Dear Family Advisor

I'm jealous because my sick husband keeps e-mailing his ex!

Last updated:

November 09, 2010

Ever since my husband got cancer, he's been e-mailing his ex. At first, I tried to be understanding. I figured that if he feels he might die, I wouldn't want him to have unresolved issues. But now they chat on Facebook and kid around -- and honestly, I'm jealous.

I don't blame you for feeling jealous. Yes, it was a good idea for him to make peace with his ex. And many people have casual relationships with an ex. They share a history, and many times, children. But when does friendliness cross the line into an emotional affair? And is that cheating?

That word "casual" is key. There's no reason for them to spend inordinate amounts of time together in person or online.

Facing our own mortality can make us do some strange things. I asked a friend who'd been diagnosed with cancer why she did some of the risky things she did during that time and she gave me a surprising answer: "Because I felt like I had nothing more to lose. I could die, and what could be worse than that?" She also said that she felt blinded by her own fear and pain and -- to her regret -- she didn't, or couldn't, really feel what she was doing to others around her.

I'm not sure what your husband is thinking or feeling -- and neither do you. But you need to know! So it's time to really get in there and ask. No nonsense; find out what's going on. He's just been given the biggest, scariest news of his life. Proceed as if he's lost his mind and it's your job to help him get it back.

Talk honestly about what got the two of you into this situation -- without blame or guilt. Listen to what he has to say, even if his words hurt or scare you. But don't allow him to pull away from you or go behind your back. Show him that you're his wife and you're here to stay. Flood him with time, attention, and insist he share in the life the two of you have created -- not out of fear, but with quiet confidence. And this might include insisting he get off the computer!

Is he having an affair -- or an emotional affair? No one but you can decide what that line is. People have very strong opinions about how to handle these matters, but no one's opinion really matters but your own. You have to figure out what you'll do if you do find out that he's crossed a line you're not comfortable with.

Depending on your conclusions, you might want to consider marriage counseling. If you do, go in with the intention of healing your relationship. I don't suggest picking this situation apart and dwelling on the pain. Focus on moving forward and "ex-proofing" your marriage for the future.

Face his ex, too, in kindness. Don't let her be the monster in the dark, which gives her power over your fears. And don't let yourself feel intimidated by their shared past. Call her or ask to meet her for coffee. State clearly that you understand she and your husband have been talking and resolving old issues, while conveying that your love and your relationship are here to stay. Be aware that insisting they not talk on the phone or chat online risks making it a forbidden pleasure. Ultimately your husband needs to be the one who decides he no longer needs this.

Treat this renewed relationship as an emotional blip on the radar instigated by a cancer scare. Be patient and persistent in your love. Odds are, this bizarre season will pass. You and your marriage, you're the real deal.