Without telling me, my husband donated sperm back in the ’90s, when we were newly married. We were both students, and we had one child and another on the way. We had talked about ways we could earn money, and we both agreed sperm and egg donation were not a good option. He told me that he understood my concerns and agreed not to do this.
Years passed, and in 2017 he received a notification from a DNA website saying that he had a new match: a biological child conceived from one of his donations. He began to communicate with this child—sharing pictures, stories, and a lot of personal information—but never told me about her. He did, however, inform our adult children, as this person would show up as a sibling match if they did genetic testing. I found out by accident just a few months ago when I overheard my daughter asking him if he had told me yet.
I feel very betrayed and angry that he kept this secret from me for so many years and asked our children to harbor this secret too. It also bothers me that he has engaged in a secret relationship with the daughter conceived from his donation. It feels like the family we had together, the only family I thought we each had, isn’t enough. It has also caused some hurt for me with my children. I want to forgive him and learn to trust him again, but there are just so many confusing feelings.
Santa Fe, N.M.
I can see why you’re feeling confused. Betrayal, especially by someone close to us such as a parent or partner, causes us to question not just the person who betrayed us, but our own sense of reality. There are many forms of betrayal, including infidelity, secrets, and lies, but regardless of what form it takes, when trust in a relationship is broken, gone too is the feeling of safety that was built upon that trust.
As a result, a person who has been betrayed might experience depression, anxiety, anger, hypervigilance, shame, intrusive thoughts, self-doubt, insomnia, numbness, or panic attacks. But many betrayed people themselves also feel confused, and have difficulty identifying, expressing, and managing all of these emotions.
What makes processing feelings after a betrayal so challenging is that you’re left wondering not only whether you can trust your partner, but whether you can trust your own perceptions.
I remember a patient whose husband had been leading a double life. He had been having an affair for years; he’d gotten his lover pregnant, and she was about to have his baby. When his wife discovered all of this, she no longer knew what to make of her life with him. Were her memories real? For example, that romantic vacation—was her version of the trip accurate or was it some fiction, given that he had been having his affair at that time? She felt robbed of both her marriage and her memories.
Your husband, too, has been leading a double life for the past 20 years—and quite actively for the past five. You say that you want to forgive him and trust him again, but forgiveness and trust are two different things. Forgiveness comes from a shift inside of you, and trust comes from a shift from him. You may never forgive him, but you don’t need to forgive him in order to move forward together. Instead, you might come to a place of understanding and trust, depending on how he handles things now.
A person who wants to establish trust going forward will acknowledge the full extent of his actions, understand why what he did was wrong, offer a specific apology, demonstrate genuine remorse, and show patience and empathy for the pain he has caused. He will also actively engage in healing, which generally includes improving communication, taking action to make things right in whatever ways he can, and gaining insight into the issues that led to his betrayal so that he doesn’t lie to you again.
As part of this process, he should be able to put an end to his secret life by sharing it with you in full. This would start with his talking openly about why he deceived you early in the marriage after agreeing to not donate sperm. You might learn, for instance, that with both of you still students, and with one child and another on the way, he felt terrified about whether the two of you would be able to manage financially and, despite your objection, he believed (true or not) that this was the only way out. Perhaps in his youth he didn’t consider the future consequences of having other children out there—or perhaps he did, but justified them to himself in his desperation. He should also share with you what it has been like for him to sit with the knowledge all these years that there might be children from his donation. Did he sign up with a DNA site because he worried the truth might come out, or because he hoped to find any biological children he had? And what has it been like for him to have a relationship with his biological daughter while hiding something so significant from you? Consider, too, that this might not be an isolated incident, and that if he struggles with honesty more generally, or there’s a dynamic between you that makes open communication challenging, now is the time to get all of this on the table.
Meanwhile, you can share with him the truth of your experience—the profound effect his lying has had on you, what the many layers of deception have done to your sense of trust and safety, how you feel about his choice to secretly involve your adult children in this, and the concerns and fears you have regarding his other daughter’s role in your lives.
You can also do some repair work with your children, who were recruited as reluctant co-conspirators in the deceit and were placed in an impossible bind—to protect one parent while harming the other. Can you appreciate the unfair burden their father put on them, and understand that the betrayal wasn’t theirs?
If your husband is willing to take full responsibility for his deceitful actions and engage in healing with you, this painful experience might be what’s called a “gift in a garbage bag.” Your marriage will strengthen because whatever issues he has around honesty, or the two of you might have around communication or avoidance, will now be out in the open and finally addressed. You’ll need to grieve the loss of the marriage you thought you had, but as painful as that is, you might get something better. Not only will you learn more about each other’s inner life and hopefully feel closer and more connected, but you’ll also become more skilled at working together to navigate differences that come up, such as your respective comfort levels with this new person in your lives.
If, however, your husband isn’t willing to take responsibility or actively engage in working through this betrayal, that’s helpful information too. It’s a different “gift in a garbage bag,” but a gift nonetheless. Because without saying a word, your husband is giving you the honesty you deserve, even if the message is that he’s not willing to change and doesn’t appreciate the impact his dishonesty has had on you. It’s better to know this about him than to be caught off guard again, and this knowledge, no matter how upsetting, lets you reclaim your agency. You can sort through your feelings and gain clarity, perhaps with the help of a therapist, and make choices about your future with eyes wide open. In the end, no matter what your husband does—whether he works to restore trust or tries to sweep his actions under the rug—as long as you’re honest with yourself, one thing will be true: Your husband may have betrayed you, but you won’t betray yourself.
Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.