Carolyn Hax: Take the lust goggles off when looking at hubby vs. Sparky

Carolyn Hax
Columnist July 30, 2012

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

What are you supposed to do when you meet someone who so clearly highlights everything you’re missing in your current relationship?

I started a new job and have connected on a serious level with one of my co-workers. He’s in a five-year relationship, and I’m five years married. We often find ourselves in these intense conversations and seem to relate to each other on just about everything. No topics have verged on the romantic or suggestive, but I’m strongly attracted to him, and I suspect he feels the same about me.

Also, we seem to be finding more and more excuses to spend time together outside of work. I’ve never had such intense conversations with my husband, and now I realize how much intellectual stimulation I’ve been missing out on in my marriage. And it doesn’t seem like something you can simply “reignite” or “recapture” — that mental spark is either there between two people or it’s not.


Does this sort of thing end marriages??

Intellectual Spark

Often, yes. Sometimes it doesn’t. The important thing is to decide right now that you’re not going to surrender yourself to the laws of unintended consequences. That just leaves a swath of casualties and collateral damage.

Instead, make choices.

That includes giving objective attention to your marriage; you’ve got the lust goggles on, and that means you’re not getting a fair or accurate look at your husband — or Sparky.

That also means you quit playing footsie with Sparky, and stop with the “finding more and more excuses.” Next time he suggests something, you say, “No, this is getting out of hand, I have to go home.” Do it even though your every cell screams to play footsie. (I wish I had a Velcro-ripping sound effect to throw in here.)

Once you’re back on a path of deliberate choices, ask yourself whether you’d want to stay in your marriage even if Sparky vaporized tomorrow. If the answer is yes, then do the work your marriage needs. You can’t reproduce an intellectual fizz that never existed, but you can recall the best of what you and your husband did share and nurture that. Or you can focus on the (many) benefits of being with someone who has seen you at your lowest and is still at your side.

If the answer is no, if you don’t think you can feel or show love for your husband anymore, then it’s especially imperative that you distance yourself from Sparky as you start thinking about a separation.

That is, a separation without imagining Sparky waiting for you on the other side. You don’t know that he wants that or whether you even want it. You don’t know him yet, not really. Ever have a crush burn out? Happens fast, doesn’t it? Leaves you wondering what you were thinking? Yah.

Now imagine chucking a marriage for that crush. Ouch.

You have to assume your Sparky ardor will fade, and manage your life accordingly. If Sparky is right for you, then you can find that out if, and only if, the process of getting your emotional life in order delivers you to a place where you are not just single, but also fine on your own.

Re: Sparky:

Don’t do it. There’s a reason they call it the seven-year itch. It might help if you tell your best friend you have a “crush.” Crushes often dissipate when you say them out loud or laugh about them. I am in year 25 and have had at least three seven-year itches now. They pass. Your long-lasting good thing doesn’t.

Seven-Year Itcher

The question does come down to, “Is your marriage a long-lasting good thing?” Thanks.

Re: Sparky:

A few times I’ve accidentally found myself playing the Sparky role with female colleagues. (About once per decade — I’m now in my 50s). It invariably happens when I’m in a good situation with my existing partner — so comfortable that I don’t even think to look for the possibility that my work colleague is confusing my genuine friendship and interest in her career and well-being for romantic interest. One of the most painful moments in my life was when a wonderful (married!) colleague suddenly expressed romantic interest after a business dinner and I had to find a way to politely say “sorry but no” — a pain redeemed six months later when she sought me out to give me a big hug and say “thanks for saying no”. All the more reason to assume that Sparky may not be waiting.

Sparky Here

I love this story, thank you. Though I picture a bunch of you standing up and declaring, “I’m Sparkus.”

Re: Sparky:

I am on the other end of this very issue. Husband and I have been together for 23 years (since high school), have two young kids. He met someone in the office a year and a half ago, and almost immediately felt that “spark” with her that the last writer mentions. They talk for hours, both at work and by phone (although never in front of me). He calls her from family vacations, on weekends, and during business trips. He feels a “connection” with her that he no longer has with me.

Knowing about his relationship and witnessing firsthand how destructive it can be to a marriage, I implore her to make a choice — whatever it may be.

Anonymous

Painful. Thanks for giving your side, and I hope that if your husband continues not to make a choice, then you’ll make one for yourself.

Re: Sparky:

Also, intellectual conversation does not make a marriage, or any relationship. (I’m unmarried, so take this with a grain of salt.) Sure, it’s important, but so is supporting each other, trust, managing the day-to-day, dealing with each other’s families and flaws, etc. Your co-worker doesn’t have to wear any of those hats with you.

One more point — if you decide the lack of intellectual spark doesn’t mean the end of your marriage, then consider seeking out friends who can provide this kind of conversation you seem to crave.

Anonymous 2

I don’t see any need for added seasoning. Thanks muchly.

Re: Sparky:

Just to give an anecdote from the other side, I ended my marriage because of my connection to someone else. It was not without its own pain (understatement), but my Sparky and I are now happily married, with a kid. Meeting my Sparky and feeling that connection did make clear what was missing from my first marriage. But, in my case, it was clear that those things (the connection, the passion, the respect) had never been there. I am certain my first marriage wouldn’t have survived over time, even if I had never met my Sparky.

Lust Goggles

Thanks for this side, too. Again: Strength of the marriage in question is the key, and assessing it on its merits alone.

Reader responses online at washingtonpost.com/carolynhax. Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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