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Carolyn Hax: When an affair turns into a long-term rut


Dear Carolyn:

I have been seeing a married woman for 15 years. She was my childhood sweetheart and we never really got over each other. I know I need to break away, but whenever I try I get pulled back in (I know, I know).

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

She doesn’t know if she can ever leave her marriage. I know she wants to, I have no doubt. I just don’t think she has the strength to. The marriage is not good, but she has adult children that I feel will never accept me and she is afraid they will reject her if she ends her marriage.

She is “content” with our relationship the way it is, but I want more. I have woken up alone for 15 years, don’t vacation, don’t do the things a “normal” relationship would include. I just read a letter I wrote her nine years ago explaining I need more, and it could have been written yesterday. I feel like my life is passing me by.

I know in my heart it will never work out, but it is hard to imagine my life differently. Help! Is counseling something I should consider?


Tell Me I Am Stupid for Wanting Only One Person for 40 Years

Yes, counseling, but skip the “consider” stage and just go.

I’m not going to call you stupid, however. I actually think you’ve been quite . . . well, I won’t say smart, but effective at getting what you want. For whatever reason, you want to be the loving-only-one-person-for-40-years guy. You get something out of the pining, even.

Why do I say that? Because otherwise you wouldn’t put up with it. People are unique little snowflakes and all that, but we’re all quite consistent on finding ways to do exactly what we want. (See, “she wants to” leave her marriage, above. Ahem.)

Again — I don’t know what emotional vacancy this vigil of yours fills; I just see the consistency and certainty of your choices.

Try framing this not as an unrequited-love story, but instead a misapplication-of-free-will story. The mind is so powerful that if you don’t enlist it as your ally, and don’t turn it to something that it has the power to achieve, then you’re royally stewed. Changing other people’s choices isn’t in your mind’s power, right? And yet it’s trained on that. You have the stasis to prove it.

Please break the spell by recognizing the reason you haven’t been able to “imagine my life differently”: You haven’t actually wanted to.

Changing what you want is wrenching, but possible. Ask people who have broken out of ruts of all kinds — generally you’ll find one of three catalysts at work. One is necessity, where someone dumps you or dies or fires you, or you become seriously ill, or life otherwise cuts stasis off your list of choices. Another is the surprise appearance of a healthy alternative. A course-changing opportunity can end a 15-year drama inside of a week.

The third is achieving a state of self-loathing — or just abject boredom with your own stalled self — that inspires you to tear the list into little bits and just do something.

You’re on the doorstep, I suspect, perhaps wishfully, of No. 3. Go see if counseling can heave you over the threshold at last.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at



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