Read it on Salon
Nelson Mandela: A life in pictures
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
I am a young newlywed with a wonderful child who is the best thing that could have happened to me. My husband and I love each other, but I primarily married for the benefit of our young daughter that we had before the marriage. I realize now this was a huge mistake; I have recently caught him having an affair. This is not the first one and most likely won’t be the last. Now I feel trapped. I have no intentions of leaving him, because my daughter means too much to me to destroy her world, so I try to make the best of the situation. I know that he loves me, regardless of what happened, and that combined with our daughter is enough to convince me to stay for now.
The problem I am having is that we have these insane fights over things that I do not understand. He will blow little things out of proportion, like when I have plans to spend the evening with girlfriends (this usually primarily causes us to fight, even though when he has plans I say nothing), and then claims that I am the one starting the fight and not him. He is oblivious to ever being mean or starting these fights, so when I get mad in turn he thinks I am being the ridiculous one. It’s like we are in different universes, and this leads to a huge breakdown in communication and we eventually just stop talking about it. He forgets about it an hour later and is fine, and I in turn am angrier than ever. It brings up all the emotions in me that I have held onto from the recent past, which primarily screams “you need to leave this marriage, it’s not healthy and not normal.”
Fortunately, I tend to get over things easily so after a day or two I can go back to my normal life, until it happens again a week later, and then again and again. He doesn’t get it, he never gets it. He is very unemotional and it never occurs to him that what he says is hurtful and often out of proportion to the situation. When I bring this up he gets angry and claims that he cares deeply. I have said everything I could ever say to him, in every combination, to try to get him to understand, and he doesn’t. I realized that I can never make him understand, so I have for the most part stopped trying, unless the argument makes me angry enough to retaliate.
So I guess my question to you is, where do I go from here? I know you can’t answer this, as only I can decide what path my life can take, but I am so inexperienced in the married world that I have no idea what to do. This might even be normal married behavior — I have very few married friends and my parents were not the best role models, so for all I know this is what every married couple does. I feel like I am recreating my parents’ marriage even though I grew up promising myself I would never stay if I didn’t feel like I was being treated fairly. But maybe this is just what people do.
Since marriages are so glamorized by TV, I have no idea what to expect. Like I said, I won’t leave because of my child. He never has and never would hit me so I am in no danger by staying, and I am happy most of the time. I am resentful that he convinced me to marry him even though he was going to continue his indiscretions, but now that we signed that paper there is nothing I can do about that. I just want to know how to make it better.
I don’t want to live my life this way and even though I tell him that, and threaten to leave, it does not impress on him the severity of his behavior’s impact. He turns it around on me, that I am the overly sensitive one (and believe me, I am not). I am the breadwinner and would be just fine financially as a single mother; I just want to exhaust other options before resorting to that. He cares deeply about his daughter, and is a more committed father then most, so I refuse to tear that apart. Do you have any advice besides therapy? Because we tried that route before the wedding when I found out about the other woman, but he continued it anyway and convinced me he had stopped. He just figured out how to lie and pretend better.
Married and Trying to Stay That Way
I really think in this case that your husband is taking advantage of you and it would be worth at least considering getting a divorce. You say plainly that you think you made a mistake by marrying him. Divorce is our socially accepted way of undoing such mistakes. There are skills you can learn to improve communication and fight less, but if he is unwilling to tell you the truth about his outside activities, and if he is unwilling to commit to improving your interaction, then you may really have to consider just getting divorced. It might be better for your daughter to be raised in a household without scary yelling and screaming and everybody being tense and afraid. He could still help raise her. But you could eliminate all this rancor.
This is how it goes in this column: People ask me questions and I go looking for answers. Many things I find might not suit me but might help you. I try to be open-minded. So in thinking about your problem and looking at the Web I come across this site called “Marriage Builders,” and, frankly, though it looks kinda corny it is very clear and well organized and has a certain appeal. It has this thing called the Policy of Radical Honesty which is really kind of interesting. I tend to like anything that’s radical.
I am also intrigued by its Policy of Joint Agreement.
