Dear Dr. Tobin,
My husband and I have been together 10 years, married for six of those years and have a two-year old. We have a wonderful working relationship and are good partners, but I have always felt that something was missing. Our relationship began not out of romance or passion, but because he was just good company. I never felt in love or matched. And I believe we’ve never truly been intimate with each other. I tried to end the relationship in our second and seventh years together, but he really wanted to make it work.
The first time I wanted to break up because I didn’t feel we were matched. I really wanted to strive for a good life and have a family and he was content with things as they were. I was in college and worked and he had no real job and worked for his dad from time to time. I decided to stay because he loved me and decided that striving for financial success was way less important than striving for family and security. The other reason was that he had a big family that spent a lot of time together and I needed that.
The second time, I wanted to end the relationship because I felt no romance or passion, and didn’t feel “in love.” I cried tons and tons. I even slept with a close friend. I felt like I was dead inside and was very depressed. I was making my husband so upset. I had a home I never dreamed of having, a kind husband, and I wasn’t happy. We didn’t connect mentally. I wanted to be stimulated by something. But again I didn’t leave because I needed his family and the structure of our lives. I decided I couldn’t have everything. I need to appreciate what I have and stick with what I have.
Now, four years later, I have emotional energy to spare and for the past six months I have been trying to channel it. I started reading more, working on the PC, started a little business, taking my son on little adventures, and I’m looking for the “connection” again. The monkey wrench is that I’m finding the “connection” with other people and I don’t want to do things with my husband. I seem to plan him out of whatever I do and have slept with two of my friends. I feel like crap, but at first it made me happier at home. I didn’t feel resentful at home and I felt like I could be myself with my friends and they still liked me. I thought I had it all under control and that I would just have this deviant secret that would help hold me together at home, but now I feel like I can’t live this secret life and that I will ultimately hurt my son and my husband permanently if I continue this way.
I would appreciate it if you could point me in the right direction. I believe it will help me work this out.
Wanting to Do the Right Thing
Dear Wanting to Do the Right Thing,
You’re faced with a very difficult choice, one that reaches into the heart and soul of marriage. In order to help you make the decision that most closely reflects your deepest needs and desires I must first raise some of the questions that you appear to be asking yourself. They are:
- Must I feel “in love and matched” in order to be happily married?
- Is having a “wonderful working relationship” with my partner, “a kind and loving” man, sufficient for a good marriage?
- Is the fact that there is “something missing” (intimacy, passion, deep connection) reason enough to end the marriage?
- How do I convince myself to let go of this powerful need for passion and excitement, which up to now I’ve only found in extra-marital relations?
First of all, let me start by saying that neither I nor anyone else can answer those questions for you. The value choice with which you are struggling can only be made in the deepest place of the self, that pure inner center that is free from the opinions and judgements of others. It’s there that you will find your answer and it’s there that you also must find the courage to act according to your deepest sense of truth.
I would like to share two stories with you. Both stories come from my clinical practice as a marital therapist and each illustrates a different side of your dilemma.
Story # 1 “I Don’t Love My Wife”
At the wife’s insistence a couple in their late 40’s came to my office. They had been married for 18 years and had three children. He began the session by telling me that he wanted to leave his wife. “Why?” I asked.
“Because I don’t love her,” he answered. “She’s a fine person and a wonderful mother but I just can’t stay married to someone I don’t love. For years I’ve tried to convince myself that there was something wrong with me or that I should lower my expectations or that I should just try harder. I can’t pretend anymore.”
“This is crazy!” she cried. “How can you break up a perfectly happy home? Be realistic. We’ve been married a long time. What do you expect? Should we act like newlyweds?”
She was convinced that he had a lover or that he was suffering from an acute case of mid-life crisis and couldn’t come to terms with the fact that he was getting old. The truth was that he had never once cheated on his wife. What she couldn’t accept was that he no longer loved her. To him marriage was synonymous with love and anything less than that was a lie.
He chose to end the marriage despite enormous pressure from his family, community and minister. He lost friends, financial security and for one year following the divorce his three children refused to speak to him. Yet he never doubted his decision.
We may agree or disagree with this man’s choice but one thing is certain – he took full responsibility for his actions. He accepted how he felt, acted accordingly and was willing to pay a very high price. For him being in love was a higher value than family unity.
Are you willing to make a stand for love? Are you willing to pay a price that might cause harm to your children, could lead to serious financial loss for you and would create enormous pain for your husband?
Faced with such a difficult decision, it’s no wonder that you chose to have an extramarital affair. Your affairs gave you the illusion that you could have it all – passion, family, romance and marriage. However you overlooked one serious problem; your sense of decency and morality won’t permit you to cheat and lie.
Story #2 “It May Not Be Perfect But It Works”
Another couple on the verge of divorce decided to make one last stab at saving their marriage. They had been married for 12 years and had two boys. It was the typical marital story: perfunctory sex, indifferent communication and meaningless arguments. An occasional marital affair helped to spice up their rather dull existence. The score was even so neither one of them could legitimately claim the moral high ground.
