My husband left me ten years ago for a younger woman who he was having an affair with. My friends all said that he would only do to her what he did to me, but my daughter, who pretty much lives with them at this point, says they’re happy.
They go on walks holding hands and they’ve just announced they’re expecting another baby. He could be cheating on her but he seems to be staying in every evening. By the end of our marriage he was going on a lot of long drives by himself.
He says he left me because he was unhappy in our marriage and always had been, which is just not true. Everyone says we were the happiest couple around.
He abandoned our whole family and now it just seems like there’s no justice in the world. He’s happy and I’m so angry, all the time. He made a commitment to me when I got pregnant with our first but then just one day decided we weren’t good enough for him anymore. It’s so unfair that he treated me so badly and yet he treats his new wife so well. I did absolutely nothing wrong and yet I’m the one who’s suffering. How can I get past this?
I feel your anger and pain so clearly in your letter, and I’m sorry that you went through such a horrible, life-changing experience. It’s clear that family and commitment are hugely important to you, and when you got married and had a child with this man, it felt like your Happy Ever After fantasy was happening – and then was suddenly wrenched away when he betrayed you and left. It is perfectly natural that this experience would leave you with anger and hurt. It’s also natural for some feelings of pain and even jealousy to be evoked when you have to see your Happy Ever After fantasy now being played out with someone else.
I completely empathise with your feelings – and I also agree that you need to find a way to move past this. What is concerning here is that your feelings of pain and anger and jealousy are still so all-consuming after ten years. That is an extremely long time for these feelings to take up so much space in your life, and it is clear they have become damaging.
I don’t say that you need to move past these feelings because I buy into the oft-touted, often infuriatingly dismissive idea that forgiveness is always necessary, or that feeling any anger towards people who have harmed you is an indictment of your character, rather than theirs. I say this because I believe there can be a difference in the reason we choose not to forgive someone, and the impact it can have on us. You can choose not to forgive someone because you believe what they did to you was unforgiveable, and by acknowledging that you are holding onto your own sense of boundaries and self-respect – allowing you to move on with your life. For you, this could look like realising that commitment, honesty and fidelity are integral values to you, making you utterly incompatible with someone who doesn’t value them equally – meaning that your ex was never the man for you, nor are his actions any indication of your worth. You would be able to move forward without basing your self-worth on his actions, and enjoy a life living up to your own values.
But you are choosing not to forgive your ex in a way that doesn’t free you from him, but rather keeps your entire sense of self-worth and justice completely and utterly dependent on him. Though this man left you a decade ago, you are still clinging on to the old stories you told yourself when you got married: that your fate is inextricably tied with his; that your happiness depends on him; that he and he alone gets to decide if you are worthy and lovable. Though this man left you a decade ago, you still value him and his opinion of you more than anything else. You have shrunk your entire life down to this man. Even your definition of justice has been shrunk.
What he did to you was cruel and it is unfair that you had to suffer – but we both know that the universe’s sense of justice does not entirely hang on the breakdown of one marriage, and whether you ex gets to be happy. You want a justice-themed story to explain why you’re unhappy – but you’re unhappy precisely because you have made this man the centre of your idea of justice, of your idea of your self-worth, your idea of your happiness.
These are the feelings you need to address in order to move on. These are the old stories you need to start dismantling. What would it mean to write yourself a new story about your life and happiness and self-worth, where he doesn’t get the starring role – or any role, at all?
What if you started rewriting the story of your marriage, where your ex's happiness has nothing to do with you, whatsoever? As I have written before in the column, in research into infidelity in marriages, cheaters often cite that they felt a loss in themselves, not their relationship. It's often not that cheaters are rejecting their partners, but are rejecting who they think they themselves have become and seeking out a new sense of self. What if you were to accept that your ex cheating on you was about his own character and needs, not an indictment of you? If you release yourself from the self-blaming idea that you "weren't good enough" for him, and accept that his actions were about him alone, you'll release yourself from this connection you have created, where his state of existence – happy, unhappy, single or married – defines your life.
You need to dismantle all of your old stories about him, and about you. This will not be easy, nor is it work to do alone. These are stories you have been telling yourself for decades, and unlearning them will be hard and destabilising, so please get a therapist. If, in your mind, you are “not the therapy type”, even better. You’re starting the work and undoing an old story just by turning up.
You are unhappy because you have made someone who left you a decade ago the centre of your universe, when the centre of your universe should have been you, all along. You can start to change this now. Start writing a new story about your life, with you at the centre. This isn’t a new chapter. This is an entirely new book. It’s going to be amazing.