‘I have a lover, my husband sees other people too. I would like to divorce but my sons are horrified’ | Leading questions | Life and style

September 2, 2020

I have two sons, aged 10 and 12, and I am unhappily married to a man who feels the same way. For many reasons, including incompatibility, we haven’t been intimate for 10 years. I have a lover, who my husband knows about, who I see every couple of months. My husband sees other people too.

I would like to separate and divorce but my sons are horrified at the idea and would rather we stayed together and try to get along. I want to put them first, but I would prefer to divorce as I panic that I will always be married to this man, and I feel trapped.

I also deeply care for my lover/partner and want to be able to be with him more than once in a blue moon, and build some sort of life with him. I want to protect my sons and help them grow up with healthy models of relationships, but I fear I will either disrupt their lives and make them unhappy, or warp their ideas of marriage because of the secrecy and compromises of me and their father. Please help.

Eleanor says: I think we have a very hard time accepting when the perfect option is off the table. For years I had a fantasy of the perfect morning: wake up at 6am and sit straight down to write. Don’t stop for a shower, cereal, or to look at the phone. I loved it when I started days this way, the few times I managed to. But in truth there were many, many more mornings when I fell down an email black hole instead. All the same, I wouldn’t let go of the fantasy. I wouldn’t allow myself to get a coffee with a friend or take a walk in the dawn light because committing to those things meant admitting out loud that the perfect option just wasn’t going to happen. In reality, this just condemned me to float bitterly between two kinds of unfulfilled hope. I just twiddled my thumbs, neither writing nor walking.

You see where this is going: I think in your own way you’re neither writing nor walking. The infrastructure of your life is still set up around an idealised image of the nuclear family. You don’t permit yourself to make alternative arrangements because that would mean admitting that the original ones just aren’t going to happen. You don’t let yourself go to the person you love.

When we’re stuck in this kind of float zone we often tell ourselves we can’t possibly make new plans, because then we will be responsible for the death of the old ones. It can be really liberating to realise that those plans are already dead. Maybe you killed them – maybe nobody did – but the only reason we face decisions like this is that the perfect option is already off the table. It’s gone. The question now is what to do in its wake.

You say your sons think you should stay. They’re very young, and I think they must be very afraid. They probably have friends with happily married parents, and they don’t know what’s going to happen to theirs.

But from what you’ve said here, what they’re afraid of has already happened: their parents already don’t want to be together. This is going to be a source of tremendous grief for them, but it might well be worse to put off that grief or to acquiesce to their anaesthetising hope that you and your husband will “get along”, if only you stay together.

Whatever you do, do it deliberately. Don’t condemn yourself or your boys to the paralysis of hoping that the perfect will finally come true.


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