She Said, He Said: Affair question with a fair answer
She Said, He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
I had an affair five years ago during a very turbulent time in my marriage. Through my own work, I have come to understand my insecurities and protective patterns that lead me to transgress. I have owned my mistake, and in my mind have paid my penance. I’ve continuously made efforts to prioritize my husband and put his needs first to prove my commitment, but he refuses to forgive me and move on. We have kids and manage day-to-day life well together and our connection feels positive when we’re following his lead, whether that’s accommodating his schedule or vacationing to the destination he chooses. But it feels like every time I try to assert my needs and wants, he reminds me of how much he has had to suffer because of my affair. What do I have to do to be on even ground again?
Signed, Stuck In Purgatory
Lori and Jeff: Significant relationship wounds, such as affairs, don’t resolve unless both partners are willing to make the conscious choice to heal and rebuild.
Lori: Five years is a long sentence. You’re asking us for the key to your emotional freedom, and I’m curious about your husband’s response to the same query? What has he identified as the missing piece? The only aspect I see absent in what you presented is validation of his emotions and his experience. I hear that you’ve taken responsibility for your actions and have put in the work to change, but I’m curious if you have been able to create a space to fully hear and validate what your husband felt then and feels now. Sometimes our guilt can be so great that we unconsciously avoid having to really listen to, hold space for and truly acknowledge the full extent of the pain we caused. Even if the validation is only partially missing, your husband may have a hard time believing that you really understand. And if you don’t fully understand, then there’s greater risk in his eyes of being hurt again.
If you don’t feel as though you have a right or the space to ask him, you need to explore why. One mistake in a marriage, no matter how significant, cannot nullify your needs indefinitely. If that’s the marriage your husband is passively asserting, you need to actively decide if it’s a life you want to be committed to. Yes, he made the choice to legally stay married to you after you screwed up, but what you’re describing isn’t an intimate relationship. Perhaps the same insecurities that led to your affair five years ago are keeping you from either asserting boundaries to establish a healthy marriage now or finding the courage to leave him.
Jeff: One reason your husband may be having a difficult time forgiving you for your transgression is that he is subconsciously holding on to the power he has acquired by being the victim of the affair. It might be helpful for you to understand how he felt about the power dynamics of the marriage before the affair. Did he feel as though he had a voice in the relationship? Did he have a strong enough sense of agency and autonomy to maintain his individual identity within the context of the relationship? If there were ways in which he felt belittled, scolded or even emasculated, he may be using this opportunity to feel justified in holding it over your head for as long as he possibly can. It is important to reiterate that these patterns of behavior are most likely happening subconsciously, with little malicious intention. Sometimes when we feel powerless, we grab on to whatever we can to try to right the leaning ship.
If, after being completely honest with yourself, the answers to the above questions are still hard “nos,” then I agree with Lori, and you will need to start setting some stronger boundaries, with a stipulation that he work toward letting go of the past or letting go of the marriage.
Lori and Jeff: Both partners often play a role in creating an environment for an affair, and both partners need to be active participants in finding resolution and rebuilding the marriage. If there isn’t an equal willingness on your husband’s part to heal and let go, you need to decide if it’s worth fighting for.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit http://www.aspenrelationshipcoaching.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.