Adultery. Do you tell?

I have heard mixed reviews about this. If someone commits adultery must they tell their spouse? Especially if it’s been years since the mortal sin took place? Wouldn’t it be harming more than helping?

Opinions about this - as I’m sure you’ll soon find out - are all over the place. You can make a good argument for both telling and not telling.

My opinion - keep your mouth shut.

Given the Church’s teaching on adultery (that though it does not sever the marital bond, it DOES grant the wronged spouse the right to cease conjugal living), I cannot reconcile secrecy with the Church’s stance.

It the wronged spouse’s right to make the decision about whether or not to continue conjugal life. It is NOT the adulterous spouse’s decision. By keeping it secret, the adulterous spouse is, in addition to the ultimate betrayal that is adultery, also stealing from the innocent spouse the right to make this decision.

Tell. The adulterer made the mistake, and as such has already wronged his/her spouse. It may do more harm than good temporarily, but the in the end the ‘victim’ would be very appreciative of the adulterer’s free-willed confession of unfaithful behavior as opposed to it being hidden, and then being found out.

God bless.

As far as I am aware, the Church has no teaching in this matter.
The person should consider the matter carefully and pray about it.
I recall that Arnold Schwarzennefer several years ago told his wife about his adultery, and then she divorced him. This is not to say what to do, but to speak of one of the possible developments.

Let us be clear, however, that it was not the telling that made her leave; it was the adultery.

Many times I have heard or read of people saying, “My spouse left because I told.” That is not correct. The spouse left because of the adultery. The Church states that it is praiseworthy to continue conjugal life with an adulterous spouse, but it is NOT required.

I have not been in this position (of making the decision) but the advice I have heard that it is usually better not to tell.

I would advise the person to try and think of it from the other’s point of view. Do you think they would rather know, or not know? I suspect that many people, if it’s in the past, and the marriage has recovered, and you are looking forward to a happy future, would prefer not to hear about it. I would.

The one thing you must not do is tell in order to relieve your own discomfort. That’s the penance that you must live with. Talk about it with a priest or counsellor or other third party, but don’t use your spouse for this purpose.

From what I recall of reading about this in Catholic books long ago, the only time one should tell is when there is a chance of negative consequences arising which the spouse will discover anyway.

How is this reconciled with the Church’s teaching that it is not required of a wronged spouse to continue conjugal life?

I wonder if you could provide a link to this teaching of the Church? That is not to doubt you in particular, but just to gain insight into what you are saying.

Here is a link to the Code of Canon Law, Canon 1152.

It reads as follows:


Can. 1151 Spouses have the obligation and the right to maintain their common conjugal life, unless a lawful reason excuses them.

Can. 1152 §1 It is earnestly recommended that a spouse, motivated by christian charity and solicitous for the good of the family, should not refuse to pardon an adulterous partner and should not sunder the conjugal life. Nevertheless, if that spouse has not either expressly or tacitly condoned the other’s fault, he or she has the right to sever the common conjugal life, provided he or she has not consented to the adultery, nor been the cause of it, nor also committed adultery.

This is quite clear that this is a right belonging to the injured spouse. By keeping it secret, the adulterous spouse has not only grievously wronged and betrayed the innocent spouse, but is wronging the innocent spouse further by robbing him or her of his right to decide whether or not to continue conjugal life.

Hi Lori:

I think one would (reasonably) have to look at the effects such a confession would have on the other spouse and children. I note no one has (as of yet) mentioned the very real possibility that any children of the marriage would be severely impacted if the spouses separated/divorced/etc as a result of such a confession. If the cheating spouse thinks, “oh no, if I tell my spouse they’ll leave me and the kids will grow up in a broken home”, etc., I can understand why prudence might suggest that you keep your mouth shut.

Canon 1152 is especially interesting: “It is earnestly recommended that a spouse, motivated by christian charity and solicitous for the good of the family, should not refuse to pardon an adulterous partner and should not sunder the conjugal life. Nevertheless, if that spouse has not either expressly or tacitly condoned the other’s fault , he or she has the right to sever the common conjugal life, provided he or she has not consented to the adultery, nor been the cause of it, nor also committed adultery.”

