I have been married for 13 years to a woman I adore, respect and love. We have two children (7 and 9) whom we center our life around. As marriages go, we have had our share of challenges and ups and downs. We are both successful in our careers, which is good and bad. Both of us are competitive in the sense that we always strive for more.
Last year my wife was sharing with me the trauma of a close friend. This woman was having an affair and her lover had just recently gone dark on her. She was distraught and depressed for months. She would have left her husband and children for this man, but the option was not hers to decide.
My wife said that would never happen to us because we fell in love and got married for all the right reasons -- we have a base. Well, several months later, my wife entered an affair with a married man.
They both were unwilling to blow up their marriages, so they met a couple of times that summer (he lives in a downtown hotel during the week and flies home for the weekends). Funny thing is, the affair was mostly via e-mail because they could not be seen in public together beyond work events -- they would lose all credibility and get fired.
I noticed something amiss in my wife all summer. There was more sex and she would constantly tell me we still have the spark. We went to London for her birthday without the kids and it felt like we were back in the early stages of a relationship. I finally looked at her BlackBerry and saw her e-mails to our close friend detailing how she is an emotional wreck and misses her affair man terribly.
She has compartmentalized it to the point that when I encouraged her to go on a big shopping spree to get her out of her funk (I did not know of the affair at this point), she e-mailed our friend that I have been such a great support to her. She stated in her e-mail that she loves me and wants to grow old with me, but needs this other man in her life for what it is.
Well, I confront her and she denies it, then says that she just passionately kissed him a few times. I continue to hound her for a week and she finally confesses. When she describes her fling, she is visibly emotional about her feelings for him and that he just used her. But when we discuss divorce, she is cold and nonemotional. This after all those months of telling me "there is still a spark, we have a base." We go to couples counseling and she states it is what it is and that she will never do it again, blah blah blah.
I am hurt, angry and depressed. I constantly ask her for more details, trying to understand how all this could happen. I want to know why there was no guilt. She says that she kept the two relationships separate and never felt guilty. I seek solace (read sex) in an ex-girlfriend and then a co-worker in a way to get back/even.
A couple of months later I search her BlackBerry and see her asking her old flame to meet her after a client dinner. I confront her and then proceed to come clean on my flings in order to make her come clean. She did not meet him as it turns out -- he rebuffed her. So we start the whole messy rebuilding again. A year passes and I see her BlackBerry open with an e-mail to him. The e-mail details their planned meeting for the following night at his hotel before their client dinner. The e-mail includes sordid details and how he makes her feel sexy. BTW, she is e-mailing me at the same time (at our daughter's softball game) saying how she loves me and to hurry home. They had seen each other for the first time in a couple of months at another event and tried to get rid of the awkwardness and discuss how to be professional around each other for the future. He e-mails her later that night and states that "he still has strong feelings for her -- what does she feel?" Of course she has feelings for him.
Again I confront her and she states that she needs to do this in order to gain closure. She further states that she probably would not have gone through with it, since we were so much better relationship-wise and working as a team. Yeah, right. OK, sorry for the rant, I trust you will condense for clarity. So what the f$%k should I do? I cannot trust her again. If I ever do, it will be a long time. She still states that she does not love him and he is the asshole for luring her back in again. Seems like deflection to me. The finances and kids are a pain point for me at this time. Any words of wisdom?
Put Through the Wringer
Dear Put Through the Wringer,
I think the best advice I could give you is to begin ongoing, one-on-one sessions with a marriage and family counselor or psychotherapist. This is a volatile, draining and potentially catastrophic situation. I'm frankly amazed that you've handled it as well as you have so far. And I'm not saying to see a therapist in the sense of, Oh, I think you need help, like you're neurotic. That's not it at all. It's more like, you need help the way a person needs firemen! You've got a situation that's out of control and you need backup! You'd be crazy to try to solve this on your own. I do not think you would be successful in such an endeavor. I think you would end up with a messy divorce and bitterness between you and your wife and your kids. That doesn't have to happen. But you need to enlist the help of somebody who can give you the support and knowledgeable guidance you need to get through this.
That's my bottom line: There is a lot at stake here. This does not have to end badly. But you need to get somebody working on your behalf. You need to commit to problem solving. And I do suggest one-on-one sessions rather than couples therapy because, well, I'm not a professional, but I am very intuitive, and I sense that, right now, your attention needs to be on how you yourself are going to handle this situation. That is, there are times when two people are having trouble interacting and need to practice with each other, but this does not seem like that kind of a situation. In this case, you and she are each making decisions independently, on your own, that affect your relationship. So you need some help on your own, I think, dealing with this situation and making difficult decisions. I should also say that you are in a sense alone with this situation. I mean, your wife is taking actions over which you have no control right now. So it is not about how you and she relate to each other; it is more about what you yourself are going to do.
If you find a good therapist, I would trust him or her to advise you on this. If the therapist were to suggest that you get your wife in and do some couples work, who am I to argue? I am just saying that, from my perspective, you are the one who needs some help and support right now. Your wife does not seem to be troubled by her own behavior. That may have implications about her own psychological makeup, but that's not for me to say. It may simply be that she is a person who can compartmentalize, or who is quite naturally not monogamous. All that is beyond the scope of this letter. This is just me responding to you about what might be best for you to do.
One of the purposes of starting a regular program of life examination with a therapist -- and take heed, you are going to need a smart, sophisticated person who recognizes that this is not just about confronting your feelings but about making measurable but incremental progress on a whole host of particular but interrelated issues -- is to get the situation stabilized. You need boundaries and a sense of direction, so that you can feel you are not just bouncing around, buffeted by winds and storm, so that while you encounter difficulties over the next year or two, you remain headed in a direction, taking the blows and mishaps as they come, but staying generally on course. And in order to do that, you need strength, stamina, support, encouragement, analytical help, organizational help, a whole host of things. These are the things that you will request of your therapist or counselor. You will say, OK, after a few sessions, I see that what you have suggested makes sense, or what I have discovered with your help makes sense, but then, how do I begin to put this plan into motion? And how do I get through this week?
Your person must be able to offer you some help in that area, or direct you to help outside her area of expertise if need be.
That's my general sketch. I sense that you are a practical, real-world person who has gone quite far in life perhaps without resorting to such methods. And you may be impatient with some of its more emotional or "touchy-feely" elements. So I would suggest two things: One, find a therapist who can concentrate on tangible actions (but keep in mind that this is hugely emotional, and that you may be in for some surprises). Two, think of it as largely a fact-finding and analytical mission: You need to examine the underlying assumptions you and your wife have made, and examine the actions you have taken based on those assumptions, and in particular look at the actions you have taken under intense stress, the things you do to compensate for unhappiness or boredom, your mechanisms of control and release, and look at their consequences, and your alternatives, and begin turning this thing slowly around.
You and she have inflicted some serious blows. But the blows you have inflicted on each other were survivable, obviously. You have done these cruel things to each other and you are still walking around, still parenting your children, still working. No one has murdered anyone or set fire to the house.
I think that means something. It means that your love for each other must be extraordinarily strong. It means that you must have a deep sense of the importance of your children. It means that you must have unusual capacity for inflicting and absorbing emotional pain. These can all be assets.
But your capacities are not inexhaustible. You cannot go on like this indefinitely. You will find, eventually, that your resources are depleted. You will be done in. At that point it might be too late.
So you have to start managing the situation now.
You have a lot of work to do. I urge you to begin.
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