Q: Dear Meredith,
I am in my late 40s and have been married for almost 25 years. I love and respect my wife -- she is intelligent and is a great mother to our two grown children. We have had a good life. There was a time about a decade ago where I was not in a good place personally. I was in a job I hated and just generally not happy. During this time I had a few one night stands with women I met through my job. I eventually confessed to my wife because I felt so guilty about it. She was devastated but said she forgave me and I have tried very hard to be a better husband and better person. I found another job that I enjoyed more (and where there were not many women). Things have been pretty good for the last nine years.
Recently my wife has been depressed, anxious, and sometimes has unpredictable outbursts. I think she is suffering with the whole empty-nest thing. I have tried to be supportive but it seems like she takes all her emotional issues out on me and several times has thrown my past cheating in my face even though she claims to have forgiven me. During this time, I happened to meet a woman (Sarah) and we have gotten close and have been physical a few times. I felt really guilty about it though so cut off the friendship. But I found I was miserable because I had no one to talk to about what was going on with my wife. So after several weeks of no contact, we have resumed our friendship and spend a couple of hours a day talking on the phone or emailing. We have only been physical once in that time. Sarah's a good listener and is also going through something similar (she is in an unhappy marriage and contemplating divorce).
After many conversations with her, Sarah helped me realize how unhappy I've been in my marriage for a long time. And that my wife has never forgiven me for my past cheating and probably never will. I am contemplating leaving but I'm worried about how that would affect my wife. I don't want to hurt her. I also worry about the financial aspects. My wife is the bread winner in the family and came into the marriage with some family money. We enjoy an above average lifestyle - without her income I'm not sure I could even afford a decent place on my own. I think my friend would be willing to move in with me (assuming she gets a divorce) but she doesn't work so would only have whatever alimony/child support comes her way after the divorce. Sarah says her husband does reasonably well though so we could probably enjoy a comfortable lifestyle especially if she were able to keep their house. But she also has two young boys and I'm not sure I'm ready to be in a step-dad type of relationship.
I know my wife would be devastated if I asked for a divorce. I have asked her to get counseling but she refuses. She's a good person and I do care about her but I'm just not happy. Should I do what's best for her or what's best for me?
– Unhappy, Mass.
A: Should I do what's best for her or what's best for me?
You should do what's best for both of you. You should stop cheating and get your act together.
Maintaining the status quo and lying to your wife isn't what's best for anybody. It's certainly not in your wife's best interest to live with someone who's miserable and lining up a second life behind her back. You have to drop Sarah, like right now. You're not entitled to her attention, and you both need to focus on your real lives.
You must also go to therapy, even if it's just for you. Perhaps you can go for a while and then ask your wife to join you for a session or two. Sometimes a visit on someone else's behalf is less intimidating.
And please know that you can't jump from your wife to Sarah. You sound crazy for prioritizing your escape plan and discussing your standard of living as your marriage is dissolving. You should show this letter to your therapist. I think it'd be quite revealing.
Again, in no particular order: Drop Sarah (now), go to therapy, ask your wife to join you, and be honest with her about what you want from your marriage, if anything. No more coasting, cheating, and planning for a live-in girlfriend. Sarah is married and so are you.
Say it with me: Married. You need to be a husband and figure out what's best for you and your wife.
Readers? Is there some narcissism going on here? Should he tell the wife about Sarah? Does he have to cut her off? What happens his wife continues to refuse therapy? Help.
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Meredith Goldstein is a Boston Globe columnist who follows relationship trends and entertainment. She offers daily advice on Love Letters — and welcomes your comments. Meredith is also the author of "The Singles," a new novel about complicated relationships. Follow Meredith here and on Twitter. Love Letters can be found in the print edition of The Boston Globe every Saturday in the G section.