Advice Column

“When you are stuck in conflict with your partner, before negotiating with them, first listen in order to get to know them better. Your partner needs to do the same for you.”

Incapable of Loyalty?

Note: The narrative and question in the letter have been edited for clarity

Dear Dr. Deb,

I have been reading your new column and really appreciate all the honest advice you’ve given. I’ve considered writing to you several times before, but my relationship problems have always seemed to resolve themselves.

This time, it’s different.

Let me begin by saying that I think the world of my girlfriend. She’s intelligent, adventurous, and we laugh a lot. Not to mention that she’s beautiful. We’re both in our thirties and have been dating for about eight months. I really care about her. It’s a big plus that we both grew up in Catholic families and share similar values. Despite dating a relatively short time, I occasionally daydream about our future together.

The bad news is that she’s been diagnosed with bipolar 2 disorder. She began having symptoms when she was 19 years old. She experienced cycles of depression and manic hypersexual behavior, which is one of the characteristics of the disorder. But at the time, she felt too embarrassed to tell her psychiatrist about her hypersexual behavior. She ended up getting misdiagnosed and improperly medicated. It wasn’t until years later that she told her doctor about it and finally got help and the right treatment for her sexual dysfunction. 

Since we began dating, she’s seemed emotionally stable. But deep down, I’ve always felt that we should be talking about her mental illness and discuss how it could affect our relationship. I know it’s easier said than done, and it seems like we’re able to talk openly about all this only when we’ve both been drinking. 

In these “sessions,” I’ve told her that I’m a fiercely loyal, monogamous person. I’ve admitted to infidelity as a dealbreaker for me, and I’m worried that her disorder will jeopardize our relationship. She has tried to reassure me by saying that her episodes of acting out sexually and recklessly are simply part of her bipolar struggle and not a relationship related issue. I don’t feel reassured at all.

Dr. Deb, I do love her, and I don’t want to break off our relationship, but should I commit to someone who can’t offer me the stability and monogamy in return because of her condition?   

Is it time to cut my losses and end this or is there a way to work this out?

Fiercely Loyal

Dear Fiercely Loyal,

You and your girlfriend may not be married to each other, but I find myself thinking of the most striking conditional phrase in a marriage vow: in sickness and health. Whether you like it or not, the truth is your partner’s episodes of mania and depression are putting the relationship to the test.

Cultivating a healthy romantic relationship is tricky enough as it is. Any number of things from work stress to sexual and money issues, can lead to conflict and put a strain on the partnership. Add bipolar disorder to the mix – with its roller-coaster of emotions and impulsive, reckless behavior – and it’s a steeper degree of challenge for both parties.

Instead of asking if you should continue the relationship with your bipolar partner, the better question may be: is it possible to have a healthy romantic relationship with someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder?

Living with a bipolar person is a non-linear journey. You need to ready for the ups and downs – you take a step forward, and most probably take a couple of steps back just as soon. It’s tough, but not impossible. It will take work from both of you to make sure the partnership survives.

There are some things you might want to consider if you want the relationship to work out:

  1. There must be a focus on steady, open communication – and not when you’ve both been drinking.
  2. Set clear boundaries with each other. Part of this is discussing the impact bipolar disorder may have on your sex life. Specifically, about your need to be reassured that she understands and respects your need for a monogamous relationship. It’s important to clearly agree that while hypersexuality is a symptom of the disease, it doesn’t give your partner a pass from taking responsibility for her actions.
  3. Talk to a professional who has expertise with bipolar disorder. Specifically, one who helps patients exhibiting episodes of manic hypersexual behavior.

It can be hard work to understand what your partner is going through, and it won’t help your relationship if you start policing her behavior. As much as you need to be reassured, she also needs to know that you’re there for her, ready to listen when she expresses her needs. 

Try to remember the positive aspects of the relationship. It’s easy to forget the pleasurable moments when helping her manage her condition. She’s both the person you “think the world of” and the person who is dealing with mental health challenges.

That said, make sure you have a self-care plan in place to balance your personal needs. Getting proper food, sleep, movement, and downtime would go a long way in avoiding burn out.

