Dear Bitter Butch,
How do I ask my spouse of 15 years if he has fallen in love with someone else?
Specifically I think he has fallen in love with a pretty, together, and much-younger woman at work. Let’s call her Hannah. I don’t think the feelings are reciprocated. In fact, I think my husband been trying to hide or even suppress his feelings for her–presumably in part because he is her direct supervisor, and expressing them could cause massive problems for both of them.
But then they went on an extended work trip together, and ever since then he’s been different: paying a lot more attention to his appearance, doing a lot more social drinking with work friends (including Hannah), and generally more impatient with me. Most weekends he stays out into the wee hours with these friends. This isn’t anything secret: I’m actually invited to all of these gathering, though I generally take off after a few hours. Heavy drinking and staying late at bars just isn’t my thing.
I am casual friends with Hannah through these hangouts. Lately she’s been expressing some irritation with my husband, along with a desire for there to be more separation between her work life and her social life. Having her direct supervisor constantly hanging around in her immediate social circles is causing her considerable discomfort, and Hannah is starting to very pointedly organize parties and get-togethers with their mutual friends that explicitly exclude my husband.
… which has resulted in my husband sulking and being quietly upset and complaining that he feels like he has no friends. He feels like he’s in high school all over again, and the cool kids are purposefully excluding him. He feels he’s expected to be “made out of marble” and is not allowed to even have hurt feelings, just because he’s a supervisor.
I’m not accusing him of being childish, for the record. I think he really is feeling lonely and isolated, and is missing his social life and old friends from before we moved to this city. But I also feel like his reactions to the current small drama are more extreme than the situation warrants. He looks to me like a guy who’s being pushed away by a woman he has feelings for, and is feeling sorry for himself.
And this suspicion doesn’t make me feel great. I am profoundly jealous.
There has been a gradual cooling in our marriage over the last several years, and I get a lot of the blame for that. I created the distance between us myself, for reasons I couldn’t talk about at the time. I did suggest marriage counseling during that period. My husband was visibly hurt by the suggestion: it was as if even mentioning marriage counseling was somehow tantamount to requesting separation.
So now I don’t know how to broach my suspicions about his feelings for Hannah. I’m afraid he’ll be profoundly hurt and angry if I’m wrong; I’m afraid he’ll decide to cover it up if I’m right. Or he won’t try to cover it up, and he’ll just straight-up admit it.
Mostly I’m terrified that he’ll admit it, that he’s in love with someone else. And then everything will change.
This is not a great time in my life for major life upheaval. Yeah, I know: there’s never a good time. But really, it’s not a good time, and this conversation blowing up in my face could derail not just my marriage but also my own career, and basically my entire life.
So I don’t know what to do, or how to do it.
What do I do?
– Marital Limbo
Dear Marital Limbo,
First of all, I’m so sorry you’re going through all of this jealousy and suspicion and pain. Jealousy is such a hideous monster: it grabs us by the throat and won’t let us go. It makes us imagine all sorts of scenarios and it stabs us in the gut while we’re imagining them and it makes us say and do things we never would, otherwise. When I am jealous, I feel as if I’ve been taken over by a mind-controlling alien. It is such a hideous, out-of-control, terrifying feeling.
And reading your letter, it sounds to me that you and your husband are both already utterly terrified of feelings. He can’t seem to handle his feelings for this woman or talk to you about them; you can’t even broach the subject because you feel it has so much power.
Even if your worst suspicions and worse are true — it’s all about feelings.
So. If he is in love with this other woman: so what?
This is a genuine question.
She obviously doesn’t share those feelings, so he is not going to leave you for her. So what do you mean by ‘everything will change?’
Does the very admission of extramarital feelings truly destroy a marriage? Why? This is all just feelings.
But, from reading this letter, it seems to me that the word ‘just’ can never be paired with ‘feelings.’
It seems to me that the two of you are so terrified of feelings that you can never even admit they exist. Your husband is so terrified of talking about his feelings that he was hurt simply by your asking about counseling (and his hurt feelings were apparently so powerful that you . . . dropped the topic? I’m not sure from your letter if you succeeded in going to marriage counseling).
If you are terrified to even bring this up, I can see why you might fear that talking about feelings would be a nuclear bomb in your relationship.
But I don’t know a single monogamous couple who has not, at one point or another, realized that one of them was getting a huge crush on someone else, or was falling in love.
