Adapted from a recent online discussion.
After change of heart, avoiding truth will only prolong hurt
Overwhelmed by guilt: I started an affair with a married friend, "Mary," last year when my marriage was in a very dark place. At the time I believed I was in love with Mary and I told her I wanted her to end her marriage as well so we could be together, have a child, etc. But when I finally broke the news to my wife, I realized that the telling was the hardest part, and that I had not wanted the new relationship as much as I just wanted to be free from the old one.
Now, what I want is to be single. I live alone, and my divorce will be final in a few months. Meanwhile, to my surprise, Mary also came clean to her husband. He essentially kicked her out before she could even tell him she wanted out anyway. Her marriage is over with no hope of reconciliation, and now she is pushing to move in with me and start our lives together. That's not what I want anymore. How do I tell her that without seeming like I misled her?
Carolyn: That sensation you feel is the vibe of thousands of people who are glad they aren't you.
You did mislead Mary, so there's no way around "seeming" that way. But there is a way out of this hole you've dug, and it's not as bad as you think it's going to be, because doing the right thing rarely is.
You and these two women are in various stages of discovering just how painful reckless, need-feeding behavior can be. Because of that, the only conscionable path you can follow is a strict regimen of careful contemplation and truth-telling, one where you promise nothing more than what you think is right and what you're willing and able to deliver.
Remember, too, that you didn't mislead her on purpose, and that's huge. When you told Mary you loved her, you loved her. When you told Mary you wanted to be with her, you wanted to be with her. You expressed these things while lying to your wife, so they won't make your personal highlight reel, but that doesn't mean you deliberately set out to hurt Mary.
So wedge that squarely in mind and have the conversation with Mary that you belatedly found the strength to have with your wife. You did it once, you can do it again. Think of it as being just as true to your feelings as you were when you professed your love, only this time you're also answering to something besides your id.
Granted, this truth-telling has to come from a cold start, versus the heady momentum of lust and forbidden promise, but brave the nausea and guilt-fumes and do it anyway: "Everything I said about us, I meant. But now that I've been on my own for a while, I want to stay that way. I had no idea my feelings would change like this, and I'm shocked and sorry they did."
If this scares you, then remember the fresh lesson of your marriage, that the consequences worsen the longer you take to come clean.