BIANCA BAGNARELLI

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

Months ago, on a business trip, a female co-worker and I attempted to meet up with others for drinks, but when everyone else bailed, we decided to still go out. After multiple rounds of drinks, barhopping, and great conversation, I realized we had an intense connection. We had all the same interests, the same sense of humor, and we both really enjoyed the other’s company and quirkiness. It was like meeting the other half of me that I didn’t even know had been missing.

After the business trip, we continued to talk and meet up for drinks. The feelings got stronger and I shared information with her that I had never told anyone. I felt I could be my genuine self with her, which is a feeling that I have not had in a long time. The way she looks at me still gives me chills as I write this.

Great, right? Well, yes, but I’m married. With a daughter. And another baby on the way. (My co-worker is single with no kids.)

I have never been truly happy in my marriage. Yes, there were times when I was happy, but not truly happy. My wife and I broke up prior to getting married, because I recognized that I wasn’t happy back then, but we got back together shortly after because I felt guilted by family and friends. We have been together since high school, so I don’t think I truly knew how connected two people could be until I met this other woman. I compare my marriage to vanilla ice cream. It’s good until you’ve had Rocky Road, then wow! I was content in my marriage. I have a good life, good job, nice house, and all the things that come with that. But now I feel like there’s more out there.

Eventually, my wife found out about this, but she still wants to work on our marriage. For me, there’s a comfort in staying in the marriage. It’s just that I have difficulty being my true self with my wife. That, combined with the lack of intimacy in our relationship, makes me wonder if I would be happier with a divorce. I still love my wife, but I am just not in love with her. There is no more spark.

We’ve tried marriage counseling, but I think it has actually made things worse, because I have learned to express my feelings more, and my wife doesn’t like that I oppose her ideas or express that something she says upsets or hurts me. I feel much better when I am actually heard, but the resulting fights are frustrating because they are fruitless.

So I am left wondering: Do I stay in a mediocre marriage for the kids, or do I leave for my own interest? When I look down either road, I can see only fear and regret. Any advice?

Andrew


Dear Andrew,

I hear that you really want an answer, but what is obvious from your letter is that you aren’t ready to make this decision yet. To be ready, you’ll need to get to a place of deep knowing (which is different from a place of impulsive desire) and consider more fully who your “true self” is. Most important, you’ll need to take time to figure out your path forward.

Let’s start with your excitement about your co-worker. Experiencing such an intense mutual connection feels wonderful, and your task now is to understand the nature of it better. For instance, you met your wife in high school, so presumably you haven’t had extensive dating experience, and this initial infatuation feels novel. It’s worth exploring how much these strong feelings are uniquely related to this particular woman and how much they’re a reaction to the state of your marriage and your need to feel heard and desired. (Often, the greatest aphrodisiac is another person’s desire.)

You say the spark is no longer in your marriage (and on a positive note, you remember the spark), but many parents entrenched in the day-to-day with infants or toddlers feel this way, and seek out, either in fantasy or reality, a welcome escape from the sometimes mundane, roommate-like existence that couples can fall into during this phase of life. It also sounds like communication issues have long been present in your marriage (I imagine that you two didn’t talk much about why you decided to break up before getting married and what would be different when you got back together). Communication issues can lead to a person feeling emotionally unavailable, and many people who feel that way come alive in the presence of a shiny new potential partner. What they often don’t do, however, is consider their own role in the marital malaise—or what role a new partner might play in helping them avoid the hard work needed to improve their situation.

I mention hard work because as you’ve seen in your marriage counseling, getting in the trenches with someone you love (and you say you do love your wife) can be challenging, especially when so much is at stake—your shared history, your affection for each other, your general contentment, and the stability of the entire family. There’s a world of difference between the emotional risks you’re taking in opening up to your pregnant wife with whom you share a child and the ones you’re taking in opening up to the object of your flirtation over drinks at a bar. And they, in turn, will have different responses to what you reveal of your “true self.” Saying, for example, that you feel stifled in your marriage, that you love but aren’t in love with your wife, and that you get chills when your co-worker looks at you might be easy for your co-worker to hear but terribly upsetting to your wife.

Another thing for you to consider as you go through this process is that no one else can tell you what to do. This is especially important because, as you tell it, your earlier decision to get back together with your now-wife was influenced, at least in part, by the opinions of family and friends. That doesn’t make the decision right or wrong—it just means it wasn’t truly yours.

The thing about big life decisions is that the people saying you should do X or Y aren’t living your life. Polling your friends, scouring the internet, and even asking me to cast my vote won’t help, because the issue here is less about which woman you should choose (people will have different opinions about that) and more about what’s behind this feeling of emptiness in your life. Nobody—not your wife, not a new partner, not your daughter—can fill that hole for you, even if it seems like your co-worker is doing so in the moment.

I say “in the moment” because right now you’re in a mind-set where your whole focus is on comparing the two situations—staying with your wife or leaving her for your co-worker, someone who is choosing to have a relationship (emotional or otherwise) with a married man who has a baby on the way. But the problem with this is that they simply aren’t comparable. If you were to leave now, you would be the single father of a young child and a newborn, with a girlfriend who may not have an interest in raising these children with you—changing diapers, waking up several times a night, spending time at baby birthday parties and the pediatrician and the park. (If you think you can keep the “father” part of your life separate from the “dating” part, you’ll soon see that it won’t be easy.) Moreover, if you two eventually have children together, you may find yourself five or 10 years from now wondering how you ended up in the same situation once again: content, but with decreased intimacy, increased tension, and a nagging sense that Mocha Almond Fudge is an even better flavor of ice cream than Rocky Road.

The point is that you have no idea which situation is going to be the right one for you—a more connected marriage to your current wife after you work to achieve it; a divorce and remarriage to your co-worker; a divorce and remarriage to a completely different partner; a divorce and no partner as you search for the right one—so first you’re going to have to get beyond the “my wife versus my co-worker” setup and figure out who your true self is when you’re fully present.

Being fully present means recognizing that the arguments you’re having with your wife aren’t fruitless—they’re part of the process of redefining your marriage, of allowing both of you to show up and see what’s there and what’s not. They’re a much-needed reckoning. And as much as you want your wife to hear you, you’ll want to ask yourself how much capacity you have for hearing her. How open are you to her true self? How much empathy do you have for her experience of the marriage and what her wants and needs are?

The deeper you dig for the truest version of yourself—which includes a rigorous assessment of your own part in what’s not working—the more you’ll be able to assess how you feel about your co-worker, and whether she is a soothing drug, a stepping stone out of your marriage, or a viable life partner. Only then will you be able to make a decision not out of guilt or confusion or quiet desperation, but out of a grounded place of knowing.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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