Illustration for article titled Ask Dr. NerdLove: How Do I Rebuild My Marriage After An Affair?
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Hello, all you frightening skin machines, and welcome to Ask Dr. NerdLove, the only advice column to survive the Corrupted Blood Plague.

The world may be in crisis, but love, dating and relationships are still going on, and with them come relationship troubles. So let’s distract ourselves from the world and solve the problems we CAN face. How do you fix your relationship after your partner had an affair? How do you know if you’re avoiding relationships because you don’t want one or because you’re afraid to pursue them? And is finding love again after your partner dies a betrayal of their memory?

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It’s time for some quarantine and chill, where the only thing we might catch is feelings.

Let’s do this.

Hi Doc NerdLove,

Like many others, I’ve been a long time reader. I’ve never felt compelled to reach out because I (foolishly) didn’t think I had any questions or concerns that were powerful enough to reach out.

I’ll just jump straight to it:

I’ve been with my wife since 2012, married in 2015, and now have two boys. We fall under that category of a relationship who are best friends, great partners, awesome parents. Admittedly, one area of our relationship that really suffered since our second son was born, and at times before that, was the passion and intimacy. We both put so much energy into being good “roommates” and parents, that we didn’t take time for ourselves and our LOVING relationship. Things really started getting rocky at the start of 2019, with more arguments, she would say things like not feeling loved or getting what she needs. She would even mention things like couple’s therapy. We had a deep discussion on love languages. She started saying things like “i think you could love someone else better than me who doesn’t require what I do.” I, stubbornly, blew all that off and was like “WE ARE FINE! We are married.”

On Superbowl Sunday this past year, Feb 2020, I stumbled across something on her phone that made my stomach drop. An email with words like “I love you” and an email address that I immediately recognized as a coworker of hers. I wasn’t snooping, I NEVER did, and in fact she is the one who told me to change the music from her phone. It was just there when I unlocked it. After a lot of discussion, I found out she was having a full blown love affair with a coworker, they frequently had sex in our car or his before or after shifts. They loved each other so deeply, and in her words, it was effortless unlike anything she has ever felt. They even talked about getting married once they separated from their spouses (yes, he is married with 3 children as well). It had been going on since... well.. things started really going sour for us, in early 2019. A full year!!!

Fast forward through a torturous week of heartbreak, anger, and all the other emotions, and she decides she needs to have one night with “him” outside of work and really figure out what she wants. I didn’t want to, but I agreed to it. They had never seen each other outside of work, I assumed they would feel so free to love each other that it would be the final nail. She comes home, and says they’ve decided to end it, and that she wants to work on things with me now. I was very shocked. But happy and hopeful...

Things have been both good and bad since then. We had a very romantic and great Valentine’s day. We’ve also gotten into arguments of I’m trying too hard or being too overwhelming and she isn’t ready for my love yet. I don’t know how to express WHY I love her so much that I want to forgive and rebuild stronger than ever, but that’s what I want to do. She says she wants to rebuild things as well but it will, understandably, take some time. She still loves him deeply, which of course you can’t just decide to not feel a certain way. I am on a roller coaster of anger, hurt, joy, excitement, depression, yadda yadda. It’s even more complicated because they still work together, she says he is applying for new jobs, but until then, she will continue to feel that love and longing for him. I’m like the backup that’s just easier because we are married with kids and whatnot. At least that’s how I feel. And she doesn’t necessarily do a great job of reassuring me that I’m not just that.

I’ve never been the jealous type. I’ve never been so unconfident. I’ve never felt so embarrassed or disrespected. Yet I still love her and want to work things out with her. Am I crazy? Is this unforgivable? Do I have the right to make demands about what she can and can’t do, selfishly so I’m not hurting? What should I expect from her? What are steps we can take together to move past this?

It’s even much more complicated than this, but I think that’s enough to understand the situation.

Thank you so much for listening,

Heartbroken but Hopeful

PS. I am seeking help from a therapist, just waiting on details through my insurance and that whole process. I’ve never felt so “lost” before, it’s scary. Despite my moments of deep depression I do not have thoughts of harming myself or others.

