[Two Pronged] Getting over jealousy after emotional infidelity

A wife asks if she should still trust her husband after discovering his history of emotional infidelity

Rappler’s Life and Style section runs an advice column by couple Jeremy Baer and clinical psychologist Dr. Margarita Holmes.

Jeremy has a master’s degree in law from Oxford University. A banker of 37 years who worked in 3 continents, he has been training with Dr Holmes for the last 10 years as co-lecturer and, occasionally, as co-therapist, especially with clients whose financial concerns intrude into their daily lives.

Together, they have written two books: Love Triangles: Understanding the Macho-Mistress Mentality and Imported Love: Filipino-Foreign Liaisons.

Dear Dr Holmes and Mr Baer,

My husband and I have been married 7 years. I’m his second wife and am significantly younger than him, as his first wife passed away.

I am writing to ask for advice as my husband was living overseas when I met him. Pre-marriage, he had an "emotional" affair with two other women (which in my case, I would still consider as affairs). When he came to the Philippines to meet, he also met up with one of the women. He insists they just had coffee and chatted.

By some miracle, I found out about these affairs and we had a huge fight about it. I gave him a chance and reconciled – but not without me lashing out at him for a full year for his faults. We then got married, and I moved abroad with him afterwards.

Five years into the marriage, I started digging about his past (call me crazy) and found out he had multiple "emotional" affairs (with sexual correspondence) with different women while married to his first wife of 15 years at different times. I read texts and emails from pseudo accounts he had and confronted him about it, afraid that he might be doing the same thing to me. He denied such things and called me "paranoid and digging into the past" again.

My husband, at one point, asked me if he had ever cheated on me after that one incident in the past – which made me realize that he has never repeated it. I have access to all his accounts online and his phone and have not seen any trace. I then asked him, in a heart-to-heart discussion, why he cheated on his first wife – to which he answered, "You know I had only gotten her pregnant, she was not my choice, but I married her." They have a child together.

This response has enabled me to stop bickering with him – but I ask, is this a good enough reason? Or is this all BS? I am very happy with my spouse, but am always afraid he will cheat on me. I always remind him that if he ever does it to me – I will leave him. Should I finally move on?

Thank you,

Green-eyed monster

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Dear Green-eyed monster (GEM),

Thank you for your email.

To summarize, before you got married, you found out ("by some miracle" though you give no further details of this divine intervention) that your then-boyfriend (let’s call him Jorge) was also emotionally involved, if not actually physically unfaithful, with at least 3 other women. You fought, reconciled, and subsequently married.

You then found out 5 years later that Jorge had done the same thing even earlier, while married to his previous wife. His explanation was that he impregnated and "had to marry" his ex, whom he had never envisaged as marriage material.

In summary, all of Jorge’s indiscretions predate your marriage and a good number predate your relationship, while none postdate your fight and reconciliation.

There are endless unhelpful and often contradictory sayings that can be applied to your situation, two of which are "forgive and forget" and "a leopard never changes his spots." Leaving aside however the dubious wisdom of platitudes like these, what are the important factors to concentrate on moving forward?

Firstly, Jorge has a track record of emotional infidelity, mainly when married to his ex but also while in a relationship with you. Secondly, he has not knowingly re-offended since your fight and subsequent marriage. It makes perfect sense that you should be wary given past experience, but your wariness should be tempered by the increasing span of time during which he seems not to have slipped back into his old habits. Monitoring his behavior, therefore, should be proportionate to the likelihood of transgression. Excessive zeal in the absence of any valid evidence is, after all, likely to damage your relationship with Jorge without protecting you from any real threat.

Best of luck,

JAF Baer

Illustration by Ernest Fiestan/Rappler

Dear GEM,

Thank you very much for your letter, which you ended with the following questions:

  • [Jorge says the only reason he married his ex wife was because he got her pregnant.] Is this a good enough reason? Or is this all BS?
  • I am very happy with my spouse, but always afraid he would cheat on me. I always remind him that if he ever did it to me – I will leave him. Should I finally move on?
  • Mr Baer answers your questions with his usual wisdom (rather than with mere intelligence), and aplomb when he says: “your wariness should be tempered by the increasing span of time during which he seems not to have slipped back into his old habits. Monitoring his behavior therefore should be proportionate to the likelihood of transgression. Excessive zeal in the absence of any valid evidence is after all likely to damage your relationship with Jorge without protecting you from any real threat.”

