Q: From a humanist perspective, is it ethical to leave a so-so marriage for something better? I’ve been married for twenty-eight years, and while I love my wife, we have little in common and have stayed together mainly for our kids and financial reasons. Both our kids are now in college, so we are effectively empty nesters and living like roommates.
I’m not religious, but I believe infidelity is wrong and would never sneak around. However, I’ve become interested in someone else, and we’ve been communicating as friends via social media. I believe we share a lot in common, and I would like to get to know her better and explore the possibility of a relationship. At this early stage, I have no idea if she feels the same (we haven’t met in person). I am probably being selfish, but I’m struggling with deciding between my personal happiness and breaking up my family.
— Unhappy Husband
There’s nothing selfish about pursuing your own happiness, and articulating discontent with the current state of your marriage—both to yourself and to your wife—isn’t unethical. In fact, it would be more unethical to continue suffering in silence and fantasizing that you might be happier with someone else. That’s not fair to you or your wife.
Twenty-eight years is a long time to be married to someone. Although you may feel it’s more than enough, consider what’s kept you together this long and whether there’s value in focusing on what you have (or had). Also, beware of getting carried away with an online relationship that seems promising but may in fact prove disappointing—the grass often looks greener until you’re close enough to see the weeds. There are many unknowns: you could pursue this woman and realize there’s nothing between you, or she could turn out to be the love of your life. Maybe your perfect partner is someone you haven’t encountered yet. Then again, your wife may be your best match, but perhaps you can’t recognize that until you get some perspective. Or maybe you’d just prefer to be unattached.
Did you ever talk with your wife about your so-so, roommate coexistence and how you feel about it? Does she feel the same? Have you sought couples counseling? If not, one option is to ask your wife to agree to try it. You may want to begin with consulting a professional by yourself to get a handle on your issues and how to proceed, unilaterally or jointly.
Leaving your current situation doesn’t guarantee finding something preferable elsewhere. And it’s also possible to find renewed enjoyment with your wife, if you’re both willing to redefine or refresh your relationship. If you’re not having sex with your wife, do you want to? Does she? When and why did you stop? Would you want to stay in the marriage while you (and your wife) are free to connect with other people? Successful open relationships exist, but both partners have to be on board.
Although you mention having stayed in the marriage for the kids and financial reasons, is that something you both acknowledge, or is that just your perspective? Your children are old enough that you don’t need to stay together for them any longer. Although many unions endure supposedly for the sake of the children, growing up around a joyless relationship can give kids the idea that marriage is at best a practical transaction rather than a fulfilling way to live. It’s very likely your kids are already aware of your uninspired marriage.
You need to weigh the cost of blowing up what you have versus the cost of perpetually, secretly yearning for something else. Either way, your marriage could break, in which case your finances—and emotions—will be impacted.
If you don’t want to just keep on keeping on, talk to your wife. But before you say things you won’t be able to un-say, please seek some expert counsel to sort out what’s truly bothering you: your wife, your life, your marriage, marriage in general, etc. Try to envision what it would take for you to feel more fulfilled—with your wife, with someone else, or just by yourself. Factor in the risks (or benefits) of ending up alone, alienating your family and friends, and other potential repercussions, against the prospect of seeking a new relationship or just terminating one that’s become unsatisfying. Remember, it takes two to keep a marriage going but only one to end it, and that you have an inalienable right to pursue your own happiness, wherever it may lead.
The Humanist Dilemma runs every Friday at TheHumanist.com. If you’re experiencing an ethical dilemma or need advice from a humanist perspective, send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. All inquiries are kept confidential.