I Think My Husband Is Having an Affair But I Don’t Want to Learn More

Since writing “Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough,” in 2010, friend of the blog Lori Gottlieb has dedicated herself to being a therapist.

Recently, she landed a gig at New York Magazine, putting her talents to great use, in a weekly column called “What Your Therapist Really Thinks.” Her writing is across-the-board superb, so I wasn’t sure what I wanted to share with you, but I thought this would be a great entry point to her work.

In a piece called “Is My Husband Having an Affair?” Gottlieb cuts to the heart of things. The letter writer is a woman who really doesn’t want to know the truth, lest it blow up her marriage.

“What are you afraid of learning? That your husband doesn’t love you? That he’s not attracted to you? That you’re not appealing enough to hold his attention? That he has commitment issues? Even if any of this is true (and most of it won’t be), it probably has little to do with why he would cheat.

She would rather bury her feelings than address them – which explains how she’s arrived at this point where she’s prepared to ignore her husband’s infidelity just to keep the peace.

It might be reassuring to know that most people have affairs not because they’ve found somebody better or hotter or more perfect (perfect people don’t tend to have sex with other people’s spouses) but because affairs make us feel alive and seen; they counteract feelings of numbness or flatness or disconnection that seem like they might kill us, if we don’t kill ourselves first. And since we aren’t up for suicide, we find a work-around.”

Gottlieb continues:

“An affair or alcohol or the internet (what a colleague calls “the most effective, short-term, nonprescription painkiller”) are all ways of coping with what we can’t bear: the career we picked, the choices we’ve made, a kid’s drug problem, the blandness of a soggy relationship. And putting one’s head in the sand serves exactly the same purpose: to not have to feel.

I wonder what you might not want to feel, HHIS. And I wonder what you might be feeling anyway, despite trying so hard to keep your head in the sand. Anger? Fear? Sadness? Loneliness? Anxiety? Despair? I always tell clients that when we feel something, it’s a signal to look inside ourselves, not at the other person (which most of us do, naturally, because it’s so much easier to look out than in). Here’s what I see when I look inside your letter: I won’t let my husband get near me — the real me, the messy me, the vulnerable me. I won’t let him see my fear. I’m cheating him of my authenticity. I’m a fake, and he knows it.”

Next, Gottlieb calls out the letter writer for being complicit in the underlying problem without actually being the cause of it. She would rather bury her feelings than address them – which explains how she’s arrived at this point where she’s prepared to ignore her husband’s infidelity just to keep the peace.

“Silence may seem solitary, but it’s very much an interaction, a communication without words. Neither of you is talking about why there used to be overnight communication when he’s traveling, and now, “uncharacteristically,” there isn’t. He’s aware that this is happening, too. I’ll bet there’s a lot going unsaid between you, unrelated to his business trips. Maybe you both feel more comfortable looking the other way (he, at a vodka or women or his iPad; you, at grains of sand), but if you both don’t watch where you’re going, you’re going to step on a landmine. One look in the psychological literature will show you that loneliness is one of the most painful of human experiences, which is why loneliness can be lethal — both for individuals (resulting in suicide) and for marriages (resulting in divorce). The antidote to feeling alone in a marriage is knowing that you have a partner with whom you can see and be seen. Without that, eventually, the emptiness of the connection will be too hard for one or both of you to tolerate. The loss will feel too large.”

I love this article. I love this writer. I hope you do, too.

Check out the whole thing and then let me know your thoughts on how you would handle things if you were in the wife’s shoes.

Join our conversation (16 Comments).
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Comments:

  1. 1
    Jeremy

    Hmmmm, is it better to know or not to know.  Depends.  If we know, what actions will we take?  Will those actions make our lives happier or less happy?  Impossible to know until the dust settles.

     

    My sister found out she had cancer due to a random test – she had no symptoms.  And everyone remarked how fortuitous it was that she found out, since she could have treatment in the early stages which would improve her prognosis.  So she had her esophagus and stomach removed, had chemotherapy, had radiation, and had a drastic reduction in her quality of life as a result….and 2 years later discovered that she had developed metastatic disease nevertheless.  She would have been better off had that test never happened.  At least then she would have been able to eat for the last 2 years. It might have turned out differently, but the point is that knowing isn’t always better, doesn’t always lead to better outcomes.

     

    I say this not to wallow in my own misery, but to raise a point about this article.  The author seems to imply that discussing the possible affair might lead to marital dissolution or to marital re-awakening – and that either way this woman will be better off.  My comment is that the “better off” part might not be true.  She might be better off and she might not be.  She might end up with a stronger relationship, or she might end up hating this man and creating psychological chaos for her children.  She might end up happier alone, or might be miserable as her lifestyle is altered radically.  She doesn’t want to know because she doesn’t know if she will be better off for not knowing.

     

    I see her dilemma.  I don’t think the solution is as clear cut as the author makes it out to be.