About your question on loyalty, I hate to break it to you, but no one can guarantee perfect and complete fidelity in a relationship, no matter how strong the intention. Not even you. Living with bipolar disorder, your girlfriend is probably trying to take things as they come, one day at a time. She, of all people, would be better acquainted with just how fragile intentions are. 

If you can learn to love your partner unconditionally, accept her for who she is, and learn to be grateful for the wonderful things about her, then a calculated exit may not be the answer.

In fact, this may be a challenge to find out what it means to stick with someone through hard times and not make excuses when things get rough. And most importantly, to recognize that nothing in love and relationships can ever be guaranteed.

Ask yourself, are you ready to live with the reality of an emotionally mature relationship, and, like the girlfriend that you love, take each day as it comes?

Dr. Deb

Left with Less on the Weekends

Note: the question was edited for context and clarity

Dear Dr. Deb,

My husband is currently struggling with executive functioning and emotional dysregulation disorder related to ADHD. He’s been working with his doctor to get his medications just right, and finally, after several combinations, it looks like he’s found one that works really well.

By well, I mean that when he is on his meds, he is a conscientious, loving, patient man. But when he misses taking them, he is short-tempered, has no filter, and can’t concentrate. The trouble is, he says the meds make him feel “not like himself,” so he only wants to take them during the week when he needs to work. On the weekends, he often skips them or “forgets” to take them until it’s too late (he gets insomnia if he doesn’t take them early in the day). My kids and I are then left dealing with his issues.

I feel like it’s unfair that we never get his best self on the days we spend with him. But he feels like his family should understand that he doesn’t want to be medicated 24/7. When I try to explain that it’s hard on us deal with him when he’s scatter-brained and temperamental, he gets defensive and says I only “love him when he’s on drugs.” 

What should I do?

Deprived and Disappointed

Dear Deprived,

There’s no question that the distractibility, disorganization, and impulsivity of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can cause problems in many areas of adult life. These symptoms, however, can be particularly damaging when they affect your marriage.

The good thing is that your husband’s ADHD disorder has been properly diagnosed and he has found medication that works for him so he can function at work. For many people with ADHD, the trial-and-error with treatment is a lifelong struggle and highly frustrating.

The downside is that he feels like he needs a break from his meds on the weekends when he’s at home with you and the children. Which means he’s probably prone to emotional overreaction and irritability.

As frustrating as the experience is for you and the kids, there are two things to consider:

1. you and your husband both feel misunderstood by the other, and
2. your dilemma and your husband’s ADHD are both complex issues, and so is the process for resolution.

Your husband does have a responsibility to you and your children. You need his positive presence as much as he needs you all to understand and adjust to his situation. When you’re part of a team, your actions affect the team. If the team’s success is in jeopardy and there’s a way to improve it, wouldn’t it make sense to do everything you can? This is a major factor for him to consider when deciding whether to take his medication.

But as I said, the resolution isn’t that simple. It’s a strong statement for him to say that you only “love him when he’s on drugs” with the pain he is causing his family when he is off his meds.

Here’s where you come in: it may be worth asking him what specific side effects he’s feeling whenever he takes his meds. As you mentioned, he said that he doesn’t feel like himself when he’s on them. Why not offer to consult his doctor together to show your support? You both need to ask the doctor about alternatives that will make your husband feel more comfortable, and, most importantly, ask whether it’s safe for your husband to go off his medications on a whim.

In a nutshell, transforming your relationship depends on several things.

For your husband, this means acknowledging that his ADHD symptoms are interfering with your relationship. He must learn how to better manage his symptoms.

For you, step one is reminding yourself that you can’t control your spouse, but you can control you own actions. While I don’t have an idea of how you deal with confrontations with your husband, I recommend that you avoid any verbal attacks or nagging, as neither will get positive results.

Finally, I urge both of you to explore other effective ADHD treatment options. Neurofeedback, biofeedback, neurostimulation technology, and cognitive behavioral therapy are techniques that treat ADHD without medication.

Just because your husband has ADHD doesn’t mean you can’t have a balanced, mutually fulfilling relationship. The key is to work together as a team. A healthy relationship involves give and take and being “all in” on the partnership.

