‘Judith Ann’ Asked:
Dear Dr. Zoe, I am heartbroken because I recently learned my husband of 22 years has been engaged in an emotional affair (with some physical closeness but claiming not sex) with a woman client (he’s a contractor) I introduced him to. The woman’s marriage was bad when they began their business relationship, but it soon turned towards more personal interactions…attention, compliments, shared interests, shared marital problems, and unhappiness, and it has spiraled into more romantic connections, nights out meeting one another in secret, etc.
I am exhausted and overwhelmed with emotions. I am 65 and retired and that income is not enough to support myself on my own, and my husband’s income isn’t as good as it used to be. He isn’t the best business/finance person.
I don’t know why I’m writing to you, but I found your “…grit anchored in Grace” quote and put it with a photo of my favorite niece (I am a portrait photographer) when she was going through a difficult period. But, here I am writing to you…Thank you, Judith Ann
Dr. Zoe Answered:
Judith, I am heartbroken with you. This is one of the most unexpected punches in the gut that a wife can experience, and it will change the way you see your marriage forever.
First, I know this is super hard, but try not to make a decision about leaving the marriage right now. You have the rest of your life to make that decision. There is no rush.
When you have experienced a trauma—which this is—it’s wise to wait some time before making any big life decisions.
It is important that you remove yourself from his presence until your head is a little clearer and you know that the extramarital relationship is completely over. It is absolutely reasonable to ask him to stay somewhere else for the time being.
Your main job right now is to focus on caring for yourself well. Here are 9 steps you need to take to do this:
1. Allow yourself to feel your feelings about the affair.
Express in words—written or otherwise—your anger towards your husband, your anger towards the other woman, and even any anger you have towards yourself.
Recognize you are grieving the loss of your marriage as you have known it. The second stage of grief is anger.
2. Be kind to yourself.
It’s so easy to slip into self-deprecating talk, blaming yourself for pushing away your husband’s affection and validating that you are unlovable.
It’s even possible that he may blame you for his behavior. Don’t buy into the blame game. His choice was his choice, and he could have decided to end the marriage if he felt it warranted it, but instead, he chose another route.
You are still beautiful, special, and amazing! Don’t allow his choices to warp your view of yourself. His affair says nothing about who you are. You get to define yourself.
4. When the fog lifts a little bit, own your mistakes.
This is not blaming at all, but instead, a mature assessment of the relationship and the ways in which you both fell short of expectations.
5. Accept a new normal.
Remember I said earlier that you would never look at your marriage the same again? This is true, but this doesn’t have to be a negative reality. Your new lens will see it differently, but you get to choose what that will look like.
The view of your marriage will morph and change as you heal. Allow your thoughts to vacillate. Accept that this is the process, and a new normal will fall into place over time.
6. Find a confidant.
A therapist, your pastor, a mentorship relationship, a trusted close friend. I caution you against sharing this right now with other friends until you have had some distance and made some decisions. Two or three of the above confidants are more than enough.
7. Don’t convince yourself that you need all the details of the affair.
An affair is an affair is an affair. It happened. At this point, the level of physicality matters little. Your desire to gather the details is your reeling mind’s drive to control the situation.
You may convince yourself that if you know everything, you will feel better, safer, more in control. It’s a trap. The more you know, the more you want to know. You can never get every single question answered, so it’s best not to start down that path. Basic information about the affair is enough.
8. Finances should not be the only factor in deciding whether to separate.
I noticed you mentioned finances as a potential problem in leaving your marriage. Money is a real issue, especially when two people have built a life together. It is cheaper to live as two than living separately. However, I caution you against choosing to stay for financial reasons only. The long-term consequences to your health and happiness are not worth it. If you choose to end the marriage, you will find a way to make it work financially.
9. When you are ready, approach your husband calmly.
Request that he let you know whether he wants to remain in the marriage and end his outside relationship or end the marriage. This is a tough conversation that will probably turn into many conversations, but attacking the issues up front with clarity is the healthiest way to go.
I know you may be feeling like your world has ended. It hasn’t, although it has changed. Name your fears, accept your feelings, hold yourself accountable, keep your boundaries firm, and you will be more than okay.
You’ve got this!