Dear Captain Awkward,
I am torn and hoping you may have some options that could help me make a decision. I’ll do my best to keep it brief, but I want to do my best to give you as much to go on as possible.
Around 10 years ago, I met my future wife, we’ll call her “E.” Things started out pretty fast, she is very introverted and I am pretty extroverted, so I think we were both intrigued in learning each other’s ways and trying the other’s interests. Within about 3 months, things became pretty physical, pretty fast, if you know what I mean. This lasted for a little over a year, where we spent most of our time together, and most of it was alone. We tried going out with my friends, but she didn’t like them or going out, and I was okay at the time to split time between her and what I like to do, probably a 70:30 split.
After around 1.5 years of being together, I moved away to grad school, something I had been planning since we first met, so it was no surprise to her, but I was not ready to move in together and she was not ready to move and find new work, so we became a long distance relationship. We talked each night, but quickly ran out of topics, sticking to a 45 minute limit on conversations because we seemed to run out of things to say and I hated just sitting on the phone listening to each other breath.
We saw each other about 2 times a month, just for a weekend, which was typically spent mostly in the bedroom. She would become very upset about not moving the relationship forward when she heard of friends getting engaged, and often brought up marriage. When it came time for me to graduate (around 4 years into the relationship) I knew I either had to commit or break it off. I should’ve realized that having that thought was probably not a good sign, but I thought maybe it was cold feet and normal. I felt committed to her and didn’t want to hurt her, as well as this was as good as I had felt in other relationships, so what would be different if I ended it and tried starting new. I never felt that “falling in love” feeling I’ve see on TV/movies, or heard about from friends, and I have never been openly emotional or enjoyed PDA or even the DA part when 1 on 1 with a girlfriend. I have just never been super excited or felt thrill with the people I have been with.
Once we got married, she moved in, we got a puppy, she got a new job, and by the time a year almost rolled around, we were house hunting. Everything was just moving so fast, there was never much time to think. A month later, we found a home, moved in, and found out we were pregnant. Things were crazy for a year, but we both expected it, especially since the closest family is several hours away. She stayed home with the baby for 2 years before starting to look back into work. She also stayed in the guest bedroom every night for that whole period, insisting she would wake me accidentally when listening for or getting up with the baby, even though I encouraged her to come back to our room on day one. It was around the two year mark that I realized how bored I was with our life.
Sex had become a routine, once a week on Fri or Sat night, only after she had showered. It was even to the point she made jokes about how routine it was, I would try to spice things up or change it up, but she said she liked our routine. Our talks consisted of the baby and work, I would try to come up with things to do but she enjoyed just staying home and cleaning. I feel so anxious when I don’t get out, that I would take our daughter and do things with just the two of us, or on the rare occasion, just get out for an hour or two by myself.
This went on for another 2 years, slowly feeling like we were becoming more and more distant, barely talking, the only physical contact was our routine sex once a week. Sometimes I would pretend to not feel well to skip it because I just couldn’t get in the mood. I was afraid this was what my life would be like for the next 14 years and then what would happen when it was just the two of us again? But what else could I do? I considered divorce for at least a year, but I felt I had no good reason other than being unhappy, but I was growing used to the idea of divorcing and just doing life alone and with my daughter on the days I would have her. But also, would there even be a point in getting myself into the same situation with someone else if I never really felt that strongly for anyone before, I am in my mid-30’s by the way.
Then in June 2019, a female at work began to grow close, we’ll call her “L,” occasionally texting, chatting more than normal when at work (she only worked part-time, 0-3 days a week). But I noticed I would miss her on the days she was gone or when I didn’t hear from her. In July, the texting picked up to daily and throughout the night, to the point I would get notifications that I had burned through my data limit, and have stayed up past midnight, when normally I would’ve been in bed at 7:30 and asleep by 9. She was going through a divorce and dating, but I began getting jealous of her going out with these guys. Texts and talks seemed to get flirtier, until the point where she sent a topless photo, unprovoked, to see my reaction. I felt wanted for the first time in many years, and actually felt excited for the first time I could ever remember and I could not stop thinking about L. We had so much in common, it was like we could read each other’s minds. I had never felt a connection like this before, not even at the best moments with my wife or any other girlfriend. I felt happy around her, elated, like a whole new person, even just when texting her, it was an odd feeling for me but it was intoxicating to feel this way, I couldn’t stop, it was addicting. I wanted to be my best person for her, to improve myself, and spend every moment with her. My efficiency at work even declined because I was with her so much when she was working.