Dr. Deb

Stuck in an Emotional Rollercoaster

Note: This has been edited for clarity.

Dear Dr. Deb,

My partner cannot meet my emotional needs. That aside, I think we have a wonderful relationship. He’s  everything I want. But the emotional part is huge – and he admits he isn’t capable of handling that. 

He avoids emotions and takes anything that touches on that as an attack, which leaves me walking on  eggshells and feeling like I can’t be myself around him. 

He started counselling because he says he realizes he needs to work on himself, but honestly his behavior  has gotten worse since then. It’s a cycle of highs, and lows, and I’m having a hard time ending it. I don’t  know what to do.  

I feel lost. 


Dear Stranded, 

We’re all familiar with the idea of “happily ever after.” But the truth is that “happily ever after” rarely  comes without a few bumps in the road. When those bumps turn into weeks and months of emotional neglect, as you describe in your relationship, something much bigger is going on. 

Everyone has emotional needs in relationships (and outside of them)Yes, even your partner, for all his  resistance to expressing his feelings. We all have our own vision of what to expect and what we value the  most. But our major needs as emotional creatures remain the same: secure attachments, attention,  emotional connection, sense of self, and the need to feel understood, just to name a few.  

That said, let me say right out of the gate that you can’t expect your partner to figure out how to make it  up to you before you yourself have identified what your needs are. Sure, it’s tempting to think that the  onus is solely on your partner to fix it because he’s the one who is obviously withholding and acting out.  But remember that relationships are not one-sided. Changing just one part of it won’t make it the  wonderful relationship that you imagined. 

While helping to meet each other’s needs is an important piece of any relationship, I’m a firm believer  that the responsibility for our emotional fulfillment ultimately rests on us as individuals.  

The more couples I work with, the clearer it is that many adults seem to be unaware of their own needs.  As I’ve mentioned in one of my previous columns, this usually happens when childhood needs were  ignored, shamed, or minimized, teaching the child to hide or deny how they really feel to get approval. 

Some adults carry this learned behavior their whole lives, clueless about identifying their wants and  needs. Unfortunately, it’s likely that they’ll bring unresolved needs into a relationship, expecting their  partner to fulfill them. That’s a recipe for disaster.

In your letter, it seems that your partner wasn’t even willing to acknowledge your emotional needs, which  made you think about ending the relationship in the first place. However, he seems to be taking a major  first step by seeking professional help, so give him credit for that. Just remember that it’s a process, and it  will take time for him to be comfortable discussing both his emotions and yours. 

Try to take this time to work on yourself through introspection. Once you identify your expectations and  needs, you must communicate this openly to your partner. He’s not a mind reader, and neither are you. Lay your cards on the table so he’s encouraged to do the same. Be straightforward, but resist criticizing or  placing blame. 

One of the most common reasons couples argue is disappointment because of unmet expectations. It isn’t  that you shouldn’t have expectations, but they need to be realistic. I’ve encountered clients often saying that they expect their spouse to be totally supportive of all their emotional needs. Your partner can’t –and shouldn’t – meet all your needs. There will always be moments when they won’t be able to.  Disappointment is inevitable

A successful relationship takes compromise – I can’t emphasize this enoughAsk your partner if there’s  anything he would be willing to do to meet you in the middle. Is there a way for the two of you to come  together? 

Stranded, I want you to have a partner who cares for you, knows they can’t be everything to you, but is  willing to compromise and find solutions as much as possible. Hopefully, with professional help, the two  of you can start communicating openly and effectively, and work on understanding each other in a deeper  way. 

Remember, just because your emotional needs are unmet right now in this relationship doesn’t mean  you’ll never find fulfillment. If you’ve exhausted all your options, done the self-work, communicated  clearly and openly, and find that your partner is still unwilling or unable to meet them, leaving your  relationship is always an option. 

Dr. Deb

Separated and Holding on for an Answer

Note: Letter edited for clarity

Dear Dr. Deb,

I’ve been reading your columns and I admire how reasonable and non-judgmental your advice seems to be.

My husband and I are currently separated, and I am concerned that this might lead to divorce.

This is my second marriage, and we have two children. Hubby has a history of alcoholism, although he’s been sober over nine months now. 

