Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

I recently discovered that my husband and a female colleague of his have a texting streak going back as far as 2016. I found this out when I saw his phone. While there’s nothing sexual in their messages, and he assures me they are only friends, I have repeatedly expressed my displeasure and discomfort about the situation. I have also repeatedly asked for this behavior to stop. He lies and tells me they no longer text, until he gets caught red-handed again.

We have been seeing a marriage counselor regarding this and other issues. He has lied to the counselor about his texting relationship with his colleague. Interestingly, while I’ve known she exists as his “colleague,” he has never introduced me to her even though I know all of his other work “friends.”

He tells me I am overreacting and that I should get over it. I am considering separating from him if his behavior doesn’t stop. What do you suggest?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

Here are two different ways to look at your situation:

1) Your husband is a no-good liar and you should leave him.

2) You two need to have a different conversation, one that doesn’t involve assumptions and ultimatums.

Let me say upfront that what I’m about to suggest in no way condones your husband’s dishonesty; lies chip away at trust, eventually eroding it altogether. But what my suggestion might do is help you see another way to move through this impasse and understand it better before you make any decisions about your marriage.

First, about the lying: Sometimes people lie because the person requesting the truth makes the truth telling so aversive. I want the truth, the person asking says, but if you tell me the truth, I will shame or judge or abandon you. If you tell me the truth, I will deny your needs. If you tell me the truth, I will try to control you. They want the truth, then punish the person for telling it. Of course there are consequences to people’s behavior, but there are also consequences to creating an environment where it can’t come to light.

You don’t trust your husband—and for good reason—but he may not trust you either, in the sense that he may not trust your capacity to acknowledge his truth were he to share it openly with you. There’s a difference in a relationship between privacy (space that everyone needs in healthy relationships) and secrecy (which tends to be corrosive). What may have started off as privacy—texts between friends—has now moved into secrecy, not necessarily because he’s doing anything wrong, but because of something going on between the two of you. You say that you’re in marriage counseling for other issues, so I wonder about your husband’s relationship with his colleague not so much in terms of betrayal—as you do—but in terms of what it reveals about the dynamics in your marriage.

Often when people feel betrayed, they’re so wrapped up in hurt and anxiety that they lack curiosity about the person they feel betrayed by. Similarly, they’re so wrapped up in anger and self-righteousness that they lack curiosity about themselves.

By curiosity, I mean that instead of arguing about your husband’s texts, have you been able to step back and try to understand why this friendship is important to him; what he’s getting from it that he may be missing in other parts of his life (perhaps feeling seen, understood, respected, enjoyed?); why he feels he has to hide it from you; and how your requests that he end it affect his feelings toward you? I wonder, too, if you’ve been able to step back and ask yourself why his platonic texts (that you have seen and say aren’t sexual) feel so upsetting or threatening to you (perhaps you wish you shared this easy rapport with him, too?). Can you be less curious about his texts and become more curious about what you can do to create more connection with him?

Right now your position is: End the texting or I’ll leave. But ultimatums don’t do much—they might seem to resolve the dilemma, but often they simply drive the real issue underground. Ultimatums won’t solve the actual problem (whatever’s going on in your marriage) that created this problem (lying about the texts) in the first place. And it’s the actual problem that needs addressing.

All this is to say, maybe your husband is crossing a line and not telling you, or maybe he’s not and your demands are simply pushing him away. Either way, you won’t be able to have a conversation about his texting that will be helpful to you individually or as a couple until a deeper understanding is reached. First, you need to ask and answer the kinds of questions I mentioned above while giving each other the space to be honest with yourselves and each other. If you want to create not just trust but closeness in your marriage, you’ll need to allow room for the truth by inviting it in. And once there’s more space for the truth, there will be more understanding and compassion on both sides that will move you out of your respective corners and help you resolve the texting impasse.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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