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Heavy Meddle: I Want A Divorce — Do I Have To Tell My Husband About The Affair?

A woman writes to ponder whether she has to confess her infidelity to her unloving spouse. (Asaf R/Unsplash)
A woman writes to ponder whether she has to confess her infidelity to her unloving spouse. (Asaf R/Unsplash)
This article is more than 4 years old.

Welcome Meddleheads, to the advice column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions. You can use this form, or send them via email. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Hugs,
Steve

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Dear Steve,

I have been married to my husband for 20 years — the first 10 years were good, the past 10 have been anything but. He’s grown cold, critical and detached. The worst part is, he doesn’t even agree that there’s this big, hulking problem. When I’ve tried to convince him to work on our marriage, seek out counseling, etc., he’s been completely unreceptive. “This is what happens in marriage,” he once told me, “people can fall out of love and stay together.” Depressing as it was, I soldiered on, convincing myself that being stuck in a loveless marriage was better than the alternative.

Until, that is, I recently met my soul mate. “George” is warm, attentive and present. We share the same interests and values, and he makes me feel good about myself. I am truly happier than I’ve ever been before.

Does my husband deserve to know the truth, or is self-preservation the play here?

It’s time to ask for the separation and divorce I should have initiated 10 years ago, and that brings me to my quandary:

My inclination is to be honest and tell my husband about George, but if I reveal that I’ve gotten involved with someone else, I’m worried it will affect the legal disposition of our case. Even though he’s been as cold as an iceberg for years, and that freeze out is the reason I fell out of love with him in the first place, could my infidelity shift this from a no fault divorce to one where I was somehow to blame? I know you’re not a lawyer, Steve, but what’s your moral compass telling you? Does my husband deserve to know the truth, or is self-preservation the play here?

Please help.

Signed,
To Tell the Truth?

...

Dear 4T,

I am most certainly not a lawyer. And to be honest, the legal angle on this situation isn’t going to offer you much solace. Consider Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 272, section 14:

A married person who has sexual intercourse with a person not his spouse or an unmarried person who has sexual intercourse with a married person shall be guilty of adultery and shall be punished by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than three years or in jail for not more than two years or by a fine of not more than five hundred dollars.

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Eek.

Please note: this law is almost never prosecuted.

That said, if you confess to your affair, it certainly could scotch a “no fault” divorce. What’s more, in a contested divorce, a judge is obliged to consider the “conduct of the parties during the marriage” in considering matters such as the dividing of property, alimony and child support. You don’t mention any of these specific concerns in your letter, but I assume that your fears about the “legal disposition” of the case could involve these issues. They are worth thinking about because they could complicate an already painful process. Divorce is a matter in which sorrow and disappointment often take the form of rage and contention.

But your essential dilemma here is ethical. You’re asking if your husband “deserves to know the truth”? I could see arguments for either side of this. If it’s clear in your mind and heart that your husband is to blame for the failure of the marriage, you could certainly build a case for withholding the truth. Heck, you could even plausibly claim that you are sparing him the humiliation of your confession.

What you’re calling “self-preservation” sounds a lot like having to guard a dark secret.

On the other hand, two wrongs don’t make a right. Betraying an insensitive spouse is still a betrayal. Dishonesty is almost never the right policy. For one thing, it has a tendency to catch up with you. Which is why I think your instinct is to come clean.

Think about the conversation you’re about to have with your husband. He may well want to know why you want a divorce now. And while you can certainly cite your mutual history of unhappiness — and his unwillingness to work on the marriage — you’ll also be in the queasy position of having to lie by omission. Not just to him, but to any legal officials involved, not to mention friends and family. What you’re calling “self-preservation” sounds a lot like having to guard a dark secret.

Does it sound like I’m trying to guilt trip you?

I’m not. I’m just trying to get you to consider all the various aspects of this complex situation.

In the end, the only person who can decide what’s best here is you. And I use the word “best” advisedly. This is a terribly sad circumstance. You spent two decades with your husband, including 10 happy years. Whatever the upside, ending the relationship is going to involve feelings of loss, guilt and regret.

Given that hard truth, your job is to be as good to yourself, and to your husband, as possible. In fact, I would consider stepping away from your affair (or at least turning down the heat) while you work to gracefully extricate yourself from your marriage.

In all this, I wish you courage and patience,
Steve

Author's note: Is there anyone out there who has faced this particular dilemma? If so, would you care to weigh in? You can tell us what you think in the comments section below. And please do send a letter to Heavy Meddle, too. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. I may not have a helpful response, but the act of writing the letter itself might provide some clarity. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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