When our first child was born in February 2016, my husband decided to quit his job of 17 years to stay home with the baby and me while I healed. We were married a few months later, in June 2016.

I returned to work that September, but not my husband. He hasn’t worked a real job – meaning any work situation longer than three months – since the birth of our first child. Our second child was born in May 2019. Then the pandemic hit.

We started living in separate homes in September 2020. I bought a house in December 2021, but he refuses to live with me and my mom. I completely understand that. We are still both in New York, but each living separately with our mothers. The children live with me and visit him every other weekend.

I have no interest in being in another intimate relationship with someone else, but I dislike catering to him as a wife and not getting 100% of the benefits of having a husband. No Social Security is building up in his account. I pay for every date night or family trip. I don’t even have the pleasure or luxury of waking up to hubby’s face in the morning.

My question is: how much longer should I wait for him to get a job? Is our separation leading to divorce?

Separated and Holding On

Dear Separated and Holding On,

While your situation may seem as complex as the boardgame Clue, it’s clear, dear Separated, that you have only one question, not two.

When you ask (I imagine in an exasperated, exhausted voice) how long you should wait for your husband to get a job, it seems you’re really asking me: Should we get divorced now that we’re losing trust and mutual regard for each other?

The choice to stay or leave your husband is very personal with many factors to consider. No one should judge you for staying or leaving, or how long you wait before leaving.

To be clear, there is no “right, one-size-fits-all” way to decide on divorce.

While I cannot determine whether your husband’s irresponsible work history and his emotional and financial dependence on you is the result of his alcohol abuse or emotional issues, there’s no doubt that the biggest issue you two are facing is related to his history of alcoholism.

Recent research has shown that alcoholism is one of the top two causes for divorce. Deciding to divorce your husband is an excruciating choice to make. When you married him, you thought you would spend the rest of your life him, so it’s natural to feel perplexed about what is the right way to proceed.

While I’m happy that your husband has been in recovery for the past nine months, the reality is that alcoholism is a lifelong battle, no matter how long the person has been sober.

If you’re serious about wanting to work on your marriage, acknowledging his history of alcoholism and its impact on your relationship and family life would be a major step for you and your husband to find a way forward.

For one thing, you can both work on a plan to support his sobriety through positive reinforcement. It doesn’t mean that you pretend everything will be 100% fine from now on. Recovering from alcoholism is tricky and unpredictable in nature and you both need to acknowledge and talk about the ripple effects on your relationship and your children. 

In your letter, it’s clear that you already know the toll it’s taken on you and your family. Aside from the financial burden it has caused, you’re an estranged couple lacking emotional and physical intimacy.

That said, kudos to your husband for still playing an active parenting role for your children. Still, this doesn’t give you a fair shake in the relationship because it leaves you with the heaviest load. This is a major sign that there’s been a breakdown in trust and communication, which is an understandable fallout from his journey as a recovering alcoholic.

This may be a difficult conversation to have, but you need to know if you’re on the same page. Since your husband is currently sober, now may be the time for the two of you to start fixing that breakdown with the help of a marriage counselor who has an expertise in addiction.  The counselor can teach you the art of listening to each other respectively and mediate your differences.

Coming back to your most urgent question: Should you divorce your husband?

Nobody can make this decision, except you. While that may not be the answer you were hoping to hear, it’s my professional obligation to tell you that therapists like me can never decide for you. Neither can your parents, best friend, counselor, or your long-lost aunt that you found through 23andMe.

What I can do is give you sound advice and insight to help you think through your situation and come to your own answers by tapping into your best self and, hopefully, regaining your self-esteem. You can’t control what your spouse does or force him to change. You can only control you.

My biggest advice for you at this time: trust yourself to know what you want.  If divorce doesn’t feel right, doesn’t sound right, and you want to make your marriage work, then don’t divorce your husband. Don’t move forward with it if you’re not at peace with that decision.

Living through your husband’s alcoholism and irresponsible behavior can be all-consuming. Make sure that you also check on how you are doing physically and emotionally, and how your children are coping. Reach out to support groups and other excellent resources for spouses of alcoholics.

