Carolyn Hax: Advice

‘Sorry’ ignores marital issues

Carolyn Hax
Carolyn Hax

Dear Carolyn: I’ve been separated from my wife of 19 years and three kids for a few months. The separation stemmed from my infidelity — a mistake I made to run from my marital problems instead of to communicate, try to work through them, and take a stand for my happiness. It was cowardly and I regret it deeply.

We are in couple’s counseling and both want to find a way to reconcile, but we are struggling to get there. She can’t forgive me, and I am unable to convince her I am sorry enough without completely submitting and denying my authenticity.

I miss my kids terribly, and this is hard on them. The truth is, though, that I want to reconcile only to unify the family. For all our sakes, personally and financially. Spending time alone with my wife is something I dread, as she is angry, judgmental and constantly telling me all the things I’m doing wrong. This describes our marriage previous to the infidelity.

When is it time to give up and move on? I’m living half a life.


Your affair was a way, a bad one obviously, to avoid disrupting your marriage: You wanted the status quo because of money, kids and the general terror most people feel at the idea of walking forward into the big scary unknown. So you opted to satisfy your intense emotional cravings, figuratively speaking, by sneaking candy bars in the closet and hoping you wouldn’t get caught.

Now that you’re caught and your marriage is all disrupted anyway, what are you doing? You’re trying to put it back together, an impulse both understandable and utterly mind-boggling.

Understandable, see above: big scary unknown.

Mind-boggling because you’re already halfway through the hardest part, and you want to turn back? You want to scrape and grovel and sorry sorry sorry your way back under the same roof with your exact same needs unmet?

You’re in counseling, so obviously there are hours of discussion happening that you can’t spell out here. But if you’re avoiding your basic truth — “she is angry, judgmental, and constantly telling me all the things I’m doing wrong. This describes our marriage previous to the infidelity” — because you’re trying to “convince her I am sorry enough,” then anything you build will rest on the same old marital foundation crack.

The infidelity was on you, yes, and if you’re sorry you did it versus sorry you got caught, then, good. But the misery of your marriage prior to it and since is 50-50, your contribution and hers, because that’s how marriages work. 50-50. Even if one spouse’s 50 is being a complete jerk and the other spouse’s 50 is putting up with a complete jerk, it’s 50-50.

When your goal for couple’s therapy is to preserve your marriage, you have powerful incentive to hold back words you think might upset your wife. Such lies of omission are what make one spouse withdraw emotionally, another spouse issue constant angry corrections, and other men/women so profoundly tempting.

But truth-telling without shading to control its impact, I’d argue, is exactly what you two need to move forward. You can’t make her admit her 50, but you can set the example by admitting yours. As long as you’re both still trying to “win,” your marriage won’t stand a chance.

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