So even if you do tell, Church doctrine recommends the aggrieved spouse pardon/forgive the adulterer, and not try to separate. But the best it can do is recommend, not command; and it notes the interesting possibility that the other spouse might have been the proximate cause of the cheaters’ infidelity, thus attenuating (if not outright excusing?) the responsibility for the offense. The Canon is basically saying that it is possible for the innocent spouse to be the cause of the guilty party committing adultery, which is…interesting. It’s the “I cheated on him once, yes, but he’s been physically/emotionally abusing me for years!” defense writ large. A careful reading of the passage suggests the “wronged” spouse (the one who was cheated on) needs to pass a very high bar: that they didn’t “know” about it in any way, shape or form (which I think is presupposed in your inquiry), or they didn’t have a subconscious awareness it was going on and decided not to make a stink about it (a variance of “silence gives consent”), or their actions/behaviours didn’t cause the adultery in the first place; or the “innocent” party had not already committed adultery themselves, and so on. Can an aggrieved spouse really be so sure of that? I’m not sure myself, as I do not have the power “to open windows into men’s souls”, as it is said.

Ultimately, only God knows the state of our souls, which is probably why the Church hasn’t put its foot down on this matter. Suppose our Lord really did read Canon 1152 and said, “You know what? He did commit adultery, Ma’am, but YOU were the reason why he did it! You were the cause of the sin!” (not you personally of course, but you hopefully can see what I’m saying here). It might have been better to say nothing at all…


Actually, that does not at all seem to be the meaning of the passage, at least not to me.

The “extremely high bar” of the innocent spouse is not have caused the adultery, condoned it, or known about it.

  1. Not to have known about it.

This seems straightforward, and there is no mention of “subconscious awareness” “suppressed not to make a stink”. If the betrayed spouse knows about and does nothing, then he forfeits his right to sever the conjugal life.

  1. Not to have condoned it.

This one is only possible if 1 has already been failed. If the betrayed spouse doesn’t know about it, he can’t condone it.

  1. Not to have caused it.

This one gets very sticky, but given what the Catechism says about adultery and its gravity (quoted below), I would be EXTREMELY hesitant to tell any betrayed spouse, “You deserved this. You brought it on yourself.”

Effectively, JacquesMartain, you are saying that an innocent spouse deserves the most heinous betrayal one human being can offer another. I hope no victim of a spouse’s adultery ever reads what you have written.

2380 Adultery refers to marital infidelity. When two partners, of whom at least one is married to another party, have sexual relations - even transient ones - they commit adultery. Christ condemns even adultery of mere desire.170 The sixth commandment and the New Testament forbid adultery absolutely.171 The prophets denounce the gravity of adultery; they see it as an image of the sin of idolatry.172

2381 Adultery is an injustice. He who commits adultery fails in his commitment. He does injury to the sign of the covenant which the marriage bond is, transgresses the rights of the other spouse, and undermines the institution of marriage by breaking the contract on which it is based. He compromises the good of human generation and the welfare of children who need their parents’ stable union.

Hi Sillara:

That’s what makes the passage so interesting, I think…Canon 1152 is saying (I think) that an “innocent” spouse might not be as innocent as they think they are. Most of us believe we are much less sinful than we really are; surely I could never be responsible for my spouse committing adultery! Yet there it is, right in the Canon…“provided he or she has not consented to the adultery, nor been the cause of it”. So it is possible for a person to “cause” their spouse to cheat, which is…as I said, intriguing. You’d probably need a Canon Lawyer to sort this one out; look at individual circumstances, situations, all of that. So I’m not saying an innocent spouse deserves a betrayal, oh no…I’m suggesting the “innocent” spouse might not be as innocent as they think they are. I am sorry if I disappoint people, as they say infidelity is fairly common in marriages, unfortunately:

According to the statistics, in any given year, 10 percent of spouses cheat on each other. That’s an alarming figure, if true…but good luck getting scientifically reproducible data on that, it’s probably not going to happen. So it is likely someones who has been the victim of infidelity will read these lines, yes, and if I have upset them, my apologies. But we owe it to ourselves, when we are wronged, to look ourselves squarely in the mirror and say to ourselves, “is there something/anything I did that may have led to that? Could I be partly to blame for this? Or am I pure as the driven snow, and my partner is fully at fault, Evil Incarnate?”


