Dear Neil: I have just discovered that my wife of two years has had what she is calling “an affair of the heart” with someone else. She assures me that they haven’t sexually consummated the relationship, and says she doesn’t love him, but says they have grown very close and emotionally intimate. She says that as long as she isn’t being unfaithful, I should have nothing to worry about, and that the other person is just a close friend. But she has also said that they once kissed, and I read on an e-mail of hers where they talked about what might have happened if they’d met before she and I married.
I can’t get all of this out of my mind. I feel very threatened by this other relationship, to the point that I can’t stop checking her e-mails and cell phone records. As I have felt more and more anxious, she has withdrawn and has grown more aloof and distant from me. Even if they haven’t slept with each other, it makes me fearful that given enough time and latitude, they will. My wife says that this is all in my head. I say she is cheating on me. Who’s right?
Threatened in California
Dear Threatened: You are. She may not be technically guilty of infidelity, but she’s in another relationship that threatens the fabric of your marriage and you have every right to feel threatened by what she is doing. If this is not an outright affair, it is still an affair of the heart, and that’s very destructive—and can even be lethal to a committed relationship.
Here’s why: First, it causes trust issues in the relationship, where none may have existed before. How well are you going to trust her if you fear she is giving her heart to another instead of you? Or that someone else gets her warmth, trust, confidences and emotional sharing while she becomes increasingly withdrawn from you.
Second, it turns you into an insecure, paranoid, suspicious snoop looking for evidence either that you’re safe, or for evidence that she has left you for another.
Third, it changes the power dynamics in the relationship. Another way of saying that is that it gives her too much power and control in the relationship—and you too little. It is therefore destined to make you unsure of yourself, and fearful of saying or requesting anything that angers or inconveniences her. It makes you jealous and insecure—impacting your self-esteem and sense of self worth—and can easily make you appear weak and powerless in the marriage. And as you behave in weak and powerless ways, your wife will view you as less attractive and desirable.
What’s the way out of this? First, insist that the other relationship end completely and totally. No repair work can happen as long as her heart is with another and you feel continuously threatened.
Second, you and your wife need a very open and honest conversation about what is wrong in your marriage and why there is distance between the two of you to begin with. Look at what changes would have to be made in order for the two of you to feel close with each other again, and for both of you fully recommit to doing everything you can to make the marriage work.
Third, enhance the communication, the connection and the intimacy in your relationship. Do things that foster the connection and closeness between you—especially intimate talking and sharing, and creating a vision for your marriage for the future.
Fourth, increase affectionate (not sexual) touch. Holding hands, cuddling, putting your arm around her, hugging, kissing, snuggling, cuddling—that sort of thing. It brings people closer together, and opens the door for greater levels of closeness, connection and intimacy.
Fifth, increase romance. Back rubs, cards, notes, flowers, sweet surprises, calling her in the middle of the day just to tell her you love her, love letters, compliments—that sort of thing.
What your wife can do is to drop the other relationship and come back to you. She must be willing to give your marriage every opportunity to succeed, and that means she has to find a way to offer you her heart again. Nothing will change if she doesn’t.