Dear Doctor George...
I have been with my partner for almost 10 years now. In the beginning, everything was great. But, after two years, we started our family and things changed in the sex department. He would be happy doing it every day, but I felt like I was not being pleased and therefore was not into doing it with him. I was working, going to school, and being a mom.
Many times, I rejected him and chose to sleep instead, and we got into many fights over the same thing. I explained that I felt that he was only pleasing himself and wanted him to be more sensitive and take into consideration what pleases me. Somehow, we have managed to continue our relationship and seemed to be happy, even though not enough sex was always an issue.
During my third pregnancy, last year, I found out he was having an affair with a co-worker. It had started around the time I was having my second child. Here I am thinking things are good -- we are expanding our family -- and all the while, he was having an affair.
Of course, he apologized, said it did not mean anything, and that it was just for the sex (although it lasted over a year). He said he wants to make things work and stay with me and the kids.
So here I am, almost a year later, and can't get over it because he still works with her and speaks to her, even though it is only about work related things. I have expressed how this keeps me from moving forward, that I don't want him to have anything to do with her, that the fact that he sees her daily and even has to talk to her makes me sick. He says it is just work, that he won't change departments, and is not doing anything wrong. He says that he wants us to be happy, that he would not risk losing me or the kids again by doing something stupid like cheating again, and that he needs to move on and I should too.
I am confused and feeling like my feelings don't mean anything. I want to make it work but this is holding me back.
... Can't Get Over the Affair
It is a tremendous, mind-altering shock when you discover that your partner has had an affair. People have a gamut of feelings, including a deep sense of betrayal, anger, resentment, jealousy, disappointment, and grief. It is hard just adjusting to the fact that it has happened, and difficult to feel like things can ever be the same in your relationship. This is a difficult journey to go through, and the fallout of mistrust and suspicion can last a long time. You and your husband will need to do much emotional and psychological work for you and your relationship to recover.
One of the first things you'll want is for your partner to realize the damage his unfaithful behavior has caused to your sense of trust. Since he still has contact with the other woman, you naturally feel he's being insensitive to your needs, taking your feelings too lightly, and trying to minimize the effects of the affair.
Doctor George wants you to know that your feelings are legitimate. Before continuing, however, Doctor George also wants you to understand that your husband's feelings are equally legit. It's easy, in these matters, for one person to claim the role of the injured party, and to see what needs to be changed in the other person. Unfortunately, that will never provide a full sense of resolution even if the other person shows a willingness to change. It's better but not resolved. The reason is that by depending on the other person for resolution, we gain no sense of our own strength. We might feel pleased, and even taken care of, but we don't feel any stronger. At best, we go from feeling like a victim to feeling like a former victim, always fearing that it could happen again.
How do we solve feeling like a victim? Many times, it's by honestly admitting our own role in a situation: seeing what we could have done differently. Our level of responsibility is something we an control and so the more we examine it, the less like a victim we can feel. Please don't get Doctor George wrong; there are definitely tragedies that befall people who did nothing to deserve it. But, this is not one of those cases. Secondly, Doctor George is not talking about blame. Blame and responsibility are very different.
Part of your own psychological work, as opposed to your partner's, will be to consider how your behavior and attitudes contributed to the relationship's problems. Couples' problems are rarely a one-way street. In situations like yours, the person who cheats is usually seen as the offender. In reality, if you're talking about fundamentally decent people, the offense began before the "official" act of betrayal. For example, you believe he wasn't being sensitive to your needs -- originally by wanting too much sex and then by having an affair. Then you say that, until discovering the affair, you (as in both of you) "seemed to be happy." Clearly that wasn't the case. You only thought it was true because you wanted to think so. You were having the amount of sex that you wanted, but he was not. To be most direct, we could say that you were as equally insensitive to his needs as he was to yours. For instance, you could have suggested sex therapy as a way to work on this problem.
It never works for one person to assess a relationship solely in terms of whether his or her needs are being met. That should only be a piece of it. If you care for someone, you should not be satisfied unless the person you are with is also satisfied. That's true for significant and insignificant matters. For instance, let's say that you and he are going to have a meal together. You want Chinese and he wants Italian. As soon as you know that he doesn't feel like Italian, you should want it less. You should not be satisfied simply because your want prevailed. This is what happened in your marriage -- he wanted more sex; you wanted less; you had less; you were satisfied, and so you allowed him to be dissatisfied.
It makes sense that you want your husband to do whatever it takes to help you feel better (including changing departments and going out of his way not to have anymore contact with her). But, you should also want to do whatever it takes to have your marriage be balanced in a way that your husband feels better.
For instance, you will want your husband to understand that you did not feel he was interested in your pleasure during sex, and to have him admit if he was using sex for a purely physical release instead of integrating it with his love and appreciation of you as a person. You may also want him to examine whether he was using the affair as an escape from uncomfortable feelings, such as those possibly brought up by his new role as father. He needs to say if there are other issues he's concerned with in the relationship, such as whether he felt angry and envious of the attention you were giving to the kids. Continuing with what your husband needs, he should also be discussing how your denial of sex made him feel as a man, whether that added to his feeling weaker.
Speaking to Doctor George's earlier point, both of you should want to assist the other in feeling resolved. To accomplish this, Doctor George urges you both to go to couples therapy for as long as it takes to address the problems -- on both sides -- and to even consider sexual therapy. In the sessions, you can explore what you two have not been communicating to one another. For example...
- Your husband needs to make an honest and complete admission of the behavior (not including the sexual details because that may only cause you more pain). Likewise, he needs to reaffirm his commitment to not do it again.
- You need the opportunity to fully speak your feelings, your anger, jealousy, sense of betrayal, sadness and disappointment.
- He needs the opportunity to share his feelings about what has been lacking in the relationship and to have these feelings taken seriously.
- You each need to engage in an honest self-examination to determine how you've contributed to the problems in the relationship.
- And, you both need to make an agreement that each of you will continue to work on the relationship -- for instance, scheduling times to talk, promising to share your feelings with each other instead of acting on them, etc.
Once you have both acknowledged your respective roles in creating the problems in your relationship, then you are ready to begin a new chapter in your lives together. As emotionally painful as it is, if you allow it, this could be an opportunity to learn about yourselves and grow. Couples who work through the steps, listed above, can create a stronger, more caring, and mutually satisfying bond.
Doctor George wishes the best to you both.