Philippa Perry is a psychotherapist, Red’s agony aunt and the author of bestselling parenting book, The Book You Wish Your Parents Had Read. Here, she advises a reader not to throw away her marriage after a one-night stand without looking at the real reasons why.
I’ve been married for 15 years but, two months ago, I had sex with a 25-year-old. There was no risk of us getting caught and we had safe sex. The thing is, I don’t even feel guilty.
I’m 40 and my husband is 50. It was the first time I’ve done anything like this, but I fancy other men all the time and imagine having sex with them.
Now that I’ve had sex with someone else, I know how easily it could happen again. I can’t suppress my feelings forever. I still feel young, sexy and vibrant but my husband has lost his zest for life. I suspect he has mild depression, and we’ve spoken about it.
Regardless of what happens, I want him to be happy. He is a great father to our seven-year-old son and a very good husband. I know that should be enough. But we want different things now: to go on different holidays, to live in different places; we have different friends.
I thought we’d grow together but I realise we’re growing apart. I think I’m only staying with him for our son. I’ve felt like this for two years. Please help, Philippa, I feel sick constantly thinking about it.
Philippa says: There you are, hovering on the precipice between security and adventure. Oh, the excitement of that obsession one feels with a new person, the focused attention you get and bestow. Before recently, I don’t suppose you’d given that sort of attention, or received it, for a while?
Focused attention is hard to rekindle when familiarity and the day-to-day business of chores and earning a living erode those early behaviours. What were once meaningful exchanges seem to dissolve into mere role-play. You long again for mutual impact, expansion and growth, but the only way forward you can see would be to hurt and betray your husband. You say your husband is mildly depressed but I’m wondering whether you are? Whether you don’t so much want to leave the person you are with, as leave the person you fear you are becoming?
There is a part of yourself you are keeping hidden from your husband and I wonder if he is feeling lonely as a result. It’s not surprising he is losing some of his vibrancy if he is no longer your confidant. I’m not necessarily advocating you confess your adultery; rather that you keep your husband involved as you address your frustrations. At the moment you are seeking to redress your problems by running away. It’s easier to pin our feelings of ‘stuckness’ on to the person closest to us than it is to look inwards and address our own vulnerability. Before you consider making a decision that could adversely affect you and the two people who love you most, you need more time.
You say you want different things: holidays, houses, social life. I do think there is room in a marriage for each partner to have separate holidays and see different people, although not many of us can afford a house each, so some compromise is always necessary. A good marriage is not about being together all the time. It’s about each continuing to grow and develop, and then bringing that development back into the partnership to share. Sexualising the need for some separate life is not often the path to anything other than a short-lived thrill and devastation.
You don’t usually look at your long-term partner and go ‘phwoar’. You decide to be sexual with each other, perhaps using fantasy, or whatever it takes. It’s different from getting off with someone in the early days of a liaison. That thrill comes from dopamine, a body chemical that gives you a bit of a high. Different situations trigger it for different people – sex, gambling, chocolate, drugs – and the activity becomes addictive because you want another hit of that dopamine.
I think you may have had quite a hit of this after your adventure with the 25-year-old, and may be craving some more. The trouble with addiction is, the happiness it provides is about being released from craving. Then the craving builds up again.
With craving comes obsession, and that’s good for feeling ‘alive’, too, as it can wipe out other, less easy-to-process emotions. What addiction does is fill a space within you, an emptiness, but it isn’t a long-term solution. Working on your marriage, on the other hand, is.