My wife was having an emotional affair for years behind my back

I cannot believe the depth of her deception, and I want to punch this guy!

Published July 11, 2007 10:40AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I truly need some advice on how to deal with very troubling issues between my wife and me. I am feeling deeply hurt and betrayed, I am consumed by jealousy and I am displaying bursts of explosive anger. I need some direction.

My wife is a beautiful, vivacious woman; smart; sharp; intuitive; and extremely aggressive. We have been married for 15 years; it is my second marriage, and her third. We each have two sons, all of whom are now grown and independent, and a beautiful and wonderful daughter who is 14. The problem, in a nutshell, is this: My wife has been involved in "emotional affairs" since the beginning of her first marriage -- about 27 years ago -- and never stopped.

About two years into her first marriage, after the birth of her first son, she went back to work and while on the job encountered "Bill," for whom she says she felt "love at first sight" for the one and only time in her life. They carried on an intense, but non-physical love affair for several years, even after she moved from that city and to several different places thereafter. She says that when she divorced her first husband -- who began drinking when he learned of this relationship -- she and Bill decided that they could never be together, that despite this love they were not compatible. When we met, she told me that it was long since over with him, that they were out of touch. After divorcing her first husband, she then met and married a new husband, who turned out to be physically abusive; that marriage lasted only a few years, and I met her just as that divorce was being finalized.

She also told me (and now denies having told me, as well as denying that this happened) that while married to husband No. 2, she had an ongoing emotional relationship with a married man she met through work; this too, she said, was never consummated.

About four or five years into our marriage, she very uncharacteristically went out "shopping" for the whole day, alone, leaving me home with our young daughter. Although this was more than 10 years ago, I still recall that day vividly: After dinner and putting our daughter to bed, she announced that we "had to talk." She laid this bombshell on me: She had never ended her relationship with Bill. She had just spent the day with him, and she was going to leave me -- and our daughter -- to go live with him! I didn't have a clue that this was coming, and I felt like somebody had suckered me with a baseball bat. I cried and begged and pleaded and, eventually, she never did go and soon after told me that she had ended it.

However, I was not about to be taken by surprise again, and I started studying our monthly phone bills and realized that she never did end it, although she did cut back on the frequency of their contact. Eventually, I saw a pattern emerge -- her phone contact with Bill would intensify, she would start an argument with me and prolong it over several days, and then tell me that "it wasn't working" and we should divorce. Sometimes Bill would come up, sometimes not. This continued until about two years ago, with long gaps where we got along wonderfully. By then, she had a cellphone and after one horrific argument and demand for divorce, I listened to her cellphone messages and heard Bill say, "After 25 years of phone sex, I can't believe you're tossing me aside to pursue another meretricious relationship" (his actual words). Again, I confronted her -- she denied there was ever phone sex or another meretricious relationship; from the cellphone bills, I could see that contact with Bill really dropped off -- but didn't end -- and didn't seem to be replaced by anyone else.

About a year later -- last fall -- I noticed a change in her demeanor. She suddenly seemed to be welded to her cellphone, even in the house; and she asked our daughter how to send and receive text messages, ostensibly so they could communicate while our daughter was at school, etc. After observing for several weeks, and noticing several occasions when her whereabouts were unaccounted for (we are both attorneys, partners together, and are almost always together) I figured out how to read her text messages (I don't even have a cellphone, so this wasn't so simple). I discovered that she was, again, in an intense relationship with a new man, who I eventually learned is a very prominent local official, "John," and that they were meeting frequently and exchanging sexually charged, but not explicit, messages. It seemed like flirting on a high level.

I confronted her. She denied it until I opened her cellphone up; then she said it was just a friendship, until I cited a few messages; then she took the position -- which she still maintains today -- that "nothing happened" by which she means that they didn't have sex (I'm still not sure if she means this in the Clintonian sense). After months of promises that she has ended it -- followed by me finding new messages, followed by new promises -- we started marriage counseling. A big part of the reason for going was for her to understand why this had started; and I think we got some insight into that. I realized that a part of the problem was that after 10 years of competing with Bill I, admittedly, was being distant and less than wonderful to her, and perhaps she was vulnerable to this man's advances (he is a well-known dog when it comes to women), but she never addressed the 25 years with Bill, and how that was implicated in this relationship with John.

Now, she says that she has made it clear to John that she loves me and only me (and I do believe that she loves me, and she has become again the warm and affectionate woman I married), but that they remain "friends"; and I have made a conscious effort not to take her for granted. But, here is the problem -- something is still going on with John and she doesn't deny it but has become very careful about deleting all their messages to each other. She doesn't seem to be meeting him anymore, but now she is sending him pictures from her cellphone.

My dilemma is this: I don't think this is adulterous, at least physically; and I don't think she even wants it to be, but she seems to crave and need this second relationship. I lived with Bill for 10 years, but he was over 100 miles away; this new John guy is nearby and seems far more real and threatening.

As noted, we are both trial lawyers, and are both very persuasive and she is especially manipulative. She has convinced our marriage counselor that her relationship with John is now just a quiet friendship, but I don't see how that progression could happen so quickly. (My wife has other male friends whom I have never found in the least threatening, by the way.) Our marriage counselor doesn't see any connection between the relationship with Bill -- which she has now ended altogether, as far as I know -- and this relationship with John, and tells me I am overreacting to what it now is.