Dr. Deb

When Business Gets Personal

Dear Dr. Deb,

My thirteen-year marriage is falling apart.  It’s hard to tell who’s really at fault, but I do want to untangle this mess and understand the role I played in it.

I’m a 55-year-old recovering drug addict who’s remained sober for 20 years. My wife is an only child who grew up with alcoholic parents.

Several years ago, I left my corporate tech job to become an equal partner in my wife’s very successful real estate business. We both wanted to create a true partnership built on our mutual desire for fulfilling work while making time to live the life we love. Our company roles focused on the different skillsets we brought to the table: I took on the COO role, and she continued to lead as the CEO.

However, the honeymoon was short-lived. Business issues soon surfaced concerning decision-making and conflicting work styles.  Being a type A perfectionist, my wife refers to the business as “her child going off to college.” In my case, I don’t feel like a “birth-father” to the company, and I have trouble referring to the business as “ours” as her identity is so closely entwined with it.

For example, she rejects my opinions frequently, insisting that she’s more equipped to know what’s best since she was responsible for the initial success of the business. I’m constantly afraid of letting her down, which means I tend to defer to her decisions often. Ironically, this seems to frustrate her even more.

She fluctuates between being supportive and being demanding, pressuring me to know more than I do. I get emotionally overwhelmed, so I detach and don’t communicate — as a former techie, I’m used to isolating myself.

Sadly, it seems we’ve become adversaries. Neither of us feels nurtured by the other. Our sex life is non-existent. Home is no longer our sanctuary because we can’t seem to separate our personal relationship and the business.

I feel powerless and hopeless, and I’m being mindful of the potential effects of this conflict on my sobriety. Thankfully, I’m still able to keep myself drug-free. Dr. Deb, can you help me figure out what I need to do with my two roles as a husband and business partner to deal with this situation? 

Keeping Sober

Dear Keeping Sober,

Kudos for asking the right question: What is my role in contributing to the problems? Taking accountability while acknowledging the problem will help you figure out the changes needed to improve your relationship and partnership.

Whenever you both start behaving like adversaries, invite yourselves to think back on the original dream of becoming partners who leverage one another’s strengths. Bring back the “we-ness” that helped you to develop a loving marriage and a satisfying business partnership.

Let’s face it: managing a business with your romantic partner is as challenging as it is rewarding. Try as you might to keep the personal and the business roles separate, it’s impossible. These roles are interdependent, always interacting with and impacting each other. 

So what do you need to simultaneously develop a strong personal identity and a successful business partnership?

Contrary to popular belief, relationships are made up of three distinct entities, not two: the two individuals and the life they share between them. A healthy relationship cannot exist until both have clearly defined personal boundaries. In short, remember that you both have an identity separate from the relationship, and your relationship – both as spouses and business partners –can only be as good as the individuals in it.

The antagonistic behaviors you described also suggest that there are deeper, unresolved issues at work hereSo let’s break it down:

It seems that your “type A” wife learned to be overly responsible, depending and trusting primarily on herself, because of her experience and potential trauma dealing with alcoholic parents. Given her need for control and self-reliance, it’s surprising that she was agreed to share her business with you. However, as you experienced, she quickly resented sharing control with you once you were on-board.

As a former employee in a large company, you weren’t used to being an overall decision-maker. The clearly defined expectations and daily routine served as a comfort zone for you. As a former drug addict, your mindset and learned coping mechanisms cycled through dependency, helplessness, and avoidance. In contrast, being an entrepreneur requires a very different mentality and skill set, relying on good decision-making and communication abilities.

Being on the path of sobriety for so long now (congratulations!), you must know that progress is a journey, not a destination. Being drug-free is just the beginning. It’s time to take full responsibility and control over your life and keep honing your ability to make decisions. 

It’s by no means an instant solution, but a very good start to resolving the situation is continuing to work on yourself by taking ownership as a major decision-maker alongside your wife instead of deferring or avoiding confrontation. Develop your communication “muscles” so you can better manage your feelings and get on the same page with your wife.

Whenever a relationship is in trouble, remember that it is a true reflection of the kind of people who are in it. Once you have developed a secure relationship with yourself (and she with herself), you’ll both be in a strong position to be true partners living the live they dreamed about.

