Q. I have been married for 45 years, much of it sexless, and I am beginning to feel sorry for my wife.
We are childless and I feel I have been very unfair to her by not fulfilling the relationship. Although we are both older, and the urge to do some of the things of our youth has diminished, I have recently found myself drawn to another woman. I think she is the type of person, body and soul, I wish to be involved with. I do not want to break up my marriage, yet I know I’d like to explore another relationship on a different level. Is this possible?
A. When you jot down all the pros and cons of this situation — as I expect you have done several times — the “right” thing to do is a no-brainer.
The good guy gives up on the other woman and stays with his long-suffering wife. The bad guy bails. Because you clearly identify as the good guy, the dissonance created by your desire to be perceived favourably and your desire to have sex with another woman creates a kind of psychological paralysis. If you stay with your wife you will remain stable and maintain respectability. If you stay with your wife you will lose your one chance of happiness.
How you frame a problem, in terms of what you have to gain, or what you have to lose, can change the way you feel from moment to moment.
Typically, when alternatives are framed in terms of gain (describing a cancer treatment as having an 80% survival rate), people will choose the risk-averse option. In contrast, when outcomes are framed in terms of loss (describing the same treatment as having a 20% mortality rate) the risk-seeking option is preferred.
Making big decisions is never easy, but if you continue to ruminate you will be stuck in this revolving door for ever.
Your pattern to date has been to err on the side of caution, but as a result you’ve spent the past 45 years living in a state of complete compromise.
Rather than face the truth years ago, you soldiered on with a stiff upper lip and denied your wife and yourself happiness. And now, in later life, you are paralysed by guilt and fear.
It is much easier to know what to do in response to complex emotional situations when you know who you are, but you’ve spent so long doing the wrong thing for the right reasons that your internal compass has jammed.
Rather than questioning whether you should stay with one woman, or leave for another, wouldn’t it be more productive to ask yourself why you stopped having sex with your wife?
Was it really because you stopped loving her, or was it more convenient to blame her than to address your own lack of libido? If, however, you have had sexual urges over the past 45 years, then how have you suppressed or released them? And are you naively presuming that the sexual difficulties that undermined your marriage will be magically resolved in a different relationship?
If you can answer these questions thoughtfully, and truthfully, you will be better equipped to make a decision that is both authentic and consistent with who you are.
You do need to talk to your wife, but your conversation will be more constructive if she also takes the time to question herself in advance.
There are only two outcomes. Your marriage will either end, or it will survive. But, either way, you will have been totally honest with each other for the first time in 45 years. And truth, of course, is the most powerful catalyst of all.
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