Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: I suspect my husband of 18 years may be straying, which as far as I know would be for the first time. I cannot point to one incident — just little things here and there and a strong sense of intuition. For example, I overheard a small part of his end of a phone conversation. He did not know I was there. It was not what was said, but the very familiar way he was speaking to the other person, and I just “knew.”
I’m unlikely to ever prove an affair, because I do not have his passwords, and I know he would deny if confronted. I love my husband and believe he loves me. If he is cheating then I will feel incredibly hurt and disrespected, and want him to stop. I have chosen not to talk to anyone about this in case I am wrong — but I am lost as to what to do.
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DEAR SUSPECTING: What outcome are you hoping for?
You say you want him to stop, of course, but I don’t think it works on its own.
What I’m sticking on is: “I know he would deny if confronted.” That tells me you don’t want an honest husband or an intimate marital relationship — both of which are contingent on truth-telling — you just want the other woman erased and the status quo back.
If instead what you want is a loving and intimate relationship with your husband, then you’re going to need to come clean with what you overheard, what your mind leapt to, and with your expectation that he wouldn’t tell you the truth if confronted.
This is where knowing the outcome you hope for beforehand is so important. He is going to answer your remarks somehow, be it to surprise you with a whole and messy truth, or a denial, credible or otherwise, or some surprising other thing. If the answer isn’t satisfying, then tell him why, based on what you were hoping for.
For example: “I was hoping you’d trust me enough to tell me the truth, no matter what it was, and while I can’t prove it I do suspect you aren’t telling me everything.” Your depth and honesty are your best chance at receiving the same from him.
One of the hardest things when one partner sees signs of an affair is that you can’t prove a negative; sometimes a denial is the truth, and yet the skeptic often doesn’t believe it. A confrontational, accusatory tone can make even an honest denial sound defensive and insincere. Set a tone of transparency in the discussion, and that will help the truth stand out for what it is, whatever it is.
RE: SUSPECTING: Speaking your truth does have a time limit, however. If he denies it and you don’t believe him, after you tell him you don’t believe him, you have to either drop it or ask for a way, including marriage counseling, for both of you to address this as a trust issue. Because if he’s not cheating, he doesn’t deserve to have his spouse convinced that he is, repeatedly bringing up an accusation with no solid evidence behind it.
DEAR ANONYMOUS: That last line deserves a frame, thanks.