Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Should the Adulteress Tell on Herself?

She: a 67 year old divorcee, with three grown children.

He: roughly the same age, unhappily married, with three grown children-- he has not been intimate with his wife for over a decade. 

He and she find each other on the running track and in the gym. They initiate an affair. She is loving every minute of it. He says that he wants to divorce his wife, to marry his new love. 

So far, not too complicated. We honestly wish them all the best. You might consider her a homewrecker, but his home had already been wrecked for years before she came along.

Anyway, we are happy for both of them.

But, the problem, and the reason she writes to therapist Lori Gottlieb is simple: she wants to know whether she should tell her children what she has been doing. She hints that she does not think it's a very good idea, but Gottlieb, who must have been having a bad day, unfortunately recommends that she tell the truth-- to her children, to his children, to the community at large.

It would be a mistake. Gottlieb knows nothing about the woman, her community, her friends and neighbors. She knows nothing about the children’s moral sense, so she has applied a crass and mindless generalization, to the effect that it’s always better to tell the truth. She fails to notice that people who cannot keep secrets are generally considered to have weak character.

That said, here is the letter:

I was married for 25 years, had three children, and went through a very messy, traumatic divorce 10 years ago. My ex had become an abusive alcoholic and was very mean, especially to our middle child, a girl with learning disabilities.

In the decade after my divorce, I focused on working and raising my children, but I occasionally dated. It was a difficult decade, with no financial assistance from my ex, who lost his job after a series of DUIs. My children are now independent and my life is full with friends, books, and distance running, although I have often felt very lonely.

A few years ago, a family friend I have known for 15 years began working out in the same running clinic. He is the father of three kids who were in the same grades at school as my three children, and the husband of a woman with whom I used to do PTA work. He and I always had an easy, emotionally connected relationship, given our children and mutual interests. 

Over time, he began to confess on our long runs that his wife is an alcoholic and that they had not been physically or emotionally close for more than a decade. He says that they tried marriage therapy unsuccessfully and that she is in denial about her drinking. Three months ago, against my better judgment, we began an affair.

I am 67 and often felt old and tired, but suddenly I felt youthful and happy and like I had something to look forward to. When guilty thoughts came up, I told him that this couldn’t go on, and that he had to get divorced if we were to continue. He has agreed to get a divorce, and we feel that we are in love and would like to spend the remainder of our lives together. But I’m worried about what the children will think, and how honest to be with all six of them. And what will I say to his wife? We were never close friends, but we worked together for years in PTA leadership positions and respected each other.

I feel incredibly guilty and am worried that if we come clean, we will lose the respect of our children and become pariahs in our community.

Can you offer any guidance?


Doubtless you are thinking that he might be lying about getting a divorce. For my part, I often believe the same thing. In this case, I do not. Were he to divorce would not be breaking up a home-- and besides, his children are grown. Since his wife has long ceased to be a real wife, one suspects that she would not be entirely unhappy to be rid of him.

The salient point, from my perspective, is quite simple. We ought to grant extra credence to the woman’s moral sense. If she fears being cast out of her community, being treated like a pariah, and losing the respect of friends and children, then she probably lives in a fairly conservative community. As the old saying goes: trust the woman, trust her moral sense.

After all, announcing adultery does not go down very well in many places. Even if she just tells the children, and he tells his children, the chances of the secret remaining secret shrink to nothing.

In the best circumstance, the man ought to get divorced first. Then, after a decent interval, he can announce his new relationship to his children and even to the world. If people suspect that something was going on before the divorce, they are more likely to be discreet about it. If he reverses the order and announces the affair before the divorce, the woman in question will appear to be a homewrecker. If he maintains the correct order, people might suspect all kinds of things, but they will be happy that he respects their sensibilities.

Obviously, therapists have no sense of the sensibilities of other people or of the need to maintain a public reputation.

What does therapist Gottlieb have to say? I would note that one can only wonder why one needs to undergo years of graduate training to become a moral eunuch. Surely, we are not dealing with science here.

The adulteress writes:

Telling the truth is also the path to gaining their trust and respect in the long run.

This is because one problem with not telling the truth, or sharing only part of it, is that it will likely come out anyway, even if you and your partner do your best to spin the timing of his divorce and your subsequent relationship so that it does not appear to be what it was. This lie will become a family secret in not just one but two families, and family secrets have a way of being felt even if unspoken. What makes many family secrets so damaging is that there can be a sense that something is not quite as it seems, which creates a feeling of unease. Generally, the secret eventually comes out—something is found on a phone, an offhand comment reveals a different timeline, someone in the running group strongly suspected or even saw evidence of the affair—and when it does, people feel angry and betrayed.

I will not belabor the point, but this is recycled Freud. It is an argument for indiscretion and for shamelessness. If she and her beau are shunned by her community, if the merry divorcee loses the respect of her children, this nonsense about telling the truth will be a cold consolation.

I will not repeat Gottlieb’s suggestions for how she thinks that they should advertise their adultery-- because it’s a bad idea.

She concludes with this lame metaphor:

What’s most important here is that going forward, you and your partner learn from this experience and bring honesty into all of your relationships, knowing that it’s the soil from which everything healthy grows.

More people have gotten in more trouble by following the advice to be open and honest than they have for almost anything else.


urbane legend said...

Your approach is best. Nothing is gained by anyone if these two announce to the world, their children, anyway, they are having an affair. If she tells him he has to divorce his wife and they must wait a reasonable period to wed she also finds out if he is serious.

I am 67 and often felt old and tired, but suddenly I felt youthful and happy and like I had something to look forward to.
The Calvinists, Puritans, and modern day fundamentalists would say she has no reason to expect to be happy in this world of sin. My thought is, " How much longer do you have the opportunity to find happiness? " Not that 67 is really old, but it aint't 35, either.

Giordano Bruno said...

I think she could record her confession while she drives her car and then post it on social media. If you are going to do a public confession, go global

Anonymous said...

Why would this woman even contemplate for one minute telling everyone?