I saw a message saying ‘Morning Sweetpea xx’ on my partner’s phone. Should I get past this?

My partner has been emailing and having phone conversations with a former female friend. She contacted him (which he told me about at the time) and they’ve been emailing daily since – he did not divulge their continued correspondence. I found out because I glanced down at his phone whilst we were in bed a couple of weeks ago and saw a message saying “Morning Sweetpea xx” from her to him.

We have had difficult times in the past with him lying and having “private” conversations with former girlfriends, colleagues etc, but only the night before he’d said how lovely it was to be able to be honest and open and have nothing hidden, and it was the first time he’d been in that position in a relationship.

I feel sad and disappointed and have lost respect for him. He says that my behaviour (being quiet and withdrawn) is only hurting me. He seems to have a different understanding of “open and honest” and doesn’t think he’s acted in opposition to that because it’s platonic (she lives quite a long way away and lives with her partner). But I think he kept it a secret and if it was purely platonic, he would have told me. I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer last year (and I know that it’s difficult for him as well as me) but since then he’s had “platonic” contact with three female colleagues and this former friend. He’s very affectionate, loving and kind. How do I get past this, and should I?

Eleanor says: As a pretty good rule: someone who doesn’t know they’re doing anything wrong doesn’t know to keep it a secret.

I remember reading about a therapist who’d worked with hundreds of post-affair couples in a career that spanned back to the 60s, when most affairs started in the office. She said the moment worth paying attention to isn’t the first touch or the first kiss. It’s the first time people keep a secret from their partners. One person says something to the other that they’d prefer their partner never heard, or conspires to conceal where they really were or why they went. The secret creates a sealed bubble that their partner isn’t let into – a relationship with someone else underpinned by the mutual knowledge that the space between them is secret; private. Whether or not those two people ever kiss, something interesting has already happened. Something stands in need of explanation.

Of course, sometimes the explanation is just that the partner at home is sufficiently jealous that being candid about innocent contact still feels like too much of a risk. But that doesn’t sound like what’s going on here. You say this has been an issue several times already. You know what I know – people say good morning when they’re in fairly constant contact; they use affectionate names like “sweetpea” when they’re being affectionate. This is causing you enough consternation to want to write to me. To me, it sounds like he’s stoking a crush in a way he knows you’d be unhappy about.

That doesn’t automatically mean that he or the relationship aren’t worth your time. Conflicts like this happen, and can be worked on. But you’ve had a huge ordeal with your diagnosis recently and you’re entitled to be judicious about how much of anything you “work on” just now. In particular, it would be a real shame if you keep being the only person in this relationship who recognises a flirtation for what it is.

There are all kinds of open conversations you could have about why he wants to do this – maybe he likes the flattery, maybe he wants to feel young and unattached to combat the fear of being neither, maybe you’re right to notice some connection with your diagnosis. But – and this is important – these are not yours to figure out alone. If you’re trying to understand this while he’s six blocks behind you denying that there’s anything puzzling, that won’t work, and it isn’t fair.

Perhaps a place to start is to ask yourself: If this never changed or kept recurring, would you want to stay in the relationship? If the answer is “no”, the next question is: will he work with you to honour that preference?

Getting stuck in an empirical back-and-forth won’t help either of you. The question isn’t what exactly is right or wrong by the technical letters of monogamy. The question is whether this relationship can be one where you both feel safe and cared for.

This question has been edited for length.

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