Dear Dr. Harley,
My husband and I were high school sweethearts and married shortly after we
graduated. Our first child was born a year later and I went through a period of
depression. I felt neglected and unattractive, and in a moment of despair, I had sex with
another man, just once, after which I felt terrible. My husband was terribly hurt, but we
stayed together and eventually had two more children.
Fifteen years has passed, but my husband has never let me forgot about my mistake.
Anytime we fight with each other, he always brings it back up. I have had to live with
the memory of my past infidelity many, many times in the past 15 years. He says I can
never be trusted again and he has never forgiven me.
We have also had many loving, close moments during our marriage and we have
been strong, loving parents to our children.
Last week, my husband and I went on a week long vacation, without the children. The
first five nights were incredibly romantic. We both agreed it was our best vacation ever.
Up to that moment, it certainly was. Then on the sixth day, a man at a nearby table
stared at me while we were having dinner. When my husband and I went to our room
for the night, he accused me of enjoying him looking at me. I was so angry with him
that I just climbed in bed with my clothes on. And for the rest of the vacation, our
romantic moments were over. We tried discussing the incident many times before
coming home, but it always ended up a stalemate.
On the way home from the airport, my husband called me some awful
names and we had a heated argument, both saying hurtful things to each other. He then
took our bags to the front door, then ran to the car and sped off, even before the
children could say hello. He left a note in view for the whole family, describing my
infidelity of 15 years ago, and the lack of love and support he has felt he has never
received from me. I wrote him a letter letting him know, once again, how sorry I am
for all of my mistakes, and that we all love and need him.
My husband is my best friend, and in his letter he stated that I am his. I know that our
love runs deep, for each other, as well as for the family. What should I do?
I'm certain that this is a time of crisis for you, but you can also look at it as a time to
resolve a conflict that you and your husband have had for fifteen years. Let me give
you a few opinions and observations, and then I will offer some suggestions.
First, I guarantee you that your affair is not the problem that you think it is. Instead,
it is an issue that your husband has used over the years to get the upper hand whenever
you and he have an argument. It may show up especially whenever you have been
reluctant to have sex with him. It throws you off balance whenever he mentions it, and
makes you feel guilty, wanting to make it up to him somehow. He may also bring it up
whenever you are winning in a power struggle he is having with you.
Prior to the incident where a man was staring at you, you may not have been as
sexually interested in him as he would have liked. A transcript of the discussion you
had on the fifth day may have helped us fully understand what was developing between
the two of you.
At the dinner you may have looked particularly appealing to your husband, and he may
have felt inadequate. His intimidation may have sparked his argument with you, which
was his attempt to put himself back into a position of control. But instead, you became
angry with him and rejected him sexually by going to bed with your clothes on. That
made him feel even more inadequate, and he felt he had to increase his abuse to try to
regain control. He may have thought he needed to teach you a lesson so you would
think twice about refusing him sex again.
But his abuse did not work this time. You met his aggression with your own
aggression. By the time you got home, he had not yet won the battle and the fight
continued to escalate. He decided to raise the stakes a notch and left you and the
children. He also told the children about your affair to punish you for not giving in to
him. Again, he was using your act of infidelity as a way of regaining control.
I think your husband wants to come back to his family, but he wants to come back with
pride, with his head high and with you begging his forgiveness. He wants the children
to believe it was all your fault, that he had every reason to leave, and to regain his
position of control. He also wants you to assure him that you will never again hold out
on him sexually.
The behavior of your husband that you describe to me in your letter is abuse, pure and
simple. I'm sure you retaliated with your own abuse of him, and that's something you
should learn to avoid, too. But there is no excuse for the way your husband left you
and the children. There is no excuse for him bringing up the moment of weakness you
experienced years ago. There is no excuse for him accusing you of wanting to go to bed
with a man that looked at you -- or wanting to do anything for that matter. He is being
disrespectful and abusive.
There's another side to the story, of course. His side. He would explain to me that you
do and say things that hurt his feelings, and whenever you do, he doesn't believe you
love him, or ever did love him. He thinks you do not agree with him enough, and that
proves you don't support him. He may think that whenever you prefer not to make
love to him it's evidence that you don't love him enough.
But I would point out to him that your love for him is HIS problem, not yours. You
love him to the extent that he is meeting your needs and not hurting you. Granted,
there are times that he has done an excellent job meeting your needs, but there are other
times when he's been awful.
In your letter, you say you do love him and you want him to return home. He probably
loves you too, and wants to be home. He has just shot himself in the foot and doesn't
really know what to do next. He has painted himself into a corner.
Those are my opinions and observations. Now, what to do about it.
I would look him right in the eye and say to him, "Listen Buster, do you love me? Do
you care at all about how I feel? If you do, you sure have a funny way of showing it!
I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you. But it sure will be unpleasant
for both of us if you keep treating me this way. You are not doing things that I admire,
you're doing things that I find disgusting!"
If he says, "Fine, then lets just get a divorce and end it all."
To that I would say, "It's up to you. I married you for life, but if you want a divorce,
it's your call. If you want to be in a love relationship with me, however, you're going
to have to treat me much better than you have been treating me. From this moment on
you will never again bring up my affair, and if you are upset with me, you will have to
treat me with respect until we can solve the problem. I will agree to do the same with
you. If you are upset with our sexual relationship, I want us to discuss it as adults and
solve it with mutual respect. I refuse to be treated like this, even by the man I love."
It may take him a while to digest what you say, and he may leave in a huff. But once
it sinks in, he will probably agree with you that at least some of the problem is his.
Pay close attention to my section on Love Busters. You both need to work on avoiding
Angry Outbursts. You probably need to work on avoiding Disrespectful Judgments and
Selfish Demands as well. While you're at it, you may want complete my Emotional
Needs Questionnaire to see if you are failing to meet any of each other's needs.
I think your marriage is secure, at least for the short run. Your husband, to his credit,
still has your love. But he won't have it long if he gets away with this one. The most
encouraging part of this crisis is that it may provide the catalyst to help you straighten
your marriage out once and for all.