In August, L began to make statements about ending our talks, since she knew I would never be able to give her my all and vice versa, as well as become physical with her, and I felt my heart break. She helped arrange an after work party to give me an excuse to hang out in person, outside of work, and as a “last hoorah”. She came dressed in what might as well have been lingerie, and I felt like we were the only two in the bar. When we moved to another bar, she reached for my hand and I felt like I was floating, how could I have realized I that I was missing out on a feeling that was so incredible, why have I never felt this before, and why has my wife never made me feel this way before.
After a few drinks at the next bar, we both headed towards the bathroom and she told me she would not make a first move because I was married, but when I came out and saw her waiting for me, I couldn’t help it, I had to experience a kiss with her, and I had never felt anything like it. We fooled around under the table the rest of the night, and more in the car after. I ignored texts and a call from my wife and eventually took L back to her friends home. They invited me in, but I knew I had to go. After that, we began fooling around at work.
By September, she ended things because she knew it couldn’t go anywhere, and I spent that night sleepless and physically sick, I knew she was working the next day and avoided her area for hours longer than usual. Once I did go down there, I felt worse seeing her. It was extremely awkward and painful. By the end of the work day, she texted and asked to meet up, I did, and we talked about how horrible we both felt, and fooled around again. Not long after, she arranged another “work party” and we made love after, twice, something I had also never felt an urge to do before. I say “made love” because this was how it felt, this amazing connection, a type of sexual connection I have also never felt before. Usually after sex, I just want to clean off, and have some space, with her, I wanted to cuddle, go again, and never let her go.
I began “going out” more and started just going to her home when her kids were with their father. We would make love multiple times in only a few hours, something I had never been able to do before, nor felt the desire to do, I knew I had fallen hard for L but I was afraid to tell her because I thought it would scare her off. I would take days off work in secret from my wife, and spend them with L. I would have PDA with her everywhere we went, also something I never enjoyed before, but it was tunnel vision with this woman and I didn’t care about getting caught or not. I even hoped to get caught, to give me a reason to end things with E, I never hid my texting habits from E, and L and I both wondered why E never seemed to notice how much more distant I was becoming or how much I was communicating with someone else.
During all of this, I had been making excuses with E as to why I was not having sex with her, claiming migraines, stomach pains, etc., but one night in early Oct, I ran out of excuses, and it came a fight about why I hadn’t in months, so we tried to have sex, but I could not even keep it up, all I could think was I was betraying the person I really love. I discussed it with my new love later, only after L had asked about it, and she was of course hurt, but understanding that it would’ve had to have happened at some point since I was still married. I tried to explain that I couldn’t even finish, much less really perform due to how strongly I felt about L as well as how poorly I felt about my wife, and she seemed to understand and told me it was okay.
However, a few days later, she called and said it was over, I was distraught and felt sick again. I apologized for hurting her and said how much I didn’t want to lose her but knew that I had no say in any of this as I was the cheating husband and not her boyfriend like I wished I could be. A few minutes after ending our talk, she texted how she felt horrible because she was in love with me, this was the first time either of us had said it, I told her that I was in love with her as well and had been for months, as well as everything I loved about her. After a long talk, things seemed to be okay.
We made love one or two more times after that, then she became more and more distant, and eventually ended it mid October. The next day was similar to the first time, where we ended up catching each other by the end of the day and kissing but then she told me she could not keep doing this and was starting to date again. The following day, I thought things may have been okay and tried to kiss her when we were alone, but she pulled away, I never felt so hurt and like such an ass at the same time, I knew it was time to try to figure out my life or lose the person I love. L also told me the same thing, that I needed to figure out my marriage, if not for me, then for my daughter, to try to save it for her, because L wished she could have saved hers for her kids.
It was not long before I told my wife that I did not like how things were and wanted to go to couples counseling. She disagreed and said everything had been perfect for her, that this is the best her life had ever been, and did not understand why I was saying these things. All I could really say was almost the entire truth, that I had fallen out of love with her, it had been getting worse over the last 2 years, and I’m at a point where I’m depressed and don’t know what to do. This went over horribly and started many fights, but as I told her more and more about how I felt like we grew apart and were just roommates, giving her many examples such as; she hadn’t sat in the front seat with me but 3 times that year (because she always chose to sit in back with our daughter), and those were the 3 times my parents were in town and we went on a “date.” Dates consisted of groceries once, a movie and back once, and then shopping once, I pointed out how she showered every other night or sometimes went longer, she had not gotten any new clothes in over a year and only wore the same two outfits to bed which were falling apart, she never tried to dress up for me or show that she cared about how she looked with me, that we had not held hands in ages, etc. After many fights, she seemed to finally get it, and agreed to counseling a month later.
