Married and attracted to someone else

-- Question for John --

I am 40 and been with my wife for 20 years. We have two young sons. We have had issues over the years and now find that in many ways we live separate lives. I have never been unfaithful or met anyone who I would even have considered leaving my wife for, until recently. Now I feel torn apart between doing the right thing and following strong feelings…

I am married and attracted to someone else. I have known this lady for a year (through business) and always thought she was very nice, but nothing romantic. Over the past several months we began talking more frequently, it developed into some flirtation and now we find ourselves with incredibly strong feelings for each other. She is married with a young daughter and son. She tells me she is basically happy, but for some reason can’t stop thinking about me. I am nuts about her and think she is the most fantastic woman I have ever met.

We have entered very dangerous territory for both of us. I want her to be very careful and do not want her to feel pressured by me to decide anything. She needs to work out why she is so drawn to me if her relationship is “happy”.

My question is — what should I do, be gallant and walk away or continue to express my feelings toward her and let the chips fall where they may?

-- Answer from John --

Having been in a relationship for the full extent of your adult life, which has steadily eroded over time, I can well understand that not only do you feel unfulfilled, but probably stuck and ready to go in a new and more interesting direction. Passion can get pent up over the years when not expressed in a marriage. I can believe that your romantic capacity, yet still alive within you, is more than ready to go for it, come what may.

However, transitioning into a new relationship via the breakup of two marriages, each with young children involved, is not a pretty sight. The chips which will fall will not only hurt the soon-to-be-ex-mates — who are adults, after all, and who were at least nominally involved in the responsibility to make sure their relationships were staying on amorous track and not vulnerable to outside input.

The inescapable fact is this. The kids will also be hurt. Especially if the transition is directly into a new relationship.

They get hurt just by a divorce, even under the best of circumstances. Such “best of circumstances” involves a settling in period, where each parent provides the necessary loving stability to minimize the trauma to the child. During this time, co-parenting strategies are developed to keep a positive framework for the child. That takes highly cooperative ex-mates. It will not work when ex-mates are embroiled in their own sense of having been betrayed. In the latter case, the children will be confronted by an ever worse trauma.

It’s like this. Basically your kids have internalized a version of you and a version of their mother. These are two very large internal representations. They inform them of how to do relationship and serve as a template for their future lovelives, to a large extent. Right now I suspect this template does not portray a great lovelife. But how will the template be if it involves the betrayal of one partner by the other? This will even more destructively taint your kids future abilities in relationships. Good for the therapy industry at large, but sadder for them — and probably for you, too, because this will also entail alot of “acting out” along the way in which you will be involved.

It works better for a child to deal with just the one hit — the separation of parents. And to see that take place in a healthy, loving and cooperative way. A way that reassures that love is still there. And that maximizes the internal harmony between the internal representations of each parent. That comes down to you demonstrating that the two of you can split up and still be good friends. To the extent that the ex-mates are cooperative and friendly with each other as they settle into a new routine of child-sharing and co-parenting, the kids need a lot of patience and understanding, and benefit from the united front the two ex-mates present in loving the children.

It works best if new romantic interests are not introduced to a child for at least a year after the separation. And only then when the new love interest has become stable enough to practically be a serious marriage candidate. The whole introduction and entry of the new mate is a long slow dance in itself.

Since her children would also be involved, this will have an even more dramatic impact on her, her children and her husband. And since she is a mother, she is probably even more connected to her children than you are to yours. Which spells out predictably large scale emotional problems around what happens for her children and her — and if you are involved with her, this will cast an emotional charge into your relationship that will be ongoing and difficult to deal with.

The honeymoon only lasts so long.

When you just jump to the tune of your own spark, I know that the last thing you want to have on your mind is how this might affect the children. If you ignore that, it will come back to haunt you and he in a way that will be longlasting — and could even lead to an eventual painful end to whatever might otherwise have started so well between you.

I understand that you are ready for a change in your life. It would be advisable that you not rely on there being “another woman” to bolster your own resourcefulness and motivation to take charge of your life and take action. Do it on your own, man. Take full responsibility for your choices, one of which was — even if it was passive — to have children. Take full responsibility for knowing about the future consequences of what you are now embarking on — as they affect all people involved. Then do it in the best way possible, in quantum steps that are distinct from each other, and not all blurred together:

1. Discuss and implement divorce with your current wife. If in this discussion there is anything short of mutual agreement, of if any talk arises of trying to rebuild what was lost, give that a fair shot. After 20 years, given the current description of your relationship, you will probably find that only practical issues are to be solved to dissolve the partnership. The walls are most likely too thick to do much else. Handle whatever needs to be handled so you at least: (1) respect this woman who has been your partner for 20 years; and (2) maximize the chances that you will come out of this as friends and good co-parents to your children.

2. Divorce, get your separate lives organized, let things settle down, create a good co-parenting arrangement. Take a class on issues of parenting as a single father. Make sure your ex takes such a class for herself. Make the co-parenting relationship really work. Complete whatever emotional issues are unresolved between the two of you — or agree to completely let them go. Focus for awhile on your own personal growth (for example, answer the question: what exactly was your part in the steady erosion of your marriage?).

3. Once you are really a single man, and you have handled your co-parenting transitional issues and stability exists in your co-parenting arrangements, go ahead and get involved with someone new. Maybe with several people. Get some real experience.

4. Once you find someone new with whom the relationship has reached stability — the honeymoon phase has ended, you are successfully dealing with real issues and the relationship keeps growing — then gradually introduce this new person to your children.

That would be the clean way of doing it. It would demonstrate to your children what it is to be an adult man who takes full responsibility for his life, his emotions and his libido. I know that such ideals exist only in the ideal world — and are exceedingly difficult to live up to in the real world. But do your best. There is no score-card for doing the right thing. There are only the predictable consequences you are going to harvest in your future based on the actions you plant today.