Dr. Deb

Twice Betrayed and Having Second Thoughts

Dear Dr. Deb

I’m the kind of person who doesn’t make decisions lightly. Once I’ve made up my mind, I can’t be convinced otherwise. So when I decided to enlist in the Air Force to serve my country in Afghanistan, neither my mother nor my wife could change my mind.

Several years ago, sometime after my discharge, I discovered that my wife was having an affair with her colleague. She ended it, and after much coaxing on her part, I put my ego aside and agreed to give our marriage another shot. It sounds cliché, but I made that decision partly because I was worried how the divorce would affect our three young children.

My one condition was that if she had another affair, divorce would be non-negotiable.

To my great disappointment, I recently found new emails from her lover that showed that she hasn’t learned her lesson. This time, I’ve decided to move out of the house.

Of course, neither me nor my wife are perfect. We certainly had our fair share of issues before her infidelities. It seems that I’d become too self-absorbed, insensitive, and prone to rages. I’ve often been isolating in my home office which has become my sanctuary away from her and my family.

But here’s where things get even more complicated. During our separation, my wife and I have continued having sex and seem to be enjoy each other’s company again. We’re even managing to co-parent peacefully.

WTF is happening?

In my heart of hearts, I believe that I need to be firm about my choice to leave the marriage. My mother supports this decision, and I know where she’s coming from: I’ve witnessed her agony and eventual recovery over my father’s philandering and their inevitable divorce.

If I stay in my marriage, I’m not sure I’d get over the feelings of resentment and shame. On the other hand, my wife and I seem to be in a good place. So I’m wondering now: Am I being too rash and ego-driven about wanting a divorce?

Twice Betrayed

Dear Twice Betrayed,

When your wife cheated, she betrayed your trust by breached the agreement you thought you both were living by. To make matters worse, she cheated on you for an extended period.

It’s true that we inevitably lose the ones we love, either through death, divorce or disaster. This loss is always accompanied by grief and the many emotions that chaperone it.  

Years ago, I grappled with grief when my own marriage cracked open one sunny afternoon. After my husband left, I finally understood just how feasible it was that someone could die of a broken heart. The pain brought me to my knees. 

Going through that savage emotional journey, my thoughts always circled back to, “I don’t want to feel this pain anymore.”

Separation and divorce often lead to turbulent waters. But judging by your letter, it seems that you aren’t even going through these complex emotions yet. In fact, it sounds like you’re stuck in the middle, “letting go” and “holding on” at the same time, bypassing your feelings – and their potential resolution – in the process. 

You may be on to something, though. It might be wise to weigh your decision a little longer before standing firm.

Ask yourself: Are you sleeping with your wife because you don’t want to be alone, or do you still genuinely want to be with her?  Is your marriage necessarily doomed because your wife cheated on you? 

I think you’re more uncertain and conflicted about getting divorced than you realize. You ask if your ego is blinding you or if it’s your mother’s opinion prodding you on. If only you didn’t have such mixed feelings, you could rely on your usual stubbornness to come through. But your continuing sexual involvement with your wife suggests you’re still very emotionally entwined. 

Your immediate task is to work through and accept your contradictory feelings before making a final decision. 

Couples in crisis may overlook that infidelity doesn’t always mean the end of a marriage. For some couples, the affair becomes a transformational experience and catalyst for renewal and change. As someone who has gone through a similar dilemma, I advise you to take your time before finalizing this life-changing decision.

Dr. Deb

Just (Online) “Friends”?

Dear Dr. Deb

I am a 55 year-old married man, happily devoted to my wonderful wife of 30 years.  She is smart, beautiful, kind, and funny.  We have recently become empty nesters, and I’m loving the independence.

Several months ago, while noodling through the internet, I met a woman who, like me, is an avid motorcycle rider. We have become internet chat friends, talking about everything from motorcycles, to politics, and more.  There is nothing sexual about our conversations.

The problem, Dr. Deb, that my wife feels disconnected from me and deeply betrayed.  Convinced I am cheating, she has taken to annoyingly hover over me when I am at my computer, which is slowly alienating me from her.

