Dear Wayne and Wanda,
Early last year, my wife and I separated. I suggested counseling and she refused. She said she was unhappy in our life together and needed a fresh start. We have two children who are still at home. It was crushing to me to break up our family, but there was no reasoning with her. She made it clear that there was no alternative and would be filing for divorce.
After encouragement from friends, I tried online dating. It had been several years since my wife and I shared true intimacy, and I was lonely. I met many women who were completely understanding about the fact that I was rather emotionally crushed but at the same time, looking for the comfort. I met some wonderful people, and had some intimacy and connections that felt really restorative after having had my marriage fall apart.
I was actually getting used to this new routine of casually dating, while giving myself space to recover, when lo and behold, my wife has reappeared. She says she saw a counselor on her own and was diagnosed with depression. She says walking away was a mistake. She says she wants another chance.
I just don’t know what to do. It hurt me so badly when she walked out on me, and our kids (I’ve had custody since she left). At the same time, it feels punitive to not give her another shot if depression was at the root of this. But then, do I tell her about the women I saw in her absence? Everything is such a mess now, I just don’t know what to do. Advice?
Well, you’re at a crossroads. The easiest thing would be to keep walking away — especially after you no doubt still feel like she pushed you away in the first place. But now that you understand your wife’s diagnosis, it’s understandably more complicated.
First, let’s note that whether you stay married or not, she will be in your life indefinitely as the mother of your children. That alone is reason to continue to try to treat her with grace and respect and to try to support her during her recovery.
There are some simple ways you can do that: suggest family outings that center around activities that bring her joy and peace, whether that’s a bike ride or a walk through the museum or a long weekend brunch. Let her know that whatever happens between the two of you, you’re there for her. And simply be there. Use simple phrases like, “You are important to me,” and “Let me know how I can help you.”
Helping her heal in turn helps your kids. Whether to rekindle the romance, the commitment and the marriage is a more complicated question and it’s no wonder you’re confused. But you’ve made it clear it was all her idea to begin with, and if her idea was prompted by the fog and cloudiness of depression, perhaps you can reset and give this union another shot.
Taking your wife back does not demand a definitive yes or no from you at this point. This may seem heartless, but hear me out: if you’re interested in seeing where things might go with your ex, the casual dating approach that you’ve taken in recent months can and should be applied to her, as well.
I know it will be tough — I’m guessing everyone desperately wants an immediate return to the sense of normalcy, family and routine of days long past. But you all can’t get there overnight.
So, as Wanda suggested, start with a handful of low-pressure, high-enjoyment dates that include the kids. But also expand the “dates” to leaving the kids with a sitter and giving you two time to connect closely and communicate clearly again. Yes, she has at least one very big reason why things fell apart. But you need to learn more about all the elements that created the split and understand why you both believe and feel you’re ready for a return.
When or if things begin showing positive signs, go to relationship counseling ASAP. She’s been doing the work for her depression, but you’ll both need help understanding, sorting through and moving past some of the very painful and shocking developments of the past and present.
As for telling her about your dating run — yeah, I wouldn’t go there for a long, long time, if ever. Frankly, you were doing what you’re supposed to do when forced to move on, but she doesn’t need to know that. And who knows what she was doing beyond finding a balance of therapy and meds during her time away? Do you even want to know? Let’s leave that all filed away deep in the archives and give the key a big toss into the woods. Good luck.