Adapted from a recent online discussion.
DEAR CAROLYN: My wife and I separated a few months ago. I had felt lonely and unsatisfied in our marriage and consequently developed feelings for another woman. My wife found out, I moved out, and I moved on with my affair partner.
It was the worst mistake of my life. Once the newness of the relationship wore off, we fought constantly and ended up breaking up.
Now I’m realizing how stupid and selfish I’ve been. I had felt lonely and trapped in our marriage because my wife was spending all her time taking care of our kids, and I had grown to resent her for it. But I wasn’t helpful, I wasn’t present, and I regret not communicating with her. My selfishness led to the breakdown of my marriage, and I am truly sorry.
So far we’re just separated, not divorcing, but she refuses to talk to me. I tried calling, emailing, texting, showing up at her work, getting in touch with her friends, but I’m hitting a wall. I haven’t seen the kids because she refuses to talk to me. I just want to tell her I’m sorry. What’s the best way to proceed?
DEAR EX: Showing up at her work? Oh my no.
The best way to proceed is to get yourself well. You’ve had an epiphany, that’s excellent, and it seems genuine — but that doesn’t mean your wife has any reason to think it’s anything other than a matter of your affair fizzling and your wanting to get back to a warm bed again. And your efforts to talk to her have crossed some serious boundaries: not just dragging your problems into her workplace, but putting friends in a terrible position.
So stop. Stop pressuring her to talk to you, immediately. Respect her right to be furious at you and completely uninterested in hearing what you have to say. That’s basic.
A more sophisticated respect for her — and, more important, respect for yourself — means you stop trying to fix your marriage and, instead, get help for the thing that broke it. When you felt lonely and trapped, you didn’t tell her, “I feel lonely and trapped.” You didn’t invest yourself in your kids, you dumped all the work on her. When your unhappiness metastasized into anger, you didn’t say, “I’m angry.” Instead you sought pleasure.
This doesn’t make you a monster — you’re human. But you’re an acutely immature human, in need of remedial emotional work. So get it, please. Good therapy, spiritual guidance, if appropriate, and a good hard stare-down with your frailties.
I’ve found this exercise useful: Scour your past for times you were dead certain you were wronged by someone, and see these incidents with new eyes. Were you really so blameless? Isn’t it possible you just defaulted to thinking you were right, because it was you and you meant well (of course!), but in fact you were partly, if not entirely, in the wrong? Challenging yourself like this is like antiseptic on a cut — sharply painful, strangely satisfying and crucial to proper healing. Get to it.
Meantime, you screwed up as a spouse but you have a right to see your kids. Look up local mediation resources. You and she can talk when she’s ready to talk.