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Ask Amy Alkon

Troubled From Iraq and Hopefully Devoted

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Things that go chump in the night

My wife and I have been married 10 years and have two young children. Two years ago, we agreed to separate, and I left for Iraq. Two weeks later, she moved a boyfriend into our place. The following year, she ended it with him, and we decided to try to work things out. I bought a house and moved her and our kids in. Two months later, she went back to the boyfriend. A year later, she left him, and we agreed to try again. I moved our family back into the house and gave her power of attorney and my bank account password to prove I was committed. A month later, I had to leave for Iraq again, and am still here. Within a month, she had some guy sleeping over nightly. She claims they're just friends; he's there because she doesn't feel safe, and they aren't having sex. She even told our son the guy's doing her a favor and has a bad back, so it's only fair that he sleeps in the bed with her, not on the couch. I'm 99 percent sure our marriage is done, I just wanted your opinion. — Troubled, From Iraq

Ever wonder why junkyards always have signs like "Beware of Rottweiler," not "Man With Bad Back On Premises!"?

A woman who wants to protect herself gets a gun, a burglar alarm, and a really big dog, not a man with spinal issues to sleep in her bed while her husband's off to war. But, let's say you didn't buy a house in some sleepy suburb, but in the middle of Crack Alley, where they'll break in to steal the rabbit ears off your 1972 black-and-white TV. If a guy's real interest is in watching over your wife, not rolling over on her, the foyer rug should provide both a firm surface for his aching back and the perfect vantage point to keep an eye out for prowlers.

The firm surface you need to meet up with is the business end of the cue stick. This saga started two years ago when you and your wife agreed to separate. Two weeks later, after you left for the war, she moved her boyfriend into the family home. Two weeks later? Yes, before the exhaust trail from your plane to Iraq disappeared from the sky, she'd already managed a little troop surge of her own: Operation Screw Daddy Over. Yep, Daddy goes off to war and she eases the kids' minds that he'll be coming back in one piece by immediately bringing in his replacement. 

You aren't "99 percent sure" it's over, you're clinging to the fantasy that you'll find a marriage in there somewhere — somewhere amidst the strange men strolling in and out of your kids' lives. Sorry, but if you have a choice, take "Needle in a haystack for $20." The only reliable thing about your wife is her unreliability. After all, most guys get one "Dear John" letter. You got a subscription. So, what are you afraid of? Admitting your marriage didn't work out? It seems preferable to staying in it, and having your kids see you walked on so much that you're practically a human treadmill. But, more important, your kids would probably have more stable lives in a "broken home" than a home that keeps breaking up over and over again. Setting boundaries takes being honest about what you're actually dealing with; for example, asking yourself who's the spouse in the truly scary neighborhood. I'm guessing, when the mortar fire gets alarmingly close, you manage to refrain from turning to the guy on the next cot and whispering, "Pssst! Hold me!"

Extremely special forces

My boyfriend's leaving the country for a couple years of military service, and our communication will be limited. We'd like to get back together afterward, and eventually marry. Meanwhile, he wants to leave things open "just in case" — to save himself heartache should I meet someone else. I fear if we aren't totally committed, I'd be less likely to hold on. Do I reassure him of my devotion and make promises?  — Hopefully Devoted

Presumably, the guy is being deployed to a war zone, not spending two years folding sweaters in a faraway Benetton. War can change a person. But any two people who are separated for a period of time can change and grow apart. As can any two people who are sitting together on a couch in the burbs wondering when the Domino's guy is coming. You can't commit to continuing to feel a certain way. You can only commit to staying in touch and seeing what happens — and to letting the other person know pronto if the battle plan changes; say, from "You 'n me together forever" to "Martyrs or Marines, who do you think will get the virgins?"

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