Let’s answer the easy questions first, HbH. No, you’re not crazy. No, it’s not unforgivable. Yes, the way you feel is entirely valid; the confusion, the conflict and insecurity are all completely understandable. And yes, you have the right to tell her what you need from her in order to be made whole again.

Now let’s get to the difficult parts.

These are the questions that tend to get me in trouble with the readers, HbH, because we tend to have radically different ideas about how to proceed. I’m of the opinion that infidelity isn’t necessarily a relationship extinction level event, nor is it necessarily the worst thing that you could do. While it can seem black and white to the folks outside of the relationship, when you’re in it, it can be a whole lot of messy shades of gray. As it turns out, feelings don’t necessarily turn off like a switch. Even when we’ve been hurt, we still care for folks.

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While the event itself can be traumatic, what’s important is what you do in the aftermath. It all comes down to how you and your partner can answer certain questions.

First: do you understand why this happened? Was it a case of someone in temptation’s way and failing their Wisdom save, or a partner who didn’t care about what they were doing? Was it a reaction to stresses within the relationship, an unhealthy expression of an unmet need or did the cheater just decide to throw caution to the wind? What were the root causes of cheating? As Esther Perell is wont to say: the victim of the affair is not always the victim of the marriage.

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Second: now that things have come out, what do you want to do? Is the person who’s been cheated on able to forgive and move forward? Is the person who did the cheating willing to put in the hard work to re-earn their partner’s love and trust? Are they willing to take responsibility and prioritize repairing the relationship?

Third: are you willing to look at this as a struggle that ultimately brought you both closer together? Or is it the incident that has damaged your relationship?

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To answer the first question, it seems that you at least have an understanding of what happened. The romantic and sexual side of your relationship was being neglected. Your wife was feeling distanced from you—especially after several attempts to address the issues—and went outside the relationship looking for the affection and sexual attention she wasn’t getting.

It’s not surprising that she was feeling so passionate about the guy she was cheating on you with; the rush of getting those needs met, coupled with the New Relationship Energy, can be intoxicating. The sudden burst of oxytocin and dopamine can feel a lot like love and leave you thinking that maybe this is what you want all along. In reality, it’s the thrill of the new, which can gloss over any number of incompatibilities and uncomfortable realities. This is why many couples fall apart after the initial honeymoon period ends… and why cheating partners will often end affairs and go back to their spouses. Years of shared experiences, affection and family often win out in the end.

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The second question is trickier to answer. You, obviously, want to forgive and move forward. You have some incredibly complicated and utterly understandable emotions about the whole thing, but at the center of it all is the desire to repair the rift in your marriage and make things work.

Your wife, however, doesn’t necessarily seem on the same page. If I’m being perfectly honest, her behavior is setting off my Spidey-sense. Here at NerdLove Industries, we’re big believers in “Deeds, not words” and your wife seems to be doing the opposite. While she says that she wants to fix things, the way she’s acting makes it sound like it’s something she feels like she’s supposed to do, not something that she wants to do.

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One of the responsibilities of the party who cheated is to rebuild the trust of their partner. That means that they have a duty to be completely above-board and transparent, to be the one who is maintaining boundaries, providing reassurance and proving that they’re worthy of trust. Telling you that you’re trying too hard is… suspect. So is “I don’t feel worthy.” And needless to say, “of course I still love/care about/whatever the other person” is the sort of shit that a considerate partner wouldn’t say, even in the spirit of transparency and openness. Sometimes keeping your damn mouth shut is the kindest thing you can do.

This sort of behavior makes me question how much her heart is in this.

But as with all things related to heartbreak and betrayal, it can be complicated. You’re obviously still hurting and understandably so. It’s entirely possible that her behavior is well-intentioned but clumsy. It’s also possible that you’re seeing this through the filter of being afraid of being the back-up option and confirmation bias is causing you to see everything in the worst possible light.

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It’s also possible that the two of you are stumbling through this in the dark with no plan and, as a result, you keep stepping on each other’s toes.

If the two of you want to make this work, then I think what you need to do is get your asses into a relationship counselor’s office. Having a trained third party involved means that you have someone who can help you both communicate clearly and be understood by your partner. It can also provide some much needed structure and guidance, a metaphorical roadmap to making your relationship whole again and helping you not repeat the behaviors that brought you to this place.

