Tell Me About It: I can’t choose between my lover and my partner
I feel unable to let either woman down
Illustration: Beata Szpura via Getty Images
Q I am in a very difficult situation of my own making, and I can’t work out how to get out of it. I have been in a relationship with a very good person for the past 15 years, but I have been having an affair for the past six. I tried to let my partner know about the situation some years ago, but she was so forgiving and understanding I could not bring myself to hurt her further and so the situation has continued.
We have occasional sex but I think we both engage in it out of duty rather than desire.
My lover knows everything, and is of course frustrated at the situation. She has ended the relationship she was in and is now available for an open situation. She is pushing me to choose between my partner and her. I am perpetually lying and covering up. This is not the person I ever thought I’d be, but I feel unable to let either woman down.
A Project forward into the future: this situation continues and eventually what you have is three very unhappy people who are all living in some kind of limbo.
It sounds as if everyone in this triangle knows on some level what is happening, but all are participating in some form of denial with a vague hope that a resolution will happen at some stage.
Also, all seem to believe that this change or action needs to come from you – is there a possibility that this responsibility freezes you and the weight of it is too big a burden?
Six years ago, when the affair started, there must have been some kind of difficulty in your relationship. Instead of challenging this you sought comfort and connection elsewhere, and now that second relationship has become a burden. Will you again seek comfort elsewhere?
This is not a crazy outcome, and many people find themselves repeating their patterns in spite of the obvious negative repercussions. You do not say if there are any children involved, but perhaps both women are looking at this situation and wondering if there is a possibility of a family in the future. What do you want in your future? Is it enough to keep the peace or do you want more from your life?
Looking at your relationship with your long-term partner, it sounds as if it is characterised by a kind of parenting where you are responsible for her happiness and the reward for you is you get to feel that you are making someone else’s life better. You say that when you broached the topic of the affair, your partner forgave you quickly and so the situation went underground again. This could be called “pathological forgiveness”, designed to subvert the truth and keep the status quo.
Your partner must take responsibility for her part in the maintenance of the triangle. Do either of you really need a life-long relationship characterised by parenting? No wonder sex has become a duty.
For at least six years, you have been practising deceit, false fidelity and fear of “letting someone down”. This is who you are becoming, and the longer this goes on the harder it is to change it. Habits are always difficult to break, and it requires determination and motivation to initiate change. Usually this comes in the form of a crisis, for example a health scare.
You have had three opportunities to face reality: one when the affair started, a second when your partner forgave you, and now a third when your lover became available for an open relationship. If you do not take the current opportunity, it is likely that an even more serious crisis is on the way.
Clearly both women think you are a good person and worth the risk of being in an uncommitted relationship with. They see in you the possibility of sharing a life until old age, and therefore connect with the potential in you to be the person you might become.
Is it really enough for you that your life can be described as keeping the status quo and not causing too much upset? Your lover is capable of change and decision-making. Do not dishonour her by assuming charge of her life. Your partner is equally her own person and may benefit from the opportunity to face reality, no matter how hard that is.
Realise the potential that others see in you and stop prevaricating. It is time to take charge of your life.
Trish Murphy is a psychotherapist. For advice, email firstname.lastname@example.org. We regret that personal correspondence cannot be entered into