Should we see a marriage counselor?

We need help, but I'm afraid the pressure might drive my wife away

Published April 15, 2011 12:20AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My wife and I are having a significant struggle holding our marriage together. The issue arose when a friend from her past came to visit over the holidays and she developed feelings for him. It has since become a long-distance relationship with constant calls, emails and texts exchanged between the two daily. She has admitted having feelings for this person and even expresses love for him. We have been a couple for almost a decade and have been married for most of that. We have not had an ideal marriage and have had our share of trials and tribulations but we are very much in love, and even now, she says she loves me, which I truly believe, but wants to be with this other man.

We are seeking counseling and here is where I become incredibly conflicted. My wife and I are operating a small business and it is constant stress and frustration that never relents. We only talk (or, to be more honest, fight) about work or this third person and we are becoming consumed by this. The problem I have is that I know the only solace and comfort she has right now is him. From what I have read online and in books, it seems one of the first steps the counselor will suggest is severing ties with this man. I know that will send her into depression and possible resentment to me for making her choose.

I want to be with my wife and I want our marriage to recover and heal, but am afraid I will merely drive a further wedge into our already strained relationship. I also cannot imagine an open or sharing relationship in that regard.

Do I just bottle up my depression in exchange for her happiness? Do I just admit it is over and let her go? Do I fight to keep her and possibly lose her?

Conflicted and Confused

Dear Conflicted,

If you want your marriage to recover and heal, and your wife wants that too, it can happen. It's good that you are seeking counseling. You can get through this.

No, don't just bottle up your depression in exchange for her happiness, and no, don't just admit it's over and let her go, but yes, do fight to keep her even though you feel that means possibly losing her. No relationship is risk-free. Not to be alarmist, but just as we risk death by freak accident every day, you risk losing her every day whether you fight for her or not. So you might as well fight.

Here is some advice about the marriage counselor. You are paying for the services of someone who is there to help you. That person cannot force you to do anything. You are in charge. Yes, the counselor might suggest that she stop seeing this man. The counselor might suggest a variety of things. But if you feel you can't say no, you need another counselor. If the counselor pressures you or your wife, you need a different counselor.

So don't be afraid to talk to somebody. Talk to several until you get a feeling for somebody. Say right upfront what is off the table.

When you actually get started meeting with a counselor, prepare to go slowly. This stuff is not like other stuff. It's not like mechanical stuff, where you just go in and fix it. It's more like, first you have to sit outside the car and wait until you can really see the car. It's weird. But you'll know what I mean once you've spent some time talking in a therapy kind of way. It's different from direct problem-solving. Though there is some of that. Other things take time -- it takes time for the mystery of why things are happening to clear up.

On the other hand, it's obvious you and your wife have a big-time, real-world stress factor. Your business. Holy mother of the universe. Being in a business with your wife. I know about that. Boy. Want to talk about testing the limits of a relationship? And the worst part is, you simultaneously introduce big stressors into your life and you eliminate all your free time that you might otherwise use dealing with the new stressors.

Recipe for craziness, no doubt about it.

Yet it can be done.

You have time.

That's the great thing about getting into a counseling situation: It does give you time that you might otherwise not be able to carve out of your schedule. When you can take the time to look at the stresses in your lives, you see the concrete reasons your relationship is in trouble. Your relationship needs certain things to survive. Under intense pressure, without the things it needs, of course the relationship will wither. But if you can give it what it needs, it may come back.

The relationship was strong at one point. Identify what was strong in the beginning. Pull those things back in.

I know what it is like to realize that you and your wife talk only about business. My wife and I run a small business and sometimes it is all we talk about. And no matter how much we talk about it, it still needs to be talked about more. When things get really bad, sometimes it is because we haven't driven up to Mount Tamalpais lately to sit on a mountaintop and look south at the shoreline and the bridge and the city. We haven't put the dogs in the car and driven up to Tomales Bay. Then we do that and it helps.

When relationships are working, we don't pay much attention to why. We just think it's great. We don't notice all the concrete things that are making the relationship work. So when things change, we don't immediately say, well, this is sure going to put pressure on the relationship. We don't think like that. But a relationship needs constant fuel. When it stops working, we think, Oh, something terrible has happened. The relationship has stopped! It must be broken!

Sometimes it's just out of fuel.

If you know what fuel it uses, you can get it running again. Even if it turns out that it's not the relationship you want to keep forever, right now you need it running. So figure out what things make it work, and consciously bring those things into the relationship.

Just to get it running again.

You can think about the long term after you get some breathing room.

And please remember this: It's your life and your money. You're in charge. Do not choose a counselor you can't argue with.

Write your truth

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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