I see this man periodically, and when I do, I want to punch him in the face. I know that would not be a good thing, but I don't know what to do. Can you offer any advice?

Mr. Green With Jealousy

Dear Mr. Green,

Strangely enough, I also want to punch that man in the face and I do not know why. Perhaps it is because I am stark raving mad.

Speaking of which, I do think it might be helpful if you and your wife admitted to each other that you, too, are both stark raving mad. I do not say this to be insulting, but to nudge you in the direction of accepting irrational need. You love each other and love is part madness. You love each other and are caught up in a mad dance of veils. Behind the veils that she waves in the air are her secrets, and thus her secret stories, and thus her sacred story, the one she cannot tell for fear it will lose its power of enchantment.

She cannot tell it so she hints at it in text messages and secret assignations. She cannot tell it to you because it is beyond the context of marriage. What does that mean? Does that mean that there is no room in your marriage for the irrational? That is why I suggest that you admit that you are just as crazy as I am, and we both want to punch that man in the face just to get a moment of clarity. She has clouded our minds. She is running rings around us. She is too much for us. Perhaps you would also like to tie her up in a chair. You might try that.

Stark raving mad. Me, you, her, all of us: out of our heads. Waving veils in the air. Decoding secret messages. Dancing crazy secret dances. Naturally you went to an oracle and asked why your wife needs to do these things. The oracle said you are overreacting. It sounds like the oracle is not crazy enough either.

You are trying to adjudicate these proceedings with decorum and reason -- but as the judge I say your argument is becoming tiresome. I refer you to obscure precedents written in the sand of the playground. I move that we adjourn and all go out to the swing set and play in the sand. I suggest we more fully embrace the eros of interaction and the sweet honey of need, that we open the windows and let the air in, and I decree that as of this day you and she love each other and are mostly happy though you and I both want to punch a certain man in the face when we see him and your wife has a completely crazy need to wave her veils in your face and flirt with men behind the fountain.

These are the facts.

Having now admitted the facts and also having admitted just how out of our heads we are, we can sort of get to work.

Do you see what I am trying to signal in my mumbling, circuitous fashion? I am trying to signal that at root love is madness; it is a contract not between people but between souls. It is different from your marriage. Your marriage is a contract between two people. But your love is a contract between two souls. Love is crazy because the souls want what they want and you don't have much to say about it.

Of course your wife is acting crazy. That is to be expected. And who decided to marry her? You did, you stark raving mad trial attorney! You did!

So my main thought for you, toward whom I feel a brotherly affection -- for we who try to maintain rationality in the presence of wild, secretive dancers are a sorry, hopeless lot! -- is that you must find a way to live with this and gain some power over the situation. One way is, as you have done, to retreat. You have retreated and now she blames you for retreating. She escalates. So retreat and then suddenly attack. This will interest her if you suddenly attack. She will like that, I think. She will like being thrown off. It will interest her because it will pose a puzzle she will want to solve. She will look at you with curiosity.

The other is a more internal type of move: Transfer your obsession. Transfer your need to some cooler object. Transfer your need away from her and see if she gets a chill.

That doesn't mean literally pack your bags. It means withdraw somewhat internally for your own sanity. Find some kind of inner serenity through prayer, meditation or golf. You have sort of done that already, but even if I cannot convey it clearly, I think I mean a different kind of withdrawal, in which you are truly not watching her at all. I get the feeling that even as you withdraw you are still watching her to see what she will do. She needs to see you watching her. She needs to know you are chasing her. She wants to be chased. She wants to do something bad so you will chase her.

So what would happen if you truly, truly, truly let her go -- in your heart, that is? Perhaps in a way you could start over again. I do not know. I fear this is vague. I am trying to say something that resists words.

Put more prosaically, she needs more attention from more men. I'm not sure there is anything wrong with that, per se. Apparently in the marriage contract there is a clause in invisible ink that says we must sever all our ties and mute all our needs and close all the windows and become what we are not in order to protect the inviolable envelope of the marriage contract. But that is not always practical. There will be violations because we are who we are.

Many of us need more attention to feel more alive. Some of us need to stand in the spotlight and hear the applause. Some of us need a kind of intimacy we can only find outside the house. There is nothing wrong with wanting a fuller social life. There is nothing wrong with needing to be in the spotlight. There are ways to get that honestly. There are ways to get that by forming open friendships, and by performing, and in the fantasy realm.

Also the courtroom is a stage, so she is not the only performer. So there may be, between you two, some unacknowledged competition for the spotlight.

The other thing is that perhaps she needs to torment you. Why? I don't know. Is she only happy when she is being chased? Is she only happy when she is the object of desire?

What I say, at the risk of sounding like an idiot, is that love is naturally the realm of madness. You, your wife and I are all stark raving mad. Begin in madness. Accept everything. Trudge slowly under your great burdens toward some kind of rationality if you must. But accept that you may never get there. You may be perpetually trudging through madness toward some illusory land of Apollo. That's the way it is, as Walter Cronkite used to say.

We are all mostly crazy. It's that simple.

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