This is going to be long and convoluted, so bear with me please while I try to convey my dilemma. I'm currently married with two small children (one in kindergarten, the other not yet 2). My life up until the end of last year was OK, and overall I was content (have a good job, excellent health, family and friends that admire me and are there for me when I need them). My problem is my wife. My wife is not happy. She can't explain when exactly she became unhappy, but it was some time after our second child. She was very unhappy with herself and life in general. She used to be very heavy. She had surgery to address it. It helped some. She had surgery again. Then she had plastic surgery. Then she had an affair (shortly after the plastic surgery).
I found out about the affair. My first reaction was to get a divorce, which was entirely what she expected when the affair came to light. She told me that she was planning to get a divorce anyway; it was just a matter of saving up the money to do it. I was completely blindsided. First off, I never thought she was capable of this. Yes, I know that every person has a dark, selfish side that is capable of unspeakable things, but at the same time, I never thought that she would do such a reckless act, not considering our two children. In the back of my mind I always thought I was the selfish one since she was the one that had to be patient to get married and to have kids. Now I don't think I am, I think that she's been reckless and irresponsible. I know I haven't always been the best husband (I was stingy with praise and didn't always tell her how much I cared), but I also know that nothing I did can justify the affair that she had or the deception that was involved (she had a four-month, long-distance affair with a married co-worker, old enough to be her father).
Having said all that, I decided shortly after the affair that I wanted to try to get past it and mend the marriage. After the last surgery, I find my wife very attractive, more so than I ever have before. Part of me feels that if I lose her now, I'll have been cheated on another level (because I stayed with her through ups and downs, her battles with depression, medical problems, financial setbacks and many other issues). As for myself, I'm fit and handsome. I know that I could find another woman but I don't want to. I don't want to because I still love my wife and I don't want to destroy my children's lives. I feel I'm in a no-win situation because I'm afraid of being either a part-time father or being a single parent (I don't want to be on the outside always looking in on my children's lives if I'm not with them every day, and I honestly don't know that I could handle being a full-time single dad). If we were to divorce I would want full custody of our children and my wife would fight this tooth and nail. Neither of us are unfit parents so it's my assumption that she would be given primary custody by the courts if it came down to a legal battle (this is what everyone keeps telling me, the mother almost always gets custody). I'm also afraid of the financial ruin that divorce could have on my life. I'm in a no-fault state, which means that it doesn't matter who is at fault, all assets and debts are typically split evenly. My wife has debt from the surgery and no savings. I have savings and no debt. I lose so many times over if everything is just split: I take on half her debt, give her half of my meager savings, plus who knows about child support (I make more than twice what she does).
My wife is conflicted on whether to stay married. She is no longer having an affair, but she tells me that she no longer loves me like she once did. We do have fun together still, but she doesn't want to have sex with me. She says she has no desire to have sex with anyone at this point. In my heart and mind I think that if we get a divorce that we will later come to regret it, but by the time my wife realizes this, it will be too late. The damage will be too great to go back. I've told her all this. It doesn't seem to register with her. Everyone in her life is against a divorce, even her family. I think she has her mind made up to leave me, she just won't admit it to me or anyone else. She rented an apartment last month and now lives in it; we split time with the kids, but see each other almost every day and do lots of things with the kids together (both of us are typically tired from work, parenthood, but I seem to be handling it better, she collapsed at work on V-day and was taken to the hospital, also passed out one other time when she got emotional).
To help mend things I'm trying every conceivable thing I can to reach her and show her I love her, that I can look past what happened and that we can have a good marriage again. Any time I pressure her for recommitment to the marriage she closes up and it seems counterproductive, but to pull back and stop trying seems like it will just hasten the demise of my marriage even quicker. We've tried seeing a therapist and it didn't help. My wife isn't really interested in seeing another therapist; I am willing if she is.
