Shattered Trust

Advice on affairs, forgiving and forgetting, retribution and saving a marriage.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published on August 4, 2003 - last reviewed on April 27, 2006

After an Affair

I am a 40-year-old married woman whose oldest child is
leaving for college. My husband had an affair five years ago. I have
worked things out with my husband but still feel hurt and betrayed when
I see or hear something that reminds me of his affair. He does not like
to talk about it any more since he is trying to move on.

It doesn't sound as if you've worked things out with your husband.
It sounds as if he's worked out a very favorable deal with you—in which
he doesn't have to talk about it anymore in the name of "moving
on"—while you get stuck doing all the emotional work of forgiving and
forgetting, which is an impossible task. An affair is a very big deal. A
few points to consider: An affair is essentially a betrayal of trust;
your husband violated the rules you thought you both were living by. It's
not his place to determine when he has restored your sense of trust; only
you can know that. Obviously, there's more work to be done there. What's
more, you and your husband have to renegotiate your relationship from the
ground up. Get the help of a good family therapist, one who works for the
relationship, not just for one of you.

 

Clinging Infidel

After 20 years, my wife and I split up four years ago. Six
months after moving out I began a sexual relationship. My wife found
out and begged me to come back. I did it mostly for our three kids, I
think, and continued to lie about the sex until it came out in
counseling. She forgave me and we remarried seven months ago. Then she
began having an affair. She's thrown me out and speeded up divorce
proceedings. I've begged forgiveness and let her know I truly love her.
I have tremendous guilt for neglecting her. I've gotten extremely
clingy, have followed her, even cracked into her email and read the sex
talks. She says it's over and can't be fixed. Every day I punish myself
and ask her to take me back. Every day she hates me more.

What a painful war of retribution you two are stuck in!! But your
clinging and spying are guaranteed not to prove your trustworthiness or
desirability as a partner, the first thing that must be done if there is
any hope of salvaging this relationship. Get off your knees and onto your
feet. Don't wallow in your guilt; let it be the stimulus for learning
better ways of behaving and acquiring the skills for bridging the
emotional chasm that has long existed between you and your wife.
Demonstrate—don't declare—your respect for her and your 20 years
together.

 

Lifestyle or Love?

I have been married for almost 20 years to a well-educated
attorney and college professor. I was an RN, but haven't worked in 15
years. I also have MS, but so far it hasn't been a problem. My husband
had his first affair in the early '90s. It lasted almost five years,
until the woman, a co-worker, moved. We tried to work on the marriage
and were doing reasonably well until I discovered a love letter to a
woman he was planning to meet in Germany (he travels constantly).
Unbeknownst to me, our son, 15, also discovered this letter, and went
into an emotional tailspin. We are in counseling, but I wonder
constantly what to do. He says he loves me and wants to work on the
marriage, says there's something wrong with him and doesn't know why he
did it. At 52 I'm afraid to strike out on my own and I do have a very
comfortable lifestyle. Yet I worry about the effect on my son (who is
in treatment for abusing pot at a private school). I am losing respect
for myself. What should I do?

It's possible to salvage a marriage after infidelity, but it isn't
easy. There's nothing worth fixing unless your husband shows empathy for
the pain he caused you (and your son), and takes responsibility for the
choices he made, regardless of any problems in the marriage.

The bedrock of relationships is trust; the shattering of trust
through betrayal makes infidelity a true trauma. The betrayal is not sex
with another woman, it's his secretly becoming emotionally closer to an
outsider than to you while you are operating on a different set of
assumptions about your relationship. Healing involves a long slow
rebuilding of trust—by your husband stopping all contact with the affair
partners, by sharing his whereabouts, by being willing to answer all of
your questions about past and present contacts with the affair partners.
Just as important, you have to together design the relationship you both
want, one you can both look forward to—and make time for it.

No lifestyle, no matter how comfortable, is a substitute for close
connection with another human being. Staying in a marriage for fear of
being on one's own does not encourage closeness. Sharing your deepest
feelings and dreams for the future with each other does, and is the
single best deterrent to an affair.

By the way, your MS may not be disabling you but it may be
profoundly affecting your relationship. That you have a condition that is
usually progressive may be keeping your husband emotionally distant from
you. The only way to know is by talking about it in a gentle and open
way. On this you have to take the lead, because his reticence may be his
(misguided) way of trying to protect both of you.

 

Just Friends?

