Are my needs your responsibility?

My husband is in Iraq serving in the military, and we’ve been apart three years. He calls and e-mails, but he’s not affectionate long-distance. My emotional needs are unmet. I’ve stressed how important it is to get a real letter or a gift on holidays. He says: “Don’t be so sensitive” or “You’ll get over it.” I am essentially a single parent, alone during the best years of my life.

In May, I contacted an ex-boyfriend through MySpace. After a phone call, I spontaneously drove 400 miles to bring him to my house. I told my husband everything. I know I did wrong, but I’m not the only one who’s attempted an affair, just the one who succeeded. And I was honest.

My husband refuses to admit that he is at fault for causing the unhappiness that led to the affair. He refuses counseling. I don’t want a divorce, but I don’t want to stay in a marriage dominated by anger, revenge or reminders of past wrongs. He’s coming home in 70 days. What should I do?

Admit that you are at fault for causing the unhappiness that inspired you to choose an affair. We’re all socialized to believe that our life partners should meet our emotional needs. When they fail, we blame them. Perhaps we could take responsibility for buying into the idea that someone else bears the burden of our emotional happiness. The belief you embrace—“If he loves me, he’ll take care of my emotional needs”—keeps your thoughts focused on your husband’s perceived shortcomings, not on your own ability to tend to your emotional needs through self-talk, journaling, meditation, etc.

Of course, this does not mean that you should stay in your marriage or that you will never have a relationship where emotions are validated. However, understand that accepting responsibility is about maturity. It doesn’t matter if your husband carries 90 percent of the fault or nada. You take responsibility because doing so begins the process of forming you into a woman of integrity.

Let me also invite you into truth. You say that you don’t want a divorce, but you already divorced your husband by having an affair. You can repair the damage and begin again with him or choose another path. What’s essential is that you act with integrity from now on.

Regarding your column about littering, allow me to respond with a story. Like your friend, I am a white male who witnessed a black female littering. We were both getting off light rail, and she was walking in front of me. She took a final swig of her soda and tossed the empty plastic bottle with gusto up over her head. It landed behind her at my feet. I picked it up and returned it to her. “Here, I think you dropped this,” I said. She started yelling at me, calling me a “nigger bitch” and worse.

So, here’s how it works: What emotions were you littered with before picking up the bottle and returning it to her? Disgust? Anger? Did you use those emotions to trash her in your mind? If so, she simply responded in kind.

If I am angry because someone littered, I try to release myself from believing that the world should look differently than it does. Accepting reality releases the emotions that propel me into argument with others. Then, depending on the circumstances, I might pick up the litter or ask the one who littered to do so. It’s difficult to live a self-examined life, and I don’t always succeed, but I am learning to love others, even those whose actions I do not like.

Meditation of the Week

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