Married with two children ... and a secret girlfriend in Italy

How'd I get into this mess, and how will I ever get out?


Cary Tennis
August 30, 2005 1:19AM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I am suffering from the worst kind of wound, the self-inflicted kind. At every step of the way I've known that I was behaving in a dangerous, irresponsible way, sure to cause myself and others pain, and yet I've continued to march along the path to my own destruction.

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About 18 months ago I went to Italy on a lengthy business trip. While there, I met a wonderful woman. Sexy, witty, charming. Oh, and did I mention completely smitten with me? We conversed only in Italian. She showed me the sites and cooked me gamberetti e pinoli. She introduced me to her family and her friends. When I left we pledged to stay in touch by phone, e-mail and instant messaging until the time came when we could be together.

It would have been the perfect romance except for one minor detail. I told her I was single but I am married. It was just harmless flirting at first and I never thought it would go as far as it has.

So I returned home to my decent, loving wife and my two young children. They were overjoyed to see me. Their wonderful father and husband had returned.

Meanwhile, I kept in touch with my Italian girlfriend. I went back to Italy in November and again in June. Each time I told myself that this was it. I would either come clean or come up with some pretense to end it. She began to talk about marriage and arranging her life so we could be together. I had to end it. I knew I did.

Through a complicated set of circumstances (mostly of my own concoction and language issues), neither of these women have any idea that the other exists. My wife thinks I'm going through a busy stretch and is concerned that I seem distant. My Italian girlfriend is anxious to move to the next step where we can be together.

And here I am in the middle, the lying, deceptive bastard. It's hard to describe the depths of self-loathing that I feel, and the knowledge that there is no way to come out of this without causing terrible pain to everyone and lose both women, neither of whom deserve what I've done. Neither do my children.

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Neither do I, for that matter. I can't for the life of me figure out why I put myself in this situation in the first place, wrecking my own happiness in the process. An early onset midlife crisis? Narcissistic disorder? The natural tendency to screw up a good thing?

Instead of the obvious step of coming clean and trying to rebuild, I've come up with the even more insane idea of killing myself and leaving a note to explain what I'd done and that I was too much of a coward to face the hurt and disgust and hatred of people that I love.

And yet, being a coward, I doubt I'd be able to manage that, either.

Any thoughts, Cary, other than the condemnation that I deserve?

Screwup

Dear Screwup,

Well, yeah, I have a few thoughts. But first, that pasta dish you mentioned looks really, really delicious. I'm so hungry right now I'm going to get up from the computer this minute and walk down to the Ferry Building and look for some food, and when I get back I'll try to help you out on this one.

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Wow, that was good. Geez, am I the most self-centered guy in the room or what? Oh, no, there you are!

OK, now: This thing is relatively simple. You have to break it off with the girlfriend. Whether you tell her you're married is up to you. I wouldn't. I would just tell her that she's the most beautiful woman in the world and this is the hardest thing you've ever done but you won't be seeing her again, ever. Why does she deserve to know? So she can hate you instead of mourn for you? So she can trouble her soul for years over how a man could be so deceitful? So you can do penance over her increase of sorrow? So you can hate yourself even more? I don't think so. I think you just tell her it's over. Tell her in person if you can. If you think you'd just end up eating gamberetti e pinoli in bed with her again, then send her a handwritten letter on good stationery. Don't say anything more. But make it stick.

Your life doesn't have to fall apart. But you do need to figure out what the hell is going on with you. Maybe you do have narcissistic personality disorder. Or maybe you just have bad case of self-involved cluelessness. In either case, eventually you tell your wife. But first, you need a crash course in what's up with you. You visit a psychotherapist or psychiatrist and you embark on a course of self-discovery.

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You need to learn the names of your hungers. It is not enough to look at what you did and say, Gee, that was bad. You must ask, What was I hungering for? And what am I hungering for still? What forces were operating on me? In the hands of what desire was I a willing puppet?

You will have to answer these questions yourself. But I should think it's fairly obvious that your hunger for pleasure, at least, was at work. You may never have stopped to consider what part your hunger for pleasure plays in your life. You may not have thought of yourself as exceptional in that regard. You may also have a hunger for freedom and autonomy that you have not given conscious voice to. You may feel trapped and want to escape the requirements of your marriage. That, too, would be useful to know -- to really know, to know in a deep and perhaps painful way. If you feel trapped, and you feel a lack of pleasure, then those are things that, once acknowledged, you can seek to remedy in other ways, openly, honestly, safely.

How do you meet those desires in other ways? I think of it as being similar to the principle of redirection that I have seen skillful mothers use with their children. The child wants the cookie. The child can't have the cookie. But look! The child can have the toy instead! The child is OK with the toy. The important thing is, the child wants something. He's capable of substituting the object; in a more fundamental sense, he wants a certain kind of experience, the experience of holding an object, for instance. So you identify the experience that is desired, and you provide for that experience. You can do the same thing. You want romance, great food, beauty, affection, pleasure, an exotic locale? Perhaps you can have these things. Just not in Italy with the girlfriend.

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Such self-discovery and introspection are not frivolous diversions. You cannot live responsibly without knowing what your weaknesses are, what you hunger for, what you will lie about if given the chance.

The reason that day after day I suggest that troubled people seek some form of psychotherapy is that there is a job to do and therapy is often the best way of getting the job done. It's for the same reason that I would suggest you take your car to a professional to get it painted. It's not something you want to do in your own garage. You don't have the tools. You don't have the skill. You'll just get paint everywhere. And remember: Your wife's stuff is stored there too.

So that is my advice to you: Find a professional who will help you through this. Undertake to know what is driving you. Undertake to change how you respond to what is driving you. And eventually, when you're sure it's in the past, consider sharing all this with your wife. You may decide it's too risky. Or you may decide that living with the secret is worse. Only you can decide.

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