She Said He Said: Hurt by wife’s emotional affair
She Said He Said
Dear Lori and Jeff,
Recently I found out that my wife has been having an emotional affair. She had been going through some tough times with the passing of her mom. I’ll admit that I wasn’t really available to support her through it, as I travel a lot for my job. She has plenty of girlfriends to rely on, so I never thought she’d get emotionally attached to another man. I know I need to work on showing up for her more, but I’m angry that she didn’t tell me how bad it was getting for her. If she had said she was this unhappy, I would have figured out how to create more time for her. Now I don’t know how we get back from here. We both want our marriage to work, but she’s resentful and I’m having a hard time trusting her. She said she has broken off communication with the other guy, but short of constantly checking her phone, I’m not sure how I can believe her.
Lori and Jeff: Trust is not something that we do or don’t have. It’s a felt experience of being safe and mattering that is built through a thousand interactions. Like a pile of sand it can be largely washed away by one strong gust and require tedious tenacity to rebuild. But part of the responsibility is on your shoulders to get clear on what you need, recognize where in the relationship you do feel safe and own your full contributions to the current situation.
Lori: Crossing a relationship boundary cannot be justified by blaming the other partner. Your wife had choices. If she was unhappy in the marriage and creating an opening to get her needs met elsewhere, that would have been an important conversation for her to facilitate. Regaining trust begins with her taking responsibility for her actions, understanding exactly why she did what she did, and gaining clarity on what will happen differently next time. Saying, “I’m sorry and I’ve stopped” won’t in itself create security.
You’ve attributed the affair to her need for support after the loss of her mother and your travel schedule, but that is a story that may or may not be accurate. It could also be true that she carries from her history an inability or reluctance to ask for her needs to be met or a narrative that she can’t rely on those around her to show up for her. It could also be true that she has been feeling unseen in other important ways that aren’t about her mother’s passing. Whatever part of her was being nurtured in the emotional affair needs to be acknowledged and integrated into the relationship. It could be a need to feel emotionally held and cared for, but it could also be other aspects of her identity that have been neglected or overshadowed in the marriage, such as her wit, humor, intellect, attractiveness or sensuality. Healing her resentment and your trust requires both of you to look deeper than the surface actions to the underlying patterns, fears and stories. She needs to do the work to pinpoint what has been missing and develop the confidence and/or tools to advocate clearly for herself in the future.
Jeff: Many couples establish roles and responsibilities within their partnership without much effort or intention. The simply go with the default based on what makes sense at the time. If one partner has a specific skill set or promising opportunities to be the breadwinner and the other has more relational and nurturing qualities to be the primary caregiver to children, roles will fall along those lines. This dynamic often runs parallel to what happens emotionally between partners. The caregiver holds the responsibility to create and maintain an emotional connection in the relationship. The breadwinner does everything they can to keep the family in the black and doesn’t have much energy for anything else. A great deal of resentment can develop as each partner feels as though their expected role goes unnoticed and unappreciated — simply being part of what is required to make the system work. There can also be an element of guilt in this kind of dynamic, making it difficult to ask each other for more when they are doing all they can.
For a relationship to be sustainable, there needs to be a more intentional establishment of these roles and responsibilities and they need to be more fluid and adaptable based on what each of you need at any given time. If your wife needs more emotional support from you with something like her mother’s passing, you need to be able to adapt to her needs and show up for her during that time. If you need her to take some of the pressure off your shoulders and contribute more to the family’s bottom line, then she must also be willing to figure out a way to make that work. I’ve made some assumptions about your particular situation, and even if this isn’t exactly what is going on, I think you can still use these examples to make adjustments and show up more fully in your marriage.
Lori and Jeff: The affair represents a deeper rift in the relationship that both of you are culpable for. It is time to do a deep dive into what was previously established and see what isn’t working. Create an intentional partnership where both of your needs are valued equally and commit to doing whatever is reasonably necessary to meet them for each other.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Visit waspenrelationship.com/blog-1 for all previous She Said, He Said columns.