Our society sells us this stupid idea that when you are married you will never ever feel anything sexual or romantic toward anyone else ever again, or that you at least have to act as if this is the case.
That is just utter and complete bullshit, and believing this can really throw someone for a loop when they DO get a crush, instead of just rolling with it. If we didn’t expect to have feelings for only one person for the rest of our lives, we would not feel so guilty and horrified when we did get crushes. We would just think: huh! I want to have sex with this person very much, but I made a commitment to only have sex with this one person, so I’m going to enjoy/hate these other feelings until they go away, and until they come back with someone else. They end. Just feelings. No self-hatred and recrimination and fear and hiding and shame.
Feelings happen. They do not have to destroy everything.
What, exactly, do you fear about this? Hurting more, yourself? You are really hurting right now, clearly. And I think you know that you are definitely right about his feelings — his confirming them might hurt more, but I’m guessing some measure of relief will come with his admission. Either way, refusing to address your feelings doesn’t seem to be saving you from feeling them right now, and quite painfully.
Is the fear about hurting his feelings? I noticed that when you said he was upset about people making plans without him, he said he felt he wasn’t ‘allowed to have feelings,’ which I found interesting. I think what he means is not that he’s not allowed to have feelings, but that his feelings about friendships should somehow supersede her feelings about having some social time away from her direct supervisor. That she should care more about his feelings than her autonomy, and due to considerations for his feelings she should just invite him everywhere.
And why shouldn’t he think this? Our society does not teach men how to deal with or express their feelings — so they outsource this to the women in their lives, which he is currently doing. Whether he’s conscious of it or not, you have been twisting yourself into all sorts of knots worried about hurting his feelings. You didn’t say what the reason was that your marriage began cooling years ago, but I’m guessing it has to do with feelings, and you were so anxious about them that you did not tell him something that you both probably needed to address years ago. You are so concerned about his feelings that he got out of counseling just by looking hurt.
You are treating his feelings as if they are simultaneously the most fragile and the most powerful force in the universe: they must be wrapped up in asbestos and carried gently in tongs while wearing radioactive-shielding gloves, and they must never ever ever ever EVER be jostled.
I say, jostle them. He needs to figure out how to handle even the hint that he might have to discuss his feelings if he’s going to become an adult and stop sulking when things don’t go his way (and seriously — I know you’re not accusing him of being childish, but that’s what sulking is: being childish). And you both need to address the gradual cooling off of your marriage.
All marriages cool in the ardor department. This is natural and doesn’t have to be the end of everything. Some cool in the companionship department, which is far more worrying. Staying silent and never addressing the cooling is a great way to continue that cooling until it becomes a freeze.
What I’m trying to say, here, is that desperately trying to avoid an explosion might actually result in ending your life together as you grow further and further apart.
I know silence seems safer than talking. But seriously — feelings will not kill either of you; they will just upset you. And you are both already upset right now as things are.
You asked me what to do: talk to him. Ask him if he’s noticed the cooling in your relationship. Ask him what is so terrifying about counseling. Talk. Listen. Listen some more, and feel the fuck out of those feelings. You could ask him about Hannah, but if it comes out as an accusation you will discuss this side issue instead, and she is most definitely a side issue.
The other thing to do: stop treating him as if hurting his feelings will end his life, the world, or your marriage. It’s not his fault society encourages us all to coddle men and their feelings, but it’s not your fault, either — and right now it is tying your hands and endangering your relationship, this walking on eggshells. His feelings are not eggs. They are feelings. Your jealousy is a hideous, horrible feeling, but it has not destroyed you.
How you do it: you sit him down and you say: I am afraid of my feelings and of your feelings, and this conversation is terrifying. But I think we are drifting apart and I want to stay with you. I think counseling is a way for us to stop being afraid of our feelings, and that we should get counseling.
And when he starts sulking in an effort to control you, pick up the phone and call a marriage counselor anyway, because you are done letting his feelings or fear of his feelings rule your actions.
BITTER BUTCH aka Haddayr Copley-Woods is a queer, a cripple, a nerd, a mom to two kids with neurological differences, and has a truckload of opinions on everything including sex and relationships, parenting, disability issues, family relationships, work dynamics, gender/sexuality issues, and etiquette. You can reach her with all your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org