Counseling has been difficult as I really want to say that I cheated and am in love with someone else, that I haven’t ever felt so loved and so happy, even at the best times with my wife. But even as much as I want to end things, I don’t want it to be because I cheated as I know that would be held over me for the rest of my life (as it probably should). When asked if I want to make things work, I just agree, but wish that I had the courage to say I just want to be with someone else, and if that’s not possible, I’d rather be alone.
As Nov passes into Jan, at work I hear about L’s new partner, he calls during work and texts all the time, it kills me to see the smile and laugh he gets from her, I loved being the one to get that and still do, it’s torture, but I can’t stop being near her. I tried my best to avoid her, but then she seemed sad and asked me if things were awkward, that she missed me and us but that it couldn’t have worked because of me being married and she didn’t want to be the reason I ended my marriage, to be the “other woman,” to have my daughter know it was L’s fault that her parents split, etc. I told her I was trying, but she knew the problems I had with my wife prior to getting together. She told me it was not fun to be divorced, and to just make it work.
L started to text me more towards the end of Dec, something which confused me, but made me so happy at the same time. I was in almost daily fights with my wife, to the point E told me she knew I wanted a divorce and to just do it, I was excited when she said this, but scared of the reality as well. But I didn’t know how to respond and said that we should discuss it in counseling. By the time we did, E had already changed her mind 15 times.
During Jan, I met with L several times outside of work, but only as friends and never tried anything more than a hug. We talked about missing each other, her boyfriend, my wife and issues, our kids. I even told her how at one point during all of this, E had talked about killing herself because she was so upset with me and our life. L and I had become so close, she was my best friend while we were lovers and I was just so happy I had a piece of her back, I didn’t want to lose it.
Since Feb, my wife and I have gotten back into the “safe” routine of only talking about our kid and work, counseling has become more fluff than real topics, and we tried a weekend trip in which the best 4 hours of the trip was our drunkest in which we discussed what we would do if we divorced, killed each other, or something happened to the other. This was the most talking we had done in years, and the happiest I think either of us had been together in years. However, it still felt to me like talking with a friend, no romantic feelings, no desire, no real want to even continue the night after that talk.
Once we had gotten back to the room, we discussed how neither of us wanted sex still (we have not been together physically since I was unable to perform in Oct.) since she knew I didn’t love her and wasn’t attracted to her, and that was how I felt too. That ended the night and made for an awkward morning and quiet trip back.
I’m pretty sure I don’t have a chance with L anymore as things have been going steady with her new boyfriend for several months now, as well as I don’t think she would trust me even if I was divorced and poured my heart out to her, as now I have the label of cheater, even though she is the only person I ever thought of cheating with. Before her, my sexual dreams only involved my wife, but after her, I have not had a dream about my wife since, and had nightly dreams about L for months, and even now I have them every couple of nights, but they aren’t even sexual, they’re dreams of laughing together, hanging out in public places, eating dinner, and I always wake up in such a great mood from them, until I remember it was just a dream but I do my best to hang onto that memory as long as I can.
I don’t think I have a chance at happiness with my wife either, as I cannot get L out of my head, nor all the horrible things my wife has said to me and the horrible things I have said back, as well as how horrible I know she feels every day, knowing that she is with someone who is no longer in love with her nor attracted to her. She is a good person and does not deserve this, and my daughter deserves to see us both happy, for hers and our sake.
I’m at a point where I think being alone may be the best decision for my daughter and I, giving her mother a chance to find happiness with someone else sooner. Then maybe I would be able to reflect more on myself and what I need, if someone could make me feel so amazing before, I need to find that high again or just settle for being alone to be happy. I’ve also recently come to the realization that I have always had very close female best friends (none of them were ever anything physical nor anything I wanted to become physical, except when L came into my life) and I believe now this has been because I have never felt like any woman I have been with was my best friend and I sought that out in others. I would also like to add that I’m still surprised I have never felt guilty about the affair with L, only guilty about the one time being sexual with E and that was guilt for betraying L.
I apologize for the length of this, and thank you for reading through it, although I know it’s as clear as mud. Please, any thoughts/opinions on what to do are greatly appreciated.
