When Your Partner Has a Secret Life

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, many turned to the dead bomber’s widow for answers. What seems impossible for some to believe is that she knew nothing of her husband’s plans. How could she be so close and not know?  Here, a year later, I can offer my perspective from my own experience.

In the last years of my marriage, I discovered my husband had a secret life. There had been hidden addiction, other relationships, thousands of dollars from our accounts that went missing.   It all came out slowly, painfully, over a period of years. It wasn’t until I saw the funds missing from our accounts, which couldn’t be explained away with a story, that I finally could see the truth.

But prior to that, I wanted to believe my husband. I loved and trusted him. We’d met as sophomores in college and had known each other for 25 years. And even though he’d been caught in that first lie that started the unraveling of our marriage, I wanted to believe that after that he was telling the truth. That I fell for that over and over – well, that speaks to my contribution to our dynamic. I couldn’t see some of what was going on because I didn’t want to. Other parts he hid deliberately and effectively. Other people, friends, and family were complicit in the charade because they didn’t want to believe the truth about him either.

From time to time I asked questions. And I would get answers that didn’t quite make sense. Or answers that were true – but incomplete. There were periods when I worried about my mental state. He said he’d told me something, but I was pretty sure he had not. Case in point was his description of a trip he was taking. He was going to see his brother and he’d found a hotel with a cheap local’s rate. That much was true. What was revealed after a forensic search of his credit card statements was that he made the trip with another woman (and her dog), paid for their airfare, meals and shopping from our money. The hotel with the local’s rate was a four-star resort. He could say what he’d told me was the truth. But there’s a reason they make you swear in court to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” Slowly I began to see half-truths, omissions, and out-and-out lies.

You want to believe the people you love, especially if the truth is too painful to see. There were many times I felt something was wrong, but didn’t know what to do about it. The lesson for me was how to press for answers, how to keep my partner engaged in a difficult conversations, and at least for me, if he can’t participate in these difficult talks, to leave.

Some of the things you might look for if you suspect your partner is hiding something from you are the following:

  • Creating distance between you – My husband was pulling away from me, physically and emotionally. All long-term relationships go through ups and downs.  He also created distance by coming home consistently later than he’d said. I used to joke that if he said he’d be home at 5:30, I’d see him at 7. What I should have done is kept trying to close the distance. It might not have changed the end result, but I think the truth would have come to light sooner.
  • Things may not be what they seem – What you think you see may not be correct – actions may be subject to interpretation. I had an explanation for what was happening in my marriage: many times I was put off because my husband had work to do. He was dedicated to his job (an attribute I admired greatly) and I wasn’t going to interfere with his work. Only later I learned much of that time spent “working” was actually on-line and in person with other women, other activities that were not advancing his career.
  • Denial – My ex-husband had a difficult and traumatic childhood. That he survived it, and even thrived as an adult in his work life, was again a quality I found laudable. His family and even our marriage counselor supported his inability to talk about difficulty in our relationship as “being stoic” or “flooding”—being so overcome during an emotionally-charged time that he could not speak. His father had been a bigamist, and spent time in prison. There was no way his family was going to believe that my husband would grow up to hide things like his father. It worked to his advantage that there was no expectation that he needed to explain his actions or thoughts. That was just him being stoic.
  • Manipulation – What I didn’t see was that he used this vulnerability to get what he wanted from me, and the rest of his family. Unhappy in a city with limited career choices for me, I suggested I move temporarily to another city, apprentice in a new field, and return to start a new career. In tears and on his knees, he told me how he didn’t want us to be apart. Despite my deep dissatisfaction with my own career prospects, but not wanting to have him be so unhappy, I stayed. When I look back over our years together, I see this pattern of my wanting something, his hurt, my wanting to stop that hurt more than honor my own needs, and relinquishing my want.
  • Deep investment in the marriage – I loved and respected my husband, and I believed we are each responsible for our own happiness. Things that started off as small slights – being inattentive at a party, coming home late, using work as an excuse to abandon our Thursday Date Nights and time with family – these added up over time. But I wasn’t going to leave him over these things. We had been together since college, and I doubled down and worked harder to be happy on my own – which should have been an indicator itself of a troubled marriage.

In my case there was no terrorist plot. There was just a man who got off by hiding things from his wife. Being so close to him, at least in my case, was part of the problem. And for a long time, I didn’t want to see it. Once I did, my life made a lot more sense.