is the “right” thing to do.
Is it best for you to stay quiet, suffer some additional guilt, and focus instead on staying faithful and improving your relationship from this point on?
Or is it best to tell him everything—even at the cost of hurting him and risking your relationship—in the hopes that your remorseful transparency will, in time, help the two of you build an even stronger and more open relationship together.
In trying to untangle this, start by asking yourself what sort of relationship you really want.
Chances are, you want a relationship based on trust and respect. This doesn’t mean you can’t have any secrets, or that there aren’t times when it’s better to keep your mouth shut. But it probably does mean that you should choose to tell each other the really important things—things you both expect to know, and that have the potential to affect the foundations of your relationship. It’s up to you, however, to decide whether this slip-up falls into the “really important” category, or not.
All the best as you think this over,
If you are wondering whether your partner might be cheating, or if you–like “Feeling Guilty”–have been cheating yourself, make sure to grab this special deal.
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