Carolyn Hax: A husband struggles for next steps with a cheating wife

Carolyn Hax
Columnist September 8, 2011

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My wife and I moved when she changed jobs and started grad school, partly at my suggestion. The combination of changes strained our marriage, and we failed to deal with the challenges while a co-worker of hers became more than a friend. She cheated once and admitted it, then cheated again during our short and current separation.

I have fought for our marriage, but my wife gives every indication of being done with me and overwhelmed with guilt and embarrassment. Her actions have astonished her family and friends — although I always point out that our marriage was in a bad place and we are both to blame for that.

We have talked divorce, and she has taken her things from our home and is staying with a friend. During our last conversation, she began to let her guard down and is clearly feeling the weight of what has happened.


I still have hope, but all the advice I get is to focus on myself and get past this. Any insights here? I feel like I’m watching myself drown and I can’t do anything.

Hoping against hope

I’m sorry. Here are a couple of thoughts:

1. The drowning feeling is normal, and passes. When people suffer a shocking loss, the emotions come rushing in, as if they’re water and we’ve run out of places to hold them. During this time, it’s okay to set no other goal for yourself than to get through each day as well as you can.

2. As long as these feelings are overwhelming you, you won’t be able to think straight — yet, you’ll also have points of such stunning clarity that you won’t believe you didn’t see these things before. It’s as if someone took your world and shook it, hard. Your wife is in roughly that same condition.

3. Finally, you probably added the “astonished her family and friends” part to illustrate that things appeared fine but weren’t, but I suspect there’s also an element of mortification here that this mess is playing out for all to see. If that’s the case, then please don’t give it any more thought. You can’t change what people think, and it’s not as if anyone is new to the idea of marital turmoil. Concentrate on getting yourself well; your inner-circle advisers are right on that one.

Your emotions set their own pace, so work on physical wellness, which you can control. Eat well, try to sleep well, exercise, go places and do things you find pleasing, anything that restores you.

As for still having hope, the best thing for both of you, I think, would be to proceed very slowly. Get used to living apart for a while. Get your feelings in order. Get your words in order; you’d be surprised at the distance between what people want to say and what they say, especially when in distress. Get used to where you are before you try to go anywhere else.

And, most important, don’t try to go back. What you had before is not only gone, it’s what got you here. Even if your goal is to save your marriage, think of it not as restoring the old but instead as creating something new.

Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com.

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