The Ethicist: My Wife Found My Sexy Phone Pics and Won’t Let It Go

October 22, 2017 by Joshua
in Ethicist, Nonjudgment, Relationships

Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, here is my take on today’s post, “My Wife Found My Sexy Phone Pics and Won’t Let It Go,”

My wife and I have been married for just a few years. Early in our marriage I started chatting with a female acquaintance, and things got verbally sexual and eventually led to sexual pictures between the other woman and me. I saved some of the photos to my phone and inadvertently saved them to my computer, where my wife found them and downloaded them to her phone. We’ve gone through marriage counseling together and are working things out. I have since deleted the photos, but my wife still has them. I’m ashamed of the photos and don’t want to see them, let alone have my wife keep them. I’ve tried to delete them from her phone, but the photos keep showing up. When my wife is mad at me, she changes her lock-screen image to one of the photos she’s keeping of the other woman.

I’ve felt emotionally abused by my wife — before, during and after the affair — but I love her. I don’t think it’s a very healthy relationship, but it’s what I’ve got. I feel that her keeping the photos is a way to keep her power over me.

I know I was wrong in the past and would like to move forward, but I find it difficult when my wife keeps the photos. Should I confront my wife or just let it be? Name Withheld

My response: First, your binary question cuts off your chance of creating more solutions. Inexperienced people see things as black and white. You have more options than two. I expect you’ll like many of them more than those two.

The phrase that struck me more than what you asked is “I don’t think it’s a very healthy relationship, but it’s what I’ve got. I feel that her keeping the photos is a way to keep her power over me.

Look up scarcity mindsets versus abundance mindsets. There’s plenty about them online. Your belief that it’s what you’ve got is debilitating you. What power she has over you is what you give her. For example, when I was younger, someone calling me a name, like ‘nerd,’ made me feel terrible and filled me with insecurity and self-doubt. Now it doesn’t bother me, despite remaining as nerdy as I am.

Developing social and emotional skills changed my responses. Someone trying to hurt me today leads me to wonder what is hurting about them. I feel curiosity, sympathy, and empathy toward them, which often leads to productive problem solving.

Finally, this story seems relevant:

A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her cross to the other side.

The two monks glanced at one another because they had taken vows not to touch a woman.

Then, without a word, the older monk picked up the woman, carried her across the river, placed her gently on the other side, and carried on his 
journey.

The younger monk couldn’t believe what had just happened. After rejoining his companion, he was speechless, and an hour passed without a word between them.

Two more hours passed, then three, finally the younger monk could contain himself any longer, and blurted out “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

The older monk looked at him and replied, “Brother, I set her down on the other side of the river, why are you still carrying her?”

She’s carrying a burden and trying to put it on you. I’d leave it with her.

The New York Times response:

What is it to forgive someone? It can’t simply mean that you were angry at the person, for good reason, and no longer are. That could happen because you were conked on the head or simply forgot the offense, neither of which qualify as forgiveness. And it can’t mean that you’re now O.K. with the offense; then there would be nothing to forgive. (Suppose I were mad because you scrawled graffiti on my house, but then I learned that you were forced to do so at gunpoint. Because I’ve come to realize that you weren’t blameworthy, I don’t now say, “I forgive you.”) The philosopher Jean Hampton thought that forgiveness involved, first, giving up spite and transcending resentment and, second, viewing the wrongdoer in a more positive light. You still disapprove of what the person did — you don’t condone the act — but you no longer disapprove of the person. That sounds about right. And it suggests that forgiveness can’t be demanded in exchange for apology, as if you were at the counter of some moral bureau de change, eyeing the latest exchange rate.

So here you are, long after the discovery of a liaison that, if not adulterous, was certainly adulter-ish. Your wife is still angry with you, still feels aggrieved and mistrustful. You’ve gone to counseling, but she hasn’t reconciled herself to a husband who, early in a marriage, was swapping sexual pics with another woman. You think she’s being unpleasantly manipulative; she may think she’s reminding you that you’re on probation, that you have further to go to earn back her trust.

It’s often said that holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. In this case, your marriage is now on its sickbed. One issue here is how much you and your wife value it. That’s hard for an outsider to assess. Anger, like love, isn’t a voluntary emotion; you can’t simply decide to dial it up or down. But surely your wife isn’t the only angry spouse in your marriage. You say you felt emotionally abused by your wife even during the affair (a serious complaint); you think your relationship isn’t healthy, “but it’s what I’ve got” — not exactly a Hallmark sentiment. Do you truly think that getting rid of those pics would fix what’s wrong here? If your counselor made a list of what was rotten in your marriage, I doubt your wife’s vengeful lock screen would make the Top 10.


I have been divorced for many years. My ex-husband is now married to a dentist. As part of our divorce agreement, I am responsible for the children’s health insurance, including dental coverage. There were no issues until I had a brief period of unemployment. When I got a new job, it included health and dental insurance, but there was a waiting period for coverage. To cover that brief period, I bought health insurance for myself and my children but did not purchase dental insurance.

During that time, my ex-husband took our daughter to the dentist for a checkup. The dental practice my daughter visits is her stepmother’s office. When my ex-husband sent me the bill for this visit, which came to $400, I asked if the visit could be postdated by just a day, so I could submit it for insurance. He told me that doing so was illegal and that I needed to pay, and that he didn’t appreciate the fact that I didn’t have any dental coverage.

I asked my daughter why she didn’t let me know about the appointment so I could let her know our dental insurance ended. She said she thought that because it was her stepmother’s office, she was fine.

Since that time I have been receiving bills from this dental practice. I have had conversations with their accounts-payable department to let them know that my daughter is the dentist’s stepdaughter. But no understanding was reached; I have not paid, as I believe it’s wrong to have charged me when it was known that I didn’t have company insurance at the time. I am now getting bills from a collection agency for the $400.

So my question for you is: Do I pay it just to make it go away or try again to reason with my ex-husband and his wife to please drop these fees? Name Withheld

My response: As with the last question, your binary question suggests inexperience. I would start by trying to create more options instead of boxing yourself in.

You know the chances of success with your ex-husband better than anyone, which depend on your skills in communication, negotiation, patience, and so on. I would think more about leading or influencing him than reasoning. Logical argument often motivates counterargument, which seems the opposite of your goal. If you’d read my book, I’d remind you that Unit 4 covers how to handle situations like this.

A younger, inexperienced me would suggest spending the money for its expedience.

A more skilled, experienced me has learned to see challenging situations as ways to develop relationships. The relationships I value most had challenges. Overcoming them helped build them, often in proportion to the severity of the challenge.

I consider challenges inevitable and have learned to build from them. Chances of success depend on the other person’s interests, your skills, and other specifics which we don’t know.

The New York Times response:

Communication between ex-spouses can be like pulling teeth. So it’s not surprising that you didn’t warn your husband that it would be financially inconvenient for your daughter to have dental treatment at that time. Given that you are in charge of medical insurance, you could reasonably think it odd that your child was taken for a dental visit without your knowledge. But again, not so surprising, especially if your daughter’s teeth are normally looked after at her stepmother’s office.

While your husband is correct that it would be wrong and could be illegal to file a false claim, he and his wife might have been able to help you by agreeing to lower the costs or to spread them out. The fact that the charge was sent to a collection agency also sounds less than cordial. Still, if I understand the situation correctly, you were in breach of your divorce agreement, even if your reasons were entirely understandable. Absent any information from you to the contrary, then, he was entitled to assume that your daughter was covered. You’re asking him and his wife to cover costs that you are liable for. I’m afraid you’d better bite down and pay up.

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