    1. 1.1
      GoWiththeFlow

      Totally agree with you, Jeremy,

      My aunt refused to even go to the oncologist after surgery for colon cancer.  Internal medicine colleagues assured me that the type of cancer she had, in an elderly person –82 at that time–was slow growing so she was more likely to die of other age related causes.  She refused follow up colonoscopies as well.  Well, five years later she died from a recurrence.

      Family members said it was a grave mistake or her to not have done chemo and testing.  I’m not so sure about that.  It was difficult at her age to recover from the surgery, but after that she lived independently until right before the end.  She ate what she wanted, slept when she wanted, watched her tv shows, and bought things off of QVC  (Okay that made me crazy).  Chemo could have killed her, or ruined her quality of life, and periodic testing could have left her in a perpetual state of fear of a recurrence.

      More immediately apropos to the article, many years back I watched in interview with George Burns where he discussed his long marriage to Gracie.  he said he was unfaithful once.  Afterwards he felt terrible and was wracked with guilt.  In an attempt to alleviate it, he bought his wife some amazing  jewelry.  He never confessed and they never discussed it.  He thought she never knew.

      After Gracie died, a friend of hers told George a story.  Years after the infidelity and jewelry gift, during a joking conversation about gifts they had recieved, Gracie told her friend, “I wish George would be unfaithful again.  I need more jewelry.”  Of course George was stunned.  He said Gracie had never treated him differently and had never let on that she knew.

      George spent a lot of time thinking about why that was.  He came to the conclusion that what Gracie did was smart.  If she had brought it up, it would have led to discussions, arguments, and possibly huge recriminations that could have ended the marriage.  Trust would have been broken and would have needed to be rebuilt.  He said his infidelity happened because he was away from home, lonely, and the opportunity was there, without him having to put any effort into it.  It had nothing to do with Gracie or his satisfaction with their marriage and family life.

      Of course George said that he realizes not every woman would or should handle a husband’s infidelity this way.  That there are as many reasons behind an affair as there are people who do it.

      1. 1.1.1
        Clare

        GWTF,

         

        “Family members said it was a grave mistake or her to not have done chemo and testing.”

         

        A bit off-topic, but it never ceases to amaze me how strongly other people feel about the decisions one should and should not take in one’s life, even though these decisions affect the decision-maker far more than them, and how adamant they are that they are right. I’m not sure if it’s because they desire that feeling of vindication and “I told you so” if the decision-maker chooses to fly in the face of what they advise.

         

        I just find it incredible how others have such a black and white approach when it comes to the lives of others, whilst when it comes to their own lives, it is all shades of grey.

  2. 2
    Christine

    To me, I’m not sure whether or not her husband is having an affair is the biggest problem here.  Even if it turns out that he’s innocent and hasn’t cheated on her, does that necessarily make it all better?  It sounds like they have a lack of real connection and intimacy in this marriage, whether he’s cheating or not.

    Rather than focusing on some alleged other woman (or women), I think she needs to focus more on herself and her husband.  If it were me, I wouldn’t ask point blank if he’s having an affair.  At least with my own husband, I know that would put him on the defensive and actually put him at a distance, rather than bring us closer together.

    However, I also wouldn’t try to ignore problems completely either.  I would say that I have been feeling a bit of a disconnect, and that I need his help to bring us closer together.  I’d try to phrase it as us being on the same side, with a common problem, that we can work on together to resolve.  It’s difficult to say since I obviously don’t know these people, but that’s what I would do.

  3. 3
    Ames

    I read “Marry Him” in 4 days and found it entertaining & enlightening. Lori’s cautionary tale gave a clear picture of how she came to be in her situation all while being deliberate about her choices  on the way. Her sincerity and vulnerability made her relatable. Previously I’ve tried to learn if she ever found her better half but never saw a follow up.

    As for the poster, I hope she decides to face the uncertainty. Every day she sits wondering is a day she isn’t having the kind of marriage that will make the couple happy. Or at least find out the worst and make space for the one who will love her.

  4. 4
    Emily, the original

    If you’ve ever read Esther Perel’s work, she believes that people have affairs not to get away from the person they are with but from the person they’ve become.

    1. 4.1
      Barbara

      Awesome! A fellow fan! Hi!

  5. 5
    Stacy

    I can sympathize with the letter writer.  Jeremy, my heart goes out to your sister. But, I think that the consequences of a spouse having an affair is unique in that there are many aspects one can control. Knowing you are sick (Jeremy’s example) is conclusive (for the most part). When your spouse is having an affair (I have been there), one is in a constant state of inconclusion.  Your peace is taken away completely even if/when you pretend it is not happening.  There are a million unanswered questions rolled up in one. And, when you deny the truth, you are living the lie just as much as he is. Is ‘happier’ always the state to pursue? I don’t think so.  But even if it were, I would (gently) argue that there is no such state as being happy when you are living in that type of headspace. Then there is a matter of this person opening you up to the possibility of diseases (and some are possibly life threatening).

    So I would conclude that it is ALWAYS better to know if someone is cheating on you as opposed to pretending it’s not happening. Because yeah, it IS happening and no amount of pretending will change what actually is. For me, it was a unique kind of hell going through a divorce with after I found out. Today, I am soooooo much happier and very much at peace with all of it.  I can never, for the life of me, understand why it’s not better to be alone than to put oneself through this.

