Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 19, 2003
I want my husband to write a letter to my future lovers, telling them that the demise of our marriage was his fault.
I don’t always agree with you, but I do think you are compassionate and nonjudgmental, two of the most important characteristics for an advice columnist.
Now that I’ve buttered you up, I’m wondering if you can help me. I caught my husband cheating on me (e-mail love letter) a few months after we were married. We had dated for almost four years and were trying to have a baby. I left immediately and he was virtually unrepentant, ready to stay with his new flame, and I swear he acted cheerful, as if I was a worker he had to let go and he wanted to make our unfortunate, yet inevitable, parting of ways as pleasant and professional as possible. I was devastated even more by his callousness than by the shock of seeing the words “I love you” written to another woman. Although that was horrible enough.
Well, here I am four months after this incident and still trying to get over the shock. Then last week, on the phone, he told me his therapist thinks that, because his first wife cheated on him years ago and because his boss/friend died soon before we began dating, he had never really dealt with his grief and therefore started dating me to make me happy, I guess in an effort to avoid dealing with his grief. He said he was just a nice guy who told me he loved me because he wanted to make me happy while subconsciously he was really confused and unhappy. And that our trips to Europe and living together and him proposing on his knees was done to make me happy, while “subconsciously” he was really miserable.
Cary, you’ll have to believe me when I say that he didn’t act like he was miserable. We never fought and rarely argued. I’m considered a good person by all who know me. I’m good-looking — people used to tease him that I was too good for him. Friends and family thought I was great and encouraged our marriage. Our sex life was fine, mostly comfortable but we had our moments up to the end. He liked to flirt, but it was more like joking like a seventh-grader — not very sexual. But he was otherwise stable and I never thought he’d cross the line since he was cheated on by his first wife and knew how that felt. Plus he was always telling me how much he loved me, how lucky he was to have me.
I’m in therapy now for the trauma and even my therapist thinks that it is unusual to come across someone so self-deluded and willing to lie. She doesn’t even see the need to explore my part in the breakup since it is so obviously one-sided. I’m not saying I was perfect but I was trying. I had just committed to make a life with this person while he was off starting something new.
So here’s the thing. I feel like this guy ruined my life, and I want compensation. What I want is for him to write me a sort of reference letter that I can show to future lovers. In it I want him to admit that he was mentally messed up, or whatever, that I am a great person, and that the demise of our marriage was entirely his fault. That he lied to me from start to finish, knowingly or not. I’m afraid that without such proof I’m doomed to look crazy, stupid, or otherwise deserving of such treatment when I tell a prospective boyfriend that my husband cheated on me immediately after marrying me. I feel like I’ve been preyed on by a sexual predator, that he isn’t being punished, and that I have to suffer for being his victim for the rest of my life.
Did you ever read “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”? There’s a part where a guy jilts his betrothed and her father makes him write a public letter admitting his guilt to save her reputation. The story portrays this act as useless and desperate. Is what I’m asking my “husband” to do a waste of time?
More Sinned Against Than — Anything
I am so sorry for what you have gone through. It must have been a terrible shock. I think your idea of getting your husband to write this letter shows that you have a good sense of humor, and I understand the lure of this idea. You have been wronged, and it is natural to want justice. But your quest for justice in this case has a tragicomic aspect to it that I think should warn you away from following through with it. That is, such a letter, if framed, could hang in your office. You could also make copies to hand out to your family and to people you date, and to maitre d’s, store clerks, cab drivers and hairdressers. Should you be arrested, convicted and sent to prison, you could request that it be among the few personal items you are allowed to keep with you in your cell. Should you be sentenced to death, you can, as a last request, read it aloud to those assembled in the execution chamber.
Do you see what I mean? You would only be inviting ridicule of yourself by pursuing such a solution. However understandable an impulse, it is a metaphor, a fantasy. I would suggest instead that you focus on concrete things that you can do, right now, to make life a little better while you live through the shock and grief of this event and try to get on with the rest of your life.
Another way to look at it is that by concentrating on having him do something, you are putting the power for your recovery in the hands of someone who does not have your best interests at heart. You need to concentrate on you, not him. Forget about him. Banish him from your life. He’s dead to you, OK? So stop talking to him on the telephone.
When I say you should concentrate on you, not on him, it may seem that I am implying that you are the guilty party. You’re not the guilty party. But you’re the only one who can recover from what happened to you; you’re the only one who can use what happened to become a better, wiser, stronger person. However blameless you are in his infidelity, your part in this event is the only part that matters now. If your therapist isn’t helping you explore that, I can’t imagine what you’re paying for. A therapist is not someone you hire to prove that you were right. Tell your therapist you want to explore your part in this matter, in order to find some deeper meaning in it. If your therapist doesn’t seem to understand what you mean, I would look for a professional who will help you do that. If you interrogate yourself deeply, with the aid of a therapist, you may learn something invaluable.
For instance, you might discover with some surprise just how very much the judgments of others matter to you. That might be why you fantasize about this exonerating affidavit. It might explain why you mention my being “nonjudgmental” as a qualifying characteristic (which, incidentally, if I may be so bold, kind of ticked me off! I guess you were kidding around, and perhaps I’m a little thin-skinned, but it put me on the defensive). And so you might then explore the role of judgment in your past and future life. It may be that your concern with judgment led you to overlook some things about this man’s character. It might also be leading you to overlook things in yourself. Judging may at times be a way of walling off something in yourself, some dark force, something in yourself you don’t approve of that you need to have power over.
As you explore the role of judging in your life, you may find that you have been using it to hold certain things at bay; you may want to explore new arts that affect you in unexpected ways. There is a rich world of emotion, of blood and sacrifice, of terror and darkness, of ecstasy and abandon, of rage, of passion, of laughter, roiling right below the surface of our daily lives; much of it is neither right nor wrong. If you can bring yourself to acknowledge these things, you may find both relief and a new kind of power that lies in the acceptance of the morally ambiguous.
If you can get some distance on your longing for retribution, your feeling that you’ve been sinned against, and your need for punishment and exoneration, you can be less driven by them and perhaps use them to your benefit. They can drive you crazy, but they can also be powerful attributes if you develop them consciously. They might even lead you to your life’s calling. Perhaps you belong in the realm of justice, as a prosecutor perhaps, or an investigator, or working on behalf of an idealistic organization such as Human Rights Watch.
You mentioned sin. I don’t know if that means you are a religious person, but if you are a Christian, for instance, you know the job of judging your ex-husband is already taken care of. You needn’t fear that the judging won’t get done. It will get done. Just not by you. Therein, too, you may find a kind of relief. Let it go, the whole need to judge him. Let God judge him.
So, reluctant and equivocating judge that I am, my final verdict is: Join an African dance class. Sit in a mud bath. Swim. Take peyote. Buy a dog. Get a therapist who won’t just take your money and tell you that you were right all along. And don’t talk to your ex on the telephone.