Devastated to Discover that Husband Has a Second Family

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Reader’s Question

We have been married for 33 years. It is hard to explain, but because of the nature of my husband’s business, for the last 20 years we lived half of the time in separate countries (he traveled back and forth).

Three days after our daughter’s wedding I found out that my husband has been keeping a second family in the country he travels to so frequently, and has fathered a child. The girl is 13 years old now.

I am completely devastated, shattered, ruined… I’ve lost my balance, my strength, my mind, I am not myself anymore, I did not have a clue… I want to divorce him, and he says that he kept all this as a secret because he loved me and our daughter and was afraid to lose us if we knew… I don’t know what to do, I am lost, depressed. My daughter is devastated, at a time in her life when she is supposed to be so happy. Please help.

Psychologist’s Reply

There are many reasons why, after 33 years together, you would struggle with your decision about whether to leave your husband. While the significant and devastating ‘cons’ of lying to you for over a decade, having another family, and ruining your daughter’s peace of mind are hard to look past in the moment, there are also the 33 years of a presumably satisfying marriage, which even the worst betrayal cannot erase. This decision would, in fact, be easier if there weren’t true ties of love and loyalty which still connect you to your husband. However, the good years are not enough by themselves to rescue this marriage unless both of you are fully committed to a serious resurrection project.

The obvious first step here is to seek out two therapists. The first is for you alone. You are going through an incredibly painful and tumultuous period of your life, precisely at a time of life when most people are hoping to settle down a bit and begin to relax with their spouse. Whether you stay or leave your marriage, nothing is ever going to be the way it was before you learned of your husband’s deep betrayal. An individual therapist can help you work through your feelings, including the depression and sense of loss that you mentioned. It may be that your daughter could also benefit from a period of individual therapy if she is experiencing similar feelings of disorientation and depression. To clarify, all of these feelings are perfectly normal and reasonable responses to the situation you described in your letter; however, to make the decisions you need to make in order to set your life back in order again, you would benefit from the perspective and grounding that a good therapist can offer you.

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The second therapist should be a couples therapist for you and your husband. I can only imagine that having a reasoned discussion about your relationship is an almost impossible feat at present. Like you, he sounds conflicted about how he wants your relationship to look going forward. Your therapist’s job in this scenario is to be an objective third party who can facilitate communication between the two of you on these topics, which are too fraught and painful to discuss on your own. You do not have to have your mind made up about whether to stay in your marriage in order to go into therapy together; you do not even have to be living together, if that is too much to handle at present. Therapy is a place to explore whether there is the possibility for reconciliation, and, if so, precisely what rules the two of you will agree to in order to begin the long work of rebuilding trust between you.

Feeling overwhelmed in the face of your marriage — and your life — being turned inside out is an understandable and normal reaction. Please give yourself the time and space to sort through your feelings before making long-term plans for the rest of your life. It is more than reasonable to feel stuck in the chaos and injustice of what has happened, but this is not going to be helpful to you in the long run. Seeking out the help of therapists sooner rather than later will give you an ally, resource, and support at the time when you need it most, and will also provide you an impartial forum for working through what you want your new reality to look like.

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