I have been married 25 years. My husband has been talking to
a woman and says they are just friends. He knows how uncomfortable it
makes me feel. This is the third time I have found her number on his
phone and he says there is nothing going on. He says he still loves me
and no one else. Am I stupid or what for staying? My heart can't take
it any more and this is my last time or should I just quit
now?

You are not stupid for staying in a marriage that has apparently
had its share of good years, but it would be wise to consider some
questions now. Has your husband ever had a conversation with his friend
in your presence? Has he ever introduced her to you or attempted to bring
you into the friendship? Is this friend married (not that being married
is any guarantee of fidelity, after all; but if she's single and living
alone it could raise your level of suspicion to, perhaps, orange
alert).

If they're just friends, then there is no reason for him to be
keeping his conversations with her secret from you or to keep the
friendship to himself. Most partners like to share good things, like
friendships, or at least information about them. That's what makes for a
great relationship; you each enrich the other by sharing accounts of
individual experiences.

A few other questions you might ask yourself: Just what prompted
you to go looking for a number? Were there other elements of his behavior
that aroused your suspicion that something was going on? Are there chunks
of your husband's time that are unaccounted for? And save yourself the
heartache of getting into a pitched battle with your husband over his
"friend." Instead find a quiet time to ask him how he would like to make
your relationship better so that he feels free to share his deepest
thoughts with you and not with someone on the outside.

 

Adult Entertainment

My husband and I have been together a little over five years,
married for one year. I recently found out—from other people—that he
has slept around. I confronted him and he said just once. However, I
have found condoms in his coat and we have not used condoms in over
three years; he told me it was for a bachelorette party at the bar he
hangs out at. I know when he is lying, and he was. I have also found
him masturbating to porn and he has profiles active on Internet sites
for finding mates, even on sites for married people wanting affairs.
When I confront him he goes into a rage and says it's for entertainment
only! I have found letters he has sent to some of these women and they
sound like he is having an affair! I have never been a jealous person
but lately I am having a hard time holding my composure.

Marriage, like any other deal, loses a lot of its charm when only
one partner plays by the rules. Still, it's pretty clear that
confrontation is not going to get you the love you want or the attitude
change your husband needs. There's nothing left to gain from
confrontation. He's already confessed to unfaithfulness. And you've got
hard evidence that he's playing around on the Internet.

It's time to talk to your husband. Find a moment when you can put
aside disappointment and anger at past betrayals and talk calmly and
caringly. Remind him what you two first saw in each other and what you
both hoped to build together in marriage. Then ask him what in his own
life or your current relationship he would like to do better.

Consider several possibilities. Maybe he's dead-ended in his job
and looking to be jolted out of depression. Maybe your husband doesn't
know how to state his sexual needs and ask you for what he wants. Maybe
he's embarrassed about what he likes and for some reason thinks it's not
something he should do with his wife. Maybe he doesn't know what
commitment is about. It doesn't mean he won't get sexually aroused by
strangers in bars ever again; it means he just can't act on it.

Maybe there were no real men around in his life when he was growing
up and now that he's on the inside he really doesn't know how marriage
works; it could be that he thinks sleeping around is manly and something
guys just do. Or maybe he grew up in a loveless home and got the mistaken
idea that marriage is the end of all fun. You need to ask him what his
ideas about married life are. This is the kind of information all couples
need to exchange regularly.

That said, I have a question for you: Why is your husband hanging
out at a bar? It's not good for his liver or his marriage; it's an
accident waiting to happen. What's he looking for there? If it's male
camaraderie, surely there are more constructive ways of finding it.
Perhaps you should make a point of being included in the outside
socializing; after all, everyone needs some.

How you and your husband spend time separately and together is at
the heart of marriage. It's a matter for calm discussion and joint
negotiation. You each have to be honest about your feelings and
considerate of the other. It's reasonable to make room for solo
activities—but also to expect that those activities not put either one
of you in situations that could jeopardize your relationship.

If you're not happy about him socializing at a bar, it's your
responsibility to tell him so; you might tell him that it not only puts
him in the direct line of fire with other women, it makes you feel uneasy
and unloved. It could be that your husband really has no clue how much he
is hurting your feelings.

If he doesn't respond with concern for your feelings, then there is
no relationship to save. Better to find that out sooner rather than
later, because the hurt will only grow larger when there are children you
have to protect, and that's a time when your options may be fewer.