what your therapist really thinks

Is My Husband Having an Affair?

Illustration: Eugenia Loli / Ants image by JustinTaylor CC-BY 2.0

Welcome to What Your Therapist Really Thinks, a weekly column that examines the daily problems of living from a psychological perspective. It’s not exactly an advice column, because in practice, most therapists don’t give explicit advice — instead, we help people to discover what’s keeping them “stuck,” so that they’ll be able to get out of their own way and point themselves in the right direction. Rather than steering them straight to the heart of the problem, we gently nudge them to arrive there on their own. In that spirit, I’m going to share what a therapist might be thinking (but perhaps not saying at the first session) if presented with your question. What are the theoretical underpinnings of the issue? What are the ways in which our unconscious pulls the strings of our conscious mind? How do our defenses create blind spots in the telling of our stories? And how does unpacking some of this lead to a better place? Of course, I don’t speak for all therapists, and this column isn’t a substitute for therapy, but my hope is to shift your thinking just enough to help you see your situation from a slightly different angle. The choices you make as a result? That’s up to you.

Got a question about love, marriage, friends, family, emotional struggles, existential crises, confounding behaviors, secret desires, or more? I’d love to hear from you. Email me at therapist@nymag.com.

Dear Therapist,

I think my husband may be cheating. My suspicion is based mostly on a vague sense of intuition, and on the fact that he has ample opportunity. For work, he travels frequently to an international city that’s known for its attractive women and permissive culture.

On a number of occasions during recent trips, he has uncharacteristically been out of touch overnight. There could be an innocent explanation for this — he does tend to have long, late, drunken work dinners (command performances), and he might well be too inebriated (and exhausted) at the end of the night to call home.

Here’s my dilemma: As much as I recoil at the idea of my husband sleeping with other people, I see the possibility as something of a hornet’s nest — I don’t want to poke at it, for fear of what might emerge. I hope that if I leave things be, whatever is going on will resolve on its own, without causing injury.

My parents’ marriage and my husband’s parents’ marriage both blew up quite spectacularly and hurtfully in the wake of affairs. Perhaps this is why I am so skittish about the prospect of what I might learn if I went snooping around. If my husband really is engaged in some sort of extracurricular activity, and if my desire is to preserve my marriage, what’s the best course? Can I continue to look the other way, and hope that whatever is going on passes without any major harm done?

—Head Happily in Sand

Dear Head Happily in Sand,

Whenever somebody in my office brings up sexual infidelity (confirmed or suspected), my first instinct is to wonder what other infidelities might be going on. I don’t mean other affairs — I mean the more subtle ways of straying from our partners that have at least as much potential to threaten a marriage. The affair, of course, gets the most attention, but it’s the affair that is also often misunderstood. And it’s because of this misunderstanding that the cheating takes center stage — and that the other factors, the betrayals that need the most attention, stay out of the spotlight. That’s why, HHIS, I’m not primarily interested in whether your husband is cheating.

Here’s what I’m more curious about: that “hornet’s nest” you mentioned. If you poke it, 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.

It might be reassuring to know that most people have affairs not because they’ve found somebody better or hotter or more 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.

Maybe your husband drinks to the point of inebriation to obliterate his feelings of blah-ness and loneliness. Maybe he has sex with other women for the same reason. Or maybe he simply watches porn or cat videos in his hotel room instead of saying goodnight to you because he doesn’t want to have another hollow conversation about the house or kids or work, or engage in perfunctory sign-offs of “I love you” that will remind him that this might be all we have — and who wants to think about that in an international city full of attractive women, even if he’s not sleeping with any of them?

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.

What I mean is, where’s the nonsexual infidelity in your marriage? How are you being less than truthful with him? How are you avoiding him, keeping him at arm’s length? Of course, this isn’t to blame either one of you, because nobody’s at fault here. You’re both doing your best to be in this marriage the way you know how, and you’re also both struggling. In the conventional way of thinking about an affair, there’s a villain and a victim; Person A did something hurtful to Person B. It’s an open-and-shut case. But a betrayal — and in any marriage there will inevitably be some (big, small, sexual, emotional, intentional, accidental) — is something a couple goes through together. It’s a shared experience. And I’m guessing that one betrayal you two are sharing right now is your mutual silence. You’re both hiding out and finding ways to avoid each other. Neither one of you is willing to show up, to make an actual appearance, to declare your presence to the other.

