Tell Me About It

My husband had an affair while I was being treated for breast cancer

Tell Me About It: Should I separate from my husband to start a new life abroad?

PROBLEM: My husband and I have been married for almost three decades. Our children are young, ambitious adults, two of whom are attending university locally and living at home, where they are likely to remain for the next three to four years until they graduate. And, if they are anything like their siblings, they will probably do postgraduate training.

I work in a senior position in a prestigious firm and my husband is a medic with a very healthy income. We have always been very careful with money and about 10 years ago we bought a stunning house in a great location and have put a lot of time, energy and emotion into it.

Seven years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I went through gruelling treatment and had a mastectomy. My self-esteem was damaged, but my husband was very loving and, on the surface, he appeared to be my rock and with his knowledge of medicine was able to explain to me the impact that the post-mastectomy treatment might have on my sex drive. He really was the model partner.

Then, three years ago, he confessed to me that during the early stages of my treatment he started a long-term affair with a junior doctor, much younger than him. At the time I was devastated and if the truth be known I still am. I could never have imagined that, as soon as I was unable to tend to him, he would look elsewhere. To my knowledge, the affair has ended, and he has tried endlessly to make it up to me. We have separate bedrooms, but we do spend a lot of time together. I love him dearly and enjoy his company. Before the illness and affair, our relationship was light and fun-loving. I don’t intentionally remind him of what he has done, and I try not to make him feel uncomfortable, but I can never see us getting the magic back again.

I am originally from another European country and due to my language skills and knowledge of local markets my company has offered me a promotion and transfer to a city very close to my hometown. It is very tempting as my father is still alive and lives there, as do my siblings. The offer of such a position is like a dream that I could never have previously dared think possible. I feel very alone, and this move would be very beneficial from a financial point of view and it would also allow me to start again in a place very close to my heart. It would, however, mean that I would separate from my husband, our beautiful home would need to be sold, and our children’s education would be disrupted.

I feel that I am being selfish just thinking about this. I think what scares me most is that if I were separated and free to pursue a relationship with someone else I would need to trust someone else to accept me with both my emotional and physical scars.

ADVICE: This is a crisis in your life and relationship and you have had three years to absorb the shock of the affair so perhaps now is the time to do some hard talking. The crisis has come in the form of an opportunity, but you assume that your husband would not be open to discussing moving with you and I wonder if you have considered this option?

Your children are all well established in their lives and their education could continue albeit not living in the family home, but this might actually open growth opportunities for them. You are clearly looking for acknowledgement in your career, and after such a difficult medical history, you deserve to expand and enjoy your life and talents in every way possible.

However, your relationship of 30 years continues to be rocky and while you sound kind to your husband, and he to you, this does not satisfy your need for intimacy, trust and deep connection. Before you decide on how to proceed you might consider couple counselling to help you both express the hurt, trauma and fears that exist in your lives together. When someone has cancer all the attention (medical and family) goes into survival – as it must – but very little attention is given to the intimacy consequences of cancer medication.

Your promotion options are your chance to grow and shine and you have the right to seek support for this move

The loss of desire and sense of the body as a source of attraction is a traumatic consequence of breast cancer treatment and both partners are left trying to cope with this, usually without professional help. Couple, or psychosexual therapy would be a very good option, but it is rarely thought of when more pressing problems (of staying alive) are to the forefront. That said, you can now use this crisis as a call to have a really honest, intimate conversation. The outcome cannot be predicted but you will have, at the very least, been heard fully and had the opportunity to both speak and listen to your partner.

You ask about perusing another relationship and how to trust and develop confidence. This is how you do it: you need to be brave enough to engage fully and truthfully with your current partner, you need to demand full openness and you need to be strong enough to hear what is being said. Being heard fully is how we become more confident and trusting our intelligence to see what is truly going on gives us the courage to risk connection again. Putting your needs firmly on the table is core to building self-esteem plus it demonstrates self-care to your children.

Your promotion options are your chance to grow and shine and you have the right to seek support for this move from your family. Your relationship may or may not survive, but how you engage with the crisis will be a model for any future intimacy you may seek.