esther calling

‘My Partner Has a Wife in Another Country. Should I Leave Him?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

The Message

I’ve been with my partner about six years. We’re aid workers who met abroad, and we moved to the States. We’re a love relationship, but we kind of got married for paperwork. I don’t know that we would have done that otherwise. We are technically divorced now, but that was also for paperwork. He jokes that we can get remarried — we don’t look at the marriage necessarily as the important part, but I think it does play a part in the bigger thing. He basically flew home recently to marry his brother’s widow, who has two children. 

I know it sounds like a very crazy thing because he’s from a very different culture, very different religion for me, which we always saw as a source of strength. We were so proud of ourselves in some way for bridging cultural divides and things. But this one is a really hard one for me to get behind. So I did move out. We’re still in this limbo of figuring things out. But I am really torn on whether I’m doing the right thing. It felt so unnatural to move out, especially because in the lifetime of our relationship, I really didn’t rock the boat and did things to please him, consciously and unconsciously. I was in love and extremely loyal, as he calls it. He never imagined I would do something like this because it’s really unnatural for me. Now I’m processing what’s right. If something doesn’t feel natural, could it still be right?

Esther Perel: So I’ve just heard her recorded question and I get that part of what we’re going to talk about is: Shall I stay, or shall I go? Or, I have made a step to go, but I don’t fully own this step. I’ve done it at the urging of my friends and family. How do I own it? I feel bad about having taken a stance, because it seems that the stance that she took till now was more one of subsuming her beliefs and ideas and needs for his. Marrying the widow of one’s sibling, particularly of the brother, is a practice that takes place in various religions. Polygamy takes place in various cultures and religions. For the sake of privacy, in this case, I’m going to leave out the specific cultural, racial, and religious backgrounds of both people. Because the story is intensely cultural, but also transcends it to something that is intensely human. 

I have a sense that there’s a lot of story and history here, and I’m going to need to narrow it down. What is the main question of this moment? There’s going to be a lot that I’m going to have to say we can’t address right here, but if we had time beyond one conversation, I would want to ask you or to explore with you.

The Call

Esther: Tell me why we are here. What it is that you would like for us to unpack? 

Caller: I have been with my partner about six years now. We’re in this limbo state now. The long story short, very summarized, is that we’re from very different backgrounds. We were aid workers and we met abroad, and it was part of our story that we both loved. I am from America. My parents were immigrants, twice. The reason I mention this is that I’ve always been very interested in cultures, maybe, or I’m not totally fitting in America, so I tend to gravitate, maybe, toward men from different cultures. We always thought it was a miracle that we met each other and had many challenges from the beginning. I think a lot of them are cultural.

Esther: Give me an example. 

Caller: He doesn’t communicate as much as I would like. I think in the culture you don’t say what’s not nice, because that’s being good maybe. Whereas I’m very much from a talking family or, at least, talking very openly. Or let’s say having secrets, not full secrets — but he’s very, very private because he was raised in a very big family system. Whereas I’m from a very small family. So he got used to not wanting everyone to know his business. He learned to privatize, whereas I am a chronic oversharer, people pleaser. I don’t only want everyone to know things about me; I like knowing the full story.

Esther: Yes, one partner saying “My partner doesn’t communicate” — it’s boilerplate couples therapy. 

Caller: Yes.

Esther: So this difference takes place in a context. Your context is the one that leads you to make meaning of this difference. Then you say there’s something about gender, something about a large family where you need to learn to create some separateness and privacy versus a small family where you try to reach out to the other people so that you hear that there’s someone else in the house.

What were you doing together so that you met as humanitarian aid workers?

Caller: I was working for an NGO and him too, but different organizations. We came to the U. S. after a year and a half. He had decided that maybe he wanted to get another nationality, which I think for him is smart. But I have a very wise sister. She was giving me advice at that time — she was like, “Why would you go to another country when you guys can come here?” We came here in the end of 2018, and there’s been many ups and downs. I’m mostly very in love and just drawn to him. But maybe our relationship was not always very strong in dealing with issues or how we fought.

