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’ve been married for 25 years to a man who went from having many sexual issues and hang-ups to being impotent, and I am now in a totally sexless marriage. He can’t be helped, and frankly, I am not attracted to him at all anyway. We’re good partners and parents, and our family works well.

At the suggestion of a therapist, I sought out and found a wonderful man in a similar situation. We became friends and then lovers. The sex is the best of my entire life. It has given me so much joy and made me feel alive again. It’s also one of the best relationships I’ve ever had. No games, lots of laughs and connecting on many levels. The whole affair has made me a happier person and less resentful of my husband and marriage.  

Here’s the tragic part: My husband was recently offered the job of his dreams halfway across the country. While I protested it along the way, he felt this was an opportunity he could not turn down. So in the middle of a pandemic, he’s taking our family to a new state.

I have so many emotions about this. Besides leaving my great job and friends, my parents and brothers, and taking my kids away from everything they love and know, I am of course leaving my lover. I have tried to explain it all to my lover since the beginning, but he becomes enraged and screams that my husband is controlling and crazy, that I should stay here and my husband should go and then visit us on long weekends. I have never thought it was crazy for a family to move if the breadwinner gets a new job, but I find myself questioning that now, thanks to my lover’s reaction. I haven’t even been able to tell him when I’m actually leaving, because he begins ranting, and it makes our sporadic encounters too upsetting. So I have lied and told him I’m trying to see if I can stay somehow, just to keep him calm so we can enjoy our last weeks together. I don’t know how I will tell him the truth, and I have anxiety over that too.

I’m trying to wrap my head around the fact that I finally found a wonderful person who has enriched my life—something I had been looking for forever—and now I have to say goodbye. I feel so out of control. I am envisioning my new life, relatively joyless, sexless, lonely, and isolated. My lover will never speak to me again—he’s made that clear—and obviously we won’t ever be able to see each other. And all of this angst and sadness is being experienced in secret.

How does one handle heartbreak that is a secret? Part of me wonders if I am even entitled to any of this grief, that maybe I deserve this for being an adulterer.

Anonymous
Newton, Massachusetts


Dear Anonymous,

What strikes me most in your letter is the contradiction between the joy you say your lover brings you and your description of how he treats you. I’ll start there, because when you express your profound heartbreak, I have a feeling that your loss—and the experience of bearing it alone—isn’t just about leaving your lover.

You say this affair is “one of the best relationships [you’ve] ever had.” But when someone who supposedly cares deeply about you becomes enraged and threatens to never speak to you again because you may make a decision that doesn’t suit his needs, and there’s so little room for your perspective that you feel you have to lie to appease him, that sounds as heartbreaking and lonely to me as the marriage you were using this relationship to find respite from.

Instead of seeing his behavior for what it is—manipulative, menacing, controlling, and cruel—you seem to idealize your lover as the source of your happiness, which indicates to me that your distorted ideas about love and connection have deep roots. In your lover, you say that you’ve found—and are now losing—“something you have been looking for forever,” and I think the word forever is probably apt. It sounds as if you’ve been longing for this “something” not just during your marriage, but for as long as you can remember.

The “something” I’m referring to isn’t your lover but what you believe he reflects back to you about yourself: someone who’s seen, valued, and desired. Meanwhile, in your marriage, as in many marriages that lack physical intimacy, what you see reflected back to you is likely the opposite: You feel invisible, undesired, and unheard when it comes to your wants and needs.

The thing about that “something”—that feeling of being truly loved—is that we begin to develop our sense of having it, or lacking it, as the case may be, at a very young age. As a child, it takes form in the mirror our parents hold up to us. Do they delight in our presence? Do they see our beauty? Do they respond to our wants and needs? Do we matter to them? If so, an image of ourselves as worthy and lovable is reflected back to us, and we begin to integrate it into a positive self-image.

Children who lack this reflection experience heartbreak and grieve alone, because the adults they would normally share their inner worlds with are the very people they feel hurt by. As adults, many of them end up in marriages that resemble their childhood. I wonder if that’s what happened for you. It sounds like your husband’s struggles with physical intimacy have been there from the beginning, so on some level, you likely knew you were signing up for a marriage that would break your heart and make you feel lonely. Perhaps without realizing it, you sought out what felt familiar to you from your childhood—the pain of feeling helpless and alone.

The difference, though, is that as adults we have agency we didn’t have growing up. Now, with both your husband and your lover, you seem resigned to circumstances that you believe you have no control over—but once you gain some clarity, you’ll start to realize that you do indeed play a vital role.

Let’s look at your marriage. You say that you’ve stayed married because you and your husband are “good partners.” But this description feels off. Early on, when the sexual problems became apparent, how did you and your husband talk about them? Sexual issues can stem from so many causes: health problems, stress, poor communication, medication side effects, a history of abuse, trauma, negative body image—and all of these are tangled up with feelings a person has around being wanted and loved, and feeling connected to someone else.

When couples tell me in therapy that they’re not having sex, I always ask them to define what they mean, because there are many aspects to “sex” that aren’t intercourse—hugging, kissing, flirting, holding, teasing, complimenting. If a partner who’s wanting physical intimacy is often angry or blaming or impatient, that makes it hard for the partner who’s struggling to be playful or relaxed or flirtatious and to feel any desire. As you think back to how these interactions went, do you feel that you were a true partner in working through this issue together, or did you feel so personally injured, so much like the helpless victim in this story, that you framed this as something that your husband needed to work out alone?

I wonder, too, about your interpretation of your therapist’s suggestion to seek another sexual partner. Was your therapist truly suggesting that you deceive your husband with a covert affair, or rather that you talk with him about the possibility of opening up the marriage and see if the two of you might find a different way forward? Having that conversation, even if he wasn’t open to that arrangement, would at the very least have helped you both to have a more candid dialogue about the state of the marriage and what you were each willing to do—including committing to sex therapy as a couple, staying together but living apart, or splitting up and co-parenting amicably. Instead, you unilaterally decided to direct all of your sexual and emotional energy outside the marriage, making it even harder for your husband to connect with you on any level.

What would help you most right now is to see how these two seemingly different circumstances—a sexless marriage, a sexy affair—both left you feeling bereft and alone because neither could provide that “something” you’ve been so desperately seeking. Ultimately, the “tragic part” isn’t that your husband took the job or that your lover is cutting you off, but that you haven’t been honest with your husband, your lover, or, most important, yourself about what’s really going on.

So how do you handle heartbreak that is a secret? You take away the secrecy. You tell your lover that you’re moving, and that you’re open to having a calm conversation about what this means for you two—whether that’s a loving goodbye, a continued relationship long-distance, or the possibility of both of you either opening up your marriages or leaving your spouses to be with each other. Meanwhile, your husband may not know about your affair (or he may know more than you imagine, prompting his job search across the country), but as much as you feel his distance from you, surely he senses your distance from him. Tell him about your affair, your loneliness and lifelessness, and the need to get to a therapist together so that you can figure out what the next iteration of this 25-year marriage you haven’t wanted to leave—yet—might look like.

No matter what you come to decide, remember that a marriage, like a broken heart, is healed from the inside, not the outside. It’s time to stop looking for your reflection in somebody else’s mirror so that you can see the path ahead more clearly.


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.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.