Bianca Bagnarelli

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,

Twenty-six years ago, my husband and I had a rough spot in our now 50-year marriage. We were both unfaithful, but we knew we loved each other, and went to counseling to learn how to have honesty and trust in our marriage. No outsiders would be allowed in.

I lived up to it. But I just learned that for more than two and a half years, my husband has been having a phone relationship with a single woman with whom he went to high school. There’s been no sex, according to him, but he did take lunch to her at her home. He knew I was not fond of her, because she had expressed interest in him, and he said that he didn’t tell me about their communication because of how I would react.

Still, he lied about how long it has been going on. At first he said it was six months, but when I told him I would look in his cellphone, he admitted that it was actually more than two years. When I asked, “Did you go out to lunch or anything?” he replied, “Never.” Then I asked whether he’d gone to her home and he said that he brought her lunch one time.  

I am at a loss as to how to proceed. He says he loves me, but I have a huge hole in my heart. Trust is very important to me, given our past.

Linda
Fresno, California


Dear Linda,

I can imagine how painful it must be to feel betrayed again by your husband after working so hard together to establish trust and safety in your marriage. As for how to proceed, it will help to separate the circumstances of the earlier infidelities that you both engaged in from what’s going on now with your husband and the woman he went to high school with. To do this, let’s take a closer look at trust and what it means.

It sounds like after the infidelities 26 years ago, you together decided that trusting each other would mean “no outsiders allowed in”—as if by not allowing others in, you’d create a safe barrier around the relationship. But healthy relationships don’t thrive because of what does or doesn’t happen with people out there—they thrive because of what does or doesn’t happen between the two people involved. In other words, trust isn’t about keeping other people out; it’s about letting each other in.

Letting each other in, of course, is a lot harder than keeping other people out, because letting your partner in requires a great deal of vulnerability. It’s so much easier to set rules about other people than to deal with the person right in front of you. And I have a feeling that what’s going on with your husband is less about this woman and more about something unsaid between the two of you.

In my work as a therapist, I’ve noticed that people rarely tell their partners exactly how they’re struggling; instead, they express their loneliness or fear or hurt in other ways. Which is why sometimes affairs are about an underlying issue in the marriage—a lack of connection, a feeling of being too merged or controlled, a mutual avoidance or inability to communicate, or an escape from ongoing conflict. Other times, infidelity is about something internal—long-standing issues with intimacy and vulnerability, unresolved childhood patterns, personal insecurities and questions of self-worth, or a reaction to a major loss. Sometimes people relieve untreated depression or anxiety through the distraction of an affair. Others are addicted to affairs, using them in the way others might use alcohol, drugs, food, or compulsive shopping.

When people feel betrayed, they tend to be so wrapped up in hurt and anxiety that they lack curiosity about the person they feel betrayed by. At the same time, they’re so wrapped up in anger and self-righteousness that they lack curiosity about themselves. They focus instead on the details of the betrayal: Was there a physical relationship, how much of a physical relationship, how many times did they talk on the phone, what did they eat and where? And getting caught up in the details—which can be painful and also elusive, creating even more unanswerable questions—prevents the betrayed person from getting answers to the much more important question, which is: What’s going on with each of us?

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.

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