I guess when I’m saying little things … like even sexually, we did have an exploring phase. He used to be quite wild. I didn’t know this until we came to the States and it was quite shocking for me because on the sexual side, I’m quite traditional. It just hadn’t really been a huge exploration of mine, whereas it was of his. Basically he had more like the swinger, orgy lifestyle. Multiple partners.

Esther: Okay. 

Caller: And I had never …

Esther: Thought of group sex.

Caller: Yeah, group sex. That’s the right phrase. I don’t have a problem with any of the lifestyle stuff. I think I’m a bit territorial where I want my man to only have eyes for me. So I’ve grown in that way. I started to notice no man can be like, “I only see you. I’m only turned on by you.” That’s maybe not realistic. But sharing your partner was hard, and we did it numerous times in different contexts, but not at the point where I was like, “I love this.”

Esther: And it stopped therefore, or it continued, or something else happened?

Caller: We’ve had many ups and downs, but in the end, we did leave it. We made many different arrangements in our relationship. This is very funny, but if we weren’t going to do that, I wasn’t allowed to do something else that bothered him. He himself also said, “We can take a break from this for a while.” The reason I mentioned that is not only because it was quite trying for me, because I was trying to push myself, then not comfortable being thrown in.

The recent situation, which is actually how I had reached out, is that he was pushed by his family to marry his brother’s widow. And they’re now married, technically. This is totally different than group sex, but it’s funny because it’s a different boundary of mine or different comfort zone being challenged because he thought I’d be okay with it. He says about me that I was the most perfect girl, so loyal. I think that’s something important in his culture as well. I basically moved out when he went home; I had told him I would move out. But he didn’t really hear me, or we were not so good at communicating, so he was so devastated when he came home and I had taken my stuff.

Esther: Does his family know that he is married in the United States with another woman? Is the family aware there is a first wife, or is everybody thinking that this woman is actually the first wife? 

Caller: It took a while for his family to know. His siblings and his mother knew because I used to FaceTime with them. His father is a big figure in his life. I say that because he’s the only person he’s a bit …

Esther: Afraid of?

Caller: … Scared of, yeah. He told him when he went this time. I tried many times to be like, “Let’s go talk to your father.” He basically told me it wouldn’t matter because they look at it — not to be rude, but I’m expendable. I’m just some foreigner, and “Great, you have your wife, so then here’s another one you need to kind of take care of.” It’s kind of like a family obligation. SoI get that this was thrown on him and he didn’t want it. But where do we go from there if you didn’t want it?

Esther: Tell me if I hear your question well. “I see myself as an adventurous, open-minded, deeply curious, wild person. I have pushed myself multiple times in my relationship with my husband, and my question today is, How much more can I do? Part of me thinks I should be able to because I’m that wild, open, stretching, curious, accommodating person, and part of me wonders at what point do I say, ‘This doesn’t work for me.’ And not interpret it as ‘I’m narrow, I’m closed, I’m biased, I am not curious enough.’ Do I have personal permission to say this is more than I can handle or this is more than I want to live with? To what extent do I have to interpret everything within his cultural framework, gender framework, family framework, and to what extent can I use my own?”

Caller: Yeah. I love that question. I think you managed to frame it. I didn’t mean to speak about me being wild because I actually, until we spoke, never thought that’s part of it. I thought it’s more about guilt that I feel, like I’ve let him down by moving out. While I’m talking to you I’m starting to cry because I think everyone in the world is telling me I was right to move out, I was encouraged, but I still feel like I betrayed him, and I’m not sure I can.

Esther: They wanted you to move out while he was away because they thought you wouldn’t be capable of doing it if he’s around? 

Caller: I think that was me, to be honest; I have no strength when I’m around him. It was cruel how it happened, although he knew — I told him. He even knew I wanted to take a sublet and take time, but I think doing it while he’s gone felt hostile.

Esther: And your people around you is friends and family, or siblings, or parents? 

