Seeking Honesty about Wife’s Affair in Her Previous Marriage

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Reader’s Question

My new wife told me only two weeks before our wedding that she had an affair during her first marriage. I was shocked but, because I love her, we still got married. Now, I can’t move past it. I feel she is not being honest about her current connection with her affair partner. She also claims that they never had “penetrational sex.” I find that really hard to believe. It feels like we amount to nothing if she can’t come clean with me. I hate feeling that she is keeping things secret still, and it makes me feel insecure.

If she did have full sex with him then, she only had to tell me and I could have made my own decisions about our relationship. She told me and then wanted us to forget all about it and move on. I don’t think that’s fair.

Right now, my stomach turns and I’m having a really hard time dealing with what I feel are half-truths. I told her that I would not feel differently about her if I knew the full truth, but I would feel she honors and respects us and our relationship enough to share it with me. We would also have a start with a clean slate. Instead, I feel she could still be calling or mailing her affair partner, and I would be none the wiser! I love her intensely and it makes me hate myself to have these feelings now. I don’t know what to do.

Psychologist’s Reply

In an entirely objective, rational sense, your wife’s having had an affair isn’t the problem. That is, even before you knew about it, she had had the same experience, and everything was fine between the two of you. What changed as a result of her honesty was the way you view her as a person and as a spouse (even to the point where you do not trust her to be honest about whether she has any current contact with that affair partner).

It’s important to remember that major behaviors occur in a context. So, focusing on the circumstances, the when and why, surrounding your wife’s affair should help keep things in perspective. It’s unlikely that she was happily married to a spouse she loved and respected, and simply decided to have an affair on a whim. If you can learn more about the context and the conditions that led up to the affair, you may feel reassured that your marriage is very different from the situation in which your wife decided to have an affair. Note that this is a very different focus, and for a different purpose, than determining what sexual behaviors did or did not occur, whether her behavior constituted “real” sexual cheating, and so forth.

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Speaking of the importance of context, I also encourage you to explore with her the context of her decision to disclose the affair to you when she did. She could have chosen to keep it to herself indefinitely, but I suspect that she did indeed want to start the marriage free of any important secrets. As the two of you approached marriage, perhaps she felt the need to disclose the last of her secrets, or perhaps the one thing about her past over which she was most ashamed. Your wife may have been caught off guard by your strong reaction because she knows the context in which the affair occurred and may not see it as relevant to her life with you now. So, if her disclosure was met with a very negative reaction, it’s not surprising that she may have been eager to put the issue behind the two of you and get back to the way things were.

Although you’ve reassured your wife that her describing the affair fully would not affect what you thought of her, don’t be surprised if such reassurances sound disingenuous to her. That is, her disclosure and her insistence that there was not penetrative sex have negatively affected your view of her, as well as your degrees of trust and jealousy. Yet now you’re trying to reassure her that if she just admits to further sexual involvement than she claims, you can better handle her past.

Rather than seek a solution by getting your wife to admit to something that may or may not have happened, I encourage you to learn as much as you can about what her previous marriage was like at the time she began the affair, what she learned from that experience, and in what ways your wife and her marriage to you are different than both were at the time of the affair. Resolving the issue will take the two of you working together to reassure each other, and to ensure that the lessons from her previous marriage will benefit your marriage.

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