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Confronting A Marriage Problem

Question:

I’m 45. I’ve been married for 17 years – I’ve been with my wife for 23 years. We broke up for two years about two years before we married. I’ve never cheated on my wife. I love my wife, but I’m not sure I’m in love with her. We don’t agree on a lot of things, and so there are a lot of little fights and arguments. We have two children in their early teens. The problem is, I’ve fallen in love with someone that doesn’t know I love her. I think about her all the time. I see her maybe once a month. I know it sounds stupid, but her personality matches mine so perfectly. Am I going completely nuts?

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Answer:

No, you’re not completely nuts, but you do have a little nuttiness happening.  You do have a problem, however, and so does your wife and your children, although they may not realize it yet.  

We’re all of us taught as children that when we get married that we can expect to live "happily ever after", but the reality of the situation is that few of us get to do that.  It is just easy to be "in love" with someone when you first know them, and much harder to do that when you have known them for a long time.  The first few years of marriage, those years when you are newly in love and do not yet have parental responsibilities, are routinely reported to be the most satisfying.  As responsibilities mount and familiarity sets in that first intense blush of love almost inevitably starts to fade.  Over time, relationships tend to become less exciting.  What saves marriages from destruction is that the intensity of romantic love does not fade away entirely in most cases, but instead cools down to the temperature of (often deeply felt) friendship and companionship.  The responsibilities and guilt trips of marriage also tend to hold it together.  You can read more about how marriages tend to fall apart in our Relationship Problems topic center

So, here you are at 45, in a cool marriage characterized by some low level chronic tension between you and your wife and missing that romantic intensity in your life.  You have two basic directions you could go in.  The first is to go towards your wife and together try to work out the various issues and conflicts that are causing you pain, and together also fan those cooled down embers so as to see if you can get a fire going again.  The second is to go away from your wife and down the road towards an affair.  At the moment you are a few steps down that second road, it would seem.  

Many people trust in their feelings of love even when they are infatuations (as yours is now).  They believe that there must be some magic love dectector involved such that they will only fall into love with people who are right for them.  They also tend to believe that love feelings cannot and should not be resisted even if it becomes common knowledge that those love feelings are leading you in a bad direction.  Both of these beliefs are wrong.  There is no magic love detector that seeks out only true love!  You are just as likely to fall in love with someone who is good for you as bad, and given that there are many more people out there who are bad for you than good (compatibility-wise), you are more likely to fall into a difficult relationship than an easy one if you leave things to chance.  If you recognize that your love feelings are leading you in a bad direction, you can and should stand up to them and cut them off by refusing to pursue the object of your affections.  This action is actually not very difficult to take (e.g., to not pursue), but it only becomes easy when you have really understood that your love feelings are bad for you.  Until that realization sets in, you are still going to be succeptible to those "love" urges and do stupid things as a consequence.  

The nuttiness you do have happening is in your fantasy life.  You have a bad case of "love" that isn’t good for you.  We know this is the case becuase the feelings are intense and yet you don’t have any real experience with this woman.  You don’t know much about this woman you see only once a month, but have a massive crush on her just the same that is causing you to believe  you love her.  Unlikely to say the least if we use a realistic definition of love.  You don’t love this woman.  You love your <em>fantasy of who you’d like her to be</em>.  You have seen a pretty face and/or set of mannerisms, and have filled in all the details with your own hungers.  It is not possible that the real woman you crave could live up to the fantasy woman you’ve projected into her image.  

Here is what it comes down to:  You need to ask yourself, "Do I fundamentally love my wife?".  Is there a level of compatibility you have in common (or can develop) that makes your marriage good enough?  Are you friends even if you aren’t passionate with one another anymore.  Are there ethical or religous or loyalty or responsibility (e.g., for your children) reasons for staying in the marriage that might keep you there even if the rest of the stuff is absent?  

If your understanding is that your marriage is worth saving, then you need to decide to not be in love with this other woman and not pursue that, and you need to committ yourself to repairing your marriage as best you can.  Conjoint marriage counseling would appear to be in order with the both of you in the room with the therapist(s), as you have not managed to avoid fighting and conflicts otherwise.  If your first therapist is not helpful or supportive to you both, find another one, and repeat as necessary.  Stick with a therapist who you both feel is on the ball and offers you useful help.  Do the homework that is recommended and open yourself to the possiblity of falling back into love and like with your wife.  Repeat the entire process as necessary to keep your relationship strong.  

If your marriage is not worth saving, I still think you should avoid pursuing this other woman, at least for the time being.  Instead, focus your energy on unwinding your marriage and handling child custody and support issues in a responsible, respectful manner.  When you are again single, you can then turn your energies towards finding a better relationship.  

Your infatuation is providing you with valuable information even if you have to analyze it to extract it.  It is telling you that you are hungry for love, even if the target of your loving feelings is not useful for you right now (given your situation).  Do not let your fantasy life lead you around the ring like a prize bull.  Instead, be a mature and respectful human man, figure out what you really need (in the context of your whole life and responsibilites to others you care about), and then pursue what you really need (e.g., either a better relationship with your wife, or an honest divorce). 

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