Andrew G Marshall

Author & Marital Therapist

Ask Andrew – My wife is very friendly with another woman

December 17th, 2011 by Andrew G Marshall in Ask Andrew

My wife dropped the ILYB bomb about three months ago (on our 19th anniversary — 20 years together — as it happens). I’m 45, she’s just turned 40, we have one daughter aged 13.

We’ve had a few rough years, the last two in particular. Without going into too much depth for here, she supported me through some unpleasant (is there another sort?) depression, which I’ve come out the other side of ‘fighting fit’ as it were, and more in love with her than ever. But the poor love is an emotional sponge, and two years of “hell”, plus the marital problems of her closest and oldest friend, and major health concerns over another close friend and her now-elderly parents… has left her drained. Doesn’t “love me in the way she should”, we’re in a rut, we don’t have any fun any more, etc etc. Ironically, I spent ages convinced that she’d be better off without me… and now, having ‘persuaded’ me otherwise, that’s what she wants.

So with my innards ripped out (multiple trips per day at work to the loo for silent screams and near-inconsolable sobbing — don’t worry, I work for the county council, they don’t seem to have even noticed), I looked at the Relate website, found mention of your ILYB book, and have now finished it. I have to say that it ought to be obligatory reading for every person in a relationship — “okay, you’re three months into limerence, you cannot go out with her any more until you’ve read this!” Nobody tells you this stuff, usually you just muddle through, getting it right by luck or more likely, messing it up. I don’t think I’ve ever read such a concentration of brilliantly readable and clear common sense before; nearly every page has had me nodding in recognition through the tears.

So there’s a quote for the next edition’s cover for you. Anyway… I hadn’t realised that we’d never properly sorted the self-affirmation — especially me: through a lack of self-confidence I’ve been stuck mostly at clingy blending — so that our differences now seem to her to be a problem rather than something natural. Hadn’t been aware that us being best friends wasn’t a good thing, that our lack of arguments (we bicker, but never argue as such) was harmful (and yes, that goes back to childhood: my parents always seemed to be rowing, so I desperately avoid it). Didn’t know that we ‘speak’ different love languages: I’m all about affectionate touches; out of the blue she complained yesterday that I’ve never put a sweet ‘love you’ note in her bag as she’s often done for me (I’m sure I have done… erm, once or twice…)

As I say, page after page of your book is spot on. We’ve got so much wrong it’s amazing we’ve stayed together for 20 years. Which, I guess, means it ought to be salvageable. And leads me to my question.

She’s gone off and got herself some counselling; she won’t tell me much about what she has discovered about herself because it’s “her stuff and she has to deal with it”. All I know is that after each session, the situation has deteriorated: we’ve gone from ‘uncertainty about what she wants’ to her ‘needing space’ to “I don’t know if I want us to stay together”, to “I think I want us to split up”. We’re on the verge of a trial separation, with me moving out as the most practical option to ‘give her space’. I’ve tried targeting her love language, tried my hardest to make her feel loved, but she says it just makes her feel pressured to reciprocate and doesn’t want to give me false hope, plus it’s taken as the opposite of giving her space. I’ve suggested over and over that she read your book, but she refuses. Basically, she doesn’t think things can be mended, and doesn’t want to try. She’s still so kind and caring, and feels dreadful for “doing this to me” and is so apologetic and hates to see me so upset. But ‘it’ isn’t there any more for her. And no, there’s nobody else: “It’d probably be easier if there were.”

Over the last few months – that is, when things at home have come to an ILYB head – my wife has become extremely close friends with a female work colleague. They get on like the proverbial ignited house, laughing and joking together, and a fair bit of crying together too.

I can confirm that this ‘other woman’ – let’s call her Karen – is indeed an absolutely lovely person. I’ve gotten to know her myself a bit over the months, since for various reasons she’s stayed with us several times, resulting in late night drinks-chats for all three of us. (My wife’s been drinking far more than she used to as well, clearly a distancing or stress thing.) ‘Karen’ is also the friend I mentioned before with the serious health problems – she’s awaiting test results that could confirm a condition that’d be a ticking time bomb, giving her perhaps five more years, so there’s been a lot of opening up and bonding – evidently on both sides.

