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Ask an Agnostic: I Cheated on My Husband and Feel Guilty

Conventional Wisdom is a different kind of advice column. Your questions will be answered by people from all walks of life rather than by advice experts. This week, a Christian woman who cheated on her husband feels guilty and needs advice; she'll get some from an agnostic. If you have a question, you can submit them here.

This week's question:

I have a confession to make: I'm having an affair. I'm a good woman, and I do love my husband very deeply but I have a problem with being alone and he is not here. I have always had a problem with cheating and I have never been faithful in a relationship. I recently ended the affair but the guilt is killing me and I don't know what to do, especially as a Christian woman.

Guilty as Sin

To hear what an agnostic has to say,

Dear Guilty,

I don't know what to tell you "as a Christian woman," as I am an agnostic woman and religion doesn't factor into my life, but I will tell you what I know about cheaters and cheating. It may not assuage your guilt, but perhaps it will help you to figure out why you continue to sabotage your relationships and undermine your self-esteem, and hopefully it will get you into therapy or counseling to get to the bottom of why you keep stepping out on people you say you love so deeply.

I have a theory about cheaters: they don't feel too good about themselves. I've heard many justifications for cheating, and they all seem to be variations on the theme of, "I'm being cheated, so I have a free pass to cheat." Let's say they feel cheated because they're not being paid attention to by their partner. Instead of expressing this to the partner and seeing how they can remedy it to their mutual satisfaction (or, if there's no remedy, to get the hell out of the relationship), they grab onto what they can to fill that void, their partner be damned. It's a passive-aggressive act that seems to say, "I am too powerless (or chicken) to directly confront this head-on, so I will get what I can on the down-low."

Or let's say they're jealous of their partner, who might be more successful, happier or have more sexual experience than they. Cheating for them accomplishes two things. Out of resentment that life hasn't given them what they wanted, and out of a feeling of egoic deficiency — they get a quick fix of attention from another person (filling a void inside by outside validation), and they secretly punish their partner for having what they don't.

You say you've never been faithful in a relationship, so although you almost blame your husband for your cheating ("he is not here"), you also admit you are the one with the problem. This is a good first step. So what to do now? There are two schools of thought about what you should do if you've cheated and stopped.

One school says that to tell the person you cheated on would be selfish; all it would accomplish is to put your burden on them. This school of thought says you should just suck it up and vow to yourself you'll never do it again. Another school says that you must come clean and give the other person a chance to decide whether or not they want to forgive you or work on the relationship with you.

This is a personal decision I can't make for you. For me, cheating is an (almost) irreparable act of contempt for the person you're in a relationship with. If it happened to me, I would want to have the chance to determine whether or not the person who did it was a) truly sorry, and b) sure it wouldn't happen again. I don't think I'd want someone of questionable ethics to decide on my behalf. Plus, I'd have more respect for someone who came clean even at the risk of losing the relationship.

What seems most important to me is that you figure out why, especially if you believe in the pretty rigid moral code of Christianity (especially when it comes to sexual matters), you keep on cheating? Maybe you are rebelling against this moral code. What do you lack within your marriage (but more importantly, within yourself) that you're getting from attention outside your marriage? (Maybe your husband travels a lot, leaving you alone. Lots of people are alone, though, without feeling empty inside. This is an important distinction.) Are you someone who doesn't feel comfortable confronting others, or asking for what you want? This "people-pleasing" attitude often means a lot of repressed anger, which can lead to cheating.

Whatever you decide to do, the first step I would recommend you take is to repair the relationship you have with yourself. If your actions don't square with your beliefs about right and wrong, you need to confront that first before you begin to heal your relationship with your husband. Hope that helps and good luck to you.

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