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Emotional Affair With Your Ex?

QUESTION: I have been married for eight years and have always believed my husband has not gotten over his ex-wife. They divorced about 12 years ago but have two daughters together. I have heard him on the phone with her being bubbly and very intimate -- discussing things he would never discuss with me. He has low self-esteem and I think that he respects her because she left him. Does that make sense? We have discussed this issue many times and he keeps telling me he doesn't love her, but his actions prove otherwise. Please advise.

ANSWER: Your husband is sharing emotional issues with his ex-wife that he should be sharing with you. This kind of triangulation is no doubt an old pattern and one that undermines any marriage. No wonder you are upset!

Your belief that your husband respects his ex-wife because she left him not only makes "sense", but is a likely accurate assessment. He may indeed be devaluing you because he disrespects himself. Although his low self-esteem is no excuse for neglecting his current marriage, this may not be the whole picture, but only a part of what is wrong in your relationship.

Your own self-esteem is also important to consider at this point. We depend on our primary relationships to accurately reflect who we are as people. Your tolerance of your spouse's treatment of you these past eight years may mean that your own self-worth coming into the relationship was poor.

Also, consider the possibility that there exists an intimacy gap in your marriage that has allowed room for this emotional affair with his ex-spouse. Again, this does not excuse his behavior, which is a significant factor in the deterioration of your marriage. Still, your own low self-esteem, your mutual avoidance of intimacy or lack of problem solving in your marriage could have also contributed to your current marital demise. Whatever the reasons, you now feel that you want more. Good for you! This is a sign of healthy self-esteem on your part.

Start by setting up a time to talk with your husband in a relaxed setting, without potential for interruptions. Let him know that you want to have a serious talk about your marriage relationship. Spend some time preparing for this discussion by writing down your experience of the last eight years of marriage. Were things always this way? Was there a time when the two of you shared your feelings more intimately? When did your emotional connection begin to change? What effect did having children bring to your relationship? How have you handled the challenges of becoming a stepfamily?

Share your experience of the history of your relationship with your spouse. Ask him for his views and experience on when and how things may have changed since the beginning of your relationship. By taking time to carefully consider your history together, you are moving the spotlight to your own marriage, rather than continuing the focus on his ex-wife. This will set the stage for intimacy between you without triangulating a third person which distracts from you focus on each other. Consider also, whether triangles were a part of either of your parents' marriages. It is also possible to learn destructive relationship patterns or tolerate them because of past familiarity in childhood.

Although your husband does need to have a co-parenting relationship with his ex, let him know that his "secrets" with her are undermining his intimacy with you. Direct your focus to the heart of the relationship between the two of you. Explore what has happened, what has gone awry, and what you are missing from him. What is it he wants from marriage? What do you want? Consider seeking the help of a professional couples' counselor to further guide your exploration.

Give your relationship a chance by clearly communicating the fact to your husband that your marriage is in trouble. It is not an issue of love, but of a shared vision for your marriage. Ask him in earnest whether he wants to save this marriage!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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