Your Mindful Marriage October 1, 2014
Question: I have been married for 14 years to the same woman but I am embarrassed to admit that we very rarely are intimate with each other. We have both had affairs outside the marriage in the past but have stayed together for the sake of our four children, who are now grown. I love her deeply as a partner, friend, confidant and I feel responsible to take care of her because she has devoted her life to me and raising our children. Recently, she has discovered a six year affair I was in by checking my text messages and is furious with me. When she gets emotionally upset with me I just want to escape and contact my ex affair partner for comforting. Nonetheless, I have broken off the affair but still am not motivated to be intimate with her, even though I see she is a very beautiful, successful and interesting woman. What should I do?
Marriages that harbor affairs can fall into a pattern therapists call “Stable Ambiguity”. That is to say that, neither partner is happy with the functioning of the marriage but their drive to change things is suppressed by a myriad of emotional conflicts and obligations. The most common emotion that suppresses confronting habitual affairs and their aftermath is the fear of going it alone. One or both partners realizes that the grass is not always greener and does not want to take the leap of living life in an empty apartment, looking for something to do on a Saturday night, and joining the pool of fish in the dating world. Other reasons people cite for feeling stuck in stable ambiguity is guilt for hurting their partner, or embarrassment about being a failure in the eyes of family, friends and coworkers. For some, it becomes an extended adolescence. Not only do they have a a surprising sense of contentment and safety with with having a stable home with a “mommy” figure but also the freedom to date and have exciting encounters with partners under the radar screen of their spouses’ awareness. Once they are busted and the illusion of having their cake and eating it too dissolves in a maelstrom of their partner’s rage, they are at a loss with where to go next.
The solution may involve what some marriage therapists call “joining through the truth” if you are ready for it. The upside of seeing an honest rendering of both of your needs and feelings is that it allows you to make an informed choice about where to go from here. This would involve each one of you individually taking time aside, perhaps with the help of a psychologist who specializes in marriage counseling to determine what exactly are your values for this marriage and your life in the future. What is more important to you, financial stability, the community of friends and family who see you as a couple, avoiding the trauma of divorce and attorneys, emotional connection and friendship with your spouse, avoiding hurting your spouse, or having a passionate love connection in your life? Usually people want all of the above and are not willing to give up anything so they use lies and dishonesty to perpetuate the illusion of having a functional marriage. The downside of joining through the truth is that if the couple is not ready to make any changes to the dysfunctional marital system, then the marriage can carry on just as it is, only worse now with the added fuel of enhanced fury of the spouse who realizes she is stuck in a passionless marriage and yet feels helpless to undertake the changes necessary to fix it.
However, the good news is that positive change in this type of emotionally paralyzed system is quite possible. The foundation of love, affection, respect, responsibility, friendship and caring already exists. Sometimes in remembering past memories of passionate connection can help revive a stalled intimacy. Some have lost the ability to be mindful of their body’s physical state and sense of longing or desire and need to work to tune into to sexual responses in their own and their partner’s body. For others, sex and marital therapy can uncover these roadblocks to passionate connection. In any case, if the relationship goes forward, each partner will need to develop a holding place for the other’s emotional experiences, the good the bad and the ugly of it. That is to say, development of deep empathy for your partner’s emotional experience means validating intense and profound feelings of loss, fear, abandonment and hurt as well as the joyful emotions of play and sharing of common experiences. However, these emotions need to be discussed and mirrored, not acted out in any hurtful manner as it is never justified to physically or verbally hurt or assault your partner. The closeness generated in knowing your partner more fully and honesty can often create a road back to the trust necessary to unlock the passionate marriage within.
The fact that you are asking these questions is the start of a quest of find the answers for yourself. You are showing courage and curiosity, important elements of finding a solution to this dilemma. Stay with it, the answer for you is just around the bend.