Dear Therapist: My Boyfriend Had an Affair and Now We’re Stuck at Home Together

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,

I found out during the stay-at-home orders that my boyfriend of eight years has been cheating on me with a co-worker for at least four months (that I know of). He lied to me by saying that he was going out for errands, but he was really meeting with her in a parking lot.

She is married. When he came home, I confronted him and he told me he loves me, will cut it off with her, and wants to work on our relationship. We have different love languages and he felt “unloved” by me, so he sought it elsewhere. I’ve also felt “unloved” in the sense that I’ve been abandoned by him—he has quite a social circle of male friends whom he plays hockey and golf with approximately three times a week. I do not have a circle of female friends, as I moved to another state to be with him.

I don’t know what to do. While he says he loves me and wants to work on our relationship, he also formed an emotional attachment to this other woman and says he “cares about her.” How could he possibly care about another woman and still say he is in love with me? I want to tell her husband, but I have also watched enough Dateline to know that may not be the best idea, because my boyfriend says “he has guns.” I’m incredibly hurt. Do you have any advice on how to navigate these waters?

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Rachel


Dear Rachel,

The emotional toll of an affair on a relationship and the people in it can be devastating because it calls into question so much all at once—your sense of security, your partner’s love, your own good judgment, your beliefs about what you had, your faith in the future, your capacity to trust, and your self-worth.

What I hear from you is that you’ve both been struggling in this relationship in your own ways, but what you have in common is that each of you has felt lonely and neglected by the other person—and you have both chosen not to talk about it. That’s why it’s too early to know what to do, at least in the sense of what this means for your relationship in the long term. Instead, what you need now is a plan that will help you figure out what you will ultimately do. Here’s that plan: You need to make a concerted effort to speak what has been left unspoken, and in doing so learn more about the affair, your boyfriend, and yourself.

This plan has no easy shortcuts, and it’s going to take a lot of work. My recommendation is that you seek out a couples therapist who can facilitate this work and increase the odds that it’s done in a productive way. (You can do couples therapy remotely during the pandemic.) Moreover, both of you have to be completely invested in doing the work, so let me give you a preview of the kinds of conversations you can expect to have.

First, you may be tempted to focus on what your boyfriend already did, but in therapy you’ll be asked to pay close attention to what he chooses to do now—specifically, how he takes responsibility for the infidelity. For instance, he may have felt unloved in the relationship, but the fact is that he—and only he—betrayed your trust by choosing to soothe himself by cheating. He may well believe, as you do, that you have different love languages, but it’s also true that you speak the same verbal language and that he clearly understood the meaning of the word monogamy. Is he taking full responsibility for this breach, or is he subtly (or not so subtly) trying to blame you for his actions? Similarly, does he feel remorse, and how does he demonstrate this to you?

Part of taking responsibility for an affair is being able to fully acknowledge the extent of the resulting damage. Your boyfriend says that he loves you, but in therapy you may talk about what love means to him—and to you. You’ll want to hear whether he considered the impact on you of what he was doing while he was sneaking off to meet his co-worker, and how he felt about lying to you. You’ll want to know what he thinks would have happened had you not discovered the affair—was he planning to tell you about it, or end it? If so, how and when? And how does he reconcile his love for you with, presumably, having sexual contact with another person during a global pandemic and potentially infecting you with a deadly virus?

Don’t just listen closely to what he says, but pay attention to the way in which he engages in these conversations. For instance, when you talk about the details of what happened (how long the affair has been going on, when and how it started, the frequency of their meetings, the nature of the relationship between them) and his promise to cut off contact with his co-worker, does he offer the truth the first time, or change his story along the way? Does he become defensive and closed-off, or is he willing to give you honest answers and whatever reassurances you need in order to rebuild trust (such as giving you full access to his phone, checking in when he goes out, telling you immediately if the co-worker contacts him again, finding an arrangement with his workplace in which he doesn’t have to work on this person’s team)? One sign that a relationship will become stronger after infidelity is that the partner who had the affair demonstrates humility, empathy, patience, and understanding of the betrayed person’s experience. If your boyfriend tries to minimize your pain (“It’s been six months since I stopped seeing her. Why are you still so angry?”) or your suspicion (he calls you “paranoid” if you wonder whether he mentioned that his co-worker’s husband “has guns” in order to make sure that you won’t say anything, thus creating conditions under which the affair could continue), building the loving, trusting relationship that you seek will be harder.

The more invested he becomes in your internal world, and the more interested you become in his, the more able you’ll be to eventually talk about his feelings toward ending the affair; what it means to care about another woman and also be in love with you; what about him allowed this to happen; and whether it was a onetime mistake or part of a larger pattern of infidelity or lying.

One thing that struck me about your letter is that you’ve been together for eight years but you haven’t created your own social circle. Perhaps you moved recently, and your relationship has been largely long-distance, in which case some of what you need to work out is the significant change brought about by being in the same city after so many years apart. If, however, you’ve been in the same city for a while, your lack of strong friendships could be creating an imbalance in the relationship that affects you both in different ways: you expecting your boyfriend to fill in the gaps in your social life; your boyfriend feeling overwhelmed by the weight of that expectation.

Affairs can define relationships, and the exploration you do now will help you take an honest look at what you both want from a relationship and each other. Most of all, it will help you answer the most profound question at the core of every relationship: Do you both want to be with each other and why?

When you can answer that question clearly, then—and only then—you will know what to do going forward.


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.