Which brings me back to trust. Being trustworthy means being honest, but it also means being able to receive your partner’s honesty. If your partner doesn’t trust you with his truth, he may create a situation in which you don’t trust him either—meaning, he may go underground with his truth.
Your husband gave you a key piece of information when you confronted him about the phone calls: He didn’t tell you about them because he was afraid of how you would react. You don’t trust your husband right now, but he may not trust you either, in the sense that he may not trust your capacity to tolerate his truth, were he to share it openly with you.
What is his truth? It may be that he feels constrained by the boundaries regarding “outsiders”—that the very protection you two set in place 26 years ago instead made things more dangerous, with unrealistically narrow parameters around even friendships with members of the opposite sex that started to feel suffocating. Marriages do well with boundaries that are neither too loose nor too tight—neither a vast ocean nor a cramped fishbowl, but a roomy yet contained aquarium. It’s possible that despite this woman’s interest in him, they really are just friends, and that it’s a friendship that he felt he had to hide from you because he knew you’d object.
If you allow for his truth—whether that truth reveals a friendship or something that went beyond that—you’ll find out what the relationship with this woman means to him. Maybe as he ages and faces his own mortality, it’s important to him to have a connection to his past—to someone who knew him growing up, who knew his parents when they were young. Maybe he’s been struggling with waning self-worth or power, a fear of losing his identity or charm or vitality, as people sometimes do when they age, and being admired by this woman feeds his ego or helps him cope with the loss of his youth. Maybe he’s getting something that’s missing in other parts of his life—feeling seen, understood, respected, enjoyed. Or maybe it’s another reason entirely. But you won’t know if you focus on the betrayal instead of being receptive to the truth of his inner experience that he felt he had to hide from you.
There’s nothing like feeling loved and accepted for who you really are to draw people together. What you learn from these conversations will most likely bring the two of you closer if you create the conditions of trust in which to have them. Marriages, at least the ones people tend to enjoy the most, are dynamic and fluid, shifting over time—embracing, rather than resisting, change. That’s because love, at least the kind that pushes us to grow, is incredibly durable. It sounds as if the two of you have that kind of durable love. Now all you have to do is nurture it by making room for each other’s truth.
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. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.