A 37 year-old male Manhattanite “found out my wife cheated on me with at least two different guys. She didn’t want to talk to me about it, and it drove me nuts. I got angry and for months was verbally angry with her. She had enough and told me she didn’t want me anymore because of my anger. We have two kids, and now I am hanging on to my family with everything I have. We’re currently separated. How do we resolve this?”
Just as Emma’s affairs with two men destroyed the marriage in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, I think it’s definitely over for you. Sally disagrees. We’ll make our cases below.
This is a difficult situation for you but fairly simple for me to respond to. We’re not judgmental about any kind of consensual, satisfying, mutually-beneficial sexual practices within a relationship, but cheating is always a no-go. That does not mean that cheating once (maybe twice?) has to be the end of every long-term relationship. It can be forgivable, and it can sometimes be worked past–perhaps even a catalyst for strengthening a relationship–but that totally depends upon the circumstances. Was it a mistake, a crime of passion, a response to sexual incompatibility within the the relationship, something the cheater felt s/he needed to do in order to understand herself and feel whole …?
I’m imagining potentially pardonable situations above, but it doesn’t sound like either of those apply to your situation, unfortunately. Your wife cheated on you repeatedly. She wouldn’t talk to you about it, which means that she was unwilling to work it through with you. She also did it in such a way that you found out about at least two guys and are left with gnawing insecurity about others, so she wouldn’t even clarify things for you. In situations like that, it seems like she was using cheating specifically as a tool to hurt you. She wanted to push you into a zone of anger and hurt that would either a) cause you to end the relationship instead of her, or b) give her a good excuse to end the relationship but blame your anger for it.
I think that you’ll need to start adjusting your concept of family to refer only to you and your two kids, for now. After you’re into that process, and when you start dating again, you will probably find some self-examination to be beneficial. If you don’t want to find yourself ending a long-term relationship like this again, you’ll want to figure out the patterns of behavior that led you into such a bitter break-up, whether or not your role was more active or passive. Therapy can be helpful with that, and you might need the support as you go through your divorce.
Finally, because your mind will be so much on saving your relationship with your family–now your kids–you will need to find a way to positively negotiate with your soon-to-be ex about that. If you can minimize the bitterness of the divorce, maybe you can approach her from a position that’s less about blame and more about “we both know that our romantic relationship is over, but can we work together to make it as easy as possible on the ones we both love?” Easier said than done, I know.
First, let me say that your situation sucks, and I’m sorry for the pain you and your wife are clearly going through. David assumes that you approached your wife (somewhat) rationally and made an attempt to get to the bottom of the cheating that she could have followed through on. But if you only approached her with anger, she may have backed away even if discussion were possible.
Let’s see what we can do to sort this though, OK? For starters, we need to think about why your wife may have cheated. David raises some good possibilities above. I might add, did you both get to sow your wild oats before marriage? Maybe she just wanted to get the chance to try out some things she secretly wishes she had done before her boobs start giving in to gravity. Was your relationship lacking in physical or emotional intimacy that she might have been trying to replace elsewhere? If she went outside the relationship because that’s something she’d need to do no matter what, you might also ask yourself whether that’s a situation that you could be OK with. You can only know the answers to these questions by asking her (calmly), and I suggest you do.
Once you have an answer to the cheating question, you’ve got to try to address the problem and not her self-crafted solution. Is cheating a nice thing to do? I agree with my husband (without giving him permission!) that it doesn’t need to be a marriage-ender. If her cheating was prompted solely by problems between the two of you, then you need to try to forgive each other and do things to get your spark back. Go out together and get drunk and dance till 6 am. Leave the kids with their grandparents and go backpacking in Mexico. Treat yourselves to some fancy dinners. Whatever. Just ditch the acrimony and try to really get to know each other again by doing things that will make you both happy and help you remember why you got married in the first place.
Whatever you decide to do though, you have to let go of the anger. Don’t yell, don’t hate on your wife. Let her know you want to be on each other’s sides. If you need a couple’s therapist, go for it, but you must find a way to empathize with her point-of-view, and she needs to do the same. This is the prerequisite to a solution and if you don’t want to do it, there’s no chance of saving your relationship. Start from there and then choose from the menu I laid out earlier. Good luck to you both!
It’s not for us to assign blame. Your wife’s cheating might be a cowardly, mean-spirited, unprompted attack by your wife. Or maybe you did something–a series of actions or established a pattern of behavior–that pushed her in this direction. The only hope would be or is if you’re both willing to discuss it and make a project of trying to resolve the situation rather than blame each other. That would entail the hard work of examining the personal and sexual conflicts in your marriage.
If you have any interest or hope in saving the marriage, read Sally. If you know that’s it’s truly over, read David. We both agree on the mechanics of the thing, even if we see different resolutions.