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At the same time, if it is the case that your wife is going through the motions because she feels like she’s supposed to, rather than wants to… well, then a couple’s counselor can help guide you through ending the marriage as well.

Good luck.

Hello Doctor NerdLove,

This may be a bit of an odd question. Can you give me any advice on how to know if I actually want to date and be in a relationship or just ‘think’ I do? What questions should I be asking myself? Despite having a girlfriend being, seemingly, what I wanted most my entire 20s, now I wonder if the fact I spent most of my 20s refusing to even try means I never truly wanted it in the first place.

The short version is that I’m nearly thirty (possibly will be by time you see this) and, for a moment this year before 2020 decided to throw every stressor in the book at me, I thought I was actually ready to put myself out there and try online dating. I’ve never dated before, ever. I’ve never had a girlfriend, never been kissed, never been on a date, never had sex. I fantasized about having a girlfriend pretty constantly since I was in middle school (and I don’t really mean just sexual fantasies). Most of my friends are female, and I have asked someone out before, so it was never difficulty talking to women stopping me from dating. I still went my entire life so far without doing it.

I know the easy answer is ‘just try dating and see how it goes,’ but the more I look back on my past the more I question what’s really going on with me. I am a very shy person and, in terms of this, had terrible luck all through my teens and 20s meeting people. I only met women through school (where no one ever seemed to be single) and work (where no one ever seemed to even be within five years of my age). My best friend in college got his first long term girlfriend because she was walking by his dorm room and heard him playing Mario Kart 64. I, at the time, had a dorm room at the end of a dead end on the only non-coed floor on campus. I got really upset about no one wanting to date me in college, only to eventually realize I wasn’t putting myself out there or even trying to find people. I seemed to just be expecting a meet cute to happen. I promised I wouldn’t complain unless I actually was trying to date people and ten-ish years later… I still can’t complain. At one point I realized that I wouldn’t even want to be set up by friends, because ‘what if I don’t like them and they’re such a poor fit I realize my friend doesn’t think much of me at all?’

I very nearly did nothing during 10+ years of my life to find a girlfriend despite it being the thing I thought about most the entire decade. I always had a fear or an excuse or was too much of a sad sack to even think of success. Is my refusal to try out of fear as I, until very recently, assumed, or this whole time did I just not really want this? Was I just chasing some high, some idea of what I thought this would be like in middle school? This is something that was so important to me for so long and I just… never even really tried. Can I really be THAT scared of failure or is there more going on?

Dating would be hard for pretty much every reason dating is hard for people who’ve been doing it, plus my own inexperience with everything on top of that. In addition, right now, I find it hard to even think of who I would want to be with. The only similarities between the girls I’ve had a crush on in the past is that I thought they were cute and they were nice to me, that doesn’t seem like a good enough barometer. Recent stressors have also, seemingly, killed my ability to even fantasize anymore (and it was already dwindling as is). I have such poor self-confidence I can’t even keep up a fantasy for more than a few seconds before my brain says ‘never going to happen’ and snaps it out of existence (bizarrely, by comparison, my brain has no problem with literally any other fantasy).

Is even sending this message to you just another excuse to not try, so I can avoid failing? Is my refusal to ever try a sign that maybe this was never for me in the first place?

Thank you for your time and any insight you can give,

Is Even Sending This An Excuse To Not Try

I’m not sure if you’re listening to yourself, IESTAETNT, because you pretty much explain exactly the trouble you’re having.

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Let’s pull the relevant parts of your letter:

I got really upset about no one wanting to date me in college, only to eventually realize I wasn’t putting myself out there or even trying to find people. I seemed to just be expecting a meet cute to happen.

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This is the first part of the problem: you’re waiting for someone else to do the work for you and not taking control of your own life. Your best friend, for example, didn’t have somebody just wander by and volunteer to be his girlfriend. She may have stuck her head in the door because she heard someone playing Mario Kart, but he actually had to do his part. He had to talk, flirt and, most importantly, ask her out on a date.

You, on the other hand, are waiting for a girlfriend to come crashing in through the ceiling and declare that you’re her boyfriend now. And that ain’t how it works.

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Then there’s this part:

At one point I realized that I wouldn’t even want to be set up by friends, because ‘what if I don’t like them and they’re such a poor fit I realize my friend doesn’t think much of me at all?’

