I will get right to the point: I am having a very hard time coping with something that happened between my spouse and another person three years ago. That something was an affair. It was not only physical, but also emotional (the two of them professed their love for one another). Our then 15-plus-year marriage had grown cool and distant, responsibilities of everyday life getting in the way, and also resentment over various and assorted disappointments with one another. When I found out about the affair and my spouse confessed what had been going on for some months, we both felt a flood of emotion (emotion that had been lacking in our marriage for some time, as I mentioned) and discussed at length how and why it happened. I acknowledged my part in it as did my spouse. We felt strongly that saving the marriage and our family (we have children) was what we both wanted to do, and that coming so close to ruin made us realize both were indeed worth saving. The sticking point became the other person. My spouse felt sad for this person, this person who was also said to be wronged. I, perhaps not surprisingly, did not feel sad for this unmarried other person.
In the months that followed the revelation of their affair, the other person continued to make gestures designed, I feel, to disrupt the marriage and family we were trying to put back together. Calls were made, emails were sent and allegations of conversations between the two of them were shared with me by the other person. Complicating matters was the fact that my spouse and this person worked at the same place and so running into one another was certainly a possibility; my mind would race with thoughts of them spending any sort of time together whatsoever. I did not feel that they had resumed their affair. Even thoughts of casual, collegial conversation drove me crazy. My spouse claimed ignorance as to why the other person would behave this way and offered no explanations other than an unwillingness to let go. I urged my spouse to directly tell the other person that there was no interest in even casual conversation. My spouse would not do this, claiming that such a confrontation was not “worth it,” that it was best to just get along. During this time, I consoled myself with thoughts of: when my spouse and this person no longer work at the same place, all will be OK, they will not even possibly be able to run into one another and it will be truly, entirely over with.
Finally, late last year, my spouse did move on to another job. Just when I thought I would feel a sense of relief and peace, anger set it. Anger at both myself and my spouse. Anger at myself for accepting the poor treatment and disrespect I received. Anger at my spouse for not taking my feelings into account, and for seemingly not even trying to understand how hard the aftermath of the affair was on me. It seems that my spouse has had a much easier time putting the affair in the past and moving on. I thought I had, or at least that I would, but now three years later I am struggling mightily. My spouse does not understand this delayed reaction and is frustrated with me, I think. I am having a really hard time explaining my feelings beyond what I’ve described in this letter and I’m not sure that I am making a lot of sense. Does this delayed reaction indeed make any sense? Have I done both of us a real disservice by glossing over my feelings in an attempt to put our lives back together? Where should I go from here? Any advice would be most welcome. Thank you in advance.
Sad and Perplexed
Dear Sad and Perplexed,
I will get right to the point as well: I am having a very hard time coping with the lack of gendered pronouns in your letter. God gave us gendered pronouns so we don’t have to write “spouse.” He gave us “sister” and “brother” so we don’t have to write “sibling.”
If you’re all three men, or all three women, you could just tell me. I can handle it. Instead it’s all “spouse” this and “other person” that. I’ve never met anybody who had no gender. I’ve met people who were all genders at once but that’s San Francisco.
So I’m going to pretend that you are a woman married to a man who had an affair with a woman where he works.
Sorry for the crankiness. I’m on your side. I am totally on your side. And I want to say that you are definitely making sense and you are not required to justify your anger and it does not matter much about the timing of your anger. The truth is, you are angry about this thing that happened.
You ask why you are feeling such intense anger three years after the event. Well, part of it happened three years ago but the emotional repercussions have continued up to this day. So it’s not like you’re suddenly out of nowhere angry about something that happened three years ago. You’ve been angry all along, and your anger has been regularly triggered.
But why the intensity, and why now?
One idea is that since the duration and the intensity of an emotional event can affect how long is required to get over it, by continuing to speak to this person at work for three years after the affair ended, your spouse effectively prolonged the event as you experienced it. The affair may have been over, technically speaking, but for you the feeling of betrayal was prolonged and regularly retriggered.
So, in a sense, in the language of the heart, only now has the affair truly ended. Really ended. In the language of the heart ended. Because the heart just wanted her gone. The heart didn’t care about sex or no sex. She was a threat and the heart wanted her gone. The heart wanted no conversations in the hallways at work no matter how matter-of-fact. The heart wanted no passing her in the hallways or in certain stairwells, she carrying a vase of flowers and he hauling up some gardening equipment to the roof, where they would repair, without quite realizing what they were doing, because they were still all tangled up in crazy lust. That’s what the heart sees without wanting to see it, and that’s why you wanted him to stop talking to her completely and find a new job.
Which he refused to do — the not-talking-to-her part — for three years. Which brings us to the second idea of why you are angry, that anger is about being prevented from getting what you want. For three years, what you wanted was for him to stop talking to her. It doesn’t matter if it was reasonable or not reasonable. It’s what you wanted. And he wouldn’t give it to you.
A reasonable person might say, Well, the affair is over, I’ve admitted my responsibility, but why should I not talk to her?
But is the heart reasonable? Does the heart understand that talking to his lover doesn’t mean the affair is not over? Does the heart understand double negatives? The heart imagines them gazing into each other’s eyes, sharing intimacies.
You told your husband what you wanted. He could have said yes or no. He chose to say no. In a sense, he continued to choose her over you.
It seems to me that on those rare occasions when we have been in the wrong, we ought to give our partner what she wants, even if we think it is unreasonable.
So maybe you can make this clear to your spouse, that the anger you feel has not gone away partly because he refused to give you what you wanted. You have not been paid back. He might have trouble understanding and accepting that. Perhaps you could give him a copy of Paul Ekman’s book “Emotions Revealed.”
So there are lots of things for you and your spouse to talk about, Mrs. Jones, or Mr. Jones. Meanwhile, why not try this: Why don’t each of you try really hard to give the other one what that other person other wants? It might work better than you expect.