The Soul of Therapy
“My Wife Doesn’t Know About Her, But It’s Harmless”
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Emotional intimacy outside of marriage isn't necessarily harmless. Here are some ideas on how to maintain boundaries that work for both partners.
Q: I’ve been married for 28 years. My wife isn’t a very deep person, and I long for that kind of connection. I meet weekly with a woman friend to talk about spiritual things. There’s no attraction or confusion between us. My wife doesn’t know about her, but it’s harmless. A guy friend thinks I shouldn’t have this kind of friendship. I don’t see why not, as long as we’re not having an affair. When I got married I didn’t give up my right to have friends. What do you think?
I think in the eyes of most women, and in the eyes of your wife were she to know about it, you’re having an affair. The fact that your wife does not know about your spiritually-conversant friend is a red flag. Even if there has been no sexual involvement, many women are more hurt by an extramarital relationship that has the kind of depth and substance you’re describing than a purely sexual relationship.
Your statement about not giving up your right to friendship when you married deserves more reflection. This, of course, was the question addressed in When Harry Met Sally. The culture has changed quite a bit since 1989 when that movie came out. Cell phones make it easy to communicate with anyone anytime anywhere. Many patients have told me that while they were sitting naively across the living room their spouse texted a person they did not know hundreds or thousands of times over several months.
When my patients present the kind of situation you’re describing, I usually talk about a familiar line from a traditional marriage ceremony: “Do you promise to love her, comfort her, honor and keep her for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, and forsaking all others, be faithful only to her, for as long as you both shall live?” I tell my patients that for me, forsaking all others includes avoiding close, intimate relationships with anyone who might threaten the sacred bond I have with my spouse. There is no small amount of letting go and grief in this. I often encourage men to be open to deepening their friendships with other men. Many say it is challenging to find male friends who want to talk openly about life. Some use this to justify developing such friendships with women outside of marriage.
Outside friendships are tricky even for people in healthy committed relationships. Here are a few guidelines to consider:
- Your spouse should be fully aware of who the outside friend is and the nature of the friendship.
- The amount of time you spend on an outside friendship will affect how it is perceived by a spouse. Anything or anyone that takes too much energy away from a committed relationship may be perceived as threatening.
- If the friendship is with a trusted member of one’s own family (such as a sibling, a cousin, an aunt, or uncle) there is usually no sense of threat to the marriage unless a family member becomes trusted on important decisions more than the spouse.
- A solid way to gauge the healthiness of an outside friendship is: Do both spouses feel the friendship makes the marriage better, or does one spouse feel the friendship is a threat?
- Sometimes a large age difference can eliminate the perceived threat of a friendship. A committed person, however, should not assume an age difference will remove the perceived threat. Open communication is always essential.
- Be on guard when making yourself available to someone who wants a listening ear for troubles in their committed relationship. Open and vulnerable sharing in such situations can easily spark a desire for greater intimacy. Thinking you’re helping someone else in trouble can easily land your own life in a troubled place.
If your wife eventually does find out about your friend, the fact that you kept the person secret will feel like a betrayal to her. Long-term commitment requires accepting both the joys and limitations of love. Contemporary writer Thomas Moore put it this way: “Love finds its soul in its feelings of incompleteness, impossibility, and imperfection.”
You may be able to keep this relationship secret indefinitely, but secrets place any marriage at risk. I suggest you see a marriage counselor as a couple to discuss both deepening your marriage relationship and openly exploring the question of friendships outside the marriage.
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Send your questions to [email protected] Questions may be edited for clarity or length. Dr. Anderson cannot respond to all letters. Sending a letter, whether answered in this column or not, does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Information in this column is for general psychoeducational purposes and is not a substitute for assessment and care provided in person by a medical or mental health professional.