This kiss

Issue September/October 2017 By Dr. Jeff Fortgang

Q: I have created a very difficult dilemma for myself. Janet and I [names changed] have been married 22 years and have two teenage kids. We met in college, and I thought about her all the time, fascinated with her mind and knocked out by her looks. Over time, as we have evolved into co-parents and responsibility sharers, I now realize that we are no longer very interesting to one another.

A jolt of awareness hit me a few weeks ago when I found myself kissing Sandy, a fellow attorney at the large firm where I work. This happened at an after-work social gathering at a moment when we'd both had a lot to drink; Sandy was the initiator, but I didn't run away. Things have gone no further physically, but since that event I keep thinking about Sandy. We work in the same office, and we both keep looking at each other. She is a sharp lawyer and talented athlete who is full of enthusiasm and very unhappy in her own marriage. Janet, on the other hand, though she was a star in college, left her career when she became a mother (not at my behest), and more recently has given up golf, a former passion, and barely leaves the house. She seems more anxious and distant these days, now that the kids are more independent.

I feel quite guilty about my attraction to Sandy, but the fact is that the feelings I'm having toward her are a lot like what I once felt for Janet. I want to shake myself and get real - I know a divorce would be awful for everyone, but the marital status quo feels like just going through the motions.

A:You're not alone in finding it tempting to respond to an amorous advance from an attractive member of the opposite sex. I'm sure that feeling desirable after all these years was exciting and provided a boost to your self-esteem. And as you say, it highlighted a reality that you had been avoiding, that your marital relationship has become not only less stimulating, but more distant.

Of course, it is almost inevitable that a marriage of over 20 years is not going to elicit the same kind of feel-good brain chemicals as a new flirtation. But, ideally, a long-term committed relationship is equally rewarding, in different ways, based on factors including shared history and family mission, knowing each other's genuine (vs. public) selves, and a more profound sense of attachment. There's no way of predicting where things will go with Sandy, if you choose that avenue, but let's be honest - what are the chances that you'll both feel the same way after the infatuation wears off (which it does), and that your relationship would survive dual divorces, the reactions of two sets of kids, and the gradual infusion of real life, as each of you begins to notice the other's flaws and limitations.

Ultimately, you may decide to leave the marriage (not necessarily for Sandy). But since you've put years into it, raised kids together and are feeling guilty, perhaps this moment is a wake-up call to address the gulf that has developed between you and Janet. Do you think she feels good about having withdrawn from career, activities and connections? Is her detachment partly a function of the years when you likely put much of your energy into the world of professional competition, a world which tends not to value awareness of feelings? It sounds, by the way, as if she may be suffering from depression - unless her attentions, too, have turned elsewhere.

Perhaps the most constructive response to your current dilemma would be to turn toward Janet, and begin to recognize and address the marital issues with her. It will probably be useful for the two of you to enter both individual and couple therapy. At LCL, we can help you put together an action plan, including appropriate resources to sort out your mixed feelings about Janet and about Sandy. Maybe you will be able to re-invigorate your marriage; even if not, better to think through and work through your choices than to act on impulse.

Dr. Jeff Fortgang is a licensed psychologist and licensed alcohol and drug counselor on staff at Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers of Massachusetts, where he and his colleagues provide confidential consultation to lawyers and law students, and offer presentations on subjects related to the lives of lawyers. Q&A questions are either actual letters/emails or paraphrased and disguised concerns expressed by individuals seeking LCL's assistance.