    1. 5.1
      AndyK

      I agree with Stacy. The uncertainty and trying to ignore the signs of my ex wife cheating nearly killed me. I suppose if you think he might have had a single fling (as described in GWTFs post) it might be best to not know the details or if it happened  and work on repairing the relationship. Focus on whether things can return to the way things used to be instead of ending up in a negative downwards spiral.

    2. 5.2
      Marika

      Agreed Stacy.

      Some of the earlier commenters have some interesting points, but having been cheated on by my ex-husband, the uncertainty is far worse in the long term than the pain of knowing. Gracie and George Burns must’ve had a good and happy marriage overall. But if your marriage is on the rocks, and one person cheats and the other ignores it, I think that’s a recipe for the cheating to continue and both people to live a lie.

      Confronting them without accusations or yelling also tells you a lot about them as a person and your marital relationship. I managed to somehow confront my ex quite calmly. He was okay at first, then deteriorated to blaming me, refusing to do anything to improve the situation, denial etc. If the person confesses and is sorry, you can work on things and may even get closer. If they react like mine did, it’s the beginning of the end. And best to know that asap.

      Sorry to hear about your sister, Jeremy.

  6. 6
    Michelle

    I have zero tolerance for anyone’s excuses and hang ups. We all have them. Either discuss an open relationship or keep it in your pants. A deal is a deal. I’m tired of people’s excuses for affairs. Men Do it for variety, women because they’re neglected. People speak of non monagmy. If you are not monogomous, don’t get married. If you’re married and can’t tolerate open relationships, break up first. Forget the neglect of the woman. It’s too painful, even if she doesn’t know. The one thing she does know? The love and affection she once had, is gone and went somewhere else.

    1. 6.1
      JustSaying/Androgynous/xxxxxx

      Michelle

      Unfortunately, most people are not so self aware that they would make the approprpiate and best decisions for themselves and everyone else. I am of the camp that people do not change just like a leopard does not change is spots and where people do turn over a new leaf, they have undergone some profound life changing event (like cancer or a death scare)  and have the personality and fortitude to effect a change in themselves.

      People think they will change, or have changed but in actual fact they have not.  My ex was a player but thought marriage and children would “change” him and for a while, it seemed like he did – well at least I thought so but could have been seeing things there were not there. I don’t think many people make promises and committments with the intention of not keeping them, or with the knowledge that they could not keep them.

      And when people lapse back into their old bad habits ? I think it is more of “I can’t hold up this charade any more and I need to go back to whom I truly am”. Of course there is collateral damage but eveything in life is a risk and others (intentionally or not) have your life and happiness in their hands every. single.day.

    2. 6.2
      Sylvana

      I completely agree with Michelle. I have absolutely no respect for cheaters (men or women). I don’t care what your reasons are. Either make a commitment and stick to it, or end the relationship first.

      There is absolutely no reason to abuse someone’s trust that way. And I feel the same about any situation where trust is involved, like stealing from someone who trusted you, for example.

    3. 6.3
      Karl R

      Michelle,

      While I grew up believing that the blame lay fully with the cheater, my research leads me to believe that the reality is a lot more complicated. (And as someone who has been cheated on, I can admit that it’s self-serving for me to assert that the blame lay 100% with her.)

      My research findings reminded me of something Frank Serpico stated (when testifying about police corruption): “10% of the department is absolutely corrupt. 10% of the department is absolutely honest. The other 80% wishes they were honest.”

       

      When it comes to cheating, it seems to be similar. Some people will definitely cheat if they have the opportunity, some won’t ever cheat under any circumstances, and most will cheat if the relationship has developed enough problems.

      I would like to think that I’m the kind of man who would never cheat. That, if my marriage somehow went terribly wrong, I would divorce my wife, rather than cheat on her. Statistics suggest that might not be the case (or vice versa, from my wife’s perspective). If our relationship becomes dysfunctional, it greatly increases the chance that one or both of us will cheat.

      I consider that to be an extra incentive to perpetually put some effort into maintaining our relationship.

  7. 7
    Sheela

    It’s important to know if he or she is cheating to know the root cause of the problem, there might be something lacking that both of you need to work and talk it out.

  8. 8
    JustSaying/Androgynous/xxxxxx

    As for wanting to know for certain if a male partner has cheated, I think it comes down more to what the woman is experiencing at the time. If things are still good with the man, if he is still loving and caring and protective and providing, more likely than not a woman will try to rationalise away her suspicisions and push any doubt out of her mind. I know, I felt that way too, when things were still reasonably “good”. But yeah, if he becomes neglectful and emotionally and physically distant, then I think the need to know becomes immense, if only to bring things to a head or a conclusion. From personal experince with friends and acquaintances, if a woman cheats, things are more often than not already very bad and the writing already on the wall. The cheated on husband sometimes doesn’t care because he is already leading his own separate life, or he gets into a rage because he feels he should have been the one to call the end of their marriage publicly, not her.

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