Covert Affairs Are Incredibly Cruel

Covert Affairs Are Incredibly Cruel

covert affairs
Duana WelchPh.D.

Duana WelchPh.D.

Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., is the author of Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do, coming in January, 2015. She also contributes at Psychology Today and teaches psychology at Austin-area universities. Get a free chapter of Love Factually!
Duana WelchPh.D.

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Dear Duana,

Can someone be married and be a good partner and have covert affairs on the side? I am trying to do this and it’s very hard… but when I think about giving up the passion of the affair I feel devastated.

I’m having an affair with a man who already has a girlfriend.  They still have sex, and I feel insecure about it.  Meanwhile I love my husband and we still have sex occasionally and he’s still into me very much but it’s been MANY years since we married, and I’m less attracted to him.  But I love him and we have kids and I MOSTLY don’t want to mess them up. So I’m very careful. And jealous of this other woman. And guilty. And feel my marriage is a bit sad due to my lying.

The trouble is, I love them both.  I love the other man, but I don’t want to get divorced for him.  My therapist says I shouldn’t reveal the affair to my husband, so I haven’t.  But the lie is pretty harsh. And I don’t have the discipline to stop the affair because when I do I feel sad and lonely in a different way. I know I sound like a pig and sometimes I am selfish. I KNOW THIS, but I also make huge sacrifices left and center. Very hard to sort it all out. Thoughts?



Dear Jessica,

I’d like to begin with this quote from Dr. Brene’ Brown, researcher on Wholehearted living and loving, and author of :

I don’t know if you can love someone and betray them or be cruel to them, but I do know that when you betray someone or behave in an unkind way toward them, you are not practicing love.  And for me, I don’t just want someone who says they love me; I want someone who practices that love for me every day.

To answer your first question regarding whether you can be a good marriage partner and covert affairs: In my opinion as a married person, no.  Because covert affairs interfere with two top priorities in loving: intimacy and loyalty. 

I want someone who is truly intimate with me, which means someone who reveals all aspects of himself without fearing loss of his identity—which means not hiding anything significant.  Like an affair.  And I also want someone who is truly and solely devoted to me, which means not sharing his sexuality with anyone else.

I couldn’t stay with someone who couldn’t give me these things, no matter how wonderful he was otherwise.  For me, fidelity and intimacy are non-negotiable parts of marriage.

And around the world, infidelity is one of the top two reasons spouses abandon their partners (the other is childlessness).  Most people most of the time value loyalty; it’s one of the top four things people look for in a mate globally.

But my opinion does not matter.  The rest of the world’s opinion does not matter.  Your husband’s is the *only* opinion that matters, because you are his marriage partner! 

If he would be okay with you having an affair and keeping secrets, then you’re a good marriage partner for him.  If he wouldn’t be, then you’re falling short.  I think you know him and know his take on this.  That’s part of why you feel so torn now: You already know his truth.

But it’s hard to make a decision.  You’re in a tough spot.  You love your husband.  You love the other guy.  You are tired of the guilt and lying.  But you don’t think you can do either of the things that will free you from the guilt/lying: either stopping the affair, or telling your husband about it.

I do have thoughts on this.  First, as you know from experience, it is possible to love two people at once.  It’s just not possible for most of us to live in any sort of peaceful, happy headspace while doing it.  You’re not in an open marriage; so you’re not living the truth of your agreement.  And that’s hurting you.

If you told your husband about it, it would need to be as a first step to ending either the affair or your marriage.  In fact, therapist and covert affairs researcher  found that telling was a necessary part of full recovery.

So if you’re not ready to make a firm choice, there is no point in revealing the affair; it would be cruel to force your husband to live with facts that hurt him for no purpose than to unburden yourself of guilt.  It would increase the instability and pain in your, his, and your kids’ lives.  I agree with your therapist; for now, don’t tell him.

Second, I don’t buy it for one hot minute that you are literally unable to stop the affair, nor that you lack the self-discipline.  I don’t believe “I can’t” from anyone.  You’re an adult.  You can, if you decide to. 

That’s not the same thing as it being an easy thing to do.  But it is an entirely possible thing to do. 

Lots and lots of people—especially women—have covert affairs when they get lonely.  Which sounds like it might be an issue for you.  And lots and lots of people havecovert  affairs that they end, and then instead of continuing to feel horribly lonely, they fix their marriages and find a deep intimacy that was often lacking before the affair. 

Finding intimacy with your own husband is a legitimate alternative to finding it elsewhere, right?  It’s not easy, but it can be done.  If you decide to recover from the affair and work on rebuilding intimacy with your spouse, I recommend —and perhaps a Gottman-style couples counselor  to help the two of you on your way.   

Upshot?  Given that you’re not telling your mate, and you’re pretty sure you don’t want to leave him for the other guy, you’re left with at least two main options:

—continuing as-is; or

—giving up the other guy and restoring intimacy in your marriage.

Both of these are very tough on you, as well as on others.

Ultimately, that is the point: No matter what you do—including staying the present course and being with both men—, it’s going to be wrenching.  You are in the hardest place of all right now. 

And no matter what choice you make, once you make it, it will be easier than where you are right now.

So here’s what I recommend.

First, stop berating yourself or calling yourself names.  Shame keeps people stuck.

Guilt is helpful; feeling bad about what you are doing can motivate you to make another, better choice.  But feeling that *you* are bad or there is something inherently wrong with you?  Will keep you in one very upsetting mindset, unable to make a choice.

Second, lean into the pain.  Live in the headspace of each option for a while.  Let yourself feel what it’s like to keep up the current double-life; and let yourself imagine in detail what it feels like to end the affair and work on your marriage, choosing your mate fully.    In this way, figure out your deepest want.

Consider others, especially the interests of your kids and the daily realities that would result from any one choice, as you imagine this.  Children are permanently affected by their parents’ affairs and/or divorce, even in adulthood, so consideration of them is vital since they are important to you.  And your importance to them?  Well, you are priceless.

Finally, set a deadline to act accordingly.  People find it very stressful and even depressing to be incongruent—to live one way and believe another.  I think that is a huge source of your stress right now.  You aren’t living what you believe in and truly want.

Make your beliefs and your reality line up. 

It will be hard.  But you will be happier.  Life in the middle is hell.  I wish you clarity, and strength to follow through once you’ve got it.



The author wishes to thank Dr. Shirley Glass and Dr. Brene’ Brown for their research and ideas that helped in the writing of this article.  Links to their work are in the post.

All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., and LoveScience Media, 2014.


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