I think my wife is having an emotional affair and I don’t know how to stop it.
We’ve been together for just over eight years. We have two children together and, in general, our relationship has been good. In the last year or so, a new guy started at her work. Obviously, because of the pandemic, we have both been working from home a lot and juggling childcare – but when I hear her speak to him on Zoom, it’s completely different to the way she speaks to me.
I’ve heard the way they interact and it seems to make her really happy. She lights up whenever she gets a message from him. I’ve even overheard her confide in him about problems in our marriage. What should I do?
You mention casually – almost as an afterthought – in your last sentence that you have been having problems in your marriage; which suggests to me that perhaps the real issue here isn’t your wife’s new co-worker, but your relationship.
I am a firm believer that whenever there is an “issue” in a dyad – whether the dynamic is one of family, friends, lovers, or even with a boss or a colleague – nine times out of 10, it’s got something to do with communication. Not enough of it; not enough transparency; misreading each other’s moods, signals and desires – sometimes we can even do that purposefully, because we don’t want to face up to hearing what the other person is trying to tell us.
If we were able to express exactly what we need and want, at the time we need and want it (and, vitally, before we start feeling resentful that we aren’t getting it); if we really felt heard, I believe it would smooth out many of the blips and ripples that mar the surface of a long and happy relationship.
That’s not to say that you won’t have tricky moments regardless of how clearly you feel you’re talking to your spouse: we’re human, after all. We are fallible, we f*** up, we make mistakes. But if you boil down the reasons for so many of the hiccups we encounter – the ones that grow and gather momentum to create a perfect tsunami of upset and upheaval (and sometimes result in betrayal) – it’s often the case that a communication problem is at the root of it.
When we don’t feel heard or seen, we can feel neglected, overlooked – even lonely. It is entirely possible to feel alone within a marriage, even when you have kids and rarely find yourself physically alone. In those situations, when a new person comes along and expresses an interest in getting to know us (the “us” we are at work, when we’re not drowning beneath the weight of domestic duty and/or childcare) then it can feel like we are vibrant and alive again.
That’s what I sense when I read about your situation: that you are working parents, looking after two (presumably) young children; and you’re coping with a lot. I’m betting once you’ve both finished working – yes, even from home – and have thrown yourselves headfirst into the rollercoaster chaos of getting dinner, bath and bedtime sorted for the kids, you don’t feel like you’ve got anything left for each other, other than falling asleep while watching a box set on the sofa. You are spent. That’s completely understandable – but perhaps you’ve forgotten to remind each other along the way of how important, special and valued you are.
That’s not to say your wife isn’t having an emotional affair – only she can tell you the truth about that (and perhaps it’s time you asked her, in a non-accusatory way, how she feels about this colleague of hers). It might be the case that it’s all fantasy; that she’s simply got carried away with the fun and distraction of flirting. The office crush has existed through the ages for a reason – it gives us something to feel excited about amid the routine or pressures of the daily grind. But let me give you a word of caution: you can’t “stop” someone else’s behaviour. You can’t control other people, or the way you feel – you can only control what you do.
So, it is worth thinking about what might be behind this situation. Because if you have both dropped the ball of communication, it might explain why your wife has been seeking comfort, understanding and escapism in a new colleague who’s showing her he’s interested in finding out about her. The inner her. If your suspicions are correct, she has found someone to confide in – she’s opened up. Now it’s your turn.
Tell her how much you love her; exactly what she means to you. Confess that you feel worried, even a little scared, that her attention appears to have diverted elsewhere. Don’t be afraid to make yourself vulnerable. Remind yourself (and then remind her) how precious your relationship is – and why.
Try and share exactly what you appreciate about each other; big each other up – talk about the brilliant ways that you work together to provide for your family and to keep a home and dual careers afloat. Openly express to each other exactly what is special about the two of you; what’s worth preserving and saving and working on. And do it now, before a possible emotional connection outside of the marriage turns physical.
Show commitment to working on what comes up – even through couples’ therapy. Having a neutral third party there to question and direct can help you practice (and improve) your communication in a safe and impartial space. Try to remain calm and understanding: listen to the ways she might feel misunderstood or neglected – without getting defensive – then share your own.
Communication is about talking and listening – you can’t have one without the other. Nail the emotional intimacy that keeps a romantic relationship afloat, and my guess is you won’t hear much more about this new colleague at all – unless she’s gushing to him about how brilliant her marriage is.
Victoria Richards is The Independent’s new advice columnist. Having problems with work, love, family or friends? Contact email@example.com