My fiancé has a secret child

He lied to me. He cheated. I've called off the engagement. But I love him. He says he'll change. Can this work?

Published July 1, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I love your column. I love your writing. Ive been following you for several years. Reading your advice feels like talking to a friend over coffee and that's what I need now.

I've been with my boyfriend for three and a half years, living together for one and engaged for six months. Everything was great, we get along, he has a good sense of humor, we helped each other through some difficult personal issues, my family loves him. We want the same things and are in love.

Except three months ago I borrowed his computer to do a picture album of our story together, and you may know how this goes ... I found pictures of other women in the first year we were together. He said it was nothing. I didn't believe him, I felt I needed to know the truth and I looked at his emails. He then admitted he cheated in the first year of our relationship. I was numb, then angry, but I stayed with him. He said he used to have several relationships at the same time, it was his way of not getting close to women. He was dating two other women on and off and I was the last one to get in the picture, but he said he didn't feel like being with others, fell in love with me and ended the other relationships in the first seven months we were together. I know this is true because I saw the emails. We had a lot of problems in the first year, so I can understand him not taking it seriously. It was a long time ago, we built a great relationship since then and I know he didn't cheat again. It still hurts. I'm a big girl and I can deal with that, but there's something else I'm not sure I can take. I saw an email from a woman he dated a year before we met. She told him about the baby she had, a girl, attached a picture and said she wanted to leave the door open in case he ever wanted to meet her or have a relationship with her. He confessed she is most likely his daughter, said they slept together a few times, she got pregnant, he was scared, told her he didn't want any part in it, and cut off all contact.

This is the part I have a problem with. I can't look at him the same as before.  I thought he was a good man, I still think he is good, and yet how could he do that. He never met her and still doesn't want any contact. The woman married and he is relieved the girl has a father. The weirdest part is he really wants kids and for us to have a family, he raised his brother because the father was not there, he goes to church, he is generous with people, he is a good friend and son. It's like he is two different people.

I put the engagement on hold. I can't even think about marriage. Part of me wants to do like he does and deny it, pretend it didn't happen.  At times I want to meet her, I feel I could love her and include her in our lives. Sometimes I imagine what would happen if/when she wants to meet him a few years down the road and I don't know how I would feel. And then I also want to leave him and start over.

This is my story so far, I feel I'm at a crossroad and I don't know what path to take.

Please help me think this through.

Lost ...

Dear Lost,

You are indeed at a crossroads and so is he. You will reach other crossroads, too, if you stay together, so now is a good time to talk about ways to decide. I hope you and he stay together but you will need guideposts. You will need to be able to read the signs along the way.

If you can do that, you can have a long relationship. A long relationship can be healing. But the healing involves facing emotional pain. Are you and he capable of doing that together -- willing and able to face each other's emotional pain? Do you have a method for talking about the things that are hard to talk about?

This is what you will need: a reliable way to face your emotional pain together. For instance, he says that being with all these women was a way of avoiding being close to any of them. That is a fairly sophisticated understanding. But he will need to see where that reluctance came from. Usually such a thing comes from hurt. So let us assume he has been hurt in the past. If he comes from a macho culture where males do not display or admit their hurts, then he may not even know himself where the hurt comes from. So he will have to ask himself, what woman's love have I lost after I became close to her?

Understanding what happened may be painful. It usually is. It may be something that happened gradually or it may be traumatic loss. Either way, he has been hurt and has covered it up.

This is not simple. Such hurt and unresolved pain can also work in his favor. It is a form of power that a man can invert. It is a disability but it can also be a con. It can be a martyr act, causing pity: Poor man who cannot be close to women, let me take care of you and show you what a real woman's love is like. Poor man who cannot stay with a woman, let me prove that I am the woman you will stay with. Poor man who has intimacy issues, let me heal you.

Of course, love itself is a beautiful con. But to be trapped in a con, to believe that only if we run the con can we get what we truly need, that is a trap.

There is no way to learn these things except by getting into the relationship and keeping at it.

His habit is to lie. Many of us men are taught to lie to women. We are taught that with women you lie because if you tell them the truth they will not understand and you will lose them. In his other relationships, he may have found that when he told the truth the relationship ended or became intolerably conflictual. So lying became a way to keep the closeness he needs. Yet it also prevents the closeness he needs. That is a paradox. You and he will have to look at these hard facts together. You need a way to do that. You need a room to do it in. Maybe you need someone to meet with to help you do it.

