What to Do When You (or Your Spouse) Becomes
Pregnant with a Lover's Child

Letter #1


Introduction: Infidelity has tragic consequences. Not only does unfaithfulness itself cause untold emotional suffering for a victimized spouse, but affairs create a host of other problems, too. One example of these problems is venereal disease -- when an unfaithful spouse is infected, which is often the case, the disease is usually passed on to the unsuspecting marriage partner. Another example is our topic for this Q&A column -- pregnancy with a lover's child.

I have counseled and received letters from many women who became pregnant by their lovers, had the child, reconciled with their husbands and raised the child with the husband thinking it was his. I know about 20 children who live in my area who think they know who their fathers are, but they are wrong. What is written on their birth certificates is false information provided by their mothers to cover the result of an affair. In one case, the genetic characteristics of the child are so different than those of either the mother or her husband, that it's amazing that the husband has never suspected anything. He looks just like his real father.

I have also counseled and received letters from men who are devastated when they discover that their wives are pregnant with someone else's child, or discover after the child is born, that it is not his. And I have counseled and received letters from the lovers, who know the child is their's and are tormented by a desire to become involved in their child's life as it is growing up.

Pregnancies are very common in affairs. The passion of an affair makes birth control less effective, and it's often never even used. And birth control is not all that effective even when it is used. I know of a couple that faithfully used two forms of birth control whenever they made love, and yet had five unplanned children.

Most women who become pregnant from an affair have an abortion as soon as the pregnancy is discovered. But there are many who simply cannot let their child die that way. For these, they are faced with very difficult choices.

This column will consider the choices these women face, and what I recommend. Their husbands also have hard choices to make, and my advice is for them as well.

Every person who has e-mailed me letters describing this problem has asked me not to post their letters because they regard the information as being too sensitive to risk disclosure. So I have decided to create two letters from my experience with this problem -- one from a woman who gave birth to a lover's child, and one from her husband. They are both entirely fictional. But they are good representations of the letters I receive.


Dear Dr. Harley,

I am 35, my husband is 37 and we have been married 12 years. We have three children, 9, 7 and 2. I love my husband, and don't want my marriage to end. But I am afraid that once he knows the truth, it will be all over for us.

Five years ago I had an affair. I never wanted to marry the man, but he brought some happiness into my life, and I needed him at that time. Unfortunately, I became pregnant with his child. I knew it was his, and so did he, because I had not had sex with my husband around the time the child was conceived, and my lover and I had sex quite often. Since my husband didn't keep track of our lovemaking, he was none the wiser.

My girl is now 2, and my affair is completely over. But my former lover knows that the girl is his, and is threatening to tell my husband so that he can become a part of her life.

My question is, should I tell my husband about the father of our little girl, or should I pray that my ex-lover just keeps quiet about it? I'm in a panic, so give me your answer as soon as possible.

R.G.

Dear R.G.,

I encourage couples to follow two policies that are essential to a good marriage: The Policy of Joint Agreement and the Policy of Radical Honesty. Without them, your marriage really doesn't have much hope for success. When you had your affair, you violated both of these rules. You were not honest about your affair, and it was something you did at his expense. You were both dishonest and thoughtless.

In spite of the fact that your marriage has not been guided by these rules up to this point, there's no time like the present to make an important mid-course correction. If you were to start following these guidelines now, your marriage would have a much greater chance for success.

You are backed up against a wall, and may be forced to be honest with your husband because of your lover's threats. But it may turn out to be the best thing that could have happened to you, because without his pressure, you may never have considered honesty as a realistic choice. As it turns out, it is what you should have done, even without risk of discovery. You should have told your husband who the real father was as soon as you were pregnant.

Let me review with you the Policy of Radical Honesty: Reveal to your spouse as much information about yourself as you know; your thoughts, feelings, habits, likes, dislikes, personal history, daily activities, and plans for the future.

This policy encourages you to keep nothing from your husband, not even the fact that you had an affair and that your daughter is not his.

If you had been guided by this rule from the time you were first married, none of this would have ever happened to you. Honesty would have protected you from the affair, since you would have told your husband about your feelings toward your lover early in the relationship. And your honesty would have set into motion a plan to avoid the affair. But it's not too late to be honest. You have years of marriage ahead of you, and the rest of your years together should be guided by truth, not lies.

I'm sure that your reluctance to be honest is due to your uncertainty regarding your husband's reaction. He may choose to divorce you, or at least hold it against you for the rest of your life. You may think that honesty will open a can of worms that once freed will invade your life and ruin it.

Once he knows the truth, will your husband remain married to you, or will he divorce you? What will he do in response to such a painful revelation? Those are just the first of many questions that have yet to be answered. There are many others: Should you tell your daughter who her real father is? Should he have visitation rights? Should he be asked to help support her?

There are no simple answers to any of these questions, but the Policy of Joint Agreement, the second rule that should have guided your marriage, gives you direction regarding the answers. According to the Policy of Joint Agreement, you and your husband should answer each of them in a way that takes each other's feelings into account. If one of you is not enthusiastic about one answer, consider others until you can agree.

Even the question of divorce should be decided together. I understand how unrealistic that may sound, but it's what the Policy of Joint Agreement guides you to do. You should not be divorced unless you are both enthusiastic about doing so. In fact, all of your husband's decisions following your disclosure should wait until you are both in agreement.

But what if he doesn't want to follow the Policy of Joint Agreement, you may ask. What if he just goes ahead and divorces me? Quite frankly, even though it may not be what you want, or what I would advise, I think your husband has a right to divorce you. And in some cases I've witnessed, when a wife revealed infidelity, her husband has done just that -- he divorced her. It doesn't happen very often, but it happens.

What is the alternative to truth? It's a marriage based on deceit. Do you want that kind of a marriage where you will always have the threat of disclosure hanging over you, where your husband might leave you if he knew the truth? Or, do you want a marriage where you have nothing to hide, and you and your husband are open and honest with each other?

If you decide to tell your husband the truth, and if he would like some guidance as to what to do next, suggest that he e-mail me his questions just as you did. I would be happy to offer him some direction.

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