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This is the other key to your problem. It’s not that you’re worried that your friends don’t think much of you or that they’d set you up with the wrong person, it’s that you don’t think much of yourself at all. You are convinced that you aren’t good enough or worthy of love or other people’s time and attention. You can’t even trust that your friends like you or know you well enough to set you up with someone; you have already invented an excuse to keep you from asking.

But I don’t think you’re afraid of failure. I think that you—like a lot of late bloomers—are afraid of success. I know it sounds absurd, but getting what you want can be more terrifying than failing. After all, if you fail, then it’s just the status-quo. Nothing changes, your view of yourself continues to be reaffirmed and you continue on as before. But success can be terrifying because now things are real. Fantasies are safe because they can be perfect and proceed without you having to actually invest yourself or put in work. They just happen, exactly as you would want them to. But if you were to ask someone out and they said “yes”... well now you’re in a position where things could go wrong. Having something for real means that you can make mistakes, screw up and ruin it all; if that happens, then you’re actually in a worse position than before.

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It’s easier to come up with reasons why you can’t, instead of admitting that you won’t.

But at the same time, even if you were to decide that you were going to actually grit your teeth, grab yourself by the balls and put yourself out there… well, honestly I think you’d probably fail. Not because you’d be bad at this or your lack of experience would doom you, but because you would sabotage your own success. You don’t believe in your own worth or value as a person, and that corresponds with the belief that nobody else could find you desirable or want you as a partner.

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So before you start trying to put yourself out there, what you need to do more than anything else is address that lack of self-confidence and self-esteem. However, it sounds to me like you’re also possibly dealing with depression, and may well have been for a while. I think it would do you a world of good to find a counselor or therapist to talk things out. Getting those feelings under control and ruling out any potential mental health issues will go a long way to getting you ready for actual success.

Getting your head right is more important than getting in the game. Take care of yourself, find your value and learn to appreciate yourself. Love, sex and dating will all still be available when you’re ready.

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Good luck.

Hi Doc,

I will try to be brief. I am in my early 70's and my boyfriend of 8 months is in his late 60's.

I have been widowed for 4 years and was married 16 years and with him for 23 years.

It was a good and loving marriage.

My bf has lost his girlfriend thru death and they were together 3 years.

My bf and I are getting along very well but I am very cautious about future sexual activity. He is a respectful and patient man but is throwing hints he is interested in a more affectionate and romantic relationship.

My issue is I am hesitant about lovemaking because I feel I would be betraying my deceased husband. It sounds silly, i know but it is bothering me. My boyfriend is great looking and I am attracted to him.

I don’t want to keep him waiting too long, but I have not been with another man in 23 years and a little nervous.

Advice?

Lost In The Past

Here’s the thing, LITP: your husband loved and cared for you. Do you think that he’d want you to be alone and lonely for the rest of your life? Or do you think that he’d want you to find happiness, comfort and companionship now that he’s gone?

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Sleeping with your boyfriend isn’t a betrayal of his memory, it would be honoring his wishes. He would want you to be happy and fulfilled. Let yourself be happy. Grab on to joy (and your boyfriend) with both hands and ride that sucker to the ground.

And believe me: you may be nervous, but you have nothing to be nervous about. Your desire for your boyfriend—and his for you—will carry you through the initial awkwardness, and then your bodies will take it from there.

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You’ve got this. Now go get him.

Good luck.


Did your relationship survive an affair? Have you struggled with a lack of self-worth? Share your story in the comments below and we’ll be back with more of your questions in two weeks.

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Ask Dr. NerdLove is Kotaku’s bi-weekly dating column, hosted by the one and only Harris O’Malley, AKA Dr. NerdLove. Got a question you’d like answered? Write doc@doctornerdlove.com and put “Kotaku” in the subject line.

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Harris O’Malley is a writer and dating coach who provides geek dating advice at his blog Paging Dr. NerdLove and the Dr. NerdLove YouTube channel. His new dating guide New Game+: The Geek’s Guide to Love, Sex and Dating is out now from Amazon, iTunes and everywhere fine books are sold. He is also a regular guest at One Of Us.

He can be found dispensing snark and advice on Facebook and on Twitter at @DrNerdLove.

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