I love her and would never cheat on her. However, we have become distanced and have reached an impasse in our relationship.  


Dear Confused

Let me get this straight: you’ve been happily married to your “smart, beautiful, kind, and funny” wife for many years, you’re both enjoying newfound freedom since your children left the house, which you’ve spent striking up an online “friendship” with another woman, and now your wife doesn’t trust you, nagging and hovering whenever you’re at the computer-and you want my advice on what to do about this problem?

I think you’re asking the wrong question.

The problem isn’t that your wife feels disconnected and betrayed. The problem is really rooted in one of the biggest questions of our modern age: when does chatting become cheating?

I’ve seen this phenomenon repeatedly in my practice over the past decade. Confused, welcome to the latest frontier of betrayal: the virtual world of the internet, which has, intentionally or not, brought another dimension of infidelity into relationships. It often starts with an innocent online sharing of interests, which eventually morphs into what I will call virtual intimacy.

There’s no gray area around this. It just seems “complicated” because our minds tend to rationalize things when we know we’ve made a mistake. I get it.

Technically, you didn’t plan for this to happen. Technically, you’re “only” chatting and not doing anything sexual. But real-life relationships-especially a 30 -year marriage-are not built on technicalities. They’re built on mutual respect and trust.

Not having cybersex doesn’t make your chats innocent. Infidelity may either be sexual or emotional in nature. The point is that it jeopardizes the trust and respect between you and your wife.

She’s certainly picking up that something is different with your online “friendship.” After 30 years of living together, she can feel your growing detachment. And I bet she feels it most every time you’re at the computer fully engaged in your online relationship with another woman.

I will agree that the nagging-and-hovering reaction isn’t exactly the best way to communicate her feelings of insecurity and frustration and it’s causing you to shut down. However, this is a difficult situation, and she needs your empathy and reassurance that you’re at least trying to understand her point of view.

Confused, ask yourself honestly why you’re communicating your thoughts, feelings and ideas with someone else online instead of sharing them with your partner of 30 years.

If you want to end the impasse, as you put it, the ball is in your court to open communications by taking accountability for your actions. Engaging in your online “friendship” has jeopardized the mutual feelings of trust and respect in your marriage. I suggest you begin by talking about your feelings of being empty nesters. After years of catering to your children, perhaps you feel more like strangers than a married couple. Sit down and listen to each other and talk things out. What would it take to heal your relationship? Decide together and go from there.

Dr. Deb

Deeply Befuddled

Dear Dr. Deb

I need your help.  I can’t find a man who loves me for me and I don’t know why.

I’m 55, divorced, and, although this may sound vain, still quite attractive. I have a very healthy self-esteem and with good reason. I built a successful real estate career, made a ton of money, and I drive a Bentley!  Yet with all I’ve got, I haven’t been happy.

I was in a lonely marriage to a cold and remote man. I knew I deserved more, which is why I divorced him. But rather than finding a loving companion, I ended up with a series of Lotharios. It starts out with romance and affection, which ends up with me funding their “dream businesses, which never go anywhere. Of course, when I realize this and stop being a cash cow, these jerks get nasty and manipulative.  Rather than being loved, I feel used. These losers have cost me several MILLION dollars!

Dr. Deb, how did I become such a victim?  I’ve heard a lot of these things are rooted in childhood experiences, but I couldn’t have had a happier one. My adoptive parents loved me, showered me with attention and reminded me I was everything they ever wanted in a daughter. Sure, they had strong ideas about the kind of person I should become, which wasn’t necessarily what I wanted for myself, but they’ve guided me well and I trusted they knew best.  

This makes it even harder for me to figure out.  Dr. Deb, how could I be so smart in business and so stupid in men?

Deeply Befuddled

Dear Dr. Deb

I need your help.  I can’t find a man who loves me for me and I don’t know why.

I’m 55, divorced, and, although this may sound vain, still quite attractive. I have a very healthy self-esteem and with good reason. I built a successful real estate career, made a ton of money, and I drive a Bentley!  Yet with all I’ve got, I haven’t been happy.

