Cheat street: Can trust be regained after repeat infidelity?

Hi, Carolyn:

How do I start trusting my wife again? Three years ago, I caught her (52) having an affair with a 29-year-old aide who came to our house to help with our autistic son.      

One of my first questions to her was "What did I fail to give you?" We went the counseling route and, as the months passed, I knew she would text or write him, but I dealt with these things as they came up. She was repentant and wanted to make it work ... and, I love her.      

About a year and a half into counseling, I stumbled across another note, this time to a 21-year-old worker with my son. She was having another affair. I left.      

She begged me to come back and go back to counseling. I did. The therapist decided she was co-dependent and stopped couple’s counseling to work on her.      

So here we are. We appear normal. She won't talk about those days, as she wants to move on. Meanwhile, I have absolutely no trust. I find myself pulling away from her and this marriage I so want to save. She says she loves me, but she said that then, too. I'm not sure where to go from here. Is it just a matter of "time heals all wounds"?– G.(END ITAL)            

Time can't heal anything unless the cause of the injury stops.      

You cite two excellent reasons not to believe your wife will be faithful ever after: (1) She said and did the right things the first time you caught her– expressed remorse, joined you in counseling– and still she cheated again. (2) Now, she "won't talk about those days." Since she's the one who betrayed you, the price she pays for that is to put up with your questions until you're satisfied with the answers. *Dodging is a quick hop from denial, which is a quick hop from the next health aide's bed.* This is not license for the betrayed to hound the betrayer indefinitely. If no answer will ever put the matter to rest, then it's best for both for the relationship to end.)      

It isn't, of course, quite as simple as fidelity=problem solved. "What did I fail to give you?" is a natural question to ask, and a heartbreaking one, but it oversimplifies. No relationship can satisfy every need. The best anyone can do is choose a partner well, recognize what needs that partner leaves unmet, and find other ways to satisfy those needs that work within the boundaries of the relationship. No one but the couple themselves gets to decide where those boundaries lie.      

The answer to your first question, about trust: You apparently can't trust your wife not to cheat again; you can, though, trust her to be the person she has revealed herself to be. You can trust that she loves you, trust that she wants the marriage to continue, and trust that she will indeed act against both of these interests when her competing needs (whatever they are) overpower her. Wishful thinking doesn't serve either of you here.       Should the counseling bring her to a point where she can master these needs without bedding someone on the sly, I suspect you'll see the change in her quite plainly. Her "I won't talk about it" shame will give way to "I am an open book to you" peace.      

As for your second question, where you go from here: That depends on your needs. Can you embrace the marriage you have with her as-is, knowing it might mean absorbing another affair? Can you do that without hating her, or hating yourself?      

If not, is there a measurable goal– since "trust" can't be quantified– that you'd like her to reach through her therapy, and is there an amount of time you're willing to wait for her to get there? Can you commit to this amount of time without emotionally pulling away, or is separation the only authentic path you have left?      

These aren't easy answers to come to, in part because your wife apparently won't or can't answer them for you by choosing transparency and choosing to serve the marriage instead of her impulses. The answers instead will have to be more about who you are, and who you are (and aren't) willing to be.      

Carolyn:      

Do you think there are people who do more "seeking out" of friends and others who wait to be sought? Does it mean anything? I tend to be the gatherer and all my friends are happy to spend time with me, but unless I seek them out I don't hear from them an awful lot. Thoughts? – Friend           

Don't take it personally when people are being themselves– that's my thought. It's when they change the way they act toward you that it's worth figuring out what it means.      

Dear Carolyn:      

My mother is a crazy cat lady. She has been doing better in recent years, down to 15 cats instead of 40 or 50, motivated by the arrival of her first grandchild, my son. We live on opposite sides of the country and it was too hard to travel when she had so many cats. I come home about twice a year, and I stay elsewhere due to the odor in my parents' house. Certainly not ideal, but we adjust.      

I took the baby visiting when he was 8 weeks old and hardly saw my mom. She was busy "working" (unpaid) for her vet. I was hurt and angry but mostly ignored it and let her do her thing.      

Today, I called and heard all of these kittens crying in the background. We've had numerous conversations about not having bottle-fed kittens when I visit. They have to eat every two hours and we would never see my mom! I mentioned that, she got snarky and said something about my having to bottle-feed my kiddo.      

If she does have the kittens while I'm in town or chooses to work instead of spending time with us, what do I say? If she sees us every day, how do I express my gratitude without sounding critical, i.e., "It's so nice you finally put us first!"? I've suggested counseling countless times over the years to no avail. – K.         

You're showing a distinct bias – dogs forgive me – against cats and cat people.      

I'm aware of the many animals/hoarding/animal neglect continuum, and 40-plus cats is extreme. However, your mom voluntarily reduced the herd, which suggests your "crazy" label isn't just insensitive, but also unfair. If she takes good care of her animals, then treat these cats as you would anyone's life purpose, to include asking yourself whether you'd be so dismissive if she were doggedly tending specimens in a lab or volunteering with needy kids.      

You have a legitimate set of hurt feelings that your mom blew off you and her grandson. That is where your focus belongs, not on your disdain for the reason. That's especially true since your overall goal is so important: to build a sense of family for your child.      

Please start by recognizing that it's not productive to force family togetherness or dictate how your mom lives her day-to-day life– which is essentially what you've done in those "numerous" no-bottle-fed-cats conversations. If you think about it in a detached, advice-columny way, it makes no sense for her to rearrange all 365 days just for your, say, 10 visiting days.      

Next, make "feelings, not felines" your guiding principle. Replace scolding your mom with praising her and clarifying your stance. Maybe: "I've been tough on you about the cats, but really what you do for them is wonderful. I'm just upset that we see you so little." Respecting her will bring you closer than de-catting her.      

And where before you've pushed her to change, try accommodating her: "What can I do to help you see more of us?"      

And if she blows you off again: "Mom, I'm getting the message that Son and I aren't a priority for you. Please tell me if I'm mistaken."      

And if she does make time for you? "Thanks, Mom. This has been great."          

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.           
(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group     

2 comments

dayumm yo. I'd kick that one to the curb bro.

She turnin' tricks on em