“Such bullshit. When I look back on it, I can’t even believe it was all going on right under my nose,” quipped Ryan (not his real name). As a newly divorced, late-thirties father of two, Ryan suddenly found himself in the midst of a bitter divorce. It was the result of his soon-to-be ex-wife’s affair with one of his close friends. They had been secretly rendezvousing for years, literally right behind his back. He was angry and hurt, but most of all he was confused about the three year betrayal. How did this happen right under his nose? His marriage seemed fine on the surface.
As I listened to Ryan recount years of dysfunctional communication complemented by a passionate sex life, I began to understand why he was so confused. His ex-wife appeared so thoughtful. She arranged weekend getaways for the two of them. Planned surprise birthday parties for him and maintained a strong physical connection with him. No wonder he never suspected that she was sleeping with his friend.
Over the course of several months it came out that while things “seemed” fine, there was actually one event that made this betrayal somewhat predictable. Turns out about a decade before, he caught his wife having an emotional affair with a colleague. At the time they had an infant and leaving the relationship seemed impossible. Once the emotional affair came out they had a huge argument. But nothing was ever resolved No counseling. No shared grief or pain. No new self-awareness. They just silently agreed to “get over it” and stay together. And on the surface they did.
But what happened underneath? In a nutshell: they chose not to learn from it and this fracture in their relationship is why the marriage eventually broke apart. Ryan realized much of his identity is associated with being loyal and committed. These are core components of who he defines himself as. They are traits that make him himself. And people almost always stay true by taking action in alignment with who they believe they are. And his wife understood this, too. She was holding him hostage with his identity and his values. While he was not okay with the relationship she had with her colleague, he was even more not okay with breaking up his family. So he stayed after the first affair. But he was resentful, and this showed. Instead of being loving or thoughtful the way he was before, he became controlling and disconnected. This provided his ex-wife with justification (to herself) for going outside of the marriage the second time. After all, who wants to be close to someone who is constantly detached or angry?
It has taken him years to realize what happened and he still struggles to understand how it all unraveled. This is mostly because he’s had so much internal conflict with what his emotions were telling him was true and with finding an option that aligned with who he knew himself to be. A devoted, loyal husband and father. As a result he perpetually felt an underlying sense of being manipulated, which only fueled his anger and distance. And he will never know if his ex-wife was aware of what she was doing or if it was all subconscious for her, too.
What is one to do when he/she is trapped like this? When their feelings and choices are caught between their emotional needs and personal values (aka your identity is being held hostage).
This is when you have to you draw a line. Not one in the sand but a real one. It means standing up to your partner and holding yourself and her/him accountable. Acknowledging your feelings and if the scenario is a deal breaker, making it known. It’s saying “this thing that happened is not okay. I’m not saying I’m leaving because of it. But I am saying that if we don’t find a way to learn from it, to heal, to change, to grow as a result… I will eventually leave.” And you absolutely must be ready to leave if the day comes where you truly realize that their is no hope in learning from it. That growth as a couple is not possible. That sacrificing your identity is the only way to make this work. Because if that’s what it takes, you’re not really in that relationship anyway. It’s a watered-down, compromised version of you that’s not authentic or really available. It’s a psuedo-version of you, not the real you. That is who your partner is experiencing being with.
I don’t want to over simplify this, because it’s a really complex and difficult topic. But, bottom line: no relationship can survive consistent, underlying resentment. It is toxic. It will either kill the relationship or make you mentally and physically ill.
If you know you’re living with long term resentment in your relationship, it’s worth asking yourself if your partner is holding you hostage by your identity or values.
Want some support getting the grip loosened up or returning to your more vibrant, authentic self? Click here.