He has poor boundaries with other women

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Dear Meredith,

My husband and I are both in our late 50s. We have been married for 24 years. From the beginning of our relationship, he has withheld information, initially about interactions with a particular ex-girlfriend. But in recent years, it's usually about his multiple "friendships" with cashiers, bank tellers, waitresses, etc. He is very outgoing and likes to make people laugh. He will admit to poor boundaries but denies inappropriate intent.

A few years ago, my husband and I ran into one of these women while out together, and the familiarity and closeness between them really upset me. She was the cashier at our pharmacy and she came up and hugged my husband before she saw me standing in the distance. It appeared more friendly than romantic, but he admitted to hiding the friendship because he "knew it would upset me." He said they just talked when he picked up prescriptions. He made repeated promises to change, be more mindful of boundaries.

About a year and a half ago, I found out he had opened an instagram account without mentioning it to me (I choose not to be on social media because of my profession). I would occasionally ask to look at it and it seemed OK. Our adult children are on instagram and they all knew about the account. In January after asking to look at it, I saw that he was following some women from other parts of the country. When I asked him about this, he said he really didn't know how to use Instagram and probably clicked on something without realizing it. That infuriated me because he is pretty technically savvy. He immediately deleted the account so he "wouldn't be blamed for something that wasn't his fault." After that incident, I did some snooping and found out he was also emailing and chatting with a 25-year-old waitress at a diner he frequents with co-workers. When confronted, he initially denied it, then gave a series of vague answers to my questions – "It was nothing, it happened a year ago," he was helping her boyfriend get a job. As with the Instagram, he had deleted the emails but I found her email address under "hidden contacts." He denies ever being unfaithful. He tells me not to take it personally, it's "his stuff." I'm feeling pretty devastated. My husband and I are both in 12-step recovery, and have been for a long time. He has been in therapy for several years too. I was hoping for change but it doesn't look like it's happening. How can you be in a relationship with someone who is not honest?

– Lost

It could be helpful to try couples therapy. There are so many questions here, and your husband might be better at answering them in front of a trained stranger who can guide you through the conversation. You want your partner to change, but it might help to understand what's happening first.

I keep wondering how you would feel about these "friendships" if you knew that's all they really were. Some people stay in touch with exes because they care about them, not because they want them back. Some people get joy from small social interactions with people in their community; I can’t say it's common to get numbers and emails from the employees of every place you visit, but ... what if he's just outgoing?

It sounds like the two of you haven't settled on any boundaries. Is it OK to have friends if they're not a secret? Maybe you would have felt better about the 25-year-old if he had come home and said, "Hey, I've been in touch with Anne from the diner, and I'm going to help her boyfriend get a job." It’s the secrecy that bugs me, to be honest. There's a difference between privacy and lying.

You're upset not only because you feel betrayed, but also because you have no idea what he’s seeking from these women. Find out in front of a third party (a counselor). Also talk about what kind of attention he gives you. That's the missing piece in this letter – how the two of get along at home. Are you feeling left out? Ignored? How is the marriage otherwise?

I should say, for the record, that I follow a lot of people on Instagram, and most of the time I have no idea why. Sometimes they're people who happen to know someone in my circle. Other times it's because they once posted a picture of a cool-looking flower and it was re-posted by the Boston.com Instagram account, and now I follow them for life. To me, pictures are less important than communication. I'd focus on that.

- Meredith

Readers? Is it possible he's just friendly? Any suggestions for communication and boundaries?