Dear Carolyn: Last month I found out that my husband of four decades had an “emotional affair” for the past year. He is 60 and she is a 32-year-old at his workplace. After I questioned her frequent calls, he would always blow me off with one excuse or another. When our (grown) daughter questioned the appropriateness, he started deleting calls and text messages. I checked our bill and was shocked to discover hundreds of calls and text messages between them.
I printed out several bills and confronted him. He stated that we’re-just-friends excuse that cheating husbands often use. I was so full of rage that I became obsessed with checking the times and dates of calls and texts. Sometimes the calls would last close to an hour. They would call each other as soon as I left the house for 20 minutes or when he was out walking the dog. This from a man who can barely stay on the phone with me (or his kids) for five minutes! He was always one to brag how he never cheated on his wife like so many other guys!
He has apologized many times, swears there was never anything “physical” and says he was stupid for being flattered that a 32-year-old would spend time talking to him. He called the week I found out “the worst week of my life” — and I have to say, “Good!” Perhaps he was only upset he had been caught?
Since then he has called me a lot more, and been more attentive, but I still do not trust him while he’s at work with her. He’s been true to his word that there were no more calls or texts after I found out. He keeps saying he wants to stay married and she is nothing more than a friend, but I am still full of anger that he would allow this intrusion into our marriage. I think she is a predator.
I have seen a therapist to figure out how to deal with this. Do you think I will ever be able to trust him again? How do I get over my anger? This is always on my mind and I often have trouble sleeping. In a weird irony, he will soon no longer be working there, for unrelated reasons. — Anonymous
That’s not irony, that’s a gift.And I realize what I’m about to suggest is counter to everything your feelings are telling you right now, and is likely to offend your sense of justice.
However, here it is anyway: Please consider regarding your husband with sympathy.
I’m not minimizing his betrayal. In fact, he made a huge mistake that caused huge damage to a huge element of his life — you — and it’s in this very hugeness that the potential for sympathy lies. Why does someone starting his seventh decade of life and fifth decade of marriage, who is well-established in a highly respected profession (edited from the letter to preserve your privacy), who has raised children and apparently hasn’t strayed before, abuse his cellphone like a teenager with a woman half his age?
Because he’s a person and people are fools, that’s why.
We’re especially moronic when a little harmless-looking, ego-pumping thrill ambles by after a long stretch of dependability, predictability, and, often, high performance in service of institutions both societally and personally revered, be they marriage, family, clients/patients/customers/readers/students/congregants/voters/fans.
Not everyone cannonballs into stupid the way your husband did, like an 8-year-old at a pool, and so your anger is justified. You’ve served your institutions, too — where’s your juvenile fun?
But even when it’s justified, your anger punishes you more than it does your husband, and that’s why it’s so important for you to find a way to face it, break it down and purge it from your home. Good counseling will help, I think, since you can unload at will there and bring a more reasoned self to bear on your marriage.
But his response — specifically, your reaction to it — defines this process. Do you believe him? That he felt flattered then, feels stupid now, wants to stay married, sees the extra attention toward you as show-his-love rather than save-his-butt?
If no, you go.
If yes, though, then that’s the root system for trust: He’s not evil, he’s weak. Believing him means he’s facing the truth of his actions and choosing the decency path. It’s unfortunate that leaving the path is sometimes what it takes for people to appreciate its comforts. But if your husband’s back on it, and you want to walk with him, then the question you need to answer is, what do you need — from him, from yourself — to forgive the weakness in him? I wonder if his admitting that “just friends” is a howler will do.
Write to Tell Me About It, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or firstname.lastname@example.org.