The question I’ve been with my husband for 22 years. Ten years ago, I suffered depression. My doctor said it was nothing and dismissed me.
My husband showed no interest in me, we barely talked or had sex, I’d try to get his attention with meals or looking nice, and he’d get angry and tell me all was fine and why did I wear my depression like a badge of honour? At times, I felt suicidal.
Around this time, I met another man. We ended up in an extramarital relationship.
I spoke to a suicide helpline and the lady I spoke to was clearly unhappy with me. I felt absolutely lost. I knew my affair was wrong, but seemed powerless to stop it. This man told me I was nothing more to him than sex. He would ignore me for weeks and in my low state I would wonder why. It took me four years to get up the strength to end the affair.
After it ended, my husband heard a rumour about it and I confessed. He was rightly furious with me for weeks. I offered to give him a divorce, but he said no. He refused couples counselling and said he wanted to stay together, but things have never been right. He won’t discuss it. This happened six years ago and I cannot forgive myself for the hurt I caused. Can you help unravel my feelings?
Philippa’s answer The counting of the years, 22, 10, 6, 4… I am reminded of a prisoner in a cell, crossing off the years they have been incarcerated. I feel you are in some sort of subconscious prison and I want you to escape.
You had a problem, you were suicidally depressed. Your husband did not seem to value or relate to you. You needed to be valued even if it was just for your body, and this would make you vulnerable to being prey. You sought the solution to your problem through another man. Had you not taken that temporary measure, how else would you have solved your problem? No one was listening. You were suicidal, but you took the better option. It was a desperate measure, but you were desperate.
Another problem you may have been trying to solve with the affair was not being taken seriously by your husband – on some level you may have needed him to find out to try to get through to him.
You deserve individual therapy and you need it now
We often seek partners who make us feel the same emotions we felt when we were around the people who brought us up. When we meet someone who evokes these feelings, it can feel like a spark, because we confuse what seems like good chemistry with what is familiar. And, if we never seemed to get it right for our first caregivers, psychically this can feel like unfinished business, so we seek partners for whom we cannot get it right, with the wish that this time we will succeed, so the unfinished business can be laid to rest. But this unconscious strategy does not work. In this way your childhood can still hold you prisoner and you do not escape to become independent, but seek other jailors instead.
I am not getting a sense of your wants or even needs. You offered to give your husband a divorce, but this was not what he wanted. But what do you want? Do you want a divorce? Have you ever been allowed to know what you want? I’m guessing what you think you desire is for the other to be happy, and to be happy with you. And you will contort yourself into any shape to try to please, losing yourself and your own wants and needs in pursuit of this. It’s not working; it’s time to do something else.
I don’t get a sense of you having any sort of life beyond your relationship. Friendships? Work? Interests? Where are these things in your life?
You asked a doctor for help and didn’t get any. You rang a helpline and only seemed to get a telling-off. It is as though you are so used to being discounted you somehow accept it. Others are allowed to rage at you, treat you badly, use you. This is unacceptable. It is time for you to end trying to be nice in situations where being nice does not fit.
You are angry at yourself instead of being angry with those who discount you. This anger gets turned inwards. Who taught you to hate yourself like this? Self-flagellation and feelings of guilt do not serve you. Nor does it help the other people in your life. You do not need to do it.
Never mind that your husband won’t go to couples counselling. You deserve individual therapy and you need it now. When you learn to reflect more, you can let go of guilt. When you become more self-aware, you will learn how to recognise your own needs. You need this help so that your main aim isn’t trying to get it right for impossible-to-please-grumpy others. Check out what assertiveness courses are available, too.
You were not born merely to serve and get it right for other people; you can be your own person and get it right for you. When you get to know and respect and love yourself, people might just change in response to that and learn to love and respect you, too. That’s what I want for you. What do you want for you?