Hello, the first thing I want to say to you is that you are not alone, you are one of probably hundreds of people who are cheating on somebody with somebody else and who wrote to me for help figuring out how you got here and what to do next. I’ve been thinking about all of you for a long time because there is something all the stories have in common besides using the words “torn” and “it just happened” at every opportunity, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until today, just now, with you.
That common thread is describing your life with an incredible passivity, like you were a bystander or a passenger during everything that happened, and not as someone who made a series of choices, including the choice to lie to somebody about what are actually giant, important things. Your story is full of surprise twists and turns that aren’t at all surprising to me – I’ve read hundreds of first-person accounts of people cheating on their spouses in just the last year alone, I was waiting for the “attractive coworker or old flame with extremely poor boundaries” to appear as soon as I read the email subject line (“Torn”) and then she did, as if on cue. The problem isn’t that these things are surprising, it’s that they’re surprising TO YOU, the guy who was there, marrying people and making a new generation and having an affair at work. “I’m still surprised I have never felt guilty about the affair with L, only guilty about the one time being sexual with E and that was guilt for betraying L.”
“Terminally surprised by the hurtful shit I did” is not an amazing look, ‘Torn.’ If you do nothing else, you’ve got to figure that out before you hurt someone else or lose another decade marking time in a life you don’t want. One piece of concrete advice I have for you is to go back through your story as you told it to me and every time something happens that confuses you about how it all got like this, insert the words “I chose to _______” or “I decided to______” and see what it looks like. “I decided to get engaged.” “I decided to buy a house, get a dog, and have a family with my wife.” “Texts and talks seemed to get flirtier” – “I decided to flirt more with my coworker, and she sent me nudes.” “I’ve chosen not to tell the counselor or my wife the truth about what prompted me to talk about leaving.” “I’ve decided I don’t really feel guilty about the affair.”
I’m not recommending this to beat you up, I’m recommending it because your life will not change if you keep pretending that you are a passenger in it. You must throw off this narrative and this fog of passivity if you are going to do any of the right things from now on. You don’t particularly need a new girlfriend who will finally show you what love is or couples’ counseling (esp. if you are going to lie your way through it), you need your own therapist, and some honesty and self-reflection and awareness about choices. We all make decisions that we thought would make us happy but make us unhappy, presumably there was something you wanted from this life with your wife that made it easier to keep saying ‘yes’ over and over again, and something you wanted from coworker L. that made you say a lot of ‘yes’ there, and until you dig into that and acknowledge your part in choosing the things that you did, you won’t really ever know what you want. This passive guy who doesn’t know what he wants is a wrecking ball in a lot of people’s lives right now, you have to stop the damage and then figure it out. (I think being alone for the next part of your life sounds like a great idea.)
When I say damage, here’s what I mean:
- Cheating on someone who thinks you have a monogamous relationship is a violation of consent. Especially if you had sex with L. and then had sex with your wife again, congratulations, you increased your wife’s risk of possibly life-threatening STIs without her informed consent. Have you gotten tested for everything under the sun? Have you told your wife she should get tested, too? Did you adopt safer sex practices at at home and at work? If you never tell her what you did, you are leaving a lot of stuff up to chance that could seriously affect her health and life.
- People like to focus on the sex, but informed consent around time and money loom just as large. Would your wife want to contribute, to, I don’t know, paying down your student loans or folding your socks or investing a bunch of time and money in sprucing up your joint living space or planning family vacations anymore if she knew you’d been cheating on her? Would she want to keep going to couple’s counseling and continue racking her brains for where she let you down? If she had all the information in front of her, would she make a lot of decisions about what she wants from her life differently than she does now? You withholding that information means deciding for her. If she knew what you know would she still choose you, would she still want to work on the marriage? You owe her a chance to make a choice.
- You constantly blame your wife for what happened, even describing your experience with L. through the lens of your wife’s failures (“Why has my wife never made me feel this way before?”). When your wife outright asked you for help understanding what was going on, you didn’t mention the part about falling in love with and fucking somebody else, but you did blame her for not buying enough new outfits or being pretty and sexy enough: “I pointed out how she showered every other night or sometimes went longer, she had not gotten any new clothes in over a year and only wore the same two outfits to bed which were falling apart, she never tried to dress up for me or show that she cared about how she looked with me, that we had not held hands in ages, etc. After many fights, she seemed to finally get it, and agreed to counseling a month later.” OUCH. Cheating can sometimes maybe be forgiven, or at least understood, there can be betrayal and fury that passes, “I cheated on you and then repeatedly gaslit you about about how unappealing you are” is damage that she’ll carry in her body, in her self-image, possibly forever. You can do better than this.
