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Carolyn Hax: Four years into the affair, it’s apparently time to decide what to do

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
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Carolyn Hax is away. The following is from Jan. 16, 2008.

Dear Carolyn: I have been married for 30 years, and our children are grown. For the past four years, I have been having an affair with an old high school friend. I think I love my wife, but I am in love with my friend. I have so much in common with my friend, and we do want to be together, but I feel that I have an obligation to my wife and our marriage. I have a feeling that my wife knows because of the distance between us lately. What should I do?

— What to Do

What to Do: That’s the timely question, since you have just about exhausted your list of things not to do.

Cheating is the obvious one, but it’s not the only one, and maybe not even the worst: People do fall out of love with one person and in love with another, and the seams aren’t always as neat as they’re supposed to be. But four years of overlap? That’s not a seam anymore. The rough side of your character is out there for all to see. People may not recognize it for what it is, but you do.

So clean it up. There’s no good argument for trying to pull off both duty and self-indulgence, not unless your plan is to maximize pain while failing to accomplish either of your goals. I can, however, argue for one or the other. Both have merits and drawbacks — the substance of which, not coincidentally, depends on the one variable here. Your wife.

It’s her life you’re weighing here, not just your own, so give her commensurate say. Tell her what you’ve done, why, and why you haven’t just made up your mind to stay or go. If you don’t know why, then tell her you don’t know why. This is no time to be coy; she deserves the best life she can make of her new circumstances, and she can’t judge that until she actually knows what they are.

For all you know, you may come around to see your duty as a privilege; both of you may come to see this as the emotional housecleaning you so badly needed; or, she may want no part of your marriage of “obligation.”

Not that I’m secretly rooting for it or anything, but she also may celebrate her freedom to pursue the true happiness she’s been denying herself out of a sense of duty to you.

Here’s what you do know: 1. You don’t get to decide the outcome here. 2. You decide only what you contribute to it. 3. The better your contribution, the better the outcome.

You aren’t off to an impressive start. That, however, doesn’t preclude a stunning come-from-behind victory for your more honorable self. Start orchestrating it now.

Dear Carolyn: If the categories are: 1. talk things out, 2. try counseling, 3. break up, how do you know which category your relationship problems fall into?

— At a Fork in the Road

At a Fork in the Road: The answer is a different list: 1. Will anything change? 2. Can I accept that? 3. Should I accept that? Patience, honesty, guts. Good luck.