I guess I should say I don't really believe in divorce (especially when there are kids), outside of extreme cases. Both of our parents had divorces (my mother is still alone and lonely almost 20 years after the fact). At the same time, I don't want to be trapped in a sexless marriage or have to live a life as martyr solely for the sake of my children. I don't know if there's anything I can do, however, at this point to save my marriage. Do I continue to try and hope for the best, or call it quits and sit down with a lawyer and salvage what cash I can? (I'm the saver in the couple; my wife basically lives paycheck to paycheck.) I'm a typical guy in that I was hesitant to get married, to have kids, etc., but I'm certain that I don't want to get a divorce, I want a healthy marriage, I just don't know how to have it. I'm a reasonable person, I am willing to make sacrifices, to change as much as I am capable of to make her happy, for my sake, her sake and the sake of my children. It just looks like it won't be enough.
She's not being rational and I feel anxious and powerless. The most important thing in my life (my family) hinges on another person, a person who has acted foolishly and who has people who depend on her (our two children). I feel like I need some time/space to figure out what is best long-term for the four of us, but there's no responsible way for me to get that time or space. It feels like I'm living on borrowed time to mend things and nothing I try is working. I'm not a longtime reader, but when I discovered your column a few months ago, I have scanned through your archives and have read the majority of your advice. I've been impressed with almost all of it and I'm hoping you can work some magic for me.
Trying to Avoid Divorce
Dear Trying to Avoid Divorce,
It sounds like your wife is suffering deep, inexpressible pain.
Rather than experience that pain directly, she is looking for a solution outside herself. She has two children and a husband who loves her, but sees you as the source of her trouble. Apparently she has concluded that her situation is the source of her pain -- you, her children, her house, all of it. So she is trying to destroy that situation.
It is more likely that the source of her trouble is a combination of things -- the raw, terrifying depression and radical mood swings of postpartum hormonal changes, physical changes related to her weight-loss surgery, perhaps an unsatisfying work life, romantic dissatisfaction, the exhaustion and frustration of child-rearing, financial worries, anxiety, all these things.
Those are real things. They can be dealt with. Her proposed solution is shortsighted. But that indicates how much pain she's in and how desperate she is for escape.
So what should you do?
If her torment can be alleviated for brief periods, then perhaps she can see for herself that although some aspects of her marriage are not what she wants, the alternative is worse, not only for her but for her children and for you.
You know, there is a power imbalance between men and women in our culture, and at times in the past women's attempts to free themselves from domestic limitations have been treated as deviance or madness. So your attempts to help her, however well-meaning, must be tempered by an awareness of her rights. She does have the right to make up her own mind, however destructive her decision seems. So rather than insist that she get help, your best bet may be to propose a bargain.
Make it clear that if she wants a divorce she can have it. But tell her that you will oppose such a divorce unless she agrees to a psychiatric evaluation and a course of treatment. Medication may relieve, temporarily, what must be an awful state of mind. A brief course of behavioral cognitive therapy might also have surprisingly good results.
Does a woman's desire for a divorce mean she needs psychological help? No. But the whole series of events you describe paint a picture of a woman in emotional pain, on the verge of making some bad decisions. In her distorted view, she thinks having an affair and ending her marriage will bring her relief. It won't.
You must be willing to accept her decision. It may be that the marriage is wrong for her in ways that she can only discover by leaving. But if a professional can help her see through her torment and recognize that she has less destructive options, then everyone may benefit.
Accept that the results are out of your control. Act with selflessness and compassion and hope for the best.
You are a good, thoughtful man with much to recommend you. You will be OK.
At a certain point, you may just have to let her go. Make peace with that.
If she leaves, you can heal from that. And your kids can heal from that. No matter what happens, you will find a way to stay close to your kids. I know you will.
My hope, of course, is that she will get some help, that it will turn out that she is in a temporary state of treatable depression and anxiety, and that there are positive changes she can make in her life short of divorce.
But put some dates on a calendar so you can plan for whatever happens. If she agrees to treatment, then ask the person treating her what would be a possible milestone, a time when you and she could revisit the question of your marriage and make a decision. Don't let it drag out forever. If she is determined to leave, and she has a clear head, then after she fulfills her end of the bargain, you have to let her go.
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