We have been married for nearly 20 years. There have been ups and downs, but we enjoy each other’s company, have two wonderful children and still make each other laugh. Sex has generally been good. My husband is older than me, a very sexual person, particularly friendly (to both sexes) and very flirtatious. This was not a problem for me, just an occasional irritation. A year ago, though, I discovered – in a roundabout way that forced him to come clean after years of deceit – that he slept with a former girlfriend when we had been together for a year.
I still don’t know if this was a one-off; he is vague about what he can remember. This all came out when I pressed him for the truth. I am still devastated, not just about the infidelity (easier if it had been a drunken one-off with a stranger), but more about the careful deception that persisted for so long. We were not living together at the time, but I suspected he had been unfaithful and he then admitted he had symptoms of a sexually transmitted infection. He even challenged me as to whether I had slept with someone.
I now feel horribly manipulated, especially as I doubted his story and had sometimes asked him about it over the years, to be met with hurt denials or even an exasperated snort. Now he is terribly contrite and begs forgiveness for his “stupidity”, partly because I threatened to walk away from the marriage.
All this makes me doubt the whole basis of our relationship. How many lies? How many infidelities in the past? How can I trust and respect someone so selfish and determined to put his own needs first, whatever the cost? I recently felt an instinct about something between him and a former colleague. I had never heard of her and he is still in touch with her. I found this out by accident on social media and am now horribly tempted to check up on their messaging. He denies everything. This is torturing me and I feel the past betrayals are haunting me and not allowing me to move on.
I don’t want to burden friends with all this and feel somehow ashamed to. We have a lot of good times together, but I crave honesty and openness.
When I first read your letter, I thought it was “just” about that betrayal, a year into your relationship. I thought, when people first get together and before they really commit, they do sometimes do stupid things so was it, I wondered, really a relationship breaker?
But the more I read and re-read your letter, the more I realised that your relationship has been one long journey of mistrust, deception and self-deception – on both sides. You don’t trust your husband – you have these instincts about him that you ignore for ages and they are sometimes proved right. So your footing in the relationship always seems unsteady. And your husband is lying to you and to himself, and he doesn’t trust either himself or you enough to tell you the truth.
Myira Khan (bacp.co.uk), a counsellor, also looked at your letter. She feels that, less than being about your husband’s infidelity, all of your feelings are “around his deceptions – this is where your conflicts are coming from. There is a pattern. You have these instincts, then when you find out about them [the deceptions], you question the entire relationship.”
I wonder if you are actually really unhappy in the relationship and need a reason to leave because you see being unhappy as not enough reason. So you pick at the scab and, essentially, the very stitches of your relationship.
Khan felt that the reason you couldn’t fully move on was because “you are not sure what you’re moving on from. He’s not coming clean, so you are left with a lot of questions. On the one hand you want answers – but, also, you are scared to know the full picture.”
Khan also felt there were insecure attachment patterns going on. “You get suspicious and confront him from a place of anger and suspicion. It’s not an adult way of dealing with things and your attachment to him seems quite insecure. This keeps you stuck.”
If you want to leave this relationship, it has to be because you are not happy and not because you are looking for xyz to tick off to prove that you are not happy. Equally, if you want to make it work – and less than perfect relationships can and do work – I wish you would talk to your friends.
I kept coming back to one question: what do you want? Your husband may never give you the answers you want, so looking to him to validate or invalidate your marriage may never give you the conclusions or resolution you seek.
This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 10 April 2015.