#1385: “My wife says she isn’t cheating. Should I believe her?”

Hello, I’m not sure how to start this off but here goes.

My wife of 20 years was caught sending nudes to an older man and I found out she had been riding around with him while I was at work. When I confronted her about everything she said they were only talking and it wasn’t sexual at all. But everything in me tells me otherwise. Also she has cheated in the past. Should I believe her?

Oof, hello, I’m sorry that we’re meeting under these circumstances and I hope you are doing okay.

I can’t confirm whether your wife’s ride-alongs with Pop-Pop involve the *full* Early Bird Special, and there is no universal “What counts as cheating?” standard that I could apply from this distance. But I’ll tell you what I observe and see where it takes us.

Your wife seems to be making the case that *nothing* counts as cheating or as being “sexual at all” until or unless the parties mash their genitals together and make them kiss. I tend to think of this as the N Minus 1 Gambit within the larger Cheater’s Defense, where as long as there is one forbidden thing that the relationship partner and potential affair partner are not doing (yet), then nothing they are doing could possibly be sketchy, and actually you’re the one who is out of line for even suggesting it. As the relationship progresses, and more and more formerly off-limits things happen between them, the value of N (for that final, off-limits act that would objectively constitute Actual Cheating) keeps growing progressively absurd, until you’re firmly in  “Well, it’s not like we fucked in front of everyone at the family reunion and sent the video to all of your LinkedIn connections, come on, be reasonable! We just did all the things I promised I wouldn’t do, one by one, until we ran out of Things. Quit overreacting just because I made you feel paranoid and crazy this whole time!”- territory.

You’ve found out that your wife is sending nudes to someone and hanging out with him behind your back in a way that feels “off” and reminds you of other times she has cheated on you. You could decide to believe her and ignore the whole thing unless it crosses a certain line, but you don’t have to solve for N (or accept the framing that it’s not cheating until she says it is) before you’re allowed to question your relationship and your happiness and security within it.

Please allow me to pose a series of questions that might help you think through what you want to happen next.

Are you happy with your wife, in general, or were you before you found out what’s happening? Can you be happy, knowing what you know now? When she denies cheating, but everything in (you) tells (you) otherwise,” what is the cost of ignoring your own instincts? What happens to your peace of mind, to your sense of integrity?

In a perfect world, where all of this gets resolved to your satisfaction, what does that look like? When you ask her that question, what does she say? What happens if you let yourself be hurt and angry about this? “We’ve already had to work so hard to rebuild trust in our marriage, it’s both astounding and alarming that you’d push boundaries like this and put everything at risk, again.”

If it’s not cheating, then what is it? “Please help me understand. Why are you sending photos like that to another man? If it’s “not sexual at all” then what is it? Is it only him, or do you trade explicit photos with other friends? What do you enjoy about it? Do I need to be worried that you’ll cheat on me or leave me for someone else? Is there something you’re not getting from our relationship in terms of attention, or wanting to be seen, or even playing around with exhibitionism that we could work on together?” If there’s a reasonable explanation here, or something you’re missing, here’s her chance to offer it.

Do you trust that your wife is looking out for your well-being? Around this situation? In general? [Bonus Question: When’s the last time you got screened for sexually transmitted infections? STIs don’t discriminate and can happen to anyone without it necessarily being someone’s fault, but also, in my experience, people who aren’t careful with solemn vows and other people’s hearts aren’t always super careful about other stuff, either. It’s better to know than not know.]

When you talk to her about how this makes you feel, is she accountable and direct? Especially given the history of past cheating, does she acknowledge why finding out about the photos & secret hangouts might make you anxious and uncomfortable, and does she do her best to reassure you and make you feel safe?

If it turns out she is cheating, or it turns into cheating down the road, what do you want to do about it? If you both agree that whatever she’s doing doesn’t meet the threshold of cheating, are you allowed to say that you’re still not cool with what is happening and would like it to stop? Just because other people would be okay with what she’s doing doesn’t mean that you have to be okay with it.

If your wife won’t agree to curtail the photos and hangouts (or if she agrees but keeps going in secret)(or if she straight up tells you that she’d prefer to open up the relationship), what does that mean for you? Would you stay, regardless? Do you need to at least locate the nearest exit in case of emergency? What kind of support system do you have, including people who you can really talk to about what’s going on?

Even if your wife is telling you the truth (technically)(like, really, really technically)(hair-splittingly, rules-lawyeringly technically), it still might not be enough to build a happy future on, especially when she’s already broken your trust at least once. As boundaries go, “I only stick around in relationships where I don’t have to worry about being cheated on” isn’t a ridiculous one.

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