Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: I got married pretty young, and have spent the past decade putting great effort into keeping my marriage fresh and growing. Our kids have reached an age of some independence, which helps, so I’m able to focus more on my husband.
However, my husband has told me he has been developing feelings for an attractive, single co-worker. He has not acted on his feelings and doesn’t plan to, but (he says) he felt like he was being dishonest by not talking to me about this.
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I appreciate his honesty and don’t want to punish him for it. But what exactly am I supposed to do? We already have fairly regular date nights and a good sex life. Some trusted friends have suggested that all he’s looking for is a new challenge, so what I should do is withdraw a little bit to give him back the feeling of pursuing me. I’m afraid that might be equal to standing by while my marriage dies. What do you suggest?
DEAR MARYLAND : I think reading “The Rules” in the ’90s caused your trusted friends to suffer permanent brain damage.
These friends are partly on to something, but in a disastrous package. The advantages you have are intimacy, transparency and trust — which are exactly what you torch by “withdrawing,” i.e., playing games.
There are two common conditions that abet marital infidelity: Growing distant from or sick to death of each other. If you’ve found an attentive but non-smothering place to be in your marriage, then stay put.
The useful kernel your friends offered is the focus on a “new challenge.” Everyone needs those — but they don’t have to be emotional or sexual.
Research into bullying (stay with me here) has shown that the most effective way to combat it among kids is to get all kids — bullies, victims, bystanders — working together toward a group goal, where it’s strongly in the bullies’ self-interest to work supportively with others.
Extrapolate a bit, and it makes sense that a group goal is the way to keep a marriage close, too. Child-rearing is often just that, but the intensity diminishes over time. That’s when it helps to develop something else you and your husband can pursue together. The “what” is wide open — a cause, charity, sports team, hobby, renovation, bucket list — because what matters is that both of you are fully aboard. That will tighten your bond while also scratching the itch for something new.
His telling the truth is HUGE. Huge. It says you’re true partners, that he trusts you, and that he takes your trust in him seriously. Good luck.
RE: MARYLAND: I’m a single woman and am horrified to learn that there is still a good extent of game-playing in marriage. She needs to “withdraw a bit so he can get the old feeling of pursuing her”??!! My goal is to meet a solid partner and leave this nonsense in the past when I get married. Am I being naive?
DEAR ANONYMOUS: The 40-plus-percent divorce rate tells us, if nothing else, that imperfect single people make imperfect married people. There’s no junk-cleansing Rubicon you cross when you get married.
If you imagined anything different, then, yes, you’re being naive.