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Carolyn Hax: Wife was fired for sexual misconduct. What now?

(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)
3 min

Dear Carolyn: My wife was recently terminated because of an unwanted sexual advance toward a male co-worker at a company party. On top of the pain of discovering her (albeit unconsummated) infidelity and the financial consequences to our family, I am struggling to determine whether and how to forgive her for an act I would not forgive if perpetrated by a man on a younger female co-worker.

I don’t want my marriage to end, and I have not been a perfect partner either. She said she was “blacked-out drunk” and felt starved for attention. It is true that I have not shown much sexual desire toward her in a long time. I might be able to understand and forgive a simple infidelity.

However, this was both not consensual and brought the infidelity into our house, so to speak. How do you move forward in a marriage or romantic relationship after your partner was me-too’ed?

— Confused, Hurt and Ashamed

Confused, Hurt and Ashamed: The same way you move forward after anything bad happens. You ask yourself and your partner tough questions. You sit with the answers long enough to see whether anything changes as the shock wears off and you absorb your new reality. You sift through the contributing factors to see which are relevant, and which need attention regardless. Her drinking, for example. Your libido. Your anger at the financial hit.

You do this work and live honestly with the results.

This is a to-do list that would drive anyone to procrastinate. But you seem to understand that you can’t, so that’s good. It takes a lot of legwork, too much, to find a therapist these days, but I suggest you put that on the list as well. This is a lot to sort out for you both, and it is going to take some time.

Even the me-too part of your question comes with complex emotional homework. The issue seems easy on its face: If you couldn’t forgive it in a man, then you can’t forgive it in a woman — or forgive it in someone this time (where you wouldn’t before) just because this time it’s someone you know.

But that doesn’t mean your only option is not to forgive; you could also rethink forgiveness. Your personal nightmare led you to a really useful tool for testing your core principles.

When a stranger does something bad, it’s so easy. Lock ’em all up, we roar from the uninvolved safety of our couches. But when a loved one does it, we see all the mitigating factors up close: She was sad, lonely, blitzed to the bejeezus. It was a onetime offense. I’m partly responsible too. She has paid dearly and appropriately for her mistake.

Is that enough, is that justice, does that make it forgivable now?

It can be — but then the same thing on the same terms has to be forgivable when a stranger does it. If your wife is forgivable, then when a man whose wife never touches him anymore gets juiced and makes exactly one — we’re not talking serial predation here — unremembered unwelcome sexual advance on one female co-worker and gets fired for it, then he deserves your forgiveness as well.

Or we lock ’em all up, your wife included.

Each one of us can stand to do exercises like this periodically to keep ourselves honest. You can stand to do it now because it’s bothering you enough to ask, and because it will help you move forward — or, at least, get an inkling which way “forward” might be.