Q: I am a married man and father of one beautiful 3-year-old boy. For Christmas my wife and I got a new computer to share, set up with her email account. So, after Christmas I notice an email in my wife’s “sent” box. Apparently in September she had responded to a cheater’s ad in Craigslist. She had coffee with this man. Nothing else because luckily he was older than he let on.
I’m completely devastated by this. My wife feels terrible and says she loves me and wants to stay with me. I very much love her too. And I take responsibility for the things I did to drive her to do something like that.
But I can’t stop thinking about this. The words in the email she wrote this man really hurt me deeply. And I know her past affairs shouldn’t matter but, before she met me, she would exclusively date married men. This always bothered me because I think it shows a lack of character. But over our seven years together I’ve managed to put those feelings aside.
Now she’s seen a married man behind my back and it’s awoken all of those feelings. We’ve been talking a lot and making love a lot, just trying to get through this. But I can only manage to stay positive for short moments throughout the day. No matter what happens, that email, and picturing her drinking coffee with this man, just creep right back into my head.
I’m tired of feeling this way and I’m tired of bringing it up every night. I really, truly love this woman and believe she really loves me too. Any thoughts on how to get over this?
A: Rough situation, I’m sorry. It sounds as if you’re being very generous with your wife in trying to forgive and hold the marriage together.
That in itself isn’t a problem – but you need to be careful how you choose to be generous, and about what.
That’s because one similar decision years ago has actually just backfired on you. I love the kindness of your sentiment that “her past affairs shouldn’t matter,” and tend to agree – but advise applying it in a much more limited way than you do.
Namely, past affairs don’t matter when they’ve brought someone to the version of themselves that you now know and love.
This rests on a three-part foundation:
▪ The person with the past in question has learned and grown from it, examined it, understood its causes and consequences. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, deploring past actions – people can look upon their wild pasts fondly and still be good, committed partners to someone. They just need to be ready to let those adventures remain in the past, and feel calm where they once were governed by impulse and churn.
▪ The partner accepts the past for what it is. No denying, dressing up, rationalizing away. If the only way a person can live with a partner’s sketchy history is to minimize the extent and implications it, then that’s a disservice to both halves of the couple. You can’t be with people fully if you need to block out parts of who they are.
▪ And of course the past has to be in the past. The most obvious component, perhaps, but it can also be the most difficult to pin down because it’s impossible to guarantee people will stop doing X just because they say they will. That’s why you both need to own the past enough to be open about it: Openness is your entire risk-management plan. Person articulates the poor choices and the reasons for them and also why they won’t happen again; partner articulates concerns about the character implications of such choices, and also why they don’t apply here (assuming the partner would break up if the person’s character were actively in question). Each person has to pass the other’s laugh test.
Which brings us to now. Judging from your letter, you two went forward without any of these elements. Neither of you took that deeper look into her married-man issue; you even admit you had doubts about her character but “put those feelings aside.”
And that is the backfire, that is why painful images keep creeping back into your head, that is why you’re bringing it up every night. You are trying to go back to seeing the version of your wife you got yourself to believe in seven years ago – assuming blame, even – when you can’t go back. Not after your recent rude awakening.
Instead, both of you need to do what you apparently didn’t before. You have to let the honest, unrationalized versions of yourselves get to know each other. Given the stakes for your son, consider navigating this with the help of a skilled marriage counselor.
However you get there: If you find your way to love on these terms, then it might be scarier but also stronger, because this time it’ll rest on the truth.
Email Carolyn at email@example.com.