Caller: Exactly, friends and family. Unfortunately, my father has passed away and my mother knows my partner, but she doesn’t know what’s going on. I could not bring myself to explain all this to her. Usually I’m very open, but we all have a complicated relationship, I guess, with my mother. I think she is the person that would not react well to this story.

Esther: And how many siblings are you? 

Caller: Three. I’m the middle child. Everyone thinks what he did is not right, and that empowered me. I felt that I needed to move because we’ve been having challenges.

Esther: But “what he did is not right” — which part?

Caller: That’s the weird part. What’s not right about him is that he’s not so transparent and he knew he was supposed to marry her before he met me, but he thought he could avoid it and never have to do it. So I get that part of him because he’s very charismatic and active and he maybe thought he could kind of never deal with this, but what a big thing to not tell your partner that might affect our life.

When I imagined this wedding happening — and I know it was consummated — I’m not saying he enjoyed it. Now she calls him and she knows about me. I have no hatred toward her, but just knowing that she calls him and that they talk and they speak in a language I don’t understand … That’s where I was like, Can I really handle this? Is it good for me?

Esther: And your family thinks that you’ve lost your mind. 

Caller: Oh, yeah.

Esther: That you’re under the spell. 

Caller: Oh, yeah.

Esther: That he wanted just a passport. 

Caller: They don’t think that. Outsiders think he maybe just wanted a passport, but I don’t believe we were together for a passport. He did things, in my mind, not correctly, by not being transparent or being a bit selfish, but I don’t think I was used for that.

Esther: See, this is the question, right? How much of this is cultural and how much of this is: The man decides that you are in a very clearly delineated patriarchal structure. Your family is thinking, Here is this modern woman; we didn’t leave our countries and come to the United States to find ourselves back in the position that our grandmothers were in. You’re trying to be so kind to him, you’re trying to constantly explain him, you’re trying to be so understanding of him, and in the process you’re losing yourself. 

Caller: That’s actually so true, yes.

Esther: And it’s not about: Can you handle it? It’s about: Where are you? So they’re trying to fish you back. They told you to leave while he was away because, like you, nobody trusted that you could do this when he was around. 

Caller: Yes.

Esther: So then he comes back and you’ve moved out to somebody’s or to your own new place?

Caller: My sister’s basement, yes.

Esther: Then he is all upset because he thought you would wait and you would acquiesce to the new situation and it shouldn’t bother you at all because “After all, I’m here with you, and the other is a marriage of obligation and tradition and you’re the marriage of love.” But it does bother. 

Caller: Exactly. He thought that I would acquiesce. He might have been as shocked as I was that I actually moved out. Although I had told him I’m doing it.

Esther: Yeah, but that’s irrelevant. No, it’s not irrelevant. It’s perfectly nice of you to tell him, but the issue is more, What is his view on your making autonomous decisions?

Caller: Good question.

Esther: What kind of decisions does he think you can make? When he made his decision, it wasn’t a joint decision. He basically said, “I’m doing this. I have to.” And you’re answering him now with the same words. “I have to.” You maybe are equal for the first time.

Caller: Yeah, and I think neither of us are comfortable in it. And I feel — it’s such a cliché — but I feel such guilt.

Esther: For what? 

Caller: I had his complete adoration that I was so loyal and great, and I would follow him and be with him in every journey. And now our lives are upside down and I don’t want to follow him necessarily.

Esther: So you’re saying, “He adored me because I said ‘yes’ to everything. I never contested. I was intensely loyal and I followed him faithfully like a shadow. And so my bargain is between claiming my own shadow but losing his admiration or adoration or continuing to be adored, but I lose my own sense of authenticity, my own identity.

Caller: Exactly.

Esther: It’s a bit of a Faustian bargain, right? I get to be me, but I lose him. Or I get to keep him, but I forget who I am. 

Caller: That is 100 percent it.

I think I want to be me. Because although I’m passive and confused, I’m not so passive and confused as I thought. I think I don’t articulate well, and I’m kind of maybe quirky or all over the place, but I have opinions, or I have thoughts.

