Dear Therapist: I’m Shattered by My Husband’s Sexts

An illustration of a man and a woman in profile with another woman standing between them and covering her face
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 last month that my husband had a “sexting” affair with a woman 35 years his junior back in 2009. I initially discovered this through an email he had saved from 2011, and then I found more. She left our town in June 2009 and he retired in December 2010.

He swears it never went beyond sexting, but he will not give me a specific time frame in which this occurred, so everything I know, I have pieced together myself. I have reached out to this woman for information. I wrote to the email address she had used to correspond with my husband, but in her response she denied knowing him. She blocked me on Facebook when I messaged her there. I texted her phone number but the reply was from someone saying the phone did not belong to the woman and had not for quite some time.

I need the facts so I can figure out what I was doing that made him look elsewhere, but I am getting nowhere.

I know this happened many years ago, but I am totally shattered. I thought we had a great relationship that was honest and loving, but now I am suspicious of everything he does. I feel like I am pushing him away, but I can’t seem to stop myself.

How do I heal my broken spirit?

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Mary Ann
Texas


Dear Mary Ann,

The discovery of infidelity, especially in a long marriage, is devastating, so of course you would feel shattered regardless of when it happened. The question of how you heal depends on a variety of factors, but let’s start here: You can’t do this alone.

If a couple is going to survive an affair—and by survive, I don’t mean stay together; I mean restore trust, understand what happened, and create a strong emotional and physical connection going forward—both people have to be open and vulnerable, and must put in energy and time to work through this together. What’s broken here isn’t just your spirit, it’s the trust and communication in your marriage. And that’s where your husband comes in.

It sounds like your husband might be minimizing what happened—as if, in his mind, sexting isn’t really “that bad”—and then refusing to talk about it. His unwillingness to answer your questions or empathize with your pain only adds to your distress and your worry that you’re pushing him away. What seems unacknowledged is that you’re having a common reaction to betrayal. Many betrayed partners, having had their sense of safety upended, experience symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder: anxiety, nightmares, mood swings, obsessive thoughts, flashbacks (to the discovery of the affair), and hypervigilance (always being on the alert for signs that the affair is continuing or that another one is occurring).

The problem isn’t that your very normal reaction is pushing your husband away; it’s that he is pulling away and not offering you any kind of rope to bring you back to safety. He wants to pretend everything is fine and let bygones be bygones. But healing from infidelity doesn’t work that way.

Among couples who recover from affairs, a certain process tends to take place. The first phase is about acknowledging the impact the betrayal had on the betrayed partner. Instead of defending himself or sweeping the whole thing under the rug, your husband needs to listen to how the betrayal has affected you and empathize with your pain. He also needs to express remorse for deceiving you. (I should note that sometimes a partner doesn’t feel remorse for having had the affair, because it served an important purpose in that person’s life at that time, but he should still be able to express remorse for the profound effect his deception had on someone he loves.)

The next phase is about transparency about the story of the affair, which sets the stage for building trust. Instead of stonewalling you, your husband needs to give you truthful and complete answers about what went on. If you ask how he and this woman communicated and he says by email, when actually they emailed and talked on the phone and texted and occasionally saw each other in person, the information is not complete. But “complete” does not mean sharing every detail. In couples therapy, we differentiate between information that will be helpful and that which will add to the trauma. Helpful questions might be: How did you meet this person? How and when did the affair start? Where did it happen, and how often? What lies did you tell me to keep the affair secret? How did you end it? Are you still in contact, and what does that contact look like? By contrast, questions about the specifics of the sex they had—or, in your case, asking to read every piece of correspondence—might leave you with intrusive images and ruminative thoughts that could make moving forward more difficult.

From there, couples can try to understand why this happened. To be clear, no matter the reason, the person who had the affair is completely responsible for it; much less destructive ways of managing marital issues exist, and nobody causes her partner to cheat. But now you have an opportunity to look at your marriage and yourselves more closely, and in a much healthier way, and understand why he did this.

People have affairs for any number of reasons. Sometimes they cheat because they experienced loneliness, emotional neglect, sexual frustration, or conflict in their relationship and didn’t know how to communicate with their partner. It’s also true, however, that people cheat even when they’re in happy, loving relationships. Affairs can be about an inner longing—for, say, vitality while aging or escape from life’s routines. Sometimes they’re about seeking novelty or wanting to feel desired by someone new. It’s common, too, for an affair to happen around the time of a major life event (birth of a baby, death of a parent, loss of a job or dream). It’s possible that the timing of your husband’s retirement and the fact that the woman was significantly younger were not coincidental. In other words, even in good marriages, affairs can take place because of a longing in one partner that isn’t necessarily a symptom of something problematic in the relationship.

Exploring how the affair came to be also helps couples figure out whether they want to stay together and—most important—why. With a solid commitment and clear desire to be together, couples can then work on their issues, while also helping the betrayed partner recover from the trauma. In many cases, affairs happen in couples who avoid conflict (perhaps like your husband?), so learning about conflict management and speaking up about one’s needs while also considering one’s partner’s needs are skills these couples begin to practice. Meanwhile, reestablishing trust might entail offering access to cellphones and passwords, checking in when late from work or out with friends, and doing anything that might be reassuring and reduce anxiety in the betrayed partner as the recovery begins.

My point in sharing this process is that your healing will require the active involvement of your husband, and if you can talk to a therapist together, you’ll be able to navigate these hard conversations more skillfully. You might start by sharing this column with him. Let him know that you want the remaining years of your lives to be happy ones; that if you do nothing now, you’ll both feel lonely and resentful going forward, in different ways; and that many couples establish a close, connected, mutually fulfilling new chapter of their relationship after a betrayal if these steps are taken. You and your husband can get there, but only if you make the journey together.


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.