Should I forgive my husband for cheating on me with his ex-wife?

Annalisa Barbieri

After 30 years of marriage, I accidentally came across pictures of my husband with his ex-wife, and after confronting him found out they had been having an affair that spanned well over a decade. It may have ended five years ago, but he can’t remember exactly. I knew they had stayed in touch, but he always assured me they were just friends. She is also in a second marriage and we both have grownup children. My husband and his ex never had children together. Several times she visited us. I did not like it, or want her to, but her feelings were always more important than mine. He assured me again that they were “just friends”. I trusted this man with my life.

He knew I thought he was faithful: I was not suspicious; there were no hints. I could kick myself for being so stupid. He also gave her money, many times. Now that he is caught, and believes a lawyer has the pictures, he is distraught and begging me to work things out.

I am devastated. We are nearing retirement, have built a beautiful home, and had many plans. I cannot believe he really ended his affair years ago. I feel I still don’t have the truth. (He invited her to our home the day before I found the pictures.)

Of course, if he convinced me for 20 years that they were just friends, I’m sure he can convince me it was over years ago. Regardless, the betrayal is beyond anything I have ever experienced. I don’t know how I can stay and stop obsessing over what he did. Thank you for any insight you can provide.

I think you did have hints. I think you felt uncomfortable when she visited – your instinct was telling you something wasn’t right. I’m telling you this so you can see that you weren’t stupid, but trusted your husband when he “assured you” they were just friends, and so squashed those feelings. It’s no crime to trust and believe what someone has told you. Most people go into a marriage thinking their partner is being faithful. Otherwise, why do it?

You ask how you can stay and stop obsessing over what he did. My instinct is usually to be conciliatory and try to mend things, but here I’m not so sure that’s the right thing to do. Your husband has shown you that, over a significant period of time, he didn’t think of your feelings at all – it wasn’t just a brief lapse in judgment. He lied, and basically led a double life. Or, as psychotherapist Chris Mills (whom I consulted, and who has significant experience in couples’ therapy) said: “Your husband’s first marriage never really ended, it just carried on in a different form.”

Furthermore, now that he has been caught, your husband is begging to stay, and not taking any responsibility for what he has done (which was evident in your follow-up email). So he’s duplicitous, immature and can’t take responsibility. Let him put that on his new dating profile.

Mills described this as underdeveloped integrity. “What I want to zone in on,” he said, “is that you are not stupid. The impulse to love is entirely dependent on our ability to trust. You are the one here who is healthy, who was dedicated to the relationship, who was faithful. Your integrity is strong.”

Mills noticed you didn’t ask what you should do next, you asked for insights; he thinks that maybe you aren’t ready for the next step. “The temptation may be to pack your bags, but I would say take your time: you need to make sure that what you do next is for you, not for him. And because you’ve been in this relationship for a long time, it’s quite a process to emotionally disentangle yourself from it. Don’t kneejerk into doing something you’re not ready for.”

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Take some time out, enlist the support of your friends and vent to them. That way you can try to stay factual when you talk to your grownup children – he’s still their father, let them make up their own minds about what he did. Go and see a lawyer to see where you stand financially.

Let your husband wait, with no answers or reassurance, while you ponder whether you want to spend the rest of your life with someone who was arguably never really with you in the first place. This won’t be easy. As Mills said, “Your husband has been withholding one key piece of information which undermines everything – that he’s been seeing another woman.” He was in a relationship with her while he was married to you. That wasn’t part of the agreement.

• Send your problem to annalisa.barbieri@mac.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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