Have I ruined my marriage and screwed up my life?

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Cary’s classic column from Monday, Oct 25, 2010

I got restless and fooled around and now I’ve come back. Why do I feel I’ve betrayed myself?


Dear Cary,

This is going to sound very weird, coming from a man and all. I’m a pretty well-set guy in my low 50s, good income, very athletic and strong, nice little house in an awesome upscale Northern California area, one brilliant, stunningly beautiful 17-year-old daughter and one equally successful wife of 27 years. Like many couples, the pilot light on romance went out long ago as we both focused on self-preservation (health, fitness, career), domestic duties (cleaning, installing, fixing 90 percent of everything with own hands), and the most important, our daughter, who is absolutely brilliant and bound for the most prestigious engineering university in the world. My dream from the time of her birth is coming true for me.

Well, a year ago, during the 50 percent of time when I wasn’t traveling the world for my work, while commuting to work, a woman offered to help me blog my travels. Yes. I know what you’re thinking. It did. We did. Suddenly, all those feelings that love left me many years before getting married came rushing in. This new woman had everything I didn’t “push” for when I first met my wife and just settled for during 27 years. These shiny-new feelings of happiness and satisfaction were on the rock-star level in life. She had never been married and was seven years my junior and really, really wanted someone to spend the rest of her life with, having been involved with a man who was separating or separated about a year or so prior and before that being with someone for a much longer time.

She is what I’m not. Art-loving, outgoing, a true bon vivant, in that she spends her salary (equal to mine) almost as fast as it comes in (at least it seems that way) on restaurants and lots of little things that make each day pleasurable, nothing like jewelry or expensive clothes or such. Not a bad thing, just a polar opposite of what I’ve been accustomed to for 27 years of solitude and nothingness. What we had in common is what I don’t have with my wife: happy to spend nighttimes reading or seeing movies or just listening quietly to each other read out loud, athletic, motorcycle enthusiast, strong bicycle commuter, appreciative of the outdoors, fantastic in the love department and more than willing to travel and spend all her time experiencing museums, parks, hiking … All these things we did, and more.

I saw what I wanted and over a few months planned and planned. I bought a motorcycle. I got the courage to move out. The most difficult thing in my life was sitting on my knees one horrible night while crying and telling my daughter I would be moving out — this, after discussing it with my wife. My wife let me go, telling my daughter that I have to work this out. My daughter pretty much said, “You guys work it out.”

Well, moving out was a huge fiscal reality shock. I just paid and paid it seemed. I felt obligated to continue my burden of everything that came along with regards to upkeep for our house. I realized that I couldn’t save for my daughter’s future college expense and maintain the most important financial investment I had and have a great time.

This became a burning thorn in my brain. It was all I could think about. I hated it. I hated myself. The hardcore realist in me sat on top of the dreaming middle-age-crisis American male like a big elephant. I also knew that I was sticking my wife with responsibilities that now included being there 100 percent for my daughter. I began coming over for dinner on Saturdays and fixing stuff. Everything I paid for practically terrified me, knowing my checking account was no longer growing. I was now waiting for the next paycheck to bail me out. The thought of looming flood insurance premiums and property tax weighed heavily on me.

My times with my girlfriend were also beginning to erode as she could no longer easily tolerate my not exposing her to family and friends in my life. She hated the fact that I was visiting the house when I wanted. She would break up with me and not speak for a day or two or three at a time. This happened 10 times. I loved her madly, intensely, but I loved my daughter more and my need to maintain my role as a homeowner was stronger. I had no feelings to placate my wife at all. My daughter was everything. Moving her out of the house so I could divorce and divide the assets while she was getting ready for her SATs would be insanely selfish, at least it seemed to me. It would jeopardize her academic success, if not her very future. And, being a Catholic, I have had it drilled into me that selfishness is bad.

Yes, divorcing and selling the house to put the assets away for my daughter seemed asinine, to say the least, although my wife even suggested it once in a fit of upset feelings. A financially astute friend deemed it financial suicide, him being a recent divorcee in the same city. The taxes would lay carnage to the principal, yet I never substantiated any of what he told me, unfortunately. I expressed to my girlfriend I wasn’t easily accepting her conviction that people come out of their divorces easily all the time. I also accepted that I was putting her as No. 2. She was right.

To make a long story shorter, I gradually spent a little more time each week speaking to my wife, finally expressing my interest in coming back, most importantly for our daughter’s sake. She was happy. Now, back in the house, seemingly hunky-dory, my daughter and I speak a lot more and I help her with homework and take her and her friends around whenever I can. I cook dinner like I did before and go to work and come home like I did before. I broke the lease on my apartment, not having completed a year, feeling fortunate for having understanding landlords.

