The Lover's Perspective on Infidelity
Introduction: I have devoted more Q&A columns to infidelity than to any other subject. That's because I receive the most letters about that subject. This week, I am on the subject of infidelity again, but with a new twist. I am focusing attention on the plight of the lover.
In most affairs, there are three players: (1) the wayward spouse, (2) the wayward spouse's lover and (3) the wayward spouse's spouse. My goal as a marriage counselor has been to help the wayward spouse leave the lover and reconcile with his or her spouse. That goal is achieved in most of the cases I've witnessed. The husband and wife learn to meet each other's emotional needs, ending the risk of divorce and future unfaithfulness.
But what happens to the lover? My plan of reconciliation seems to give lovers the boot, ignoring their feelings entirely. But in fact, my plan does take the feelings of lovers into account, and there are important and positive steps they can take to come out of the situation emotionally healthy and happy.
My plan for the lover is explained in my answers to the letters I am posting this week. The first letter is written by a married lover, and the second by a single lover.
Dear Dr. Harley,
I have read many books, searching for solutions to my particular problem, but I have found nothing that helps me. I have been married for 23 years to a very unkind and abusive man. Even though I have tried very hard to be the wife he needs, he continues to be cruel to me and critical of whatever I do.
A year ago I found myself very much in love with my employer. His wife became suspicious, and threatened to leave him, so we ended the working relationship. I am sorry to tell you we have resumed seeing each other....although the once every 2 or 3 weeks is a far cry from the 5-days a week we were seeing each other when I worked for him. We have tried to stay away from each other, but it never lasts.
Very little is written to help the "other woman". Lots out there for the tempted male, and for the deceived wife, but virtually nothing to help us "others" get free of the desire and weakness. I have prayed every prayer I know to pray, I have fasted several times, I have had religious counseling,....but all fail when this man calls me, needing me. This is the first time I have ever felt truly "loved". The pull is so strong -- if I give him up, I will never have another warm, loving, passionate relationship as long as I live. What do you suggest?
I have counseled and received letters from quite a few "other women" expressing the same desperation that you feel. In many cases the woman's despair is so great that religious faith is either at risk or lost altogether because prayers don't seem to be answered. She sees no hope for herself in her present marriage. Her happiness seems to be found only in a life with her lover, and yet she feels guilty for trying to break up her lover's marriage and family.
Your feeling of love for your former employer comes from the fact that he met important emotional needs that your husband failed to meet. Your husband's failure created an emotional vacuum that was filled by your employer's care for you. You were unable to resist the emotional impact it had on you, and you fell in love with him.
Your employer also had emotional needs that his wife had failed to meet. You met those needs and that's why he fell in love with you. Once you both realized you were in love with each other, the commitment of your marriages were forgotten, and you began to plan for a day that you would divorce your spouses and marry each other. The realities of how it would effect your spouses and children were ignored.
But, as is often the case, realities eventually wrecked your plan. Your employer's wife discovered the affair and did the right thing: She threatened to leave him if he did not get you out of the office. He made the right decision by not working with you. If you had refused to leave, he should have left the office himself.
At this point in your experience, you and your employer should have confronted your spouses with what was lacking in your marriages, and your spouses should have learned to meet your unfulfilled emotional needs. My impression reading your letter is that your husband is still in the dark about the affair, and you have not explained your feelings of desperation to him. But your employer probably followed that plan. Maybe he and his wife are working together to build a strong marriage by learning to meet each other's needs.
Because you are not following a similar plan, you continue to find yourself in a hopeless situation. Unlike your employer's wife, your husband is making no effort to improve his relationship with you because you have not insisted upon it.
If we assume for a moment that your employer and his wife are working toward reconciliation, why would he start to see you again? The time you spend with each other, once every two or three weeks, is hardly enough time for you to meet each other's emotional needs. And if discovered, his wife would be so upset it might ruin everything they have been trying to build.
The simple explanation is that you did not both try to reconcile with your spouses, and your failure left you out in the cold. You both care for each other, and want each other to be happy -- that's what affairs are all about. So when your former employer called you to see how you were doing, you could only report that your husband was as cruel as ever, and you probably felt like killing yourself. Since he cared for you, he agreed to see you again, at the risk of ruining his own marriage. From that time on, you have been meeting secretly whenever possible, because you have not solved your own marital problems. As long as you do not confront your own problems, you will continue to find yourself in this hopeless blind alley.
The solution is quite straightforward. There is a sequence you should follow and once you have completed it, you will no longer experience despair.
The first step is to completely undo what you have done by stepping out of the mess you are in. The man you love is committed to his wife and children. To marry you would create untold pain and sorrow for these people he cares for. He is clearly out of bounds for you and you will never be personally fulfilled as long as you are in any kind of a relationship with him. You should simply never see or talk to him again.
I know you have said in your letter that you have tried to break off the relationship, but have failed. Let me suggest stronger measures. I recommend "extraordinary precautions" to help end an affair. These begin with everyone knowing what you've been up to. Your husband should know that the affair has been retriggered, your children should know, you family should know, and the other man's family should know. They will all hold you accountable, making it much more difficult to see him or talk to him. Your schedule should be monitored by your husband so that he knows where you are and what you are doing at all times. Your email, cellphone, and other means of communication should be so transparent that any communication you might have with the other man would be revealed. Granted, you will still face the symptoms of withdrawal at first, but if contact is completely eliminated, those feelings will subside, particularly if you enact my next suggestion.
The next step is to confront your husband with what it is that needs to be fixed in your marriage. Unless you and he can create the same passion that you had with the other man, your marriage will always be at risk. Follow the recommendations that I make to build romantic love and you'll never again have the choice of either having a passionate affair or a loveless marriage. The passionate marriage will become a reality.
Your employer's wife said she would leave if her husband did not end his affair with you -- a smart decision, wouldn't you agree? What if he had let her leave, would it have been a mistake? No, because she had less than nothing if he had continued in his affair. The same is true for you. Your marriage is less than nothing in its present state.
One spouse cannot save a marriage and all you can do is give your husband the opportunity to save it with you. If he refuses, you leave. Often, leaving will bring a spouse to his or her senses. But if nothing works, at least it gives you a fresh start, and your future is no longer hopeless.
But before you confront him, read one more book. Although you have read almost everything on the subject, you need to read, Fall in Love, Stay in Love. Educate yourself in the best way to approach your husband with your ultimate bargain: "If you learn to meet my needs and stop hurting me, I will learn to meet your needs and not hurt you." If he ignores you, separate from him. Then offer the same bargain. If he still doesn't respond, consider getting a divorce. But don't have an affair which will ruin some poor woman's life and the lives of who knows how many children.
Once you are divorced, then you can develop friendships with unmarried men that may lead to the love you have been wanting. But not before. Besides, it's very likely that a firm and honest approach to your husband will work. I'm sure it will not be easy, and at this time you probably do not even want a good relationship with your husband. But it's the right way to get out of the mess you're in.