Should I divorce? I cheated

My husband was depressed. I met a man who treated me like a goddess. Now I'm stuck and scared. What to do?

Published September 30, 2013 11:00PM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I need help. I feel like I've dug myself a hole and I don't know how to get out. About four months ago I separated from my husband. It was very difficult, but I made some demands: for him to get help for his long-term chronic depression, and for us to go to marriage counseling. I actually thought he wouldn't agree to it. I had made the demand before and he hadn't, so this time I had a deadline, and he didn't meet it, and so I left. It was amazingly difficult to walk out the door from my partner of 19 years.

I've grown up with him, but I feel like he doesn't support me. I feel as if I'm in purgatory. I am in this limbo where nothing is happening. Well, we are in counseling. He had seen his own, but stopped when we started counseling together. But our counselor has told him to go seek more serious mental health care. The hard part is I still see him. We connect once in a while and after each session he talks about how he's feeling more positive about things. But we are supposed to "check in" and we haven't been.

Meanwhile I have started seeing my old lover. I need to mention that I was caught cheating three years earlier. He's a sweet man who treats me like a goddess both in and out of the bedroom, but his life is complicated. He's divorced (because of his relationship with me) with a complicated custody agreement for his 8-year-old. I don't know if I could be with him, but I know I can't while my marriage is essentially on hold.

Now a new man has entered my life that I really want to get to know, but I can't. I've lied to him about how far along my separation is, to try and keep him around. I feel like I'm self-destructing! I'm using these men as distractions!

I can't even start the conversation to tell him I've decided that I do want to end the marriage. I go to our house, watch television with him and not talk. We don't communicate even though we are learning how. I don't know what to do!

Participation in therapy was supposed to help me be more assertive and voice my feelings without being afraid of hurting him. It's exactly what the last four years of our marriage have been. If I do something to make him happy without me he makes me feel guilty. I know it's emotional blackmail. The marriage counselor even acknowledged it.

My mental state cannot take this anymore. I've read and reread both "Contemplating Divorce" and "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay" and have come to the same conclusion several times. I need to end it. I just don't know how!


Dear Stuck,

What is holding you back, in my opinion, is that you have not yet faced the moral and emotional consequences of your actions. So let me restate the facts in a way that is almost cruelly blunt: You cheated on your mentally ill husband, broke up the family of an 8-year-old boy, and are now stringing along a new lover by lying about your availability.

Of course, that sounds mean. It isn't meant to. But this is the situation as an outsider might see it. And this is the situation that I suspect is troubling your conscience, and which you are not really dealing with because it's too painful. You may be angry at yourself for getting into this situation. You may be angry at others for not being more mindful of your needs. You may feel they forced you to go to such lengths to get the love and attention you crave.

You are loved. You are not a bad person. You're somebody who sought to get her needs met without unpleasant consequences to yourself. But in doing so, you had to do things that you yourself probably didn't feel comfortable doing. You did them because you were desperate. You didn't see a way out. But you broke a sacred promise, you lied to someone you love, and then you damaged the lives of some other people you don't even know. It will hurt to know this. It will be tempting to try to find ways to avoid knowing it. But that won't help. Only facing it will help.

So you must do some emotional work. You can do that emotional work in therapy but it sounds like that's not happening. Another way to do this emotional work is in Al-Anon, which is free.

Those of us who have recovered from addictions through use of the 12 steps know how helpful it is to own up to our own failings, to admit where we were at fault and make restitution. When we can stop hating ourselves for how we have fallen short, we can forgive ourselves. We can start to love ourselves -- not a sick, narcissistic love, but a healthy regard for our own survival and well-being.

Facing the consequences of your actions is not punishment. It is liberation. Once you do, you will have the energy to mourn, to make amends, to forgive yourself and your husband and others, and to move forward.

That is why the 12 steps as practiced in Al-Anon may be helpful to you. You could look at the things you have done and the reasons you have done them, and how they have caused harm to other people, and you could begin a process of making it right where possible. And then you could begin to live your own life again.

You know, this morning I passed the place where there's an Al-Anon meeting. I've just been there once. I don't consider myself a member of Al-Anon. But I dropped in on a meeting there to find out what goes on and my impression was that it can be extremely helpful for people stuck in painful relationships.

So that's my suggestion. Try doing the 12 steps with an Al-Anon sponsor, and see if that doesn't help. It's quite possible that after you do it, what is blocking you will melt away, and the right course of action will appear.

By Cary Tennis

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