He had an affair when I was at my lowest. Can I trust him again?
The dilemma It’s the usual. He was unhappy, he didn’t feel wanted, blah, blah, blah… We’re in our mid-50s, not married and no children. Together for 16 years and friends for 18.
He left me last year. I then discovered the affair, but he told me it started only three months before he left. After nine weeks apart we reconciled and he ended his relationship. I didn’t understand why he was so upset and eventually discovered it was a three-year affair, not three months, and happened three years ago. Why didn’t he just end it? We’ve got no ties. He said it was because he really loves me and was hoping we would be happy again.
In those three years I was bullied out of a job I loved by a misogynistic culture, was violently assaulted at work, had to take a lower-paid job in a toxic culture until I found another one I was happy in, had breast cancer and was badly affected by the treatment and generally just felt overwhelmed.
His response? Get a bit on the side. He says there’s no contact now, but how can I believe that? I want to contact the other woman as I’m sure she will tell the truth.
Mariella replies Most probably, yes. But that’s hardly the point here is it? You’ve been through a cataclysmic few years, the kind of thing experienced by so many women in midlife – a time when the tangible sense of disappearing from view and being discarded by society collides with the, thankfully transient, biological implosion of menopause.
As any woman in her 50s will tell you, the end of fertility is more of a big bang than a whimper. Those who have not experienced it can be less than sympathetic, but we are culpable, too, in our failure to explain what we’re feeling or to ask for help or support in any clear way.
That we enter this phase of our lives ill-prepared and under-supported is among my many bugbears about the way women are still discriminated against and overlooked. For far too many women this liminal phase in our lives continues to be the one we dare not mention. Such are the levels of shame attached that we try to negotiate it in woeful ignorance, without the hormonal supplements we need, which should be as easily available as tampons or pills for period pain, but are not.
There’s no way you’ve missed the menopause, although you may not have had a name for the traumatic experiences you’ve been enduring, so I’m surprised it doesn’t feature in your lineup of woes. For it to have coincided with a breast-cancer diagnosis is an extremely low blow and, unless you’ve had the very best gynaecological advice (available to few and too often at a price), you’ve probably been told that the hugely helpful route for so many menopausal ills, hormone replacement therapy (HRT), is not for you. If so, I urge you to pursue further specialist support. For starters, download menopause doctor Louise Newson’s brilliant new app, Balance, but also ask for your GP to advise you about your nearest menopause specialist.
The bottom line is, if we don’t understand what’s happening to us in menopause, then those in our vicinity, no matter how well meaning, can’t help either.
Your partner has taken the oldest and simplest cure for his woes, but it’s imperative that you put his actions into context, whatever you decide to do. Understanding that you’ve both experienced one of the most turbulent periods in any couple’s timeline should at least help diffuse your rage about his abandonment of you at a time when you needed him most. You’ve got every right to be angry, but you need to be looking back at what you’ve been through, rather than remain buried under it. It’s time to put yourself and your own needs first, which means you need to take the time to work out what they might be.
Your partner’s reaction is textbook; yours doesn’t have to be. You’re at a major turning point where freedom from the expectations of a world that thinks women have one main function – to bear children – should be a liberation. If you’re healthy and can discover how to be happy you’ve potentially got the same number of decades to live through as you’ve already had, so how do you want to spend them, and with whom? You may forgive your partner or you may decide to move on, but digging around in the dirt you have uncovered for proof of further betrayal is definitely the least constructive action to take. He’s made clear that you are his priority. I’d suggest you sit back and work out whether he is yours.
So much of what’s occurred is the result of poor communication, but only you can decide whether you want independence or to hone your arrangement into something that better pleases you both. Can I add, finally, that whatever you choose to do you’ve got a great turn of phrase. You should keep up the writing, which can be a cathartic way to explore the recesses of the mind and gain clarity on troubling issues.