The life you want can feel unattainable, for complex reasons. If you are struggling to deal with emotional challenges, past or present, our agony aunt and therapist Lola Borg can help.
I ALMOST HAD AN AFFAIR
I am a happily married woman and a mum of two girls (10 and 12). But I feel trapped. My life revolves around the family and work. I have a really good job working for a charity, but since my new boss started I feel insecure and miserable about my position as he’s been quite critical of me. At a work conference a few weeks ago I got very drunk and almost got off with a man 10 years younger than me. For the first time in a long time I felt attractive and desired. I now feel haunted by what I almost did – I only kissed him and I feel bad enough about that. I love my husband, so this nearly-fling doesn’t make sense at all. I’m now really worried I’m going to have an affair and wreck a perfectly happy marriage. I wish I felt more fulfilled.
It’s a clichéd observation but true for all that – often people have affairs because there is something missing in their relationship. So maybe your first idea is to think about what this might be. You don’t talk much about your husband except to let me know he doesn’t make you feel attractive and desired so this is a pretty hefty clue, but it also suggests something fundamental has got lost along the way. You could feel angry at him or resentful – often, research tells us, a driver for women to consider an affair.
Or this might be nothing to do with him and rather an attempt to reclaim the life or personality you had before it got submerged by the twin duties of work and parenting. Only you can work out the answers to these questions and what else it is you are craving – fun, freedom, a feeling of being alive, whatever. But, considering your guilt, it’s obviously something pretty huge for you to get sloshed as an excuse and then almost hook up with someone else.,/p> You stress how ‘happy’ you are in your marriage and you might be right – people can be content with their partner but still think about being unfaithful (one theory is that people stray ‘because they can’ and of course technology today brings limitless opportunities).
But you are more worried you could easily fall into a full-blown affair, which would throw a hand grenade into your existence. So as much as you’d like to ignore it, this feeling is not going anywhere in a hurry and certainly needs addressing before the next conference. Maybe you could look at this flirting episode as a powerful clue that something badly needs to change and that you were lucky enough to wake up to this idea (ital) before (ital) you were tempted into taking things further.
It’s likely your work situation is connected. Maybe your confidence wobble there was a factor – the idea that if one area of your life is going under, you might as well sabotage another. We know that affairs can follow a major upset, often a death or a loss of some kind – and in your case there has been a massive status dip in an otherwise successful career. If this almost-affair was with an office colleague you’ll realise you risk undermining your work status still further.
So it would be useful – essential even – to think about what might change you from feeling ‘trapped and unfulfilled’. A note of caution here though. The word ‘change’ suggests something sweeping or dramatic, such as flouncing from your job, but it doesn’t have to be.
Often a series of tiny adjustments can give life a totally different complexion. Travel, friends, relationships, taking a day out to do whatever you please, spending time with your husband – if that’s what you want – generally opening up your world a little which at the moment revolves around just ‘family and work’. I’m left wondering, ‘Where is everything else that makes an interesting, well-rounded existence?’ Maybe that’s what you are craving.
RECENTLY DIVORCED AND COMPLETELY LOST
I’m 52, and recently divorced after being with my husband for 28 years and I now realise I married totally the wrong person. He had an affair years ago and our relationship never really recovered. After that I stayed for the sake of the family – I have two lovely children – and poured all my energy into them but my youngest has now left home for university so I’m living alone for the first time. I know I’m drinking more than I should, feel adrift and basically am disappointed with how my life has turned out. I feel like I should be enjoying myself but I don’t seem able to and am at a loss to know where I go from here.
I get the sense that because you had been unhappy for so very long, you left your husband without anticipating any major fallout. It doesn’t quite work that way – however much you wanted this to happen, it can still be a shock when it does. You have been through two or even three major life changes (divorce, children leaving home, house move) all of which are seismic and can leave you reeling. Now you are in the position of asking yourself what you want from the second act in your life and you are not quite sure of the answer.
Frustrating as it is, that will take time – maybe more than you expected, often longer than other people feel comfortable with (because, annoyingly, they generally are in a hurry for you to ‘be OK’). Your reaction sounds pretty typical considering your situation and you are at the very beginning of reconstructing a life – yours – which can only be done at your own pace. Accept that you’re not always going to feel amazing on the way but stick in the back of your head the idea that, as Einstein was fond of saying, In the middle of a difficulty lies opportunity. Being ‘disappointed’ suggests you want something you don’t have. Only you know what this might be. You don’t mention work but this can be something to hold onto when life is up and down.
Of course I would suggest therapy because I’m a therapist but honestly it would help (see box below) to look at long-term issues, such as why you married someone who was ‘wrong’ for you in the first place and also why you let your family eclipse everything else for so long. If you have another relationship (not that I’m suggesting this – diving onto Match.com could rocket you into total despair at this stage), you need to straighten this out first. Talking will certainly help your drinking too, which could be a result of boredom or resentment. You could even still be feeling furious with your husband over his affair or behaviour. Trying to suppress anger is often a reason to head for the bottle.
In your circumstances – a newly-divorced woman – there is pressure to ‘start a new life’ which is a tall order (you’re the same person underneath, after all). However, tiny shifts can dramatically alter how you feel day-to-day, so try to rediscover what gives you pleasure (eg, seeing friends, work, travel, sport), often activities that get submerged or sidelined by the energy drain that is family life. Breaking Upwards by Charlotte Friedman is a practical guide to kick-starting life post divorce that you may find helpful.
After almost three decades it might be an unnerving – even utterly terrifying – idea to start putting yourself first but sometimes purely one that takes practice. Congratulate yourself on successfully navigating the first – and most difficult – step, which was getting out of an unhappy marriage. Now is the time, very much at your own pace, to rediscover the person you were before being a wife and mother and to start gently pushing your life in a different direction. And the exciting point is that you are free to choose wherever or whatever that might be.
As a super-rough guide, ‘therapy’ tends to be longer and more intense, while ‘counselling’ is shorter and focuses on one issue (eg. grief counselling). Find someone who is properly qualified via the BACP or BPC websites, The Counselling Directory or Welldoing.org. Your GP may refer you for counselling or therapy, or a low-cost option is via Mind, the mental health charity, which operates nationwide.
Lola Borg is a psychotherapist and counsellor with a practice in north east London and also works for Mind, the mental health charity. Her previous career was as a writer and editor and she still contributes regularly to national newspapers and magazines on the subjects of mental health, social trends and women’s issues.