- You also blame her for not discovering the affair sooner. “I even hoped to get caught, to give me a reason to end things with E, I never hid my texting habits from E, and L and I both wondered why E never seemed to notice how much more distant I was becoming or how much I was communicating with someone else.” Is it that your wife is indifferent to you, or could it be that she trusts you and has no reason to think you would be hiding something? Was she supposed to do detective work to show she truly cares?
- You’re lying to the counselor, not great, not great. “Counseling has been difficult as I really want to say that I cheated and am in love with someone else, that I haven’t ever felt so loved and so happy, even at the best times with my wife. But even as much as I want to end things, I don’t want it to be because I cheated as I know that would be held over me for the rest of my life (as it probably should).” Yes, that sounds difficult! So you want to leave (maybe) but you also want to be the good guy in the story, which means continuing to make the case that your wife is the one who somehow failed to make you happy. Friend, this is not the way. I don’t think there is any way forward that doesn’t hurt, but the one where you withhold the giant shitty thing you did and try to manufacture the story of your unhappiness out of her perceived failures is one that’s guaranteed to hurt a lot.
The heartbreak of it all is that when you went for that mini-vacation with your wife, it sounds like you were finally a tiny bit honest and vulnerable about your real feelings and then she was honest that she’s not all that into you anymore either and suddenly you were friendlier than you’d been in years. That relief you felt is a foundation you could maybe build a strong co-parenting relationship on if you’d stop keeping everybody waiting, stop being so surprised, and start beginning your sentences with “I choose” and “I’ve decided to.”
Here’s a to-do list you can print out and use at home, think of it as a master-list of ways for cheaters to start their journey back from the dark side:
- Comprehensive STI testing, now. It’s time to be accountable and not dick around with plausible deniability. Don’t put this off or assume everything’s fine, things can stay dormant for long periods of time.
- Stop seeing or communicating with L. about anything that is not required work discussions. Stop pretending there is a friendship here and that it’s not just you waiting to see if more stuff will “just happen” between you. Stop monitoring her relationship and her dating life. If it’s meant to be with her, it can be meant to be when you are divorced and come to her correct. If it’s not you’ll always have the time you shared piloting each other out of unhappy marriages.
- Get your shit together at work, divorce is expensive and you are going to do way more than the minimum to make sure your family doesn’t suffer financially. So, focus on work at work. You got real distracted for a while, let’s hope nobody noticed, and that if they did, there’s still time to make up for it.
- Either use couples’ counseling to be honest, or quit couples’ counseling, it’s actually incredibly mean to drag somebody through a process of being vulnerable and real and trying to brainstorm what she can work on to fix the marriage when she doesn’t have all the facts and you already know it isn’t fixable. “Why don’t we get our own therapists and try that for a while?”
- Get your own therapist. Treat your depression like a brain problem and not a dick problem.
- Help your wife get her own therapist and support her with childcare, $, etc. so she can actually go.
- Get honest with your therapist.
- Rewrite your story from the POV of a man who decided his life every step of the way. Own your story. Own your choices. Own your life. What will a guy who owns his story and his choices choose to do now? That’s what you should do. That’s scary, and I hate that it makes everybody right about action verbs being better than passive voice, but you can’t be the guy who things are “just happening” to right now. You are somebody’s entire dad, ergo, you have to get your shit together and the first step is owning all of it.
- Get honest with your wife. Apologize for the things you did to make the marriage less than happy without trying to balance it out with things she did or justify yourself or make her responsible for your actions or your feelings. Save your reasons and feelings (and excuses) for your therapist, give your wife facts, decisions, and information that she can use to make good decisions for herself and your daughter.
- Don’t use “female” as a noun that describes human women and girls. Just…everyone’s life will be better if you don’t do that anymore. Thank you.
I will be merciful and pre-emptively close comments and also send a shout-out to the Letter Writers who sent similar tales, you are not alone, you’ve fucked up but you’re not irredeemably bad, but you’re also not “torn.” You’re tearing, you tore, things have been torn (trust, confidence, consent, mutual understandings), but none of them are you, you’re the subject of the sentences and of your life, so reckon with your choices and make some honest ones.
P.S. Confidential to the Letter Writer who said “I love you, will you be my partner?” to one person and then texted an ex the same night and then “just happened” to have sex after several hours of late-night conversation in the car: I do not think monogamy is entirely your jam, so Google “ethical non-monogamy” and see what new worlds you find.