Trust in marriage -- can it be regained?

My husband is trying to show he can be trusted. But it's not working. Have I lost the capacity?

By Cary Tennis

Published November 4, 2008 11:14AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Two and a half years ago, my husband had an "affair." We had been working through a really difficult time -- moved away from New York City to take jobs in a provincial town where we knew no one, had a baby, dealt with my postpartum depression, all the while trying to maintain our careers (and get tenure). We started marriage counseling, mostly to deal with our constant fights, and to deal with his anger. My husband is someone who feels so guilty about having any sort of emotion that he locks it in completely; when it bursts out, it is intense and unsettling (though never violent).

The marriage counseling got us back onto a better footing, and we had decided to start trying for a second kid. And then, suddenly, he told me that he had fallen in love with someone, and was leaving me. The woman in question was someone that he had met at a conference the year before, and he swore -- and I actually believe him -- that there was no physical interaction between them at that time. A year later, they started e-mailing each other, and a month after that, he was leaving me. The two of them were never in a room alone together, they never kissed, they never had sex: Their affair was entirely limited to e-mail and telephone. I was completely blindsided by this, but it was also obvious to me (and to everyone else close to him) that his behavior was the result of a crisis in his professional life, a deep insecurity about his status in his field. And it also became obvious that the whole thing was a cry for help -- why pick a woman who lived so far away, with whom he had so little chance of coming into physical contact, unless he wanted to create the drama of an affair without actually getting into trouble? After a month, he seemed to come to his senses, and we entered into heavy-duty marriage counseling, and he started individual therapy as well.

The aftermath of the affair was painful -- I went into a depression and marriage counseling was really difficult, in part because we had a bad marriage counselor and in part because my husband was so unable to articulate his unhappiness that all he could do was project that unhappiness onto me, and my failings. It's not that counseling didn't help -- it did, and we slowly started to rebuild our marriage. We had our fair share of problems to work out, but they were things we could deal with, for the most part.

My husband went through a period of blaming me for his insecurities and his anxieties. He saw those aspects of my personality that I actually like (self-confidence, sociability, geniality) as "problems" for our relationship: My personality was too "big" for the marriage to work. I was ready to give up. Our marriage counselor warned that his behavior was starting to become emotionally abusive. And so he figured it out -- he stopped acting like his problems were everyone else's fault, and started genuinely working to rebuild trust.

Fast-forward to now. After a period of relative stability, we are back in the throes of marital conflict. This is in no small part because of my actions: About six months ago, my first love (there were only two in my life) contacted me after 17 years to tell me that he still loves me and wants me back. We entered into an intimate and intense correspondence -- my husband knew that I was writing to the ex, but obviously was not privy to the contents of the messages -- and we fell back in "love." I use the scare quotes because I am not unaware of the fact that my feelings for the ex are completely irrational (I haven't seen him for years, the original relationship was deeply traumatic, etc. etc.). It seemed obvious to me that, whatever the intensity of the feelings, they were the product of my dissatisfactions with myself, my job, my husband and my life, rather than being something so solid and sustaining as love.

I've cut off communication with the ex. But my marriage is in a shambles. My husband has been remarkably generous and forgiving in response to the ex -- he sees the correspondence as fundamentally different from his affair, since it was the result of unresolved feelings from my past rather than going out and starting a new relationship. My therapist says the same thing. (I will say: I'm not entirely convinced that I should be let off the hook on this technicality.) But even though I have no illusions about running off with the ex (who is himself married, and has kids, after all), the relationship has made me question whether I am happy in my marriage.

The conclusion I've come to is that I'm not -- but I want to be. The not-happy part comes from (I realize) a deep feeling that I cannot trust my husband anymore -- not that I can't trust him with random women, but that I can't trust that he will be honest to himself (and to me) about his unhappiness. I'm worried that, like last time, he will tell me that he is really happy in our marriage when he isn't. I'm worried that he will tell himself that he's writing to a woman just for professional reasons and then "find himself" in the throes of an emotional affair without being self-aware enough to see how he got there. I'm worried that I will put all sorts of effort into rebuilding the marriage because he's telling me that it's the most important thing to him, and I believe him, and then I will find out a year from now that he actually doesn't want to be with me.

