What to Do with an Unfaithful Wife

Letter #1


Introduction: Last week, I posted letters from wives whose husbands had been unfaithful. This week I am posting letters from husbands who have unfaithful wives. The approach I recommend for the crisis of infidelity is similar for husbands and wives. But there is enough difference to warrant a separate Q&A column.

I have posted five letters altogether, so much of my advice is redundant. But every situation is a little different and my answers to each letter helps summarize the approach I recommend.

I hope by reading these letters, you can see the emotional turmoil that infidelity inflicts on the remaining spouse. It is without a doubt the most painful form of abuse that one spouse can inflict on another. Many have told me that they would rather have been permanently crippled than to have experienced the unfaithfulness of their spouse. And yet, if love is to be restored to the marriage, the response to this suffering must be kindness, patience and understanding. It goes against all of our instincts to respond this way, but in most cases, it works.


Dear Dr. Harley,

My wife and I have been together for 16 years, married for 11. We have two children, 7 and 9. We've never fought much, always got along pretty well. I own and operate a successful business and we are doing well financially. My wife is a sales representative and enjoys her work. We are also making love about twice a week, in spite of our recent crisis. Five years ago her mother, father and disabled sister moved into our home, and three years ago, her father died. Her mom and sister still lives with us.

We've been through quite a bit together but have always been there for each other, until recently. A few months ago I found out she was having an affair. She says she loves us both, and can't make a choice. If forced to, she says she will give up both of us. I love my wife very much and want to work it out. We are both in counseling, but she is spending quite of bit of her time with him. They even go on out-of-town business trips together. He is married and has offered to leave his wife for her. My wife says she is very confused and needs time. She will not tell me when she sees him or talks to him, I don't ask so as not to pressure her. I have always done everything for her to allow her to pursue her career. I am trying to be patient, but how long should I wait?

A.W.

Dear A.W.,

People usually have affairs because their unmet emotional needs are met by their lover. There is probably something that your wife's lover is doing for her that makes her feel so good that she is willing to sacrifice the happiness of her children, her mother, her sister and you just to get it. What is it? What does her lover do for her that is that important? What does he give her that you have not given her? Can you change so that you can meet that need?

The reason she is having trouble deciding between you and her lover is that you both meet different emotional needs. She says she still loves you and that may be the case, particularly since she still makes love to you twice a week. She loves you because you are meeting some of her important needs. Since she says she would leave you both if she had to decide between you, there's a good chance that neither of you meet enough of her needs for her to settle on one of you. But if you could do for her what this other man is doing, the conflict would be ended and your family would be secure. You would have learned to meet all of her most important emotional needs, ending her affair, and the risk of others.

If possible, have a non-threatening discussion with her about what her friend does for her that you don't. Ask her to complete my Emotional Needs Questionnaire so that you can see which of her most important emotional needs you are meeting, and which of them you are not meeting. It's a pretty safe guess that her lover is meeting the ones you are missing.

When you have this discussion, there is the Taker in you (see the Giver & Taker in my Basic Concepts) that will tell you to express your resentment over how much she has hurt you. Your Taker may even encourage you to let her lover have this ungrateful woman, so that you can find someone who will love you the way you are. You will be tempted to lose your temper, to say disrespectful things, try to straighten her out, and give her ultimatums.

If you do any of these things, she will find you repulsive, and withdraw from you more than she already has. It will get you nowhere.

On the other hand, if you can convince her that her feelings are important to you, and you are dedicated to make decisions that are in her best interest, it will add greatly to your credibility. Right now, she is not convinced that you have put her first in your life. Convince her otherwise.

With her mother, sister and her two children living at home, I would imagine that there is little privacy. It could be that when she is with her lover, they have the privacy that is needed to meet important emotional needs. Maybe it's not so much him as it is the environment that she and her lover share that makes him so attractive. She spends many hours each week alone with him, where they give each other their undivided attention. That kind of time and privacy is essential in meeting most of the important emotional needs. It could be that you have not given her enough of your undivided attention in a stress-free and private environment.

After you have established what her lover does for her that you don't do, ask her to give you a chance to prove to her that you can do it, too. Give yourself about six months where you go all out to try your best to meet her needs. And be sure you do not wreck it all by being thoughtless or disrespectful. If she is willing, take her with you on short vacations to places she would enjoy. Integrate her into your life, without making her feel that you are trying to smother her and take control. Never make any demands of her time, just offer her opportunities to become a part of you, and express your willingness to become a part of her.

She probably wants a soul-mate -- someone who she feels emotionally connected to. Somehow, over the past few years, she has lost her connection with you. Your six month effort should be designed to help her re-connect to you.

Don't tell her that your plan is only for six months, because that would constitute a threat. Besides, you cannot be sure how long you will last. But at the end of six months, evaluate your progress. If your relationship is improving, you may be encouraged enough to give your effort another six months. Remember that her state of mind will improve if you are depositing love units and not withdrawing them. She may become less defensive and less secretive about her lifestyle. She may also tell you that she has completely abandoned her lover, and is giving you a solid chance to work things out.

But, if at the end of six months, she refuses to stop seeing her lover and doesn't seem to be responding to your efforts, tell her that you can't take the pain any longer and move out of your house. I recommend that you don't talk to her, don't see her, do whatever the law requires, but no more. The last thing she will remember of you is how kind you were to her, and how hard you tried to make her happy. Never say a harsh word to her, but when you leave, gently tell her that you do not wish to talk to her again. It's tough to carry out, with two children. But if at all possible, have your friends or family mediate so that you don't talk to her when you see your children.

When you are meeting some of her needs, and her lover is meeting others, she has the best of both worlds, at your expense. Your total disengagement from her will break the deadlock and will give her lover a chance to win her over. Let him try to meet the needs that you were meeting. If he succeeds, your marriage will be over. But if he fails, which is the usual outcome, it gives your wife a chance to test the permanence of her relationship with him. When he's faced with meeting all of her needs, he may not be able to meet those you have been meeting.

It's very important for you to leave her before you do or say things that will upset her. You will not be able to compete head-to-head with her lover indefinitely. Your Taker will finally convince you that your happiness lies elsewhere. So leave while you still have the ability to express your care for her.

If, after your separation, she comes to you later asking to give your marriage another try, you will need to determine if she is still attracted to her lover. If there is evidence that her lover really blew it with her, is completely out of her life, quit his job, moved out of state, married another woman, returned to his wife, or done something that convinces you they will never see each other again, go back to your original plan, and learn to meet her needs.

But if she is still tempted to see her lover behind your back, I suggest that you leave the area. There's a good chance that she is addicted to the man, and he is addicted to her. The only way to overcome the addiction is to have a period of abstinence. Moving away is often the only way it can be done.

You have a thriving business and she enjoys her career, too. And your children are settled in local schools. But with easy access to her lover, I'm afraid that he will just keep turning up. Even if your marriage improves, your wife will still want to remain "friends" with this man. It is an arrangement that few husbands can, or should, tolerate.

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