My husband has been unfaithful multiple times in serious and varied ways in our 29 years of marriage. I have dragged him through three major episodes of therapy. His body has shown up for these, but his heart has never been in it.
We are still married. We live very peaceful and amicable lives, however, there is no true sexual or emotional intimacy. It looks like this is the forever trajectory of this marriage.
I don’t believe he’s currently being unfaithful to me, but he does not work his recovery program.
I pray for miracles. I am lonely in our marriage. I have lots of friends and associations outside of marriage and keep busy trying to be healthy for me.
I attempt conversations to check in on his progress and I share on my end, and he listens and says thank you for sharing, but does not share anything on his end. He is a locked and closed vault.
Basically, I have made the decision to stay with a man who is unwilling to work on his recovery. He is a good provider for our family and a reasonably good father to our children.
Naturally, our three adult sons all have their own challenges with sexual integrity and are in varying stages of healing. They are honest with me about their work and check in with me. I am open and try to live in truth. My husband has not ever been willing to visit with our sons about his struggles or even try to help them with theirs.
What can I do to live a healthy and rewarding life without a healthy and rewarding marriage?
The short answer to your question is a resounding “Yes!” You can live a healthy life regardless of the quality of your marriage or marital status. There are countless individuals who live purposeful and meaningful lives despite difficult relational and environmental challenges. Of course, I’m not going to pretend that your marital relationship doesn’t have a direct impact on your health and happiness. I’m also not going to pretend that it’s easy to thrive when you’ve been repeatedly betrayed and abandoned by the one person who made sacred promises to care for you. Our relationships, especially the primary attachment bond of marriage, has a massive regulatory effect on our wellbeing. If you choose to stay in your unhealthy marriage, you’ll need to be intentional about offsetting the negative impact your marriage has on your health.
It’s popular to believe that we shouldn’t let other people impact the way we feel, think, or see ourselves. While this is challenging, though possible, to do with other people, it’s virtually impossible to do in a primary attachment bond. We are hardwired from birth to form a survival bond to a caregiver who will provide the essential co-regulation of our bodies and emotions. We eventually transfer this co-regulatory relationship from our first attachment (usually our parents) to another adult as we form a romantic bond.
It may seem regressive, weak, and immature for an adult to rely on another adult for something as important as co-regulation. However, a lifetime of cross-cultural evidence and scores of scientific studies prove that we are simply better off when we live in a healthy primary attachment bond. We are pair bonders from the cradle to the grave. Healthy co-regulation makes self-regulation possible. Without healthy co-regulation, we are defenseless against the counterfeits for secure attachment, such as substances, sex, money, power, people pleasing, and performing.
When our primary attachment relationship is working, everything in life feels easier. When it’s strained or broken, it can literally impact our breathing, our sleep, our diet, our heart, our thoughts, and emotions. So, while it is possible to thrive even in an unhealthy marriage, there will be a lot of surviving until you can find ways to thrive.
The obvious answer most people might give you is to get out of your marriage. I have no doubt you think about this option every single day. The reality of living in an unfaithful and neglectful marriage chokes out your supply of emotional oxygen causing you to look for relief. Leaving might be the only way you’ll be able to breathe again and save yourself. Even though I’m a fierce advocate for helping people work through their most challenging marital dilemmas, I will never encourage someone to diminish themselves to make it work.
While you’re sorting through your options of staying or going, it’s important to bypass your emotional and physical dependency on your unavailable husband by opening a supply of nourishing relationships. Co-regulation might be starving you in your marriage, but the same mechanism can feed you in the loving care of others. Is it the dream? Of course not! You are hardwired to seek this connection from your husband, especially after almost 30 years of marriage and three children. However, if he’s unwilling or incapable of showing up as a faithful, consistent, and generous partner, your body and spirit need nourishment.
Even though a feeding tube and ventilator would never be our first choice for survival, those who depend on these lifesaving devices see their necessity and count them as a godsend. Your other relationships may not offer the relief of a secure marital bond, but they will help you survive and ultimately thrive.
Please don’t forget your co-regulatory relationship with your Heavenly Father and Savior. There are countless hymns, scriptures, and personal assurances that we are in the safe keeping of our Heavenly Father and Savior. His invitation is clear and immediate:
Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls.[i]
You are tired and worn out from the exhausting work of trying to find comfort and security in your marriage. I don’t know why your husband isn’t keeping his word to you or your family. I do know that you must carefully observe what he’s showing you and assess whether you can trust him to be your primary attachment.
If you decide to leave your marriage, then you will build new attachments that will help you co-regulate and thrive. If you decide to stay in this marriage and he fails to repair the damaged attachment, then some adjustments will be necessary for you to thrive. As I mentioned earlier, you’ll want to seek out compensatory attachments to help you breathe a little easier.
There still may be redeeming qualities and interactions you can have with your husband as you live a parallel life together. This may or may not be sustainable for your personal wellbeing. Only you can determine this. Marriage is a deeply personal and sacred arrangement that you aren’t taking lightly. Pay close attention to whether staying in this relationship slowly diminishes you and then make the necessary adjustments.
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]
Download Geoff’s FREE guide to help you quickly end arguments with your spouse: https://www.geoffsteurer.com/3-steps-to-end-your-marriage-argument
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About the Author Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Matthew 11:28–29