Health

We are in our 60s, but my partner has been lying to me. Do I stay? | Marriage

The dilemma My partner and I, both in our early 60s, have been together for 20 years.

He does thoughtful things for me every day, but is never generous or complimentary. When we used to have sex, it was always me who made the first move, but since the menopause I’m not interested.

Until now our relationship has been easy if passionless: we’ve had plenty of adventures together and are fond of each other. Two months ago, I picked up his phone to look for a photograph and saw a WhatsApp message notification ending with a kiss. Perhaps wrongly, I went to the conversation and saw flirtatious exchanges of messages. When I asked him about it, he said he felt a need for people in his life other than just me and had hoped this woman might become a friend.

A month later, I overheard him on the phone to his bank, trying to stop a payment. He said he’d fallen for an email scam. I asked if it was the same woman. He denied it, but his story didn’t add up. He said he lied, because he was embarrassed. I was hurt and furious, but after a few days I got over it. He says I now have the full story, but I have no idea if that’s true. He lies without his face or voice changing.

A part of me is hurt and angry about the lies: what else is he hiding online? I wouldn’t be amazed to discover anything, though he insists he has no secrets. A part of me thinks let him have his secrets, it doesn’t really hurt me. I suggested he go to therapy, he said that was a good idea, but he has done nothing about it.

Sometimes I wish I could meet someone with whom I feel more physically and emotionally intimate and alive. I wonder if I should leave him to open myself to this possibility. Or at my age, with plenty of passion behind me in my youth, would it be better to just stick with an easy, companionable relationship with a generally decent person?

Philippa’s answer You both sound lonely in this relationship. Your partner’s way of solving this problem was not to discuss it with you but to seek out a secret liaison away from your partnership. This incident with the email scammer may be over, but the problem of his propensity to lie and his fear of being open with you is not. If he cannot be vulnerable with you, his partner, he will be lonely. You are good at looking on the bright side, but I feel that if you brush this problem of the lack of openness between you under the carpet, he will again try to solve the problem away from you and with secretiveness. You may well solve the problem by leaving, but there might be another way to potentially improve things.

I sense you both may have a fear of conflict, which means that the difficult conversations that need to happen aren’t happening. Conflict avoiders may have low self-esteem and an unchallenged belief system that they are not allowed to rock the boat because it will lead to rejection. Conflict avoidance is not unlike people pleasing – it comes from the same fear of causing hurt or upset for other people, which inhibits you speaking your truth and so leads to feelings of resentfulness and loneliness. I would recommend couples counselling. A secretive person who hides behind lies doesn’t often do well in therapy unless they really want to change their way of being in the world, but perhaps it is worth seeing whether couples counselling could be the catalyst that brings such a change about. It will, I’m afraid, be another thing that’s down to you to initiate.

I think there are probably many things you both need to share with each other and it will be easier in the presence of a neutral therapist. When you have said everything you need to say, about how you experience being in a relationship with him, what you lack now and what you want, and if he’s able to articulate his loneliness and tell you all his secrets, perhaps the openness and insights you get from being in couples therapy would rekindle something that made you romantic partners in the first place.

On the other hand, a full reveal of what’s happening with each of you may make it clearer that you might have better lives as single people. I think the couples therapy is worth doing, because you mention aspects of your relationship that are worth saving – the adventures and the fondness. And if you do decide to become single and then seek a new partner, you don’t want to be tripped up by conflict avoidance again, so the couples therapy may help you both individually as well.

The question you need to ask yourself is, where do you draw the line? Where is your limit? If that limit has been passed, how do you split up? If he doesn’t open up even in therapy, and you don’t feel seen and you find that line is crossed, then what to do next will become clearer to you. There is a chance, if you both dare to be as open as possible in therapy, it may just be another exciting adventure for you both.

For couples therapy, try tavistockrelationships.org. Book recommendation (for both of you): Daring Greatly by Brené Brown.

Philippa Perry’s The Book You Want Everyone You Love* To Read *(and maybe a few you don’t) is published by Cornerstone at £18.99. Buy it for £16.14 at guardianbookshop.com

Every week Philippa Perry addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Philippa, please send your problem to askphilippa@guardian.co.uk. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions

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