I married Nathan six months ago. We are not spring chickens—I’m 31 years old and he’s 29. I guess when you marry a little “later,” it’s different from marrying in one’s early twenties. We are both independent. We’ve managed on our own for a while, learned how to do things for ourselves, and, I’m realizing now, we’re each probably carrying around some secrets that have just never come up. But I think we both accepted this reality and have managed to be happy together.
For instance, Nathan doesn’t really know the details of every man I’ve ever gone out with. Not that there is anything that needs to be hidden, but certain things have just not come up. However, if he would ask me anything specific about my past life, I’d be happy to share anything with him. There is nothing that I’m ashamed of or feel that I’m not able to disclose to him.
Since I met Nathan, it always seemed to me that there was something he was keeping private from me. I could never really put my finger on what it was, but I sensed there was something. He has so many great qualities, but there was something mysterious going on as well. Usually I just told myself it was my imagination.
When we got married, there was a drawer in his nightstand that he was able to lock. I asked him about it numerous times, asking why he felt he had to keep certain things locked away. After all, it wasn’t as though I had plans of going through his drawers. When I’d ask about it, Nathan would make light of the situation, sometimes joking, sometimes just saying that he has some personal papers that he wants to keep secure. I could never get a straight answer out of him explaining what those papers were or why they needed to be under lock and key.
I am a curious person and have to admit that I wanted to know what could possibly be so important that he felt it had to be locked away. Eventually, though, I stopped badgering him about it.
Recently, I was folding his pants and putting them on a hanger when he had already left for work. I heard a jingle and saw a key fall out of the pocket. I was pretty sure that the key was for the lock on his nightstand, and without even taking the time to consider what I was doing, I tried the lock and, lo and behold, it opened!
Though I was a little conflicted about actually opening the drawer, my curiosity got the better of me and I opened the drawer and started going through its contents. There were letters and photos that I guess he felt sentimental about and wanted to keep private. No problem there. But I also found checks from an account that I never even knew existed. As if I hadn’t gone deep enough into this inappropriate behavior, I started inspecting the record book for his checks. He hadn’t used this checkbook much, but there were repeated checks made out to a specific doctor.
By now, I was really knee-deep into my hunt, and I Googled the name of the doctor. I discovered he was a psychotherapist, and apparently Nathan had been seeing him for many years.
I have nothing against therapy. I have many friends who swear by it. But I felt tremendously betrayed by the fact that Nathan never told me he was seeing someone professionally, that I had no idea what he was going for, and that I was in the dark regarding whether or not there was something serious going on with him.
When Nathan came htome from work that day, I was so agitated that rather than figure out a calm way to confront him, I practically threw the checkbook in his face and demanded an answer and apology.
The look on his face made me wish the floor would open up and that I could just disappear. To say Nathan was furious is an understatement. At first, he couldn’t even talk; he was beyond words. Finally, he expressed his shock that I had been so disrespectful, so sneaky, so disloyal, and too many other adjectives—I can’t even remember anymore.
He hasn’t really spoken to me much since that explosion last week. I feel awful and I’ve tried to apologize and explain my behavior, but it is all in vain. Besides not knowing how to make Nathan forgive me, even more upsetting is that now it’s all about my betrayal, and I’m the one in the hot seat. There seems to be no room for what Nathan did wrong. That he kept an important secret from me doesn’t even seem to matter anymore. I’ve become the only guilty party here.
How do I begin to sort through this huge mess? I know that I’m guilty of creating a big part of it, but I also feel that Nathan has some answering to do. There is so much to repair; I don’t even know if there is a starting point or any possibility of the two of us ever trusting one another again.
In the last sentence of your question, you hit on the key element that explains what has been missing from your marriage all along. And that would be “trust.” From the get-go, your instincts whispered to you that there was something about Nathan that you couldn’t quite trust. Now, Nathan is reacting to a breach of respect on your part, which has left him feeling he can no longer trust you either. Frankly, at this moment, the two of you have a lot in common.
Marriages require a huge amount of feeding and caring. There is quite a long list of “shoulds” and also a long list of “should nots.” For the purpose of your question, let’s just focus on one of the many components that need to be present in a good marriage—trust. It has to be the foundation of any good union, because without it, the marriage does not feel solid and can ultimately fall apart.
People marrying after their early twenties are different from those marrying earlier, for a whole lot of reasons. But as you’ve stated, there is a greater identification with one’s “ways,” as these older individuals have not had to answer to anyone for a number of years. This greater sense of independence certainly requires attention and work so that the two spouses can still become a team and find mutually acceptable rules of engagement.
But this is different from the issue of trust. Your sixth sense picked up on something amiss. You sensed that Nathan was withholding something significant from you. And your suspicions were confirmed when you saw that Nathan found the need to keep a locked drawer in his possession. Marriage doesn’t mean that everything about one’s life becomes an open book. Surely, we should all still be entitled to a few private spots. I certainly don’t want anyone reading my diaries or e-mails, nor should I be reading anyone else’s. But a lock and key is not only a bit over the top, it’s also representative of an extreme secret and distrust of the other. Found in one’s bedroom, no less, it might be perceived as symbolic.
It’s a shame that this issue wasn’t dealt with in the first place. Unfortunately, you’ve mucked up the scene of the crime, taking focus off of Nathan and bringing it upon yourself. Yes, you are right. It is a complicated mess. A mess that has to be dealt with now, because I fear that if it is left to quietly settle down and appear to go away, there will be this huge chasm between the two of you that will follow you both around always, getting in the way of your ever realizing a wonderful marriage. Trust could elude the two of you forever.
I know that you tried to apologize, but I think you have to figure out a more successful way of expressing your great regret and remorse over invading his privacy. Though Nathan has much explaining to do, he won’t even be able to hear you until you make amends regarding your act. No excuses, no defending your behavior—just an honest, heartfelt apology. I’m hoping that Nathan is mature enough and forgiving enough to accept your apology. This will be your first step toward reconciliation.
Once Nathan has forgiven you, let it sit for a few days and take hold. When the time feels right, you should then try to explain to him, without recrimination or judgment, what your experience has been like, feeling left out, distrusted, and in the dark. Be curious about why he was concerned about sharing this information with you. Was he unnecessarily worried that you might disapprove? And while you’re on the subject, gently ask him what it is he’s working on and whether he feels therapy has been helpful. You might even want to offer to go with him to a session at some future date, if he so desires.
This is a delicate conversation that definitely has to be finessed. Hopefully, you will be able to create a safe enough environment in which he can let down his guard and begin the process of truly trusting you. If you find the conversation starts getting out of hand and defensive in tone, you may want to suggest working it through with a professional.
Right now, you and Nathan are on the brink of shifting into bad behaviors that will forever drag down the quality of your marriage. But if you view this debacle as an opportunity to bring the two of you closer together than you were before, it will have the opposite effect. Now is your chance to elevate your relationship by introducing openness and mutual trust into your relationship. Like with all good things, better late than never! And certainly worth fighting for.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.