What to Do with an Unfaithful Wife

Letter #3

Dear Dr. Harley,

I first want to thank you for you valuable web site. Through it and the concepts that I found in His Needs, Her Needs I have tried to save my marriage. At this point, I am encouraged, but I have some questions for you. First, let me describe my situation.

My wife and I have been married for six years, and had our first child about a year ago. I thought we had a solid marriage. But shortly after my wife had returned to work, after having the baby, she started crying and said that she did not want to be married anymore. I thought it was postpartum blues and that she would eventually snap out of it. But she didn't. She quit working out, slept more, and our sex life became non-existent. She also spent more and more time at work and with a male subordinate. When I questioned her about the time she spent with her friend, she said it was nothing and did not want to discuss it.

As winter turned to spring she seemed to withdraw into herself. Any attempt to break through to her met with resistance and I also withdrew. I thought about leaving her but loved her and my new daughter too much to go through with it. By summer, she seemed to warm up a bit and we seemed to be moving on the right track. It was during a business trip of hers that she revealed on the phone that she was on anti-depressant medication. She started taking it in late May and was feeling much better. But I became upset that she would have kept this from me and she withdrew from me again.

In the middle of the summer my wife's friend from work called in a drunken state, and revealed quite a bit about his relationship with her. She admitted that she had an affair with him around Christmas and had broken it off because she decided he was not what she wanted. We seemed to resolve some things that weekend and it looked like we were headed back in the right direction. Even though I was hurt, I realized my failings and tried to change my behavior to meet her needs.

But one day after one of her therapy sessions she informed me that she had decided that the best thing for her to do was to take the baby and leave me. I was devastated, but was more committed than ever to learn to meet her emotional needs. I exercised more and lost some weight because my conditioning was one of her complaints. I was willing to do whatever I could to improve myself and provide for her better than before.

Over Labor Day weekend we were able to get away without our baby. She warned me not to expect any miracles. It was our first get-away in several years. We had a great time. We talked a lot and I got to know her better than I had in a long time. We relaxed in the sun, danced and talked into the evening. When I suggested to her that we spend more time together, I got the biggest hug I've had in over a year. We held hands during a tour we took and she wanted me to take her picture in front of the bar "where we had so much fun."

When we came home, things continued to improve. She started to thank me for the household tasks I have been doing and she's been kissing me on the lips as I go to work. She also has started wearing her wedding ring again.

But she is still committed to leaving me. When I try to discuss it with her, she tells me that I am not respecting her decision. I told her I respect it, I just don't agree with it. I feel that if she leaves me she will create far bigger problems than she has now. But she insists that everyone else breaks marriage commitment so she can also.

Last night, for the first time, she told me why she has been so angry with me. Four years ago I was underemployed and decided to go back to school to upgrade my skills in order to better my employment chances. I was doing it for both of us, but she felt abandoned by me. I was in school from 4-12 and worked from 12-8. We rarely saw each other. After I finished school, when she was pregnant, I worked hard to get a higher paying job so I could take care of my family better. But in doing that, I spent very little time with her, and she felt ignored. Even though she felt very hurt and lonely, she kept her feelings from me.

I know I am not perfect but I think I have come a long way. She says she feels independent of me, and can leave whenever she wants, but I think I do a lot for her that she would miss. She seems to enjoy the affection I give her, and she likes talking to me, as long as we don't talk about our relationship. This morning we agreed to take it one day at a time. I asked her to give me pointers on what she likes and dislikes and she agreed to do that.

I am concerned with her therapy. Her therapist is having her read books on co-dependency as a way to help her overcome depression. We both have read these books and neither of us really buys it, but she continues to see the same therapist anyway.

Here are my questions.

  1. How do you think I'm doing. Would you make any changes in the way I am trying to work things out?

  2. I feel that my wife has changed from the withdrawal state to the conflict state. Do you agree?

  3. Do I encourage her to find a second therapist or do I leave that one alone?

  4. Should I just try to back off and "be normal" as she sometimes says.

Thank you for reading this long letter. I love my wife and daughter and want my marriage to work out more than anything else. I await your reply.

P.T.

Dear P.T.,

There are many who would have given up on your marriage, but you have shown that perseverance can pay off. You're still not out of the woods, and you will have discouraging moments, but you are certainly on the right track.

It's instructive to see how your neglect was inspired by good intentions: trying to improve you income for your family. But I've quoted the saying many times, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." The truth is, if you neglect your wife, she'll find someone who doesn't neglect her, even if he's an alcoholic. If you haven't already done it, read my article, "Why Women Leave Men." It's neglect.

I'll answer each of your questions in order:

  1. You seem to be following a plan that will restore love to your relationship. There will be ups and downs, but you have been doing all the right things so far. Your one weakness may be Disrespectful Judgments. Stop trying to straighten your wife out. It drives her nuts. She brings the problem to your attention on a regular basis, but you insist on directing her to your enlightened perspective. Stop doing it or she will retreat into withdrawal.

  2. Your wife has definitely changed her state of mind from withdrawal to conflict. That means she sees hope in her relationship with you, and she is letting you try to meet her emotional needs. Keep it up and before long she will be in the state of intimacy. The reason her state of mind changed from withdrawal to conflict is that you went out of your way to show her that you were safe. You tried very hard to avoid being angry or judgmental, and even though you were hurt by her affair, you did not try to make her pay for her indiscretion. Eventually you will deposit enough love units so that every once in a while she will enter the intimacy stage. That's when she will reach out to meet your needs too.

  3. Leave the therapy issue alone, even though I agree with you that the advice she is getting may be counter-productive (see my article How the Co-dependency Movement is Ruining Marriages). Co-dependency type counseling tries to help people learn to become independent in their relationships. It makes sense when you're married to an alcoholic, and perhaps your marriage was so bad that she could see some wisdom in it. But when your marriage becomes great, your wife will see it's principles don't apply to your marriage. Meanwhile, don't try to straighten her out. In fact, your past attempts at straightening her out is one of the reasons you're in this mess.

  4. Yes, you should "back off and be normal," if by that she means you are to stop spending so much time talking to her about how she feels about you. Your wife is trying to help you become the husband she needs, and what she needs is for you to help her, not annoy her. As time goes by, and she falls in love with you again, you may be tempted to talk to her about what was going on in her mind. But if she just wants to put it all behind her, let it pass. Remember my Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). It applies to what you talk about and how you talk about it.

All you need to do is deposit enough love units for your wife to reach the stage of intimacy. But remember, people vacillate from stage to stage, so once she's there, she will probably fall back to conflict once in a while, or even withdrawal. Hang on, because the more love units you build, the longer she will be in the stage of intimacy.

One last thought: You may be tempted to address the "power" issue. She may be feeling that you try to meet her needs in an effort to make her dependent on you. Her occasional statements that she intends to be independent makes me think that she does not trust your motives. She may also be convinced that being married to you somehow robs her of her identity, your very presence overpowers her, and only a divorce can allow her to return to her own self. It's a tough argument to counter because the issue is so emotional, and there are many women these days that believe that sort of thing. They feel they are the victim of men's emotional control over them, robbing them of their very essence. My warning to you: Don't argue with her about it. Let her sort it out for herself. Any effort you make to convince her otherwise will be interpreted as disrespectful.

The marital crisis inspired her consideration of these destructive philosophies, and the restoration of a loving marriage will help her see them for what they really are. You will ultimately drown out the "power" issues when you become her best friend and she loves you again.

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