When we talk about adultery and its harmful effects, the focus is usually on what happens after the infidelity is discovered or revealed, and whether the cheater should admit to what he or she did. Often, you hear that the only reason for cheaters to confess is to make themselves feel better and relieve their guilty conscience (even if only slightly), with no benefit to their partners. But a recent testimonial from a celebrity divorce casts doubt on this simplistic advice.
Recently, Hollywood producer Kai Cole wrote an incredibly moving statement about her marriage and divorce to Joss Whedon, best known as the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the first two Avengers films. She speaks eloquently as someone who lived through the experience of betrayal and revelation, discussing the effects on her mental well-being as well as the hypocrisy of a man who was publicly celebrated as a feminist while privately displaying a profound disrespect for women. (The last point is highlighted by Marykate Jasper at The Mary Sue.)
The passage that struck me the most—and apparently a lot of other people, judging from the reaction on Twitter—is this (emphasis mine):
Despite understanding, on some level, that what he was doing was wrong, he never conceded the hypocrisy of being out in the world preaching feminist ideals, while at the same time, taking away my right to make choices for my life and my body based on the truth.
This is how adultery is harmful even before it is found out, or even if it never is. The people who are cheated on have no idea it happened, and as a result are living in ignorance of the truth of their relationships and making choices regarding their lives with only some of the information they need and deserve.
It’s often acknowledged that the true harm in adultery is betrayal, but this doesn’t mean only the broken promise of exclusivity. It is also a betrayal of respect in that the cheaters denies their partners relevant information about their lives, leaving them to believe their partners are faithful and make decisions in the context of this false belief.
As many commenters on Twitter noted, this can have serious ramifications regarding sexual health, but on a more basic level, people who are unaware they are being cheated are making decisions based on beliefs about their relationship that are mistaken and purposefully kept that way by their cheating partners. The cheaters are manipulating their partners, keeping them in the dark to protect themselves, and compounding the harm of the cheating itself by keeping their partners ignorant at the same time. This is why, in the question of whether to admit your affair after it’s over, I recommend doing it—not to clear your conscience, but to give your partner information that is necessary for them to move forward with their lives, with or without you, but with all the relevant information they deserve.
If we learn anything from Ms. Cole’s horrible experience, let it be the fact that people can be hurt without being aware of it, especially by manipulative lies that leave people vulnerable to bad decisions as well as broken hearts and relationships. The saying “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” is wrong—the fact that you don’t know about the harm can often make it hurt even more.