Last night, I was on his computer, trying to reconstruct the details of his affair by looking through his e-mail for clues to what happened, so that I can try to put it behind me. I found out that he had visited some Internet porn sites, and that he was visiting Hotmail a lot. I was disconcerted, so I asked him about it -- and he lied to me. When I pressed him, he admitted that he was lying about the porn sites -- that he had actually looked at them -- but swears that he doesn't have a secret e-mail account. I am not so worried about the porn -- it was pretty garden variety, and everyone needs their private psychic lives -- but I'm flipped out about the idea that he lied to my face. It was a lie to cover his embarrassment, but it was lying. And so now I'm thrown back into this place of distrust.

God, this is long and rambling. I guess it comes down to this: I want to stay married. I want to create a stable home for my kid. I want to be happy. But right now I'm not sure that those goals are compatible. I think that the only way it can happen is for me to figure out how to trust him again. And somehow, all the things that he does to help me feel that trust -- his daily demonstrations of his commitment to our marriage -- don't seem to be enough to reassure me. I'm starting to worry that I don't trust him because I've somehow lost the capacity to trust -- that it's my failure, after all this time. I don't know what to do about it, but I hate myself for it. I want to be happy where I am -- how do I get there?


Dear A,

Here is what I think about trust. I don't think you acquire trust by figuring it out. I think trust is something you acquire by doing.

It is not invulnerable to thinking, however. You may certainly think your way out of trust. In that way it is like faith.

Say you are afraid of bridges. No one can tell you with absolute certainty that if you walk across that bridge you will get to the other side. You must have a certain amount of faith. You must be willing to take the chance. So you walk across the bridge. Say you walk across the bridge 100 times. After 100 times, you are used to walking across the bridge. You have not disproved the possibility of its collapse. But you have some faith in it now. You trust it.

I suggest that this is what we do in relationships that have been rocked by the unexpected. We walk across that bridge day after day until we begin to feel OK. Trust arises through action.

You can stop on the bridge and try to shake it. You can look at the rusted struts and rivets and see them as evidence that the bridge may soon collapse. You can read reports detailing the likelihood of collapse, and case histories of other collapses of similar bridges. Based on all that, you may decide to not use the bridge.

If you are so positive that the bridge is going to collapse that you cannot risk even setting foot on it then your course is clear. Otherwise, it's likely that you will cross it every day simply because it is convenient. If you continue to use the bridge, you will gradually build trust in the bridge.

So you must make a decision.

How likely do you believe your husband is to repeat his former mistake? Ninety percent? Ten percent? One percent? Is he so likely to repeat that mistake that you would end the marriage in order to prevent it? You say you want the marriage to continue. If you end the marriage in order to prevent this hypothetical calamity, are you not falling into a logical error? Are you not acting contrary to your stated aim? I may be simple-minded, but it seems to me the way to continue the marriage is by not ending it.

Your happiness is an important matter. Your unhappiness and your marriage are connected. You are unhappy and you are married. But that does not mean you are unhappy because you are married. You may be unhappy because you have problems that your husband cannot solve. That does not mean that his absence would solve your problems, or that another husband would solve them. Perhaps no one can solve your problems. Perhaps your problems arise out of the life you are living. Perhaps this is  who you are.

There is no guarantee against calamity. But is it not reasonable to stay in the marriage until calamity actually strikes? It's possible that calamity may never strike. Oddly enough, because we are in such politically charged times, the idea of ending the marriage because you have not yet regained trust in your husband sounds a little like the doctrine of preemption.

The solution seems simple. If you want peace, then live peaceably. If you want your marriage to continue, then continue to be married. Day after day you walk across the same bridge, and after some time has passed, you do begin to trust it.

How do you learn to trust? See page 127.

Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary TennisFOLLOW @carytennisLIKE Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Coupling Divorce Infidelity Since You Asked