Alcohol, Abuse, and Infidelity

By Willard F. Harley, Jr., Ph.D.

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It's not uncommon for a woman married to an abusive alcoholic to try to escape by having an affair. There are reasons why this approach to abuse seems appropriate at the time. An abused woman is often financially dependent on her husband, and could not easily support herself and her children during a separation. So she looks for another man, usually much older, to provide that support while she transitions out of her marriage. In almost all cases, she ends up jumping from the frying pan into the fire. The abusive husband becomes even more dangerous, and the other man usually ends up dumping the frightened woman and her children. As the writer of this letter notes, the man she turned to "turned out to be a jerk."

Control and abuse in marriage are deal-breakers. They are not only a risk to a woman's safety, but they also prevent her from feeling romantic love toward her husband. That's why I call them Love Busters. Selfish demands, disrespectful judgments, and angry outbursts combine to create control and abuse, and every couple should do whatever is necessary to eliminate them. They should not be tolerated. When an abusive spouse refuses to overcome these destructive habits, I generally advise the abused spouse to separate until safety is restored, even if it is financially difficult for them.

But while I recommend separation when a spouse is being verbally or physically abused, I do not recommend separation when a spouse is having an affair. The reason, of course, is that the separation usually makes it easier to make contact with the lover. So when abuse and infidelity occur at the same time, my advice tends to be on a case-by-case basis. This week's couple is an example of cases where I tend to keep spouses together.

SPECIAL NOTE: Some have complained that my standard answers to questions are too long. So in addition to my usual long answer, I have also provided a link to a shorter version of the same answer.

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Dear Dr. Harley,

I have been married almost 11 years and my husband had been an alcoholic for the first 9 years. He has quit drinking for almost two years. But when he would drink, he would come home drunk and we would get into some bad fights. He would take a lot of stuff out on me when I did nothing wrong. He would scare me.

I filed for divorce about 5 years ago because of his drinking, but didn't go through with it. A couple of years ago I did want to leave him for someone much older than me. We talked dirty over the computer and I did send him pictures. I thought we were good friends but he turned out to be a jerk. After that, my husband stopped drinking, and has given up a lot for me and our two kids since then. But I still want a divorce. I have not been happy for most of our marriage.

We do get along better, but I still feel like I don't love him like I should.

Now there is someone that I have very strong feelings for and have had for years. I found out not too long ago that we both wanted to go out before I got married or was not dating my husband for very long at the time. I never thought he would want to go out with me. I found out about a year ago that he did want to back then and if I wasn't married we could see what could happen. My husband always would joke around about me having a crush on him.

I told my husband before July that I wanted a divorce. He has wanted to work on our marriage. I really don't feel like I do. He has been telling me for months I need to stop my feelings for the other person and change. I can't stop my feelings for the other person; he is all I think about.

My husband tells me everyday that I am having an emotional affair. He is on me so hard. It's driving me nuts and I feel like he's pushing me away more. I don't want to hurt anyone, especially my kids, but I know that even they are tired of the fighting. My 8 year old daughter doesn't want us to get a divorce but even she tells me it would be okay because of all the fighting we do.

I don't feel like I love my husband enough to stay married. I am not happy and I do have feelings for someone else. I don't want to go against God but I do want to be happy. WOULD YOU PLEASE TELL ME WHAT I SHOULD DO??????

J. R.

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Dear J. R.

The way you describe your problem, the primary issue for you is that you are not in love with your husband, and you are in love with another man. But when I read the letter, I consider the primary issue to be alcohol and abuse leading to infidelity. If the issue I consider primary is resolved, the issue you consider primary will be solved.

The feeling of love is a very powerful motivator. When we feel it for someone, everything within us wants to make that person a part of our lives. That's why most people marry-they want to be together for life with the one they love. But when they have that feeling for someone outside of marriage, they often can't even remember being in love with their spouse. They usually want a divorce so that they can be with the new one they love.

But I'd like you to consider what got you to where you are today. Your husband's drinking and drunken abuse completely wiped out anything you had ever felt for him. He was making you miserable, causing massive Love Bank withdrawals. So you decided to end your suffering with a divorce. I don't know why you didn't go through with it, but I can guess. You may have found yourself financially dependent on your husband, and decided that a divorce might lead to greater suffering than your marriage ever had. So you tried to find another man to take your husband's place. Your first attempt failed, but got his attention: He stopped drinking. But his sobriety didn't change your ultimate plan to leave him, and now you're working on your second attempt.

You wrote me because you already know that what you're doing is a mistake. But you don't want to continue being miserable, so what should you do? Let's think about how your marriage could change-how your husband could become a safe and fulfilling partner.

First, you must never see, talk, email, or communicate in any way with this other man as long as you are still married. You discovered that this man, who you found attractive prior to your marriage, had been equally attracted to you. And you also discovered that you are both still attracted to each other. How did you discover that? You must have talked to him about the way you feel and the way he feels. That's precisely how most affairs begin-telling someone that you find them attractive and that you have feelings for them. Once that information is revealed, there's only one way to stop the train wreck, and that's to have absolutely no contact with that person for the rest of your married life.

You must take extraordinary precautions to avoid this man that you find attractive. Sometimes I even recommend moving to another city or state to avoid casual contact. Someone should hold you accountable. I usually recommend the spouse, but since he has control and abuse issues to resolve, I suggest you ask a female friend or relative to help you stay away from the other man. At the same time, you should report daily to your husband that you have not had contact with him. But if you do have any contact, you should tell your husband about it immediately.

The biggest challenge will be for your husband. He must get to work learning how to make Love Bank deposits (meeting your most important emotional needs) and avoid making withdrawals (completely eliminating Love Busters). From the sound of your letter, he has made an effort to avoid drinking, but he still needs to overcome the controlling and abusive Love Busters, selfish demands, disrespectful judgments, and angry outbursts that create the fights you have with him. Read together my book, Love Busters: Protecting Your Marriage from Habits that Destroy Romantic Love, and complete the worksheets in its accompanying workbook, Five Steps to Romantic Love. If you can't motivate yourselves to follow the assignments, consider using the Marriage Builders® Online Program or Marriage Builders® Weekend to help get you through it.

But he must do more than overcome Love Busters. He must also meet your most important emotional needs. Your feelings for this other man may have been standing in his way. Don't let that happen. My book, His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-proof Marriage, and the accompanying workbook, Five Steps to Romantic Love (it's the same workbook for Love Busters) will show him how to make massive Love Bank deposits-if you let him. Give your husband a minimum of 15 hours of your undivided attention every week, giving him a chance to make you happy when you're with him.

If you have no contact with the other man, and your husband learns to avoid fighting with you (avoiding demands, disrespectful judgments, and angry outbursts), and learns to meet your most important emotional needs, your feelings for the other man will be replaced by your feelings for your husband.

If you and your husband follow my advice, you won't have to make the choice between marriage and happiness, because your greatest happiness will be with your husband. Give your marriage the chance it needs, and if your husband responds appropriately, you will have made a very wise decision.

Best wishes,
Willard F. Harley, Jr.

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