What to Do with an Unfaithful Husband

Letter #5

Dear Dr. Harley,

A year ago, my husband found himself attracted to a girl he worked with, and as a result of these feelings he began to question his relationship with me. At first he simply told me that he didn't know whether he loved me, that he felt he was playing a role, and that he wasn't sure if he had done the right thing by marrying me.

I could hardly believe what I was hearing! I was 6 months pregnant with our second child, and had always felt loved and secure in our relationship, and never felt that he was unhappy or unsatisfied with our relationship until this episode. I asked him if he was involved with anyone else and he denied it. But a few weeks before our second child was born he admitted that he had strong feelings for his work colleague but that their relationship had not extended past a friendship stage albeit with sexual undertones. He said that he sensed his friend felt embarrassed and awkward about the situation, and that she would never have gotten involved with him in an affair.

When this girl left the country on an assignment, my husband began to refocus his attentions on me. He said he felt guilty about what happened, but that he had no control over it. He said that he wanted us to stay together and be a family, and for a while seemed to be trying very hard to be attentive and affectionate. But he would not say that he loved me. He said he didn't know what love was.

Last month his friend from work returned, but she no longer works with my husband. He says that he has no feelings of "love" for her now - just friendship. In many ways our communication, honesty and openness, have never been so good!. But he will very rarely initiate sex with me - he is affectionate and is very aware if I am feeling neglected, but he does not seem to want sex with me - although he says that he is still very attracted to me. He does tell me he loves me if I become very upset about it and he wants to reassure me, as he will make love to me if I get upset about him not initiating sex anymore.

He says he is trying to come to terms with himself, life and the universe! I am feeling increasingly abandoned and alone He continually states that I should not take his lack of desire personally - that he is struggling to understand himself and trust his feelings again. He says that he is struggling to find meaning to his life - he thought he'd be happy with a beautiful, wonderful wife, two fantastic children, a great job, house and other material possessions - but he's not. He thinks he might be experiencing "mid-life" crisis. He seems really unsettled by the fickleness of his emotions that he can be so infatuated with a woman at work that he would put me through so much pain and suffering.

What can we do to climb out of this painful hole we find ourselves in?


Dear K.B.,

From your description, your husband is still in love with the woman he met at work. If she is in town, I would imagine he still sees her. He mentions that they still have a "friendship." He is probably experiencing the depression and anxiety that usually accompanies an affair.

An affair is an addiction. People that have one lose perspective for what is important in life, and are willing to sacrifice their careers, their families, their reputation and financial security just to continue in the relationship. Your husband is in the process of trying to make sense of his temptation to throw away everything he's valued just to be with his lover. You are depressed about all of this, but so is he, because he doesn't want to lose you and his children, or his lover. He wants to be honest and faithful to you. But he doesn't know how to do it. He needs to talk with someone who can help him understand the importance of total withdrawal from his friend, and that if he does not eliminate her entirely from his life, his family, career and reputation are at risk.

If you read my Basic Concepts, you will find that I define the feeling of love as an emotional association with someone who meets your most important emotional needs. Apparently, the woman in your husband's office was meeting some of those needs, and so he fell in love with her. It happened while you were pregnant, at a time that you may not have been able to meet his needs the way you had in the past. You and your husband may have felt secure in the commitment of fidelity you made to each other, and may not have been aware of the risks of unmet emotional needs. The affair was probably as much of a surprise to your husband as it was to you. He has thought of himself as one who keeps his commitments, and honors his promises. But he didn't consider the irrational power of unmet emotional needs.

My advice to couples who find themselves in the position you were in, pregnant and unable to meet all of his needs, is to deliberately guard against infidelity. In these vulnerable times, a husband and wife should spend more time with each other, and try to compensate for unmet needs. While no one wants to think his or her spouse is vulnerable to an affair, it is the illusion of invulnerability that causes couples to make some of their biggest mistakes. If we all realized that affairs happen to the best of us, we would have fewer of them.

Incidentally, he was probably not meeting your needs either, at least the way he used to meet your needs. So you both needed to improve in your care for each other. And now that your husband is struggling with his commitment to you and your children, he is most certainly not meeting your needs. You mentioned his failure to meet your sexual need, but I'm sure he fails to meet many of your other needs too.

Under these conditions, you run the risk of having an affair yourself, and lack of opportunity may be your only protection. It sounds like you still love your husband very much, and you have hope that all of this will soon end. But your love for him is fragile and he must resolve his emotional crisis soon if you are to come out of this husband and wife. He must come to grips with the fact that he is suffering from an addiction, not "mid-life crisis," and the sooner he puts distance between himself and his "friend," the sooner his emotions will return to normal.

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