Do you like the show "My Name Is Earl"? Earl has screwed up a lot and he sets out to make things right.

It is hard to live in the present when one's emotions are attached to painful, unresolved events. There are ways to resolve these things. One way is the 12-step method, which was devised for alcoholics but has been adapted to many other life problems. Another way is through couples counseling. There are many ways. What these methods have in common is that they allow individuals to remember and face and understand what they have done and where possible make restitution. This brings a feeling of wholeness and closure so that one's attention is no longer on that past event.

Among past events that live on into the present, there is no past event quite as compelling as the birth of a child. No other event quite poses the same remarkable set of possibilities and obstacles.

If you stay together I would like to see both of you take some responsibility for the care of this girl, if she is indeed his daughter. He needs to make peace with it and so do you. That doesn't mean the girl needs to know he is her father. But there must be some acknowledgment among the adults of the truth of her origin. Adults admit the truth. That's what we do. That's the bottom line. Adults don't run away from facts or pretend that things are other than they are. If the man her mother is with is not her biological father then he needs to know that and accept it.

Maybe if you and he spent just one simple afternoon with the mother and the child, just so all of you can see each other and experience each other's presence, that might be all the healing that is needed. Maybe it should be in the presence of someone trusted, an authority, a community figure. Maybe there would be a ritual involved, something of a common religion or cultural practice.

Do you mind if I just go on and keep talking? If we were at a table having coffee, I might go on and on. In journalism we work hard to make things short. I am known for going on and on. It is sort of a journalistic sin. There are many things about journalistic writing that work against a true unfolding of the human heart. People get bored. People are in a hurry. And I used to think it was best to be very compact and all. But I find often being compact can get you into trouble.

So, listen, I am just going to say a few more things. They aren't all built into the argument, logically, but they are just things. They are things that would just come up in conversation if we were talking.

People change gradually. Don't you think? That is why long relationships are good. A relationship is a crucible in which deep change can happen and deep love can develop; since deep change and deep love take time, a long relationship is best.

You have a good beginning for a long relationship. You have love and you have awareness. What you and he need, I think, is a mutual agreement now and for the future that you accept what has happened in the past, that you and he will both make mistakes over the course of a long relationship.

For a long relationship to work, you must live in each other's hearts. If you are not in his heart all the time then it does not matter what he does when he is away from you. So you need to be in his heart all the time. There are ways to do that through love.

Conversely, there are things you can do that will drive you out of his heart. If you do not accept his past then he will feel that conflict, and since he cannot drive the past out of his heart because it is a true fact, he may feel compelled, to resolve the conflict, to drive you out of his heart because there is no room in his heart for incompatible things. In this way, your inability to accept what he has done can have the effect of driving you out of his heart.

So accept what he has done and love him. That is the only way you will move forward. Likewise, it is hard for you. It hurts to know what he has done -- that he has lied, that he has had a secret life. This hurts deeply. He must accept that about you. If he cannot accept your hurt, then he will be driven out of your heart, because that hurt is real and ineradicable.

So to live in each other's hearts, you must be accepting of reality. We cannot contain the irreconcilable. Our natural tendency is to cast out what does not fit. We cannot cast out what we know to be true. So we will cast out those whose opinions conflict.

So accept what he has done. And insist that he accept how much it has hurt you. Both of you: Accept the other.

Keep doing this. As long as you keep doing this you will grow in love.

I hope that is clear.

I get into trouble sometimes when I write without thinking everything through. Sometimes I write from immediate emotion and do not know the source of the emotion. Like the other day when I got upset about the genderless pronoun thing. Not to dwell on that, but I want to be an example to others of how we can allow new thoughts to come into our heads, and we can express them, but when we express them without taking the time to understand them, sometimes we can get into trouble. Then we have to go back and review what we have said and done. That, too, can happen in a long-term relationship. It is part of being human.

We don't always know where our thoughts are coming from. However, in this instance, I think my thoughts for you are coming from love and hope. So I offer them to you. If you love each other you can accept what has happened and go through life together. You needn't lie to each other because you accept what has happened.

That can work.

By Cary Tennis

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