I was in a lonely marriage to a cold and remote man. I knew I deserved more, which is why I divorced him. But rather than finding a loving companion, I ended up with a series of Lotharios. It starts out with romance and affection, which ends up with me funding their “dream businesses, which never go anywhere. Of course, when I realize this and stop being a cash cow, these jerks get nasty and manipulative.  Rather than being loved, I feel used. These losers have cost me several MILLION dollars!

Dr. Deb, how did I become such a victim?  I’ve heard a lot of these things are rooted in childhood experiences, but I couldn’t have had a happier one. My adoptive parents loved me, showered me with attention and reminded me I was everything they ever wanted in a daughter. Sure, they had strong ideas about the kind of person I should become, which wasn’t necessarily what I wanted for myself, but they’ve guided me well and I trusted they knew best.  

This makes it even harder for me to figure out.  Dr. Deb, how could I be so smart in business and so stupid in men?

Deeply Befuddled

I Used to be Her Rock, but Now I’m Drowning

Dear Dr. Deb.

Last week I had a sinking sense that I was lost.  Lost in myself and my life, that is. Nothing seems to make sense anymore.  The thing is, I can’t shake this feeling that the only way to find myself is to get out of my marriage.  NOW.

Am I having a mid-life crisis? I’m a 43-year-old biracial man married to a white woman.  We’ve been together for 12 years, and we used to be happy.

I always thought we were a good match.  I’m a tech entrepreneur and she’s an MBA student, always on the Dean’s list and still manages to juggle a part time job as an accountant.  Early on I did recognize that she can be emotionally needy.  She would have crying jags and bouts of anxiety that would affect both our routines and our social life.  I couldn’t go to my parents’ 40th anniversary party because she was anxious about the people there.  It can be exhausting and I feel like I am dealing with a troubled child.

To be honest, I think I’m partly to blame for her behavior.  I liked being someone she looked to for strength and guidance.  I’m very empathetic and have always found it hard to turn down people who need my help, even when I sometimes feel like I’m running on empty.

But, now I feel trapped.  Helping her with her emotions has taken over my life.  I love her, but I feel like I’m at the end of my rope.  All I want to do is get as far away as I can from her and her meltdowns because I feel like I’m drowning.  Dr. Deb, is leaving my wife the only way to regain a sense of myself?


Dear Drowning,

Let me begin by saying it’s time to come up for air and start breathing again with your own lungs.

I can see a familiar “formula” from your story:  your wife’s emotional 

instability + your enabling personality = a recipe for a rocky marriage from the beginning.  People like you who give away their power suffer from the dysfunction of codependency.

There’s an old therapy joke:

Q:  “How do you know you’re in a codependent relationship?”

A:  “When you’re about to die, someone else’s life flashes before you.”

To make progress on this road to recovery, you first have to shift focus from your wife and her issues to your behaviors.  You have a mystery to solve:  How did you become codependent?  Take a good look in the mirror. What do you see, a stranger perhaps?  Try thinking of yourself as a fascinating person you want to befriend, then set yourself on a path of self-discovery.

Codependent behavior usually starts as a response to childhood trauma, when being vulnerable was unsafe.  Maybe you’ve learned that being “good” and pleasing your parents – often at the expense of your own needs – would ensure their love and protection.  It could be that adaptive behavior like this from your childhood had become a trapdoor that leads to the same adult relationship patterns.

As if that wasn’t enough to work out, add to that equation the biracial factor. Empaths and people like yourself who straddle racial worlds tend to expend an extraordinary amount of energy trying to fit into their environments.  Consider the confusion of forming your own identity and really believing your feelings matter as much as everyone else’s.

Let’s consider the question of what a successful marriage looks like and should you remain in yours. Unlike codependent relationships where the focus is on the needs of one’s spouse, the goal of a happy relationship is to be close and interdependent while still maintaining your separate identities.  A balanced partnership means that each person must have the freedom to express themselves and have the opportunity to grow.

For your marriage to succeed, I would say both you and your wife need to embark on some self-exploration.  If your wife truly loves you, she will accept your need to make changes in yourself, even if this requires taking some time away from her.  Once she understands that you will no longer be catering to her moods as you once did, she too may seek the help of a therapist to establish a more grounded sense of self that doesn’t depend on your affirmations.

Dr. Deb

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