Tell Me About It

My husband uses my past infidelity as a stick to beat me with

Tell Me About It: Should I accept the negative comments are part of what we are now?

PROBLEM: I am a woman in my mid-50s, married with a family. Ten years ago, I caused an enormous amount of pain and suffering to my husband and family when it was discovered that I had an affair that had lasted intermittently for two years. The other person did not reside in Ireland and so contact was infrequent, but still occurred from time to time.

It was discovered accidentally, and I made matters much worse by initially denying it. We went to couple counselling before my husband backed off from this, followed by me undergoing personal counselling. We stayed together, initially for the children’s sake, gradually managing to reform a bond of sorts and then in time to reconnect our relationship, both physically and emotionally. Ironically, our physical sexual relationship became much better, more open and honest, over the past 10 years.

In the main, we have managed to ride the storm of the initial trauma. I have tried to show that I am truly sorry for the pain I caused, and I have also delved deep into myself to try to understand my motives and to learn from this so as to show empathy and love again. I realise that what drove me in the first place was a dissatisfaction with my life (purely superficial) which made me turn when my emotional ego was being massaged, and that I chose to look outside the marriage rather than engaging in open communication with my husband. I deeply regret my failure to turn to my husband. It leaves an acute pain of loss, but nothing comparable to the pain of loss I caused him.

Amazingly he still, from time to time, says he loves me, and has shown it in many caring and loving ways.

My problem is that, in moments of anger, or when we are disagreeing on something, my husband will bring up my past infidelity as a stick to beat me with. This can sometime get heated and acrimonious. For my part, I am horrified at my past behaviour, and do not at all need to be reminded of it. I am assuming that for my husband’s part the current disagreement is a trigger that reminds him of his past pain, and that he brings it up as a defence mechanism. I really wish he wouldn’t do this. He will also sometimes bring it up nearly as a joke if we are talking about something say relating to the country this other man was from or the industry he worked in, and I find these constant remarks very difficult to deal with.

The worst is if my husband has had a few drinks and whilst under the influence we may disagree about something, if he loses his cool then I could be met with a barrage of verbal abuse and criticism about what type of person I am and how he regrets us staying together. When I have suggested counselling, he rejects this as not appropriate.

What should I do?

Should I accept that the negative comments are part of what we are now and that they are small scale compared to the prospect of us breaking up and just live with them and continue to try and weather the storm of any disagreement? But it’s when the alcohol takes over and I get the torrent of abuse that most upsets me. Needless to say, I’d be advising against anyone who ever thinks about having an affair – the amount of hurt and devastation you cause are nearly irreparable, and the loss of trust so difficult to overcome.

ADVICE: Your husband, in the way of many men, sounds as though he has struggled for years with expressing his distress, hurt and humiliation. The result is that this bursts out of him when his inhibitions are lowered with alcohol or when he can treat you to some semblance of humiliation in public so that you get some experience of what it is like to be him.

You have done everything you can to show remorse and reparation and it seems that you have investigated the cause of your betrayal and are crystal clear that you were responsible, and you have come to terms with it. However, your husband has not talked or picked over the biggest hurt of his life and so it stays live and hurting for him. It sounds as though part of him wants to hold on to his right to be angry as forgiving you might challenge his sense of masculinity and this could be very threatening for him.

The reality is that if he does not engage with you, it will be very difficult for the relationship to continue

However, you are now at a crisis point: your children are not as dependant and the relationship is surfacing as the major issue for both of you. He clearly cares for you deeply, and you him but the affair of 10 years ago remains unresolved, at least for him. Men often express anger, intolerance or snide remarks when they are actually suffering from hurt and shame – this means that they get a reaction to the former and their true needs can go unmet, and so it goes on.

Strangely, the current Covid-19 situation could offer you both an opportunity: you will be spending endless time together and there is an opportunity for you to talk and trash out what your lives are about. Do not be put off by your husband’s resistance to talking – tell him you will keep asking in spite of the cold shoulder treatment. The reality is that if he does not engage with you, it will be very difficult for the relationship to continue and my guess is that this is not what he wants.

It is not okay to deride you in public and while you can understand his motivation, it does not make it okay to continue to do this. He too carries responsibility for his own choices – he chose you, but this does not mean your punishment goes on endlessly. He too, must want to be released from his suffering and you need to have the courage to press for full expression, even if it hurts both of you.

Love is strong, but you cannot carry the relationship alone and your husband must come to a recognition of this if your relationship is to survive.