My husband of 34 years became involved in an online relationship, which I saw as a form of emotional infidelity. It took me months to get him to agree that that is what it was -- that it wasn't "nothing" as he first stated. It was at least a year, and probably longer, of his spending more time online with her than any time with me. Of spending "our" Saturday nights chatting with her, going to bed with me, only to get up and return to her online. I am sure that the only reason they did not meet is because they live far apart and had no opportunity. He told many lies as I forced him to discuss it with me over a year. Some of the lies I can understand in that he knew they would hurt. There were many false promises, which are much harder for me to get over.
He says that my continuing to talk about and wanting to hear the truth about his relationship is punishing him. I realize that most people would have gotten over this long before me, but after a year I am still not completely over it. I still can't totally stop thinking of his betrayal and wondering if he is still in contact with her through his work e-mail address. He can no longer take any mention of it and, certainly, no questioning. How do I get over this completely? How do I regain my lost trust?
I Should Be Over It
Dear I Should Be Over It,
The only thing I know to do is struggle to see the truth. As you struggle, time will pass, and you will find that getting over this thing is taking longer than you think it should. It always does. But recognize these truths: You will get over it. It will cease to dominate your thoughts. (It's not so much getting over something as consuming something, making it a part of you. So in getting over it you become larger. Maybe that's why it takes so long: You have to build an addition to house this big new chunk of knowledge.)
Meanwhile, since it takes so long no matter what you consciously do, the best thing I can see to do is struggle consciously to see it in a truthful way. This means struggling to see your husband in a new light.
In long relationships we grow accustomed to a person whom to some degree we have created ourselves. Not that we are solipsists or narcissists, but we are creatures of emotional habit, creatures of limited knowledge and understanding, and so what we "know" about our partner is limited to what we are capable of understanding and imagining. We become comfortable with a person who conforms to what we are capable of knowing and expecting. That is how we endure; if our partner were constantly surprising us and forcing us to struggle to understand him in new ways, life would be unbearably chaotic. We would spend all our time dealing with surprises. It would be like being married to a child.
To be an adult is to achieve the exquisite boredom of constrained possibility. This is not a thing to be trifled with. Figuring out how to live is for the young. Living is for adults. Anyway, I'm going on about this, but what I mean to get across is that what you have achieved in your marriage, at the cost of some novelty, is a stable thing, but there must be some elasticity in it, because our mates do from time to time surprise us. The traits we cannot see, because we cannot imagine them, are still there, and they erupt. That is what happened. Something in him that you could not see erupted and threatened to violate the exquisite constraint of your marriage.
I'm particularly glad to get your letter because I've been thinking lately about the ways that relationships on the Internet differ from face-to-face relationships, and the ways in which they are the same. I've been interested in when a relationship on the Web becomes an act of infidelity.
I got a letter the other day that said that a relationship on the Web becomes an act of infidelity when there's sexual satisfaction. He drew the line there, at satisfaction. So that you might flirt, or engage in conversation about sex, and that's OK; but when that conversation leads to sexual satisfaction, then you're talking infidelity.
I don't know how that definition accounts for sexual arousal -- if you're flirting with someone online and you become aroused, is that infidelity? What if you get aroused and then masturbate? Does it become infidelity at the moment of orgasm? Then what of privacy? That is, can a private act constitute infidelity? Is it infidelity if no one knows but you? Is it the act of letting the person who aroused you know that you became aroused and were satisfied that constitutes infidelity? Or is it the Jimmy Carter sin, the adultery in your heart, that's important? If so, wouldn't all masturbation be infidelity?
Wouldn't it then become clear that fidelity does not exist?
The thing about private indiscretion is that it can be kept private because there's no one else involved except you. The problem with infidelity with another soul is that you can't turn her off when you're done. She might show up at your house. She might call in the middle of the night. She might tell your wife. Who knows. So the involvement of another person brings the potential for disclosure.
But that's not really to the point, is it? Your main concern is that you haven't gotten over this thing yet.
What this experience means, what you need to integrate, or swallow, is that even though he is yours, there is something out there calling to him, and it's painful to hear it out there in the night, calling, because you know he's listening to it and not to you. And you fear that one day he may get up out of bed and follow it into the woods.
Take comfort in the fact that an anomaly is just that. Because a person finally, after long years, shows one previously hidden facet of his personality does not mean that suddenly he's going to come unwound. On the contrary, this one deviation may be all he can stand. He's probably desperately trying to crawl back in the boat.
Let him back in the boat. Stop asking about what happened on the island. It won't help either one of you. What you have to do, to integrate this new knowledge, he can't help you with. You've got to do that yourself.
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