Many of us married folks just figure we’re never going to agree on everything so there will always be stuff that we just begrudgingly go along with. But this Policy of Joint Agreement basically says that the couple is not going to do anything that they don’t both enthusiastically agree on. Isn’t that kind of wild? It makes the prospect of negotiation interesting, because if you both agree that you won’t do anything that you don’t both enthusiastically agree about, then, you can see where this leads, if one party wants the other one to get on board, she’s going to have to get on board with some stuff she might otherwise not. And just the idea of consciously searching for that Venn diagram sweet spot of mutual enthusiasm is pretty exciting. Wow. If you could just live, as a couple, in that sweet spot of mutual enthusiasm, like wow.
I don’t like the way they capitalize the names of their ideas, and their punctuation needs fixing, and some of their stuff is really, really hokey, like the Love Busters idea, and the Love Bank. That’s just silly! But maybe that’s mostly style. The premise is a powerful idea. Maybe this program could be helpful to you, if you want to do everything possible before resorting to divorce.
But keep in mind, there’s no shame in getting divorced, and it might be the best for you, your husband and your daughter.
As far as therapy goes, well, it’s unfortunate that it did not seem to help. It often takes a long time. You have to build trust. You have to learn and get better at the activities that therapy calls for. Often it is a long-term thing. Just trying it a few times often doesn’t do much.
What I like about your letter is that you are open about what you know and don’t know about marriage. I also like the fact that you take marriage seriously and you love each other.
The thing is, love doesn’t always make people behave well. Sometimes it makes people behave worse. It’s a powerful thing and in the wrong hands it can lead to disaster.
So if you and your husband are both willing to work very hard to change some deep-seated behaviors, maybe it could work. But I wouldn’t rule out divorce.
What? You want more advice?
Nelson Mandela and his wife Winnie in this undated file picture.
Mandela is accompanied by his former wife Winnie, moments after his release from prison February 11, 1990 after serving 27 years in jail. (Reuters)
In this February, 1990 photo, shortly after his release from 27 years in prison, Nelson Mandela, gives the black power salute to the 120,000 supporters packing Soccer City stadium in Soweto, near Johannesburg. (AP Photo)
Nelson Mandela showed his passport in February 19, 1990, shortly after his release from prison. The South African government authorized an application for himself and his wife Winnie - (Juda Ngwenya / Reuters)
In this July 27, 1991 photo, Cuban President Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas, Cuba. (AP Photo)
In this July 4, 1993 photo, President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela listen during Fourth of July ceremonies in Philadelphia during which Clinton presented the Philadelphia Liberty Medal to the African National Congress president and South African President F.W. de Klerk. (AP Photo/Greg Gibson)
President of the African National Congress Nelson Mandela acknowledges cheers from the crowd as he prepares to unveil the ANC's official election platform in 1994. (AP Photo/David Brauchli)
African National Congress (ANC) leader Nelson Mandela greeted residents of Mmabatho in March 1994, during a visit after the nominal homeland came under South African control following the ousting of the former President Lucas Mangope. (Reuters/Howard Burditt)
South African President Nelson Mandela smiles with actor Sidney Poitier at a press conference in Cape Town in 1996. Poitier played Mandela in the film "One Man, One Vote" (AP Photo / Sasa Kralj)
South African President Nelson Mandela waves to crowds as he sits next to Queen Elizabeth II in a an open carriage on the way to Buckingham Palace.(AP/Louisa Buller)
Chairman of the Constitutional Assembly Cyril Ramaphosa, left, holds up a copy of the country's constitution which was signed by President Nelson Mandela, in December 1996. (AP Photo / Adil Bradlow / POOL)
Nelson Mandela at a news conference in Johannesburg in February 2000. (AP Photo / Denis Farrell)
South African rugby captain Francois Pienaar, right, received the Rugby World Cup trophy from President Nelson Mandela also wearing a South African rugby shirt, after South Africa defeated New Zealand in the Rugby World Cup , in 1995. (AP Photo / Ross Setford)