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updated 5/13/2009 1:00:49 PM ET 2009-05-13T17:00:49

Q. My husband of 28 years is having an emotional affair, via the Internet, with his cousin, who lives in another country. They were very close when they were teenagers, and he says he has never forgotten how she made him feel.

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We have been having marriage problems for a few years. He says he didn’t get the love from me he wanted, and has never been able to forget her. He says he loves me, too, but cannot stop talking to her at the moment. He says he loves us both. He has asked me to let it continue and says he wants to explore his feelings for her.

This is tearing me apart. I have tried not sleeping with him, but I miss him and really want to be close to him. But a voice inside keeps telling me I should respect myself and try to distance myself to try to stop this terrible pain. I love him, but it is hurting me and affecting my work and health. I have never been in a situation like this before. Can you give me some advice?

A. Your husband’s emotional affair affects you as badly as if he were having a physical affair. He is investing his energy, affection and attention in another woman. In this case, it’s possible the only thing keeping him from having a physical affair is the geographical distance between him and his cousin.

If you have been having marital problems for a few years, your husband needs to make an emotional investment in you in order to work on those, and he is not doing so. So whatever problems you are having are not getting better, and your husband is expending no effort to make them better. On the contrary, he is investing in his cousin.

But you don’t seem to be making an effort, either. I agree that you should respect yourself, but that doesn’t mean playing games like refusing to sleep with him. It’s possible that he is right when he says you are not giving him the love he wanted.

The point is that, if you wish to stay together and have things improve, both of you need to make moves in that direction.

In the current situation, you are providing your husband with a safety net. So far, you have okayed his request to engage with someone else. Although you don’t like his behavior, you are allowing him to do it.

This is masochistic of you. You are letting your husband know he can betray and mistreat you. You haven’t agreed on an open marriage, yet he seems to be operating that way.

You must have a heart-to-heart about this, letting your husband know his behavior cannot continue.

If your marriage is to survive, he must cut ties with his cousin. It is impossible to “explore” another relationship and work on saving one’s existing marriage. Ultimately, these are mutually exclusive.

As long as you feel the marriage could work, you should make it clear you want to repair your relationship and would like your husband to accompany you to a marriage therapist.

You do not know what conclusion he will reach, and you are taking a risk that your marriage will end. But if he decides to leave you because he feels your marriage cannot be repaired or isn’t worth saving, then it wasn’t going to last anyway in the end. Video: Elizabeth Edwards: ‘He made this one mistake’

Meanwhile, you are stuck in this uncomfortable and unsustainable middle ground. It is a moral transgression on his end, as well as a message that he is willing to hurt you.

He is likely keeping you around for any number of reasons. You are a safety net in case things with his cousin don’t work out. Maybe there are financial issues, or he wishes to keep his family intact. Inertia is another factor.

If you said you didn’t care much about him and you yourself were going off to seek fulfillment elsewhere, I might have different advice (though I would question the example you are setting for your children, if you have them).

But if you want to be in a marriage where you and your husband love each other and act as though you do, you need to make changes

If a couple lets their marital problems drag on without working to resolve them, betrayal is more likely.

You can repair your marriage, but only if your husband gives up the other woman. You cannot have a happy and respectful marriage if he is invested in somebody else. If he refuses, you have no shot at a happy marriage. You might as well let him go and free yourself from this trap so you can seek a partner who can make you happy, not miserable.

Dr. Gail’s bottom line: A spouse’s refusal to give up an emotional affair is a sign that your marriage is probably over. You can save a marriage only if both partners are willing to work on doing so.

Any ideas, suggestions in this column are not intended as a substitute for consulting your physician or mental health professional. All matters regarding emotional and mental health should be supervised by a personal professional. The author shall not be responsible or liable for any loss, injury or damage arising from any information or suggestion in this column.

Dr. Gail Saltz is a psychiatrist with New York Presbyterian Hospital and a regular contributor to TODAY. Her most recent book is “The Ripple Effect: How Better Sex Can Lead to a Better Life” (Rodale). For more information, please visit www.drgailsaltz.com.

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