“Why stay together?” I asked. “Why invest the time and money to try to save what you both say is an empty marriage?”
A long and tense silence filled the room. Finally the wife said, “I don’t expect to fall madly in love with him. I’d be happy if we could just stop hurting each other and learn to be friends.”
Her husband nodded in agreement.
“Good,” I said, “then your therapy will be about doing just that – learning to be friends.”
What’s Love Anyway?
We have this mistaken notion that marriage and relationships are about getting our needs met. It goes something like this: As long as my partner satisfies me then I’ll stay in the relationship. If she makes me happy, then I’ll reciprocate and try to make her happy.
Many of us hold on to an illusion that there’s a perfect partner out there waiting to be discovered. If we could only free ourselves from our seriously flawed spouse with whom we are tragically ensnared, then we could find this mythical lover. My perfect love will be decisive, supportive, kind and attentive. She will adore me, respect me, lean on me and love me forever.
There are no perfect people and there are no perfect relationships. Romeo and Juliet make great theater but it’s hardly a model for real life. Picture this: It’s 14 years later and Romeo and Juliet are alive. They have moved into a split-level house with a mortgage, have two kids, argue about household chores – dull but real. Despite it all, at the end of the day they have a kind of warm – not hot like it used to be – feeling for each other. An affair might add fire, but they figure a warm glow is safer. Better to keep the embers burning than risk the chance of getting burnt.
“Wonderful Working Relationship But Something’s Missing”
This statement of yours captures the essence of your inner conflict. You’re asking yourself, “How do I assess the value of my marriage and how do I determine which feeling is the one that most directly expresses who I am and what I want?”
Story #1 is an example of someone who felt that what was missing in his marriage was of greater value to him than the “good and friendly relationship” he had with his wife. However, if he had decided to remain with his wife both for the sake of the family and because of their positive history together, it would have been an equally valid decision.
One couple’s positive marriage might be another’s private hell. I imagine that there are many women who would jump at the opportunity to exchange their marriage for yours. Having a wonderful working relationship is not a common phenomenon in marriage. I assume that you and your husband share common values and goals and that you manage your family and home in a cooperative and efficient manner. This is not to be taken for granted, and I might add that nothing cools off passion more quickly than constant fights about cleaning, money and the kids.
You can’t compare the easy intimacy and passion of an affair with the complex relationship of marriage. In an extra-marital relationship you have none of the challenges of sharing a life together. The secrecy and intensity of a romantic affair make it a powerful antidote to the daily routine of marriage. However, as you have discovered, that’s not enough. You want more than the easy intimacy of an affair. You want the “wonderful working relationship” of your marriage and the passion and connection that you have found in your affairs.
Should you end your marriage in order to find that ideal relationship? Should you stay in your marriage and try to find the love and passion that has been missing? Again, only you can answer those questions.
Story #2 Continued
I instructed this couple to follow a simple exercise: I told them to focus strictly on giving to one other for the next week. Giving could be in the form of a complement, a thank you, a present, a kind word, a kiss, a hug, a phone call in the middle of the day, a note in the morning, a helping hand, whatever. “Just give,” I told them, “and let’s see what happens.”
At the following meeting they reported that at first it was awkward, as if they were actors playing unfamiliar roles. Yet, they both agreed that the exercise forced them to see positive qualities in each other. What was so enlightening for them was that as they focused on the positive it seemed to expand. “I watched him laughing and playing with our oldest son, something he often does, and it just hit me how wonderful he is with the kids.”
“You know,” he said, “I often get angry at what a neatness freak she is. This week I decided I would turn my criticism into a compliment. I told her that I liked that she kept the house so clean. It makes me happy to invite people here. At first she looked like I had dropped in from Mars and then when she realized that I meant it, she began to cry.”
Loving is Giving and Giving is Loving
You don’t get love on demand; you create love. Love is a choice and an act and it involves the mind as much as the heart. It should never be confused with the spontaneous eruption of the sexual organs which can sometimes fool the heart into believing that what feels good down there is true love. Genuine love is something you build. It comes when you finally decide to make room for another person in your life. It comes when you understand that your partner’s needs are at least as important as your own. And it comes when you decide to commit yourself to being a true lover/giver.
I don’t know whether you will make a stand for love and choose to leave your husband or whether you will make a commitment to remain and possibly learn to love him. Your husband sounds like the kind of man who would respond positively and lovingly to any overtures on your part. Whatever you do you must be true to yourself. If you decide to love/give, do it from the mind as well as the heart, and if you decide to end your relationship, don’t end it by having an affair. End it on its own terms, knowing that you tried to love your husband, but sadly you found that you couldn’t. Perhaps you will be like the man in Story #1 who stood by his decision to divorce a woman whom he knew he could never love. Or, perhaps you will discover, like the couple in the second marriage, that when you learn to give fully of yourself, it’s possible to turn a dull marriage into a loving one.
Dr. Michael Tobin