Difficult Choice — Unhappy Marriage versus Loving Girlfriend

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Reader’s Question

I am a married man with three sons. Five years ago I started a relationship with a younger woman. She seemed to fill a void that was missing in my marriage and showed me what true love was like. She listened to me, took care of me, and was interested in me and my life.

Two years into my affair my wife found out, and we discussed why it happened. My wife was better for a while, but now is back to her old selfish ways. I tried to end the affair, but have continued to see this other woman. Although I think the best thing might be to try to fix my marriage, I don’t know if I can let go of the other relationship.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t feel like being at home, so I try to stay away as much as I can, working late and finding things to do. Now, the younger woman is starting to date someone else. She is wanting more than just weekends with me, which I can understand.

Society tells me I need to end it with the girlfriend and concentrate on the responsibilities I created with my wife and family. Personally, I feel I would be happier with the other woman. I’m depressed and just don’t really care about anything other than my girlfriend.

Psychologist’s Reply

The dilemma over whether to remain in an unhappy marriage is one that many people face at some point. We know from the divorce statistics that many eventually choose to end the marriage. We can assume that some portion of those who remain married were just as unhappy but chose to stick it out (at least for now).

Some of those who remain unhappily married may feel pressured to do so by societal or religious expectations (although having an affair also violates those expectations). Some may feel they have few options financially or romantically, or that it’s in the best interests of their children to remain in the marriage. Of course these are all issues each individual has to sort through for themselves.

Although ultimately you have to be the one to decide whether to stay in the marriage, I think there are some principles from psychology that are worth considering. First, research has revealed that many people make the decision to end one relationship only when there is an alternative relationship in the wings. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but the newer relationship is liable to skew one’s perceptions of the older relationship. After all, new relationships do tend to be more exciting, and the new partner more accepting, attentive, and complimentary. How could a new relationship not be more appealing than an unhappy marriage?

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Then there is the scarcity principle. When something is difficult to get, or is in limited supply, we value it and want it even more. So, seeing your girlfriend only on weekends, and now facing the possibility of losing her to a rival, likely fan the flames of desire. Similarly, her limited access to your time and attention may have had the same effects on her feelings.

Perhaps the biggest difficulty is that the decision you face involves choosing between two unknowns. You do know what it’s like to remain unhappily married and compensate through stolen weekends with a girlfriend. However, your choice is between giving up the married life you know for an unknown, full-time relationship with your girlfriend, versus remaining married but focusing on improving the marriage as much as you can. Unfortunately, we often assume that, if chosen over the marriage, the new relationship will be just as it has been, only ‘more’ of it. In reality, the dynamics frequently change as the status goes from affair to committed relationship, and the novelty and scarcity fade. However, when unhappy, as you are now, it’s easy to exaggerate the positives of the alternative relationship and fantasize about how much better life would be.

I’ll leave you with a final question to ask yourself: How invested am I in my marriage, and how much am I willing to invest? In other words, you may be staying in your marriage for the sake of your sons, yet if you’re avoiding home, your sons may not be benefiting from the fact that their parents are indeed still married. Similarly, if you decide to remain married but choose not to focus your energies on your marriage, the marriage is unlikely to improve and you’re liable to be resentful, fantasizing about what might have been with the girlfriend. In that case, no one would be well served by your choice, despite being the more socially acceptable alternative.

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