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 was married for 25 years, had three children, and went through a very messy, traumatic divorce 10 years ago. My ex had become an abusive alcoholic and was very mean, especially to our middle child, a girl with learning disabilities.

In the decade after my divorce, I focused on working and raising my children, but I occasionally dated. It was a difficult decade, with no financial assistance from my ex, who lost his job after a series of DUIs. My children are now independent and my life is full with friends, books, and distance running, although I have often felt very lonely.

A few years ago, a family friend I have known for 15 years began working out in the same running clinic. He is the father of three kids who were in the same grades at school as my three children, and the husband of a woman with whom I used to do PTA work. He and I always had an easy, emotionally connected relationship, given our children and mutual interests. Over time, he began to confess on our long runs that his wife is an alcoholic and that they had not been physically or emotionally close for more than a decade. He says that they tried marriage therapy unsuccessfully and that she is in denial about her drinking. Three months ago, against my better judgment, we began an affair.

I am 67 and often felt old and tired, but suddenly I felt youthful and happy and like I had something to look forward to. When guilty thoughts came up, I told him that this couldn’t go on, and that he had to get divorced if we were to continue. He has agreed to get a divorce, and we feel that we are in love and would like to spend the remainder of our lives together. But I’m worried about what the children will think, and how honest to be with all six of them. And what will I say to his wife? We were never close friends, but we worked together for years in PTA leadership positions and respected each other.

I feel incredibly guilty and am worried that if we come clean, we will lose the respect of our children and become pariahs in our community.

Can you offer any guidance?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

Taking responsibility for something that has caused other people pain is hard, so I understand your concern about how much to tell your children. You’re right that telling the truth has consequences, and you may well upset your adult children and be judged by them and others in your community. But here’s the thing: Telling the truth is also the path to gaining their trust and respect in the long run.

This is because one problem with not telling the truth, or sharing only part of it, is that it will likely come out anyway, even if you and your partner do your best to spin the timing of his divorce and your subsequent relationship so that it does not appear to be what it was. This lie will become a family secret in not just one but two families, and family secrets have a way of being felt even if unspoken. What makes many family secrets so damaging is that there can be a sense that something is not quite as it seems, which creates a feeling of unease. Generally, the secret eventually comes out—something is found on a phone, an offhand comment reveals a different timeline, someone in the running group strongly suspected or even saw evidence of the affair—and when it does, people feel angry and betrayed.

The point is that no matter how your adult children feel when you tell them about the affair—and each of them may have lots of feelings about it, especially your partner’s children—they need to be able to trust you and your partner going forward.

So the question is not whether but how do you tell the children? You do it family by family, and let’s start with yours. For your part, you—without your partner present—gather your three children together, preferably in person, but if that’s not possible, video chat will do. Then you share the facts—you say that for the past three months, you’ve been having an affair with so-and-so’s dad. You tell them that you felt terribly guilty—this wasn’t consistent with your values—so you decided that you would both come clean so as to continue your relationship. You say that you realize that this will cause his wife much pain, and that you take responsibility for that and will have to find a way to come to terms with it. Then you explain that as hard as it is to share this with them, you wanted to be honest about what’s happening, because you know from this experience how destructive hiding the truth can be.

At that point, you stop talking. Give them space to react, and avoid responding defensively to their feelings by trying to justify your actions (I was lonely; their relationship had been dead for a decade). Tell them that no matter what your reasons, you should have handled this differently, and you understand why they feel shocked/angry/sad/disgusted (or whatever comes up). If they were or are still friends with your partner’s kids, own your role in potentially damaging those friendships permanently. Be prepared to answer their questions truthfully, but remember that you don’t have to share every detail. Then reassure them that you are always there for them, and that you hope they’ll feel free to talk with you anytime about how this has affected them and will continue to affect them going forward. For instance, they might not want to be around the two of you early on, and you will respect their feelings as they evolve.

Your partner, of course, has a more difficult task. He needs to tell his wife first, and she may tell the children before he does. If she is willing to go with him to a therapist to talk about how to manage the fallout of the affair and the end of their marriage, including how to best help their children process the infidelity and subsequent divorce without burdening them with their own issues (your father is a scumbag; your mother is an alcoholic), that would be ideal. If not, he can follow the guidelines I suggested to you when talking to your kids candidly about what happened, without getting into the details that are best left between him and his wife (we hadn’t had sex in 10 years; your mother is in denial about her drinking).

Remember, too, that many adult children grieve the end of their parents’ marriage, because despite being grownups and living independently, they’re still losing their family as they always knew it. This may be true for your partner’s children, while your children might be losing the sweet memories of a family friendship that has now been upended. The more you can empathize with their losses, the safer they will feel as you all adjust to this next phase of your relationship with your partner.

As for what to say to the wife, ask yourself what you might say that would be helpful to her. An apology, for example, might make you feel better by alleviating your guilt, but it might also add to her pain. Remember that she will be experiencing a double betrayal—first the affair, and second the involvement of someone she considered a friendly fellow mom for many years. She may feel that you stole not just her husband, but her dignity, the life she had planned to live for the next several decades, and her sense of safety or trust in those she believed loved her. If you can’t think of something to say that you feel confident would be for her benefit and not yours, then you might want to hold off for now.

You’ll find that your children and your community will have all kinds of feelings and opinions about your relationship with your partner, but you’ll also experience more than ever before the fact that nobody can really understand someone else’s life and the choices they’ve made without having lived it themselves. What’s most important here is that going forward, you and your partner learn from this experience and bring honesty into all of your relationships, knowing that it’s the soil from which everything healthy grows.


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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