My girlfriend and I have a had a rocky exit, until yesterday. Now, I feel fully horrible. I know she is looking for the perfect man who will spend at least as much money and time doing all the things we did, if not a lot more. I accept I cannot be happy sexually with my wife ever again but am ridiculously depressed about not having her in my life. Before I met my girlfriend, my wife and I had sex infrequently, perhaps once or twice a month. It was quite perfunctory, almost ritualistic, punctual and “sanitary.” Now, the thought of sex with my wife is almost nauseating, and though I did, a month later, I have stopped completely. It’s too much a lie. I just don’t want to anymore.

I’m so sad that I lost my girlfriend and my shot at happiness. The only cure for this ache seems to be to move out once my daughter is more grown, but that is a long way off. I know my girlfriend is gone. I know the only solution would be to accept her back once my daughter was gone, I was divorced and my house-concern was settled. But that is stupid. She said she wants me to be happy with my family now. I feel she has met someone quite promising on an online dating service and wants to amputate me from her life. I’ve deactivated my Facebook page and just want to disappear into work and my athletic endeavors. Perhaps I’ll begin traveling the world again. Perhaps I will immerse myself in graduate school. Perhaps I will get the courage to kill myself or accept the end that may come in my road sports.

Why do I feel like I betrayed myself? Why do I feel the right thing to do was the wrong thing to me? I have no friends to talk to this about.

Feeling Lost

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Dear Feeling Lost,

I love to run these long letters where people tell what could be, if you stretched it out, a novel. It’s all there. It’s a novel that takes place over the course of a year or two in your life. You were just getting along, wondering if this was all there is, then you met someone, things happened, you took it as far as it could go, but there were limits. There were costs involved. Choices had to be made. The costs were too high. So you returned.

And here you are. You’re back. You wonder if you did the right thing. You know more than you did before. You have a story now. You’ve gone out there beyond the fences and seen what it’s like. And now you’re back to finish what you started. You’re back now to raise your daughter, get her safely into adulthood and conclude whatever it is between you and your wife that remains.

I wonder what your wife thinks about all this. I’m just curious. I’m sure readers are curious, too. And we’re curious what kind of man you are; that is, if we were to meet and talk in person, would you be able to be as honest and straightforward and raw as you are in this letter. I think you are quite honest. People will jump all over you, probably. They always do. I suggest you shake them off. There is nothing more honorable than just telling the truth about your own life. People who denounce letter writers do not seem to honor that fact. There is something redeeming in just telling your story. I’m frequently amazed at the lack of respect. But whatever. I’m sitting in this cabin in North Florida now, having rejoined a small group of my high school friends for one of our infrequent reunions. We’re all getting old. So maybe I’m no quite myself, and maybe also I relate to your story because it’s told from the perspective of someone who got restless and thought maybe he’d made the wrong choices and so set out to correct them, and then found that maybe those choices were somehow the best ones he could make.

The beautiful thing about getting old is that big things happen to you and you do gain that gravitas, that perspective, that you wish you had when you were younger. You know what you did. You are not confused by it. You’re facing it.

So this is how we get through it. Why do you feel like you betrayed yourself? That’s one of those questions that only you can find the answer to, but you do need help in finding it. I wish we were sitting together talking. Maybe it would become clear. Or maybe it’s not the right question. Maybe the question is more like, did you betray yourself? What would it mean to betray yourself? Is that the right word? Or is there something more precise. It seems to me like you didn’t betray yourself. Rather, you made a real-life decision. It seems to me like you could have kidded yourself but you chose to be honest about your situation. You’re not perfect. You ran off. But then you came back.

You’re not perfect and life is not perfect and you did the best you could. And then you spelled it out here.

Like I say, in the territory it covers, and in its overall shape, it could be a novel. So you might think about that. There are so many things you need to think deeply about. Writing it out more fully is one way to think it through. What if you were to write scenes? Think of the scenes that truly tortured you, and the ones that brought you to unimagined bliss. Write them. If questions arise in your mind, write out what is going on in your mind. You might find that writing is a useful tool for settling, or clarifying, exactly what you did and why. Don’t get into writing it like a “novelist.” Just write it in the way that feels true to you. I think you will find that some of the issues become clearer.

Since you have no friends to talk to about this, I hope you can find someone who, if not a friend, can at least act as a principled ally, or witness. Maybe there is a group of men in your area that gets together to talk about marriage and divorce. I wouldn’t be surprised. In Northern California there seem to be groups for everything. And it does help to talk things out. It helps immensely, as does writing about them.

So make it a goal, or a priority, to find a group, or an individual, where you can go and feel comfortable just talking through this. What you did was huge. You have powerful feelings about it. There are moral and ethical issues to sort through. It’s very difficult to sort through something like this on your own. And yet, as you say, “coming from a man and all,” many of us tend to hesitate doing the hard work of finding a way to sort through this with the help of others. So that’s my prescription for you. Make it a priority to get into group for divorced or divorcing men, and/or find yourself a talented therapist, someone you are drawn to, someone whom you can take seriously. This might not happen right away. Give it time. But put it up there at the top of your list, and I think you’ll be pleased with the results.

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