    One way it might damage your relationship is if Jorge starts feeling that, since you will always be suspicious, he might as well be “hanged for a sheep as a lamb.” If he feels you will never fully trust him, he may start to ask himself, “What’s the use? Nothing I do seems to make a difference… so I may as well do what she suspects me of doing.” Guilty or innocent, I am still being punished.

    Of course, not all men would behave that way, but without knowing Jorge, I wouldn’t be surprised if he, like many other men, might use your suspicions as an excuse to go back to his old ways.

    Thus, allow me to share a technique that, in my clinical experience, has been helpful for people who wish to tamp down what they feel are their obsessive thoughts and/or compulsive behaviors. (NB: not to be confused with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder).

    In my clinical experience, the most helpful method to quell your fears is mindfulness-meditation. Barry Boyce is editor-in-chief of Mindful and Mindful.org, and author of The Mindfulness Revolution: Leading Psychologists, Scientists, Artists, and Meditation Teachers on the Power of Mindfulness in Daily Life. In “This is Your Anxious Brain on Meditation,” he says: “In mindfulness meditation, when you notice a thought, you’ll likely be tempted to dwell on it and take it somewhere. Instead, you can just touch it lightly with your attention and go right to your breath. It doesn’t matter if you were off in space for a long time. In the moment you touch the thought, you can bounce right back.”

    My favorite part, however, is when he “makes fun” of some of psychologists’ favorite buzz words: “Many therapies… encourage us to change the story we’re telling ourselves when that story causes us anxiety, depression, or other challenging mental states. In the recovery world it’s called ‘stinkin’ thinkin’,’ the kind of self-talk that tells us… things are not going to work out… The stories we tell ourselves in our heads do frame our experience, and they can form a kind of script for our lives, so the advice to ‘flip the script,’ to change the story we’re telling ourselves, would seem to make a lot of sense.”

    However, Mr Boyce adds, “Meditation gives us the space to choose not to react to those things that trigger our anxiety.”

    The reason mindfulness-meditation can help alleviate our anxiety is, to quote Zindel Segal, Distinguished Professor of Psychology in Mood Disorders at the University of Toronto and one of the founders of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), “It’s not binary. There’s no need to think of one being right and the other wrong or one being necessarily better than the other, [instead], you have an opportunity – the mental time and space, if you will – to see more elements of the story, a richer picture. You may see more clearly as you anticipate a difficult encounter what the underlying emotion is that’s triggered and how it’s showing up in your body.” In this way, you become aware of the full context of the story, like seeing a flower opening in slow-motion photography. With this awareness, over time “your solid belief in a storyline may begin to erode.”

    In other words, while simply reminding yourself of the flimsiness of a given storyline is an acceptable strategy, mindfulness-meditation aims to do deeper work with our story-making habits, to give us more choice as triggers for anxiety or depression emerge in our lives.

    Practicing mindfulness may help you deal with the jealousy and suspicion that bothers you. I suggest that you read about it all you can. After, and if what it does and can do interests you, please contact the Ateneo Bulatao Center for Psychological Services of the Ateneo de Manila University. The Bulatao Center is the only center certified by the Center of Mindfulness Studies in Ontario, Canada to conduct and develop Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy in the country. I do believe that they offer mindfulness programs for all ages.

    Sayang naman kasi (because what a shame it would be) if you didn’t work on your relationship as much as you possibly could, GEM. For all intents and purposes, and in the absence of any reasonable doubt, you and Jorge have a good thing going.

    So please allow me to be more directive and thus, behave in a way that would be unprofessional if this were therapy (which happily, it is not):

    Take a leap of faith, GEM, and give him the sort of trust people who truly love each other deserve. True, it is possible that he does not – or in the future, will not – deserve it. But right here and for right now, it seems he does, and doesn’t he deserve at least that?

    In addition, with that sort of trust, you too will live a fuller, freer life. As Julius Caesar said: "Cowards die many times before their deaths/The valiant never taste of death but once." And that sort of death I wish for you, for all of us.

    And yes, sigh – I know, the sentence above is a kinda morbid way to end a column, but then again, going back to-ahem-professional mode, we do not shy away from painful truths. Death comes to us all.

    What truly matters is the way we die – with honor or without? Knowing we did our best in everything we worked on or we didn’t? Happy we gave our all – trusting as much as we dared, cheering as much as we could in our relationships – or unhappy? Good luck, dearest GEM and may things work out for both you and Jorge either as individuals or as a couple.

    MG Holmes

    Need advice from our Two Pronged duo? Email twopronged@rappler.com with subject heading TWO PRONGED. Unfortunately the volume of correspondence precludes a personal response.

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