Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My wife and I have been married for almost 10 years. Most of them have been happy, but we’ve felt more like roommates the last couple of years. She does her thing, and I do mine. We don’t fight much, we just seem to keep to ourselves. Needless to say, I’m craving intimacy and have become really close to a female colleague of mine, Gina*, who is also married. When we’re not visiting each other at the office, we text (almost daily), have gone out for drinks after work (sometimes with coworkers, sometimes alone), and have met up for dinner a couple of times. We talk about practically everything, and truly enjoy each other’s company. We have done absolutely nothing physical, but I still know what I’m doing is wrong. I guess you could call it an emotional affair?
Here’s my question: Should I tell my wife what’s going on? Or should I just end it with Gina as though nothing ever happened?
On Wednesday nights my husband goes out. He takes one evening a week for himself, to visit local breweries and make contacts that will help his fledgling business, and to have time to himself to think without any interruptions from myself or our son. At first we set aside these nights for him, because the work of being home with our child during the day was so overwhelming that he felt that he needed to carve out time where he knew he could escape, leave the house, and remember what it is to be himself again.
But over time I’ve come to need these nights too. After I put our son to bed, I find myself alone in our house. I don’t have to make dinner, I don’t have to care take. I can clean and do laundry, or I can watch trash TV. For a few brief hours I get to be by myself, quiet and relaxed. I hadn’t realized it was time that I needed too until my husband accidentally gave it to me, and now I guard it jealously. If he comes home early from one of his Wednesday nights out I am bad at hiding my disappointment.
Being married doesn’t mean that you need to spend every evening together for the rest of your lives. Developing spaces in your togetherness is essential to a happy marriage. It makes the time you spend together even richer, since now you have things to talk about beside the constant work of running your home. But then, sometimes, my husband will be out more than once a week. I’ll find myself home alone, again, and now this quiet will be lonely. I’ll miss him.
You have been married longer than I have, for 10 whole years, a complete decade of your life, and you have far more spaces than togetherness. You’re exploring a friendship with Gina* because you crave intimacy. We all crave intimacy and there is nothing wrong with wanting to be close to someone else. I understand the appeal of your budding relationship with Gina* and also why you feel trepidatious about it – are you cheating?
You put an asterisk on Gina* because that’s not her real name, but I’m going to put an asterisk on Gina* because she’s not really real. She’s a legitimate person, of course, but she comes with an asterisk because your understanding of her is imperfect. Your view of her is colored, and wavy, and skewed. She’s fun and flirty and everything you don’t have at home. Because she’s not in your home. Once people get in your home they become much less easy, breezy fun and much more, in the words of the opening credits from MTV’s very first “Real World,” “Could you get the phone?”
You say you have two options: Tell your wife, or end the relationship with Gina*. You do have two options, but those aren’t them. Your options are marriage, or not marriage.
Here’s how not marriage goes: You tell your wife about Gina* but then other things come out, about the distance and the indifference and your simmering resentments and her simmering resentments and you realize that you want Gina* who’s close and smiling and you no longer want this far away wife woman who knows your every flaw, so you ask for a divorce, you move out, into your own apartment because you’re doing this for yourself and not for Gina*, and live by yourself for a few months but with Gina* coming over every night and you are so blissfully happy, like you were before in college, high school, when your mother used to run and chase you all over the house, mouth open and laughing, and then you decide to marry Gina* and make promises to her and this time will be different, you will mean them, you will be this close forever, and then time and proximity and the slow, tedious work of life will work its way over your relationship, like water over stone, and you’ll find yourself regarding Gina* the way you do anything in your life that’s a given, she’ll be great, you’ll love her, but she’ll be over there, in the next room, and you won’t feel the need to do work to keep her, to exert effort, to seek her out, because she’s always here why should I reach out to her, and slowly, slowly, you’ll seek her out less and less, and she you, until 10 years have passed and she’s great, you love her, but there must be something else, something more, out there, somewhere else, a closeness you once had that’s now gone and may have just moved onto another person, and if you find that person you’ll feel that amazing intimacy once again, and that woman is out there, but she surely isn’t your wife. Then you’ll be in a place where you’ll have to choose, once again. Do you tell your wife? Do you go?
Here’s how marriage goes: You decide, you commit, but then you decide again, and again, and again. Marriage is a commitment that occurs more than once. In every marriage there are moments where both parties have to choose to stay together. Not making that decision, putting it off for another year, and another year, is what leads to this—you’re married, but you don’t feel married. You’re a man desperate for connection who has one eye on the door.
You should tell your wife because I want you to tell your wife something, anything. I want you to have an honest conversation with her. I want you to try. You should tell your wife what you ate for lunch, what you’re reading, what you’re afraid of, what you hope for. You and your wife should go somewhere new, hiking, or rock climbing, or kayaking, or anything that you don’t normally do. You should jump into a lake and let the icy cold water shock you back into remembering each other. Maybe your wife is already done, maybe she has an affair going on herself, or maybe she’s pulled in to herself because that’s what she thinks you want. Being married to someone for 10 years in no way means that you know them. You have no idea what she’s thinking, or what she wants, or what she is currently thinking about you. Stop assuming. Turn to her and ask.
Marriage is an ocean that you explore together. Commitment to a marriage doesn’t mean that you come and go as life moves you. It means that you stay steady, as steady as you can as waves push you this way and that. At times you will drift, but in marriage you promise to always, eventually, turn back and find your partner. And when you feel yourself drifting into shallow water, to the point that your feet can touch the ocean floor and you could easily put them down and walk to shore, it means that you don’t do that. It means that you choose instead to work. You turn around, and swim back out. You have a conversation, you work, you seek, and you find the depth and the intimacy once again. Find the depth. Do the work. Try. Do it now with your wife, or do it later with Gina*.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.