This month’s column highlights a confounding conundrum for many a couple in crisis: what to do when one member of a struggling marriage refuses to get outside help?
An INSPIRELLE reader writes:
“My husband had an affair with a co-worker, so much so that she fell in love with him and tried to convince him to leave my daughter and me for her. The night I caught him was the night he claims to have been breaking it off because she was getting too serious. Even though he claims everything has stopped between them, they still work together and are with each other 8 to 10 hours a day. He’s her supervisor. This isn’t the first time I’ve caught him being inappropriate with coworkers. So it seems he has a pattern.
My husband also, right before Christmas 2015, gave me an STD but won’t admit to where that came from.
I guess my question is: how do I heal? How can I mend the trust and the marriage when he refuses to go to counselling, but says he’s 100% “in” when it comes to doing anything to help us?”
View from the Therapy Chair
You ask how you can mend the trust and the marriage when your husband refuses to do therapy work with you, after breaking your trust on multiple occasions. The STD he gave you for Christmas in 2015 sounds particularly hard to deal with, in that it was solid proof that he was sexually intimate with someone else, but still would not give you the information you requested as to who, what, why, when, where, and how many times.
I do not think that you can mend the trust and the marriage, at least not on your own. This is not to say that the marriage cannot be mended, but this would require full participation from your husband to both answer your questions and heed your requests (for instance, to work with a couple’s therapist). As long as he is unwilling to cooperate with you, it seems that you will remain in the dark, wondering about what “really” happened/happens behind closed doors, at his office where his former lover still works, etc.
You do have one very important card to play, however, and it sounds like you have not yet put it on the table. That card, as described by Mira Kirshenbaum in her excellent book, Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay, is called your bottom line. This is your decisive limit, which, once crossed, would mean you actually COULD NOT stay in the marriage any longer. Staying would become more painful than leaving, which currently does not seem to be the case.
In the absence of your husband’s cooperation, Jane, I think the best tool you have for healing at this point is exploring the question: What is your bottom line?
This will certainly take some important soul searching. What we know thus far is that an affair with his subordinate, inappropriate flirtations with other co-workers, a mysterious STD, and a refusal to heed your request for help are not “bad enough” behaviors on your husband’s part to cross your bottom line.
My recommendation would be to think long and hard about what you can bear to live with, and what behavior would cross that decisive final limit for you. When you have more clarity, I suggest you communicate it to your husband so that he understand that if he crosses your bottom line, you will understand that he is effectively ending the relationship. He may have behaved very badly up until this point, but if you have not communicated clearly to him where you draw the line, you have missed an opportunity to proactively defend yourself and your integrity.
It sounds like your situation is extremely challenging, but the good news is that going forward, you can define your expectations clearly. This will not make an eventual break-up less painful, but it will lay the ground work for a stronger capacity for self-definition that will serve you well whether you stay married to your husband or not.