What Happens When Infidelity is NOT Discovered?

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By Scott Brassart

Recently, Dr. Rob Weiss posted an article examining the role of gender in infidelity. That article was based primarily on the work of Esther Perel, who says, “The way we make meaning of [infidelity] – how we define it, experience it, and talk about it – is ultimately linked to the particular time and place where the drama unfolds.” The point of Dr. Rob’s article was that this might be a more impactful statement for women than men because, over the last 75 years or so, the variables of time and place have impacted women’s lives and relationship roles far more than men’s.

In the reader comments section for Dr. Rob’s article, I spotted the following comment:

I find it a bit strange that professionals like yourself write as if each betrayal is found out. In my experience many (most?) affairs are NEVER found out. I have 6 male friends that have all admitted to me that they cheat and have done so for decades. Not one has ever been found out. These guys are professionals, highly educated and older. And for the most part, very well off. So they take the necessary precautions NOT to be discovered. Do they feel guilty? Yes and no. The point I’m making is there is an entire universe of people that have affairs for most of their adult lives that are NEVER found out. As such, I’d be curious to have a professional like yourself provide insight on how that affects people’s relationships. If what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you, then does it really matter? If so, how? If the other person continues to get everything they need (i.e., love, child raising help, financial security, sex), what impact does having an affair have?

First and foremost, I’d like to address the idea that “many (most?) affairs are NEVER found out.” I find that idea somewhat hard to swallow. Here’s why. By the time I was 10, I knew that a neighbor, I’ll call him Bob, was having an affair with his secretary. I also knew that his wife, I’ll call her Patty, was aware of the cheating but chose to not confront Bob because, although she was deeply emotionally wounded by his betrayal, they had two sons and she felt it was best for the boys if she and Bob kept up the pretense of having a good marriage. I’m sure there were other factors that played into this decision, including the family’s relatively high-end lifestyle, but I do believe that Patty was mostly concerned about the welfare of her kids.

Sadly, Patty passed away in her mid-50s. Within a year, Bob married his long-term affair partner. To this day, he mistakenly believes that Patty never knew about his cheating. Patty chose to stay silent, but she was never in the dark. And neither were the kids. In fact, I can assure you that the boys both knew about and were deeply embarrassed by their father’s behavior.

But let’s assume for a moment that some people do manage to cheat without their partner ever finding out. What then? Is it really true that what a betrayed partner doesn’t know about can’t possibly cause pain or damage?

Let me be blunt. At best, that rationale for continued cheating is wishful thinking. In truth, even if a betrayed partner has no idea that the cheater is sleeping around, he or she is certain to feel emotional and perhaps physical distancing in the relationship. Worse still, the betrayed partner may internalize blame for this, wondering what he or she has done to create this rift.

When we encounter this type of denial in cheating clients at our Seeking Integrity Treatment Centers, we ask them what they are really trying to protect. Are they trying to protect their betrayed spouse from the pain of knowing about the betrayal? Or are they simply trying to keep their behavior a secret so they can continue to do whatever they want with whomever they want? Then we ask if they really, truly believe, deep in their heart, that their infidelity is not harming their partner and their relationship.

When a cheater rationalizes his or her behavior by saying, “What my significant other doesn’t know can’t hurt him/her or our relationship,” the cheater is in denial. Betrayed partners know that something is amiss in the relationship. They may not know the nature of what’s wrong, but they know that something is wrong. And it hurts them. And it hurts their relationship with the cheater. So even if infidelity is never uncovered, it will negatively impact the cheater’s significant other and primary relationship. To believe otherwise is to ignore reality.

To learn more about infidelity and how to heal broken relationships, check out our free webinars and drop-in groups, pick up a copy of Dr. Rob’s book Out of the Doghouse, and consider a workshop for couples impacted by infidelity.