To Confess or Not to Confess?

There is a strong social norm that if you cheat on your spouse, you should tell him or her. I believe most people go along with that norm because it's the norm and honesty is held up as this very important value. (Sidenote: I believe that the general principle of honesty in relationships is overrated. If you think that other girl looks much better than your girlfriend, wouldn't it be cruel to tell her? Boy, I could bombard you with tons of anecdotes here, but that wouldn't be interesting.)

I used to think that norm was exactly wrong because it is not the act of cheating that hurts the cheatee, it is the knowledge about it. You could even say that confessing in some cases is an egoistic act on the part of the cheater because it increases his/her utility by alleviating part of the guilt ("I first did the wrong thing, but then I did the right thing."), while at the same time decreasing the cheatee's utility. I thus thought the best rule was to agree not to cheat, but, should it happen, not to confess.

On the other hand, there are at least two arguments for the norm. Consider a couple that have agreed to confess (both are human beings with a conscience who care about their partner):

a. Although it serves to alleviate guilt, in most cases confessing may bring about a net cost for the cheater, both because the act itself is uncomfortable and because of the partner's reaction. This reduces the incentives to cheat. Alternatively, if the norm is not followed, this produces a guilty conscience, which also means costs.

b. To the extend that you trust your partner to follow the agreement, you can be sure that there was no cheating as long as no confession is forthcoming. This is not the case if you follow the no-confession rule.

As far as I can see, this leads to a cynical prescription: Agree on the confession rule, make sure your partner thinks you'll adhere to it, and if you cheat, do not confess, and live with the guilty conscience.

On a less cynical note, you could also choose not to cheat.

Any views?

1 comment:

J Thomas said...

To my thinking, what makes cheating bad are the consequences.

1. Possibly STDs which then would be transmitted to the unsuspecting partner.

2. Possible pregnancy, which is likely to affect the partner and the partner's children financially. It costs a male partner to raise his wife's children. It costs a female partner if her husband spends money on his other children -- that money could go to her own children instead.

3. Likely (but smaller) financial costs without pregnancy. "I never understood why otherwise smart executives don't see that the cost of keeping two women is twice the cost of keeping one, plus certain fringes." Robert Townsend.

4. Relationship effects. Your children are probably better off with two parents who're partners. If one of them gets romanticly involved with somebody else then the original partnership is more likely to dissolve. It's stupid to give up a committed relationship in favor of a new one that starts out primarily about sex, but people do that.

Note that only #4 applies to cyber stuff.

What's bad about lying about it, is:

1. Your partner is exposed to these bad effects and doesn't know it. They could possibly get a lethal or life-threatening, incurable disease because of you, and they don't know. You might possibly choose to leave them, when they thought they had a fine relationship, just because you have the stupid idea you're starting a better one.

2. Lots of people feel like it's right to lie to your enemies and tell the truth to your friends, at least when it's important. Your friends get told what they need to know. Your enemies get lost in a fog of confusion. When you lie to your partner you classify him as an enemy. You have to look down on him some. Not a good basis for partnership.

3. When your partner does accidentally find out that you're cheating and lying about it, that makes it far harder to keep the partnership going. Will you lie about finances? Will you dump him? What about the children? What kind of partnership can they have when they can't trust you to do your part of it? Is it better to cut their losses and leave you now, before you do something more damaging?

If you want to have sex with other people, better to get agreement on it first. You can do things to reduce the chance of pregnancy or disease. You can keep careful records. You don't have to lie about it. If that's what you want and your partner disagrees, then you are choosing the wrong partner.

I should point out though that every open relationship I've personally observed has been a lie. Typically they say they can have sex with whoever they want, provided they discuss it first. And then they either stay monogamous, or they sneak off without discussing it and try to keep it a secret. That's true of my own marriage. We made precisely that agreement and we've never discussed it since. I strongly doubt that my wife is cheating on me, but if she is it's cheating.

If you're somebody who can't help but have sex with strangers etc after you've agreed not to, it's better to tell the truth about it. OK, you're admitting you're a fool. Better that than be a fool and a liar, and after awhile you get caught. And you probably will get caught.

Remember that every person you try to keep a secret with can blackmail you, unless they need it to be secret too. Say they get a divorce -- suddenly they don't need the secret any more. Better not to give anybody blackmail material unless you have even better permanent blackmail material on them.

But if you meet them at a masked ball and never tell them your name it's probably OK.

Why such a big deal about possible horrendous consequences? Because it really is a big deal. You could get together for an enjoyable game of chess and win or lose, nobody would care much. If you get scabies from handling the other guy's chess set then you just get it treated, no big deal. Wear gloves next time.

I've gone on caving trips where we wound up crawling all over each other. In a tight crawlway, you can't change places without that. And sometimes we got bat lice and who knows what diseases besides histoplasmosis. But everybody kept their muddy clothes on so nobody considered it a big deal.

Well, honest-to-goodness maybe-sperm-meets-egg sex is a big deal. If it didn't matter people wouldn't bother to lie about it.