Now, both Karen and my wife are apparently straight: my wife is at most a bit ‘bi-curious’ and Karen has been having boyfriend breakup troubles (on top of everything else, poor love!). When tipsy on the couch together there’s a lot of physical contact, but it’s not strictly sexual – things like legs stretched across laps, absent-mindedly playing with hair – and all of it openly in front of me, which is fine because it seems like real closeness rather than sexual… though at one point Karen commented jokingly to me (on the other couch) that “if I were a lesbian [my wife] would be ‘the one’”. And my wife has several times drunkenly said she loves Karen. Rightly or wrongly, I assume that means ‘as a really really close friend’.

But ultimately it doesn’t really matter if it’s sexual or not (as I joked in reply to Karen’s comment above: “Only if I can watch!”). It’s clear that they are closest of friends, and that my wife is getting her emotional needs served elsewhere. They laugh together all the time, and go out for girlie evenings and have fun. Fun, of course, being yet another thing that somehow slipped off our radar as part of our ILYB situation.

Trying to be upbeat, I told her last night (when she was upset) that we will both be happy again eventually, whether it’s together or not (at the moment I can only see being happy in the former, but still), and let’s work on it. She replied through the tears that she wants me to be happy, but “I just don’t think it will be with me”.

So now what? It’s a sort of affair, but it’s come about because of our ILYB. But it’s not exactly an “it’s him or me” situation either! I so so want to win my wife back, and your book is so encouraging that I could make it happen. But with her fun and empathy fulfilment coming from a pretty much normal, good, healthy relationship with a friend…?

I’ve been calm (apart from a lot of blubbing) and as supportive as she’ll let me be, but this is tearing me apart, not receiving any cuddles or kisses and, worse, not being allowed to give them either, let alone the prospect of telling our daughter, maybe selling our lovely little house…

From a rational and practical point of view, the situation is mad in so many ways, but of course feelings aren’t rational or practical things. Your book and your replies here are all so full of hope that I come away from each browse buoyed up… but then we talk, and hope vanishes. What can I do?

Andrew writes:

It seems that your wife is talking to everybody but you! The therapist, her best friend….. but what’s stopping her from confiding in you?

When someone is depressed, everybody around them takes as much of the load as possible and doesn’t put any more pressure on them – either because they are afraid they won’t be able to cope or because they fear it would puss them further into depression. If the depressed person’s partner has any problems of their own, they either keep it themselves or speak to someone else.

Either through habit or because she is frightened of making you depressed again, your wife is holding back. Not only does this build a bond between her and her confidants – but it excludes you. Worse still, if you don’t talk about anything with the person concerned – how can anything change? Worst of all, your wife could be forming the conclusion that you CAN’T change.

So what should you do? I don’t think you should be too worried about her friendship and getting wound up about it will just place another barrier between you and your wife. My guess is that your wife is feeling very alone, always being the strong one and the responsible adult. You need to show her that not only can you take your half of the burden both emotionally and practically of running the house but you are there to help/ listen and support her (rather than her endlessly supporting you.)

I know the road back from depression is tough but it sounds like you are doing well and the way you’ve whole heartedly embraced my book shows that you have the capacity to change – so well done. So instead of trying to make things nice between you – which can be viewed as buying off your wife or putting pressure on – I want you to think of ways to make your wife’s life easier. (What practical jobs could you take over and demonstrate how much better you are?) Next, I want you to thank her for all her support during your illness, acknowledge that ILYB has hit you hard but you have made a conscious decision to put yourself in her shoes and imagine what things have been like for her. So stop being clingy, keep calm and keep back the tears (as this will make her think DEPRESSION again). If this is too hard, think about getting yourself a counsellor too.

Go through the ‘Coping Day to Day’ part of the book again and again, look at ‘Resolve your differences’ and learn to be assertive, and most importantly TA in ‘Help your partner say yes’ so that you can learn to have an adult- to- adult relationship (rather than her as nurturing parent, and you in child mode). Finally, I want you to learn to truly listen without getting upset or trying to burying all the problems under the carpet. It’s all in my ILYB book, so look back over it again. I’ve been re-reading the book myself 9over the past few days) as I’m currently recording the audio book version – it should be out soon – and I think you should buy it. So whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed, you can listen back to my words, keep calm and remember: How can I support my wife and have an equal relationship.

Good luck. I know you have it in you.