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Recently I had quite an interesting conversation with a girlfriend of mine. She was stuck somewhat between a rock and a hard place because she was wondering if it was always necessary to confess that one had cheated. If you cheated, did you always have to tell? Is it alright to wriggle out of an affair without confessing to your partner what had been done?

Having counselled with a number of individuals/couples on this very volatile issue of infidelity, I knew off-hand that it can be complicated. People cheat for a variety of reasons. Some do it out of retaliation because their own partner has cheated, others are motivated by a need for sexual variety and excitement, others long for the unconditional emotional support which a lover often brings, or for some, cheating is a response to a bothersome mid-life crisis or to feelings of low self-esteem. Whatever the reason, cheating seems to be a fairly prevalent practice in all types of relationships. It is found among the married, the engaged, among those who live together and even among those who try to practice serial monogamy.

But how do we generally respond to the reality of cheating? Instinctively, we know, for the most part, that our committed relationships should be defined by sexual exclusivity. Even the players know this. Why else would they seek to sharpen their “gaming” skills? Why else would some seek to make an episode of cheating a secret? When we have vowed “to have and to hold from this day forward” we know that that basically comes down to placing and keeping all of our sexual eggs in one basket as it were, with no sharing allowed!

Even before marriage enters the picture, we don’t expect that our partner will have sex with someone else. Cheating is a big issue because sex is a big issue; just ask any of the individuals plagued today by HIV or some other sexually transmitted disease. You can’t get much bigger than your very life being threatened. If this were not the case, we could easily come back from a night out with the girls or boys to say to our partner “You would never guess, but I just had the most amazing sex with someone I met at a bar/your best friend/my ex”. Sounds fairly ridiculous doesn’t it? Of course it does. We would never, ever venture to do this, because we know that stepping out sexually is a major, relationship-breaking issue.

Is it therefore ever okay to keep a sexual slip-up a secret? Can we cheat and forget all about it in our primary relationship? Some argue that it depends on the nature of the affair. In other words they believe that the necessity of confession is hinged upon whether or not the cheating was long-term (as in repeat offences), whether it was emotional and sexual, or on whether it was relationship-based as opposed to a one night stand. Some relationship gurus will suggest that each individual or couple has to know what is right for them and that there are no simplistic, cart-blanche answers when it comes to the confession of sexual impropriety.

With respect to my girl-friend, she admitted to knowing of several relationships where the cheating was kept a secret, the external relationship brought to an end and the primary relationship continued as if nothing had happened. From the outside this looked like a win-win situation to her. In other words the offending partner did what was needed; she ended the affair but kept the incriminating information away from her partner in an attempt to shield him from the hurtful truth. I was not convinced.

I believe that marriage and the sexuality which forms the bedrock of such a relationship, must start out with a philosophy which will guide the state of that union. In other words, if you have vowed to commit and to be sexually exclusive you can’t very well have your cake and eat it too. Something has got to give. The "philosophy” or guiding principles, or values of the union (whatever you choose to call it) sets certain parameters in place. It allows us to set boundaries that should, on a good day, guard or protect the union from harm.

Now although I do believe in the sanctity of marriage and the seriousness of the vows made, the mindset of faithfulness and exclusivity must be embedded long before an individual says “I do”; that is why these principles apply to couples who are also not married whether or not sex is involved.

If you can’t live within a mindset of faithfulness before marriage occurs, chances are you will not adopt such an approach after marriage. As much as I believe in great sex and tout its importance to a good marriage, the relationship must be pursued for the sake of the person, not for the sake of the sex. This mindset allows us to put our partner’s needs before our own. We operate for the “greater good” of the relationship and this ensures that our actions are guided by integrity and not selfishness or a need for personal aggrandizement at any cost.

When we “prefer” our partner’s needs before our own, then we are acting out of selflessness which is a true hallmark of love and commitment. And of course this sounds pretty lofty and idealistic and outside the reach of normal mortals who often can’t reconcile their own ambivalence about their sexuality. How do we "prefer” our partner’s needs when the language of sexual discourse today, focuses on me, myself and I. Let’s face it, sex today is all about my pleasure, my orgasm, my vibrator, my fantasy, my libido, my kinky tricks, my sexual style or profile and precious little seems to be dedicated to any idea of selflessness. Actually selflessness as applied to a sexual relationship sounds about as boring as rye bread with unsalted butter!

But we’ve done a complete circumlocution and come right back to the beginning of our discussion; should we kiss and tell? If you’ve been listening keenly to what I have been saying, then you will know that if we are guided by principles of integrity (respecting our partner’s needs first and the greater good of the relationship), then we will know that it is wrong to stay quiet about as serious an issue as infidelity. If we have slipped up sexually, or down for that matter, then we must have the courage to confess.

By its very nature, infidelity interrupts the flow of intimacy and the feelings of goodwill that should characterize a special relationship. If I were foolish enough to venture into a store and take something that was not mine, I would be guilty of committing a crime or a felon. Whether or not I was discovered by the store Manager or the Police, I still stand guilty of a crime because basically, I did it. The same stands true in relationships. Once you’ve cheated, you have committed a crime against that relationship and whether or not your partner discovers the ugly truth, you are guilty of undermining the integrity of the union. And what we know from history and experience, is that what we fail to deal with or unearth, very often comes back to haunt us in the future.

A lie or deception between a couple will continue to erect barriers which will impede on the couple’s intimacy. One partner may sense a distancing in the relationship without being able to identify the source. This often occurs when there is divided loyalty as occurs in an active affair or if an affair was never confessed.

If we truly want to be free to love and to enjoy the toe-curling sex that is born out of openness and honesty, then we must be bold enough to set the sexual record straight and ask forgiveness. Although there are no guarantees that the relationship will survive, hopefully we will find eventual peace in knowing that we have done the right thing. And by the way, my girlfriend discovered this too.

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A toddler, a job, a pandemic... who has time for sex? Dr. Karen Sherman offers advice for a listener who wants to get her sex life back on track with her husband.

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