My wife thinks I'm cheating on her -- but I'm not!

She's a war vet with post-traumatic stress, and I'm overseas with the Navy. She found a condom in my old deployment bag ... but it was a joke condom!


Salon Staff
October 22, 2007 2:15PM (UTC)

Hello,

I've been a Navy sailor for five years and a husband for nearly a year, married to a wife whom I love dearly. Recently we've had a bit of trouble. My wife, who suffers from PTSS, post-traumatic stress syndrome, from two wars (Desert Storm and Iraqi Freedom), started to listen to this talk show not too different from "The View."

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It's basically a radio show where a group of women got together and shared their experience with men, and about 90 percent of them had cheating husbands. She started to listen to them about three months into my deployment. This show has made her so paranoid that while I was away, when I would try to talk with her over the phone, she would mistake the voice of my friends, all males except for one female, for a random lover I was supposedly seeing.

Now, I haven't cheated on my wife, but at least once a month I'm accused of it. It doesn't matter that I've finally found a way to get her to stop listening to this show, she still believes that I'm fooling around. Her PTSS makes it even worse; sometimes she gets very physical. One time while she was randomly searching my things she found a pair of her own underwear that she forgot she owned. She was so mad that she called me where I work and started to chew me out right then and there, only to remember an hour later that the panties were hers. The next time was when she went searching through my old deployment items. There she found a gag condom that an old work buddy of mine had lost. How it got in my box I'll never know, but she got so angry she punched me. Now I'm a big guy, and I'm not very scared of her physical nature, but I'm very worried that she might hurt herself and/or our relationship. I'm just not too sure how I should go about something like this, which is why I'm asking you for advice on what you think someone should do in this situation.

Sailor

Dear Sailor,

The post-traumatic stress is surely an important issue, and I hope your wife is getting treatment for it. She is having outbursts that sound typical for people with symptoms of post-traumatic stress. But I would like to focus on something that would be a problem whether she had the post-traumatic stress or not.

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Your wife does not trust you. You are going to have to build some trust. You have been married only a year. It takes time to build trust.

To build trust, you need a clean foundation. Is there anything you have done in the past that would give her a valid reason not to trust you? Did you ever, for instance, get into a relationship with a woman and then sleep with another woman and lie about it or conceal it? That's not so unusual; it's pretty normal. But if she knows about incidents like this and you have never talked about them, I mean honestly talked about them and told her that those are things you will never do again, they may be interfering with her ability to trust you.

It is hard to imagine any man having a 100 percent spotless record in the area of romantic relationships. So if you have ever cheated on her, or if you were cheating on other women before you got together with her, now is the time to come clean. If there are details that would injure other people, do not use names. Just tell her that you want to come clean about who you are and what you've done so she can know your whole story and not be wondering. She may become very upset if there are indeed damaging details in your story. But I think you need to come clean with her.

This will accomplish two things. One, it will clear the foundation so you can start building some trust. And two, it will, in itself, show that you are a man she can trust. A man who can't be trusted will never level with his wife. He feels he has to hide certain things. So he will act secretively, and his wife will pick up on that and feel that he can't be trusted. So your best route is to just come clean about your past.

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Then you have to start building trust. What is trust, anyway? I would suggest that you think of trust as dependable knowledge. I am not a military person, but my understanding is that a military person must work with many mechanical systems, and so you must have dependable knowledge of those systems. You must know that if you do this, the equipment's going to do that. You must know that it's going to behave pretty much the same every time. So you follow procedures, and you take care of your equipment so that you can get the same results every time. Knowing what it's going to do in a given situation: That would be dependable knowledge. Other people may tell you things about your equipment that they believe to be true, but you have direct experience with yours. You know it intimately. You know what it will do. So you trust it. You trust your equipment because you know how it responds and what shape it's in, and you have maintained it personally or you have viewed the maintenance records so you know it's in good shape.

She needs that kind of knowledge about you. She needs to know what you will do in a given situation. She needs to understand you inside and out. She needs to see what makes you tick. If there are parts of you that she cannot get into, then at least she needs to know what is there. Maybe, by analogy, there are some software components of a missile guidance system that you cannot get into. But you know what is there and how it works, and you trust it.

Now what's going on with her? Well, maybe you have heard horror stories about certain systems and how they have failed, and you are afraid yours might fail too. In that case you would not trust it. What would you do to gain trust of it? You would find out more, right? Because your life might be in danger because of this thing. So you would ask others about their experience. You would look into the history. And if everyone you talked to said that this or that cannot be trusted, you might start to believe them. And if you yourself had very little direct experience with it, if all you had to go on was what other people said, you might believe that it can't be trusted.

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So your job is to somehow give your wife enough direct experience of your own reliability that she can make up her mind for herself.

Can you be trusted to function dependably? How does she know?

If you go out when you say you're going out and you go where you say you're going and come back when you say you're coming back, and when you come back you look pretty much the same as when you left, except for maybe the effect of a few pints of beer, then things seem to check out and that can go into the building-trust category.

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But if you say you're going out to Joe's and you'll be back at 2200 hours, and instead you go out to Violet's and come back drunk at 0400 hours the next morning with lipstick on your face and a condom in your pocket, then that's not going to build trust.

So you have to build up her trust by doing dependable actions. But if you are deployed, how are you going to build up this dependable knowledge? How is she going to develop trust if you are not around?

You have to cut down on the things that are triggering her mistrust, and build up a repertoire of things that support her trust. So these little incidents where you are calling her and she hears voices in the background, or she finds a condom in your deployment bag, there may be explanations for these things, but they sure don't help. The condom in the deployment bag shows, if nothing else, carelessness. So whatever you can do to avoid triggering her mistrust would be all to the good.

And then, if you are not going to be around, you have to take small actions that develop her trust every day, at a distance. Keep a journal of ideas, things you can do to remind her that you are there, that you love her and that she can trust you, and every day try to do one thing from that list that will develop or reinforce her trust. One simple thing to do is this: Make promises you can keep. If you can call her at a certain time or e-mail her every day, then promise to do it and then do it. But be very careful not to make promises you cannot keep. You might be missing her and feeling like you would like to call her every day, or at a specific time, so you may be tempted to make a promise you can't keep. Or you may promise to call her the next day just because she is feeling sad and you want to make her feel better in the moment. But do not make promises you cannot keep. That just makes things worse. Instead, look for little things you can be sure to do. And do things to show her you are thinking about her. For instance, if you are away but you know a fellow sailor is going to be in her area, maybe you can give him something and ask him to deliver it to her. He can then reassure her that you are doing well and behaving in a dependable way. Of course, if your friend thinks of you as a hard-partying person and is likely to portray you in a negative light, or if you do not trust him with women, then that would not be a good idea. But you get what I'm saying: Make a regular campaign of actions that reinforce her trust.

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Not to gloss over the post-traumatic stress or the violence. Violent attacks, by either party, have no place in a marriage. But I cannot give you advice on how she can handle that. She has to deal with that. I can only give you advice on what you can do to behave in a way that shows you are trustworthy.


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