Thursday 19 April 2018

Dear Mary: My wife has taken a lover and now wants an open marriage

Illustration: Tom Halliday.
Illustration: Tom Halliday.

Relationship counsellor and psychosexual therapist Mary O'Conor offers relationship advice in her weekly column.

Question: I turn to you for help with my life as I am not in a good place at this time. My wife recently started a new job and after a couple of weeks I noticed she was wearing more modern clothes and high heels. She always dressed nicely but she always wore flat shoes. She even started wearing stockings, which, in our 36 years of marriage, I had never seen her do.

So, with regret, one night when she was in bed I searched her handbag. There I found a packet of condoms and another phone. When I confronted her about this, she broke down crying and admitted she was having an affair with a co-worker. When I asked her why, she said she was fed up and bored with our life. I asked her if she was leaving me and she said yes.

I pleaded with her to stay and she said only if I was prepared to have an open marriage, which I agreed to reluctantly after many hours of talk. I thought it would be alright, but when I see her getting ready to go out to be with another man my emotions run high. Then she is not getting home till after 3am, and some nights not at all.

I have found out this guy is over 20 years younger than my wife. I have always loved her deeply and I still do. I can't bear to think I might lose her. I don't want to live without her, and feel with all this pain and heartache I'd be better off dead. I have no one to turn to as because of the nature of my problem, I need it kept private.

So Mary, I am hoping you can truly help me in some way. I need some kind of hope to keep me going.

Mary replies: This affair and her new job are all terribly exciting for your wife, and quite different from the relative sameness of a 36-year-old marriage. Meanwhile, your world has been turned upside down and you are suffering unbearable heartache watching your wife go out to meet her lover.

My understanding of an open marriage is that both parties agree to each other being sexual outside of the marriage. It is very sexually based - as opposed to emotionally - but through it all the marriage comes first, together with family if the couple have children. It is agreed that if one or other does not want the open marriage to continue then a halt has to be called immediately. Jealousy is one of the main reasons why open marriages fail. The couple try it out but then one partner finds that they simply cannot handle the idea of their spouse being sexual with somebody else, because the jealous feelings engendered are just too strong. But you are not having an open marriage where you are free to be with other people. You discovered that your wife was having an affair and agreed that it could continue. It seems to me that this has no real chance of working for you, and your letter testifies to that.

I don't have any details of her lover's situation - if he is married or single, although the fact that she is the one carrying the condoms leads me to believe that he is married. Whatever the case, the probability is that the affair will run its course and eventually end. There is a possibility that they will decide that they want to be together permanently, but that is an unlikely outcome. The affair may continue for a few years, and you have to ask yourself if you are prepared to wait that long while suffering so much mental anguish. So this is one option open to you - to continue the way things are at present in the hope that it will be over soon.

Another option is to tell her that it is going to be a truly open marriage and that you are also going to seek another partner. I realise that this is not something that may appeal to you but it would be interesting to see her reaction - you don't have to actually do anything, just make it look like you intend to.

You don't want to lose her and the prospect of being alone is indeed scary after all this time but it may be that you have to call a halt, tell her that you can't go along with things as they are and if she wants to continue the affair then the marriage is over. She has the best of both worlds right now - the excitement of seeing her lover at work every day and planning their trysts without any of the humdrum of daily life - while continuing with the security that you and your life together provides. Why should she have all the good times while you suffer? If she is faced with the choice of having to break up with you if she continues seeing him, then she may decide to stay, but this is a risk you will have to take as she may also decide to go.

If she stays, I would strongly recommend counselling for you both. In the meantime there is somebody to whom you can talk and they are at the end of a telephone. The Samaritans are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to listen and talk with you. They won't be offering any solutions and you don't have to be suicidal to call them, but talking really helps. Their number is 116-123.

I feel old at 31.  Can I convince  myself that I am still young?

Question: I am 31 years of age. A lot of my friends that are around the same age as me have girlfriends which makes me feel old. How can I get it into my head and convince myself that I'm still young and not that old?

Mary replies: I presume what you mean is that you feel old because they have girlfriends and you don't. Nowadays, the trend seems to be for people to settle down, either by living together or getting married and beginning to start a family when they are in their thirties. This has a lot to do with the female biological clock, and the fact that a woman's fertility starts to decrease when she is around 34. The man's body is made quite differently and he can father children all his life, so there is far less of a sense of urgency with men. I am generalising here - a lot of people have no interest in having children - but it is worth pointing out why your friends are beginning to choose partners.

Part of the excitement of life is that we never know what is ahead. Because of this, it is futile to worry about what may happen in the future as it may never happen. So the thing to do is to live in the present and see every day as an adventure - one where you don't know the ending. In that context, worrying about feeling old as opposed to feeling young is unnecessary. I have a friend who is 87. He married his second wife four years ago when he had been widowed for a year, he takes ski holidays twice a year, plays golf a few times a week, enjoys a cocktail or beer every evening, and is a person whose company all his friends enjoy. He told me he is too busy enjoying life to feel old, so perhaps you could take a leaf out of his book and concentrate on enjoying what you have rather than worrying about your age. I think George Bernard Shaw put it very well when he said, "We don't stop playing because we grow old - we grow old because we stop playing."

You can contact Mary O’Conor anonymously by visiting or email her at or write c/o 27-32 Talbot Street, Dublin 1. All correspondence will be treated in confidence. Mary O’Conor regrets that she is unable to answer any questions privately.

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