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Who's in the Video

Michael Slepian

Michael Slepian is the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Associate Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia University. A recipient of the Rising Star Award from the Association for Psychological[…]

About one-third of people have committed infidelity at some point in their lives. If you’re one of them, should you confess it to your romantic partner?

One way to answer the question is to consider whether you would want to know if your partner had cheated on you. Surveys show that 77% of people would want to know, but that still leaves about a quarter of us who would prefer ignorance. It’s also worth questioning your own motives: Maybe you only want to get the secret off your chest to make yourself feel better.

It’s a difficult dilemma with no one-size-fits-all solution. But fortunately, as psychologist Michael Slepian explained to Big Think, recent research has revealed insights into the nature of secrets, what happens when we harbor them, and how and when we should consider revealing them.

MICHAEL SLEPIAN: Of the 50,000 people I've surveyed around the world, one in three people tell me they've committed infidelity at some point in their lives. And so, a very common situation people find themselves in is should they confess that secret to their romantic partner? And it's perhaps the hardest version of this question of: 'Should I confess my secret to the person I'm keeping it from?' The reason for confessing it, of course, is you wanna be honest and you want to not hide something, something so big from your partner. But of course, the risk is you're worried about damaging the relationship, and so what should you do if you're in this situation? 

The first thing you wanna ask yourself is: Why are you tempted to reveal this to the other person? Is it you just want to get the secret off your chest? Is it that you just wanna make yourself feel better? The risk of course, is that maybe revealing that secret does make you feel better, but it could make your partner feel a whole lot worse. So what do you do with that? It's one of the most difficult questions you might encounter in a relationship, and the consequences can be huge for what you decide. But if it was a one-time thing, what would your partner want in this situation? Would they wanna know about this? I asked 300 people this very question, and 77% of people said they would wanna know.

The good news is if you're dealing with this decision, you don't have to decide it on your own. Talk to someone else about it, and they can help you navigate this incredibly difficult decision. So when you reveal a secret to the person you're keeping it from, this is what I call 'confession,' but when you reveal a secret to someone you're not specifically keeping it from, this is 'confiding.' And confiding a secret is like eating your cake and having it too. You get to have it remain a secret while still getting help and advice. 

So who should you choose as a confidant? Who can you trust to keep your secret safe? We've done research on this where we've asked thousands of people what benefits they got from revealing a secret, and who people like to reveal a secret to. Revealing a secret to someone who you judge as compassionate, empathic, caring, non-judgmental, and kind, those people are really helpful. Also, you want to choose someone who will not be scandalized by what you're telling them. If someone finds what you're telling them to be really morally objectionable because they just have a really different sense of morality than you do, that's not the right person to choose. If someone is really overly concerned with norms and rules, that might not be the best person to confide in. And if someone's a talkative, social butterfly, that might also not be your best case because those individuals are known to be so excited that they might accidentally reveal the secret to someone they're not supposed to. And then finally, when you're choosing your confidant, ask yourself: 'Are you entangling them into the problem?' Are they now gonna have to conceal this secret from people you both know? 'Cause now you're gonna be asking this person to keep a secret. While they'll understand the act of intimacy that you're placing in them when you trust them, they could become really burdened by your secret too, and as much as you can, you want to avoid that. 

And if you're thinking, "I don't know any people with any of these qualities," you could reveal it to a total stranger who would have no risk of getting the secret back to the people you don't want to know the secret. And so, for example, you could reveal the secret to a bartender. You could reveal the secret to a cab driver. We find the average experience people have with revealing a secret is one they find to be very helpful. And so if you're trying to figure out whether this is a secret that you should reveal to your partner, talk to someone else about it because confiding is this great stepping stone to figure out what is the next step you're gonna take after that. And if you're trying to decide whether someone is the right person to confide in, I would ask yourself these three questions: Is this someone you can trust to keep this secret? Is this someone you could trust to help you work through the secret? And by revealing the secret to this person, are you making their lives more difficult? So finding someone else to talk about that secret with and choosing the right person can make the world of difference.