Esther: What would they say if that part of you could speak freely?

Caller: It can’t even speak freely because it’s so colored with being almost addicted to him. But it would say, “I want a relation where you’re allowed to have privacy, but you talk about things that are hard. I want him to be the vigilante of our relationship. To look after, Are we talking enough? Are our needs being met? Am I going to find us a counselor?” That’s what would have brought me back after I moved out. To say, “I do feel that part of me is not being met.” I think I overshare. I think I’ve learned you don’t need to have everything black and white clearly on the table; you don’t need to say every feeling like I do. But I think it’s important to not guess what your partner’s feeling or what’s going on at home, because I spend a lot of mental energy doing that. So that’s just in terms of our communication what I would like.

Esther: You spend a lot of energy doing … 

Caller: Trying to figure out if he was upset. I was trying to figure things out without getting direct input. And it was exhausting.

Esther: Yes, but what I’m hearing is that you became completely colored by him. You spend your whole time focused on him. Him, his needs, his story, his duty, his obligation, his family, his passport. This could happen no different even if he was from the neighborhood next to yours. There’s an exoticism to your story, but the same thing could happen with the neighbor next door. You completely surrender your own personhood and make the person next to you the project of your life and the person who is at every moment going to tell you who you are. But then when he finally told you “you are wife No. 2,” it was one too many. 

Caller: Yeah. It was a clear, “Ooh, no.”

Esther: “Because I’m willing to forgo everything for you and to be your most loyal puppy as long as you adore only me.”

Caller: Yeah.

Esther: It’s sad a little bit, you know. 

Caller: I’ve had a lot of sadness, honestly. I had … money stuff. I didn’t see my friends as much. We’d moved back to the States, so I hadn’t been here for so long. I was kind of isolated. I also have body issues. I had a few abortions. I was quite intense. Two of them were with him. So I have a bit of pressure physically in that area, and I get worried. When I go through reasons that this isn’t good, I think that I’m bearing those scars. He got someone pregnant and gets to walk. I know that’s not about culture, that’s just gender, but it’s annoying. Those things add up.

Esther: Why did you go through the abortions? Did you want to?

Caller: I did. I think I was impulsive. Just immaturity, to be honest. I was not acting like an adult. That’s why I’m mad at myself. You don’t play with your body — now that I’m over 40, I realize that. So I really regret. I think he had the idea that we don’t have to use condoms, but I wasn’t on birth control. I was so naïve that I didn’t think I’d get pregnant so fast. And I did.

Esther: And not just once, but twice. And then you chose not to keep the child and to terminate the pregnancy because?

Caller: The first one is because we were not even sure we were going to be together because the religion difference was huge for him at first. So we thought we were just going to end up being a fling. The second one with him was we had had a fight and he kind of told me, “Let’s not be together.” But then he changed his mind. That’s so typical of us. But it was already too late. We’d broken up, basically.

Esther: So this has not always been a stable relationship. Okay. Are you hoping to hear: Keep course or reverse? Because I’m not going to answer you, you know that. 

Caller: I know. It’s exactly what I wanted to know. I don’t even need an answer like that. I think I wanted you to say, “Keep course.” As in, “It’s okay that you are trying to not be with him right now because there are reasons.”

Esther: You’re telling me that you’re trying to extricate yourself from a very entangled web. Your family is trying to be protective of you because they look at you closely and they realize it’s not just that you lost your mind, but you’ve lost yourself. You’ve lost perspective. And you’ve lost the ability to see yourself separately from how he sees you. That is never a good picture of a relationship, regardless of cultural context. The ability to maintain one’s own sense of personhood and integrity is essential to any relationship between two human beings. 

Caller: Wow. I think I’ve struggled with it way before him even, but this was the most.

