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Should I Leave My Husband?

Question:

We have been a couple for 16 years and have been married for 8. We have no children. Things have been generally good although 6 months ago I met a guy at work and we have fallen in love with each other. We feel like we are "soul mates", a concept I never believed in before. (He’s been married 23 years and his kid is grown. He’s unhappy and has been separated twice but has not had the courage to leave yet due mostly to financial reasons). Being with this guy has made me realize what my marriage is lacking. I have been doing everything in my marriage, and have not been getting much in return. I have a high powered job with lots of responsibility and my husband works for himself and plays on the computer with his friends the rest of the day. I feel like at age 36 I have grown up and he is still the same immature 21 year old guy I first met. I almost feel like I am his mother rather than his wife. I feel lonely all the time. I have realized that he does not meet my emotional needs like attention, affection, telling me I’m beautiful/wonderful, etc. Also I have always been independent and haven’t asked much from him but now I’ve changed and I need to be "taken care of" more. I’ve talked to my husband a lot about this and he does not feel like he can give me what I need emotionally. He said he was fine with our marriage just as it was. He attempts to do what I ask when I need something from him but later he expresses resentment that I asked him to do something that made no sense to him. I’m in therapy and just started taking anti-anxiety medication. He won’t go to therapy. I am ambivalent about leaving him – are unmet emotional needs reason enough to go? – it is also a possibility that the other guy will never leave his wife and then I will be alone. Is it better to stay in the marriage I’ve settled for than to be alone?

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Answer:

Though I don’t respect your methods (e.g., having an affair), I do think you’ve learned something significant and important about yourself in the process. You’ve learned that you need affection, caring, etc. and are now feeling rather confined by your marriage, which prior to this realization, I take it was seemingly going along fairly well. For you, your marriage is never going to be the same as it was again. Since marriage is a partnership between two people, the same can be said for your husband, whether he wants to accept that truth or not.

You ask whether unmet emotional needs are enough to bust up a marriage. There isn’t a right answer to this question, but instead, people come to their own conclusions. More traditional people who value the form of marriage over its vitality will tell you to stay in the marriage and be stoic. Less traditional people who value a living marriage over a shell will tell you to strike out on your own in the pursuit of happiness looking to fulfill your unmet needs (and particularly so since there are no children).

Myself, I recommend a middle course. There are no guarantees of happiness in this life. While you may have found a wonderful connection with this married man friend of yours, keep squarely in mind that having an affair is like dating in that it is a time when you are putting forth your best behavior. The same attentive man you crave so much now may never leave his wife and family, but more to the point, might be a very different (less attentive, less satisfying) man once you were married to him. I don’t think you can count on this affair working out. I think your best course of action will be to try to work with your husband to see if he isn’t willing to give you want you need. If that is not possible, then and only then, might it be reasonable to pursue a separation or divorce and see what other relationships are possible for you.

You’ve said you’ve talked with him about your desires and wishes and that he complies but only with resentment; that he is not wanting to comply with what probably feels to him to be selfish demands on your part. I feel for this guy. I think you’ve grown up a little bit, just like you suspect, and maybe he has not in the same ways, but you cannot expect him to give you what you need without your giving him what he needs. You cannot phrase what you want from him in selfish terms and expect him to get it. Rather than talk about what you need, make it clear how you’re hurting and how he can help you hurt less. AND reward the things he does to meet you in the middle even if they are inadequate AND treat him well; stop cheating on him of course, and then go beyond that by reconnecting with him and doing things that please him so that he will want to please you too. You can’t expect to demand your way to a better marriage. You have to ask politely, give a diagram, and scratch his back too as he learns to scratch yours. You both can be helped to make this work happen by a skilled marriage therapist; I strongly encourage you both to see one, understanding that he may be thinking, like a cartoon ostrich, that if he puts his head in the sand and doesn’t do this sort of thing, that his troubles will go away.

Your choices are broader than 1) staying in an unhappy marriage with your husband, 2) convincing your affair partner to leave his family to be with you or 3) being alone. If you cannot work it out with your husband, you may decide to leave him. If you leave him, you have the opportunity to meet many men (or at least as many as you can find) and see about forming a new partnership. You risk being alone for an unknown amount of time, but many people find that it is preferable to be alone (e.g., without a partner, not without friends) than it is to be in an unhappy marriage.

Maybe the most important thing I can urge you to consider here is that while it is important to be a fulfilled person and to work for an overtly affectionate and caring relationship, nobody owes you this. If you want love, you need to act in loving ways. It is a good thing to stand up for what you want, but you have to also give other people what they want in return. If you make unilateral demands, they are likely to backfire on you. I hope you will find the sort of relationship you want, now that your eyes are open, but I also hope you will do so in a compassionate manner rather than an entitled one.

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