Please, provide some sort of example of what an innocent spouse might do that would deserve adultery as the response. Yes, it is possible for an “innocent” spouse to cause the adultery, but perhaps you and I live in quite different worlds. I know of people who would bring a third party into their marital bed to share their spouse with. This would be adultery, but it would be one caused by the “innocent” spouse.

Are you saying that because a wife doesn’t have sex often enough with her husband that she deserves for him to cheat on her? Are you saying that because a husband wants to play video games six nights a week, he deserves for his wife to cheat on him? I am very interested to hear your opinion on what constitutes “causing” adultery.

‘Not having sex often enough’ is one thing - but to outright refuse all sex for a very long period for no reason at all might just be sufficient. Continuous and serious verbal or physical abuse. Repeated and unrepentant infidelity on the part of the spouse who in turn is cheated on.

Hi Sillara:

That’s why I said you really need a Canon Lawyer to sort this sort of thing out; you and I probably aren’t qualified to do it, the language in the Canon is very rich, supple, textured, and nuanced, capable of many interpretations. I alluded to such a possible cause in my posting earlier; the “he’s been physically abusing me for years” defense. I’m no expert on Church law, obviously, but I think the people you are referring to above would be “trivial” cases (by that I mean they are so obviously out-to-lunch it’s pretty clear what the answer is). I have in mind more difficult cases; maybe the husband has been abusing the wife physically for years (beating her up, threatening her, etc). Maybe she starts drinking or something to escape the pain, spends as much time outside the house as she can, meets an old boyfriend from years gone by, things happen…*.I can’t even remember if I consented because I was too drunk, in fact I can’t remember much of anything at all, oh my God, I just want the pain to stop…I better not tell him, he’ll kill me if he finds out I’ve been with him. I committed adultery, he will divorce me for sure, how will I raise the children? We’ll be all alone in the world, I have no job or skills, Oh My God, what do I do? *

Something more like that…the “innocent” spouse doesn’t look so innocent anymore, does he? Again, I’m no Canon Lawyer, but I think my (imagined) case is a different sort of animal than the cases you alluded to above.


I am surprised no one has brought up the subject of possibly passing on stds due to the continuing of conjugal life. There is always a possibility that the adulterous mate has picked up some std and by not telling their spouse and continuing the conjugal life puts their spouses health and life at risk. Also not to mention it takes away their spouses informed consent.

People tend not to realize that there is more at risk by continuing conjugal life after an affair. I know that in the past I had a boyfriend cheat on me, then rape me and I got an std that he got from the other woman. Luckily it was something that was curable, but in a marital situation you can get an std because your spouse decided to cheat and then continued conjugal life without telling you the risks. You can end up paying with a life-long std or even death.

Some may say, “Well, take an std test before you continue conjugal life and don’t tell them about the affair.” That doesn’t work either because I know that some stds may not show up right away like HIV. HIV has been known to sometimes not show up on tests for a few month or not show up even up to a year.

Yes, telling them might cause the end of the marriage, may cause many marital problems, but at least you aren’t putting their health and life at risk and taking away their informed consent. I think that is a form of sexual assault.

The place to tell is the confessional first so that your conscience can be clear to be able to determine your next step. Personally, I would rather not know as I would have trouble putting it behind me. What you don’t know can’t hurt me philosophy, but others would disagree.

Yes, the committing adultery oneself was specifically mentioned. And, actually, as a firm believer in the marital debt I would actually say that it would mitigate culpability if one’s spouse continually denied one sex.

But I also think that adultery is so heinous that is nearly impossible to “deserve”. I would also therefore state that the default position should be to tell.

The canon law that has been cited does not say that a spouse, male or female, must tell the other person about the infidelity. It states what must be done after it is known. To tell is not the only way it might be known, there are other ways.

The catholic teaching nowhere states that a spouse, female or male, must reveal her/his infidelity. If this was the requirement, then the spouse, male or female, must also reveal all their infidelity in their thoughts. So confession to each other would be on a regular basis to be absolved from each other for their impure thoughts, for “he/her has already committed adultery in his/her heart”.

Or there are other sins that fracture the marriage contract like not always doing one’s part in helping with the children, or in wasting money thereby hurting the marriage contract, and on and on.

Sins are confessed to whom Jesus appointed to forgive them.

The marriage contract is “for better or for worse”. That is for female and male partners.

HIV is a different situation. I don’t believe the marriage contract obligates revelation, but that justice and charity does.

Just a thought.

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