Esther: I welcome this insight. I’ve thought of it too. It’s probably not your first crush, but it is the one that has been most intense and most deeply piercing inside of you. If we had more time, I would of course explore with you what that represents for you, where that comes from, what’s your family, what are the parts of you that are activating this complete loss of self in relationships, at least in romantic relationships? “I’ll be everything you want me to be as long as you adore me.” But this guy made a mistake. He’s adoring in the plural, and that suddenly didn’t fit your script. If that didn’t happen, I could imagine you continuing this for a while longer, regardless of all the other shit that would happen, all the other issues that would take place, you would continue and you would justify him, rationalize him, explain him, and excuse him at your mercy, on your behalf, on your account.

Caller: Yes. I think it’s a small miracle that I got the energy or balls to move out. I would have never, you’re right.

Esther: Just because he did one thing that challenged the script. How old were you when you moved the first time? 

Caller: I was five months when I came to America, so I really grew up here, but in a quite white, Waspy town. I think even being an immigrant there was — even though I wasn’t an immigrant — my parents being an immigrant, I felt it.

Esther: Yes, you grew up in an immigrant home that wanted to partake in some aspects of American culture, but not all. 

Caller: Yeah, exactly.

Esther: But it leaves open this question of “What is this need of mine to subjugate myself completely for the reward of being adored? How much lack of self-love do I experience that I need somebody else to provide me the full dose of it?”

Caller: Yes. I would love to solve this question.

Esther: This is the question I want to leave you with because it will inform you how you stay the course. 

Caller: Okay, this will be my next journey.

Esther: Be you with him or be you not with him, this still remains the central question. 

Caller: Wow, that helps me so much because I’ve been fixating on: should I go or no? And I knew it’s partially me.

Esther: Do you have a therapist of your own?

Caller: I just started.

Esther: Because right now you have your husband probably saying you’ve lost your mind, and you have your sibling saying you’ve lost your mind. So you need a space, a person, a relationship with whom you can sort things through and trust your mind, and your heart, and your body, and anchor yourself. The nice thing about an anchor is that it’s inside the water, but the boat moves. You’re not stuck, but you’re rooted. 

Caller: Anchor myself. That’s a good image.

Esther: And I know you’re doing something that feels like a root canal. To extricate yourself from him is like a root canal. It’s very scary and painful, and you’re going to get angry at yourself, which is not going to be the most useful thing to do. Nevertheless, and we don’t really have the time together to go into all of that, but I hope you don’t just go back and forth between angry at you and a little angry at him. That you just simply take stock of what has happened in those last few years. It will be hard sometimes, like around the abortions and around responsibility, but not necessarily to clobber yourself, all right?

Esther: In her description of herself, she mentions various ways in which the script of adoration and uniqueness are essential to how she connects with him and maybe with other men. “I was addicted. I’m a people pleaser. I was loyal. I never rocked the boat. I have accommodated in every way possible, including in practicing group sex with him, which is the opposite of what I want since all I want is for him to have eyes only for me. I accept finally that he can’t have just desire for me, but the thought of him not belonging to me or being mine is intolerable.” And for that, she abdicated so much. She only alludes to it, but I’m sure it’s probably even more than what she alludes to. His marrying this other woman, for which he needs to divorce her. Him not telling it to the most important member of the family, which is the father in this patriarchal culture that he comes from. Neither, of course, did she tell her mother. 

But basically, this is a kind of a hidden relationship on some level that lives on the margin, that only some people know about. As he goes and marries this other woman who now calls him, as she describes, she realizes that she’s one of two. There’s nothing about her at this point that makes her the one and only. That is, it seems to me, the primary place from which she drew the strength to move out. I don’t think that anything her family or friends may have said to her, that they observed about her in very well-meaning, protective ways — maybe judgmental ways as well — had nearly the same effect as the fact that he made a unilateral decision.

He’s very upset with her making a unilateral decision, but so did he. It’s not clear that he comes from a conception of marriage in which men and women have equal unilateral decision-making power. So the story can be seen completely within a cultural lens, but interestingly the story also very much transcends a particular cultural lens. The experience that she talks about in the complete subsuming of herself for the sake of him loving her so that she can love herself more is a human story.

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‘He Has a Wife in Another Country. Should I Leave?’