Morality, Values, Lies! “My husband has been having a secret affair for 30 years”. The Guardian (Ask Philippa Marriage)

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Ask PhilippaMarriage

My husband has been having a secret affair for 30 years

Senior Caucasian woman with chin in hands

‘You would have to find new ways to deal with conflict, and of building trust – probably with a therapist.’ Photograph: Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images

Recovering your relationship is not impossible, but you must prioritise your own happiness, says Philippa Perry

Philippa Perry

Philippa Perry Sun 19 Jun 2022 06.00 BST Last modified on Sun 19 Jun 2022 14.59 BST

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The question I’ve been with my husband for 40 years. Four weeks ago, I discovered he has had a 30-year affair. I picked up his phone thinking it was mine and I noticed a text from an unknown woman. He’d been texting, making arrangements, all in affectionate and loving language. When I challenged him he told me they’d had an affair lasting five years about 30 years ago. He said the guilt made him break it off, even though she was distraught. He swears he never wanted to leave me. They resumed contact, although as a friendship rather than a sexual relationship.

He would visit her, but denies anything physical happened and insists neither of them wanted to jeopardise our marriage. I’m devastated. I’ve seen a side of him I’ve never known. He is adamant it was just friendship, but texts included him telling her he loved her, which he hasn’t said to me for years.

Our marriage has involved no physical touch for a long time. I’ve always believed he just isn’t a physically affectionate person, but even during the raw trauma of the last weeks, he hasn’t hugged me. I’ve told him I find touch comforting, but it seems impossible.

I feel that their relationship has taken so much away from ours. He agrees and has been apologetic. We’re in our early 70s with children and grandchildren. The thought of ending the marriage and stressing our family seems destructive. We’ve agreed to try to repair things, but part of me wonders if I’m mad to stay with someone who has been unfaithful, sexually and emotionally, for so long. I am in shock. Am I being stupid, weak, pathetic? Can couples recover from situations like this?

Philippa’s answer You are neither being stupid, nor weak, nor pathetic. Yes, some couples do recover from situations like this, although I can understand that, from where you are right now, it will feel like climbing Everest. Sometimes the betrayed partner, in situations like yours, suffers post-traumatic stress disorder as their emotional wellbeing has been threatened and sense of safety compromised. No more talk about being weak. You’ve had a huge shock, your whole world order has been shaken. It is as though he has been split for 30 years – half of him has been having an emotional affair with her and the other half upholding the image of a loyal family man but, nevertheless, holding back from being fully with you.

It would be hard to draw a line under such an affair without working through everything – and probably with a couples therapist. Think of the point up to that shock revelation as being your first marriage. With therapy, you and your husband can build what you can think of as your second marriage.

Ending the marriage might not be as destructive as you think

As the one betrayed you will need to work through the trauma of the affair and all the times you doubted your instincts and sense of reality over the past 30 years. You will need a lot of time for this part of the process, while, for your husband, it will be something that won’t be able to happen quick enough. But it will be important that you both stay with it. You could ringfence discussions, so that they only happen during counselling and perhaps other set times, so it does not overwhelm you and you both have structure and support for these necessary conversations.

To make your second go at this marriage work, you will both learn new ways of communicating and ways of being together. You will probably have to find new ways to deal with conflict, and ways of building trust.

You will both have to be proactive about openness and sharing emotions, including your anger, your desires and thoughts, so that you each become the other’s significant other, thus allowing closeness and warmth to build. It will take practice. Intimate conversation leads to being on the same page emotionally, which is the foundation for warmth and a physical relationship. It will also take work for your husband to transfer the significant attachment he had with her to you.

It is important that you find a therapist to work with who you both trust. You may have to interview more than one to find the right person. These websites are a starting point: gottmanreferralnetwork.com or tavistockrelationships.org. Recommended book: Healing from Infidelity by Michele Weiner-Davis.

However, to end the marriage might not be as destructive as you imagine. Your children are grown up and it is usually less corrosive to know the truth than to live with secrets. I hope you learn to trust your instincts, although I fear they may have been worn down by what has happened. Whatever you decide, I hope you prioritise your own happiness when making the decision.

If you have a question, send a brief email to askphilippa@observer.co.uk

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