I found a woman in my husband's drawers

The mementos in our file cabinet are a shadowy threat to our marriage.

By Cary Tennis
April 21, 2006 1:45PM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I am a happily married woman (I think) coming up on my first anniversary. My husband and I share a file cabinet in our office -- he has the top drawer and I have the bottom -- and there is no prohibition against going into either one. I carry all of our insurance information and bills in "my" drawer with the understanding he can go in there anytime. Tonight when my husband was out, I was looking in "his" file drawer for an empty file to use and found the card I gave to him at our wedding sticking out. I pulled it out instinctively, fondly. The problem is, I noticed it was sticking out of a file of love letters he saves from his first love. I had mentioned previously to him that perhaps out of sensitivity he could store these elsewhere, but it's been a couple of years and he has not done so.


He is in correspondence with other old girlfriends, and it does not bother me, but this particular woman does bother me. I knew her before I started dating him, and I (and most of the women I know who are acquainted with her) take issue with her because she is competitive and destructive with other women. I came to the conclusion I neither liked nor trusted her several years before my husband and I started dating, at a time when I was with another partner. My husband knows this.

I am hurt that he is storing the card in which I wrote very special things to him on our wedding day in the file that is filled with her cards. I took out my wedding card and stored it elsewhere, as I felt profoundly vulnerable in the moment, that my one measly wedding card came up short against the 3-inch-thick file of her correspondence.

Also, there was one postcard sticking out with a conspicuous date on it. In her writing it had plane reservations on it and the promise they would have the weekend in a room where they could "hear the waves." The date was the weekend before he declared his love for me and we started dating. I know when we started dating because we went to a concert and the ticket stubs have been on our fridge for four years. I am deducing this means he spent the weekend with her five days before starting up with me, after telling me they'd been broken up for a year or more.


I know well the pull of first love, and the desire to remain in contact. I also know well that he married me and not her -- a very big statement.

My problem is, he is not entirely honest with me, and she has already tried to sabotage our relationship. She sent "us" a wedding gift, addressed only to him, and it was a CD she burned of love songs the two of them shared. He kept it after promising me he'd disposed of it, and this created a huge argument that I thought was resolved, primarily with his promise that he would not share details of our life and our marriage with her. The thing is, his unconscious is his undoing. Five months ago, I came home and went online to read e-mail. He left his account not only logged on but open to an e-mail from her acknowledging receipt of photos from a party at our apartment. I never said anything. My take at the time was, he clearly had unfinished business with her that he could not be honest with me about, and I would only give it power by talking about it. I resolved to let it go.

But now I am really unsure of myself and our marriage. Do I tell him I removed the wedding card, and that he can have it back once he's ready to put those old letters of hers into storage? Do I mention the other postcard that was sticking out and what my thoughts are about the dates? Do I let him know about the e-mail he inadvertently left open? My dilemma is, I feel like a snoop even though those things were pretty conspicuously sticking out, and leaving the e-mail out was just plain sloppy. It's as if he's deliberately (consciously or unconsciously) leaving them out for me to see.


The way I found out about his keeping the wedding "gift" was that he left it out in a stack of mail in plain view. He later admitted that some part of him wanted me to see it as a statement that he could do whatever he wanted, or at least do things that felt right to him even if I disagreed. I am really trying not to make mountains out of molehills! I have no reason to believe he is still seeing her. She is in another state, and the e-mail he left up on our computer did not in any way sound as though they were in regular contact. But he has told me emphatically that he writes no outbound e-mails to her -- that he only responds to her "unwanted" contact -- and this is clearly not true. It's the lying that makes it feel there is more than meets the eye.

How do I honor the integrity of our marriage without ruining my own integrity? I really do not want to appear to be a suspicious shrew. Also, I tend to have big, big feelings about things, and I can get that he may well want pretty innocent contact with her that he keeps secret out of fear of hurting my feelings or out of fear of an argument.


First Draft Pick or Second -- You Tell Me

Dear Draft Pick,

This woman concerns me. I wonder what she is up to. You say he spent a romantic weekend with her and then went out with you five days later. But he told you they had been broken up for a year. I wonder what the truth is. Is it possible that when he started going out with you he was actually cheating on her? That would make her mad, wouldn't it? Alternatively, if they had indeed broken up a year before, as he says, that implies that this romantic weekend, booked by her, was an attempt to get them back together. Does that mean that he went ahead and enjoyed her methods of persuasion without any intention of being persuaded? That would make her mad, too, wouldn't it? And what if he chose the occasion of this romantic weekend to break up with her once and for all? That would be pretty infuriating as well. I'm not sure what would make her maddest. Take your pick. Any way you look at it, she is a woman scorned, as in "hell hath no fury like."


I think therefore you are right to be concerned.

You suggest that she is competitive with other women. In this case, she probably views you as someone who has wronged her and thus would feel no compunction about harming you in turn -- that is, harming your marriage. Keep in mind that she probably takes the measure of others by her own yardstick: If she is manipulative and competitive, then she probably figures everyone is manipulative and competitive. So naturally she would believe that you stole him from her and manipulated him into marrying you. Believing that, she would consider no tactic too underhanded to win him back. It would simply be justice.

Disturbing as it is to contemplate, it's likely that your husband is far from blameless in all this, although he may have been a passive participant. As he has failed to be truthful to you about her, he likely has also failed to be truthful to her about you. Without really lying to her he may nonetheless have allowed her to believe the worst about you. This gets him off the hook with her: He was seduced!


So what to do?

Clear the air. Tell him straight out that you do not trust her, that you think she is a threat to your marriage, and that you want her out of your life -- out of both of your lives, out of the joint sphere of collective life that is marriage.

That might sound harsh. But the benefit of being straightforward about what you want is that you get to the central issue. That is the central issue, I believe: She is a threat to your marriage. And, without going into great detail, I have the sense that your husband is not aware of the subtleties of the situation, or perhaps even of his own feelings.

So if he claims that you are being unreasonable and paranoid, then let him convince you that she is not a threat. Let him convince you that he has no interest in her, no feelings for her, that there was never anything there. How could he possibly convince you of that? I don't think he can. But let him try, if he wants to. Not by protesting. Anyone can protest. If you caught the two of them in bed together he could protest. That would mean nothing. The proof would be: Can he make you feel reassured? What would it take to reassure you?


I think the only thing that would reassure you and prove there is nothing between them is if she disappeared from your life. And that is what you are asking for. So it is sort of a circular argument: He can prove there is no problem only by acceding to your request.

There are many, many related issues here. Everywhere you look there are issues. That is why I suggest simplifying. Otherwise it's too complex. It's important not to get sidetracked. I have the excised paragraphs to prove it. For starters, the whole snooping thing: Don't get sidetracked by that. You know what you know. If you must apologize and stop snooping, then apologize and stop snooping. But that's not the issue.

And then everywhere you look there are themes: There is the somewhat passive man and the scorned, manipulative woman. There is the desire of a newly married man to maintain certain symbolic vestiges of an imagined prior autonomy. There is the clumsiness of a man unused to dissembling. There is the unconscious wish to disclose one's indiscretions. There is your desire to be virtuous at war with your desire to protect yourself. There is your need to know the truth versus your respect for your husband's privacy. There is a whole book here. But I'm not going to write it. Just stick to the basics for now. Get that woman out of your life. Save your marriage.

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