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 mention loss because an affair is often a way of working through a loss. This explains why cheating is most common within a few years of a major loss — loss of a job, loss of a parent, loss of youth, loss of freedom after having a baby, loss of a sense of safety after an illness, or loss of intimacy or vitality in a marriage.

In my work as a therapist, I’ve noticed that people rarely tell their partners exactly how they’re struggling; instead, they express their grief or fear or hurt in other ways. You’re scared, but I think you were scared long before you suspected your husband’s cheating. And now, you’ve become so terrified of the truth of your relationship that you’d rather remain physically present but emotionally vacant. With your head in the sand, you’ve deluded yourself into believing that this could all simply “pass.” Maybe an affair would “pass,” but what’s going on between the two of you won’t change unless you address it. The question isn’t just can you live with all that’s unsaid between you two (maybe you can, though I suspect you have your doubts), but can your husband live with it, too (maybe he can’t).

Both of you come from childhoods rocked by infidelity, so understandably there’s some fear. But in any relationship worth its salt, we have to be able to acknowledge each other’s realities — no matter what those realities might be. Otherwise, we invite deception by sending this message: “I’m too fragile around this. Protect me from pain. I don’t want to know. Don’t tell me the truth of your thoughts or feelings or of who you are.” We collude with the lies and in doing so, encourage them. Then when the truth does come out — and it usually does — we wail, with righteous indignation, “Why didn’t you tell me?!”

He’s already telling you, HHIS. I don’t know what he’s telling you, but by being out of touch on those trips, he’s telling you something important. And because your silence has told him something, too — that you feel safer with your head in the sand — he can’t bring himself to tell you what he knows you’re going to great lengths not to know.

You say you want to preserve your marriage, but what, exactly, do you want to preserve? Do you want to be married in a general kind of way, for convenience and safety, or do you want to be married to him? Does he want to be married to you? Does your husband know why he matters to you? Do you know why you matter to him? Do you just want to hang on to what you have, or do you want something more mutually fulfilling, something with enough glue to hold the two of you together for the long term?

In the aftermath of an affair, one partner often says, “I just want to go back to the way things were.” And I say, “Really? How well was ‘the way things were’ working out for you if you ended up in my office?” I say this much more gently, of course, but I make sure that they hear the question and are able to reflect on it. And when they do, they realize that “the way things were” wasn’t sustainable after all.

That’s why poking at the hornet’s nest — and not by “snooping around” — is actually safer than living with the illusion that you can protect your marriage by leaving it alone. The hornets that get stirred up can show you a new way of connecting, even if they sting at first. If your husband is cheating, it doesn’t have to be a revelation that leads to an end. In fact, you may want to come closer to your husband rather than farther away, if he’s willing and interested in coming closer to you, too. You may want to get curious about the reality of his inner life, if he’s curious about the reality of yours, too. Love, at least the kind that pushes us to grow, is incredibly durable.

But, if your marriage does ultimately end, rest assured that a sexual affair won’t have been the primary cause. It’s tempting to blame an affair for the end of a marriage, to point to a clear culprit, but in most cases, something quieter and less tangible tears people apart. What people don’t tell you — because they don’t want to publicly confess to having cheated or been cheated on — is that an affair, while painful, can be the best thing to happen to a head-in-the-sand marriage. It may well lead to a new beginning, one based on a more mature and realistic understanding of yourselves and each other. It can teach you how to approach each other without fear, how not to hide in plain sight. What comes flying out of the nest — whether that’s an affair or something else entirely — could be the very thing that gives your marriage the vitality, openness, connection, and depth it needs to thrive.

Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email therapist@nymag.com.

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Is My Husband Having an Affair?