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In short, I've made a mistake of being overly friendly and supportive to another person and can't deal with the massive backfire due to me being untrustworthy. More details below.

I met my girlfriend, now wife, let's call her Alice, a few years ago in an online community. By that time I had had a close female internet friend, let's call her Diana. We used to talk often and a lot privately, as well as publicly on a social network. As Diana was kind of a chatterbox, she shared many minor things about her daily life, which I absolutely didn't hesitate to ask for or use as a basis for interaction. When she felt depressed or sad, I sometimes would cheer her up with a compliment. To add to that, we used to call each other various diminutives, or wish good night, or make virtual hugs. There was one time we exchanged real letters, very kind ones.

It's not too hard to see now that I have been digging my own grave, but back then I didn't feel like it. I had no intention of making our relationship with Diana romantic or attracting another person to me, all I wanted was to keep it a friendship, and I genuinely felt good acting so. To many people around, including Alice, my future girlfriend, what I and my friend were doing looked like blunt and open flirting, but I only found it out later.

After me and Alice started making out, I continued being friends with Diana and behaving this way. I was sincere, supportive and open with Alice, but at the same time I was pretty shy about her being mine, so I behaved more quietly and didn't act as open on public as I did with Diana.

A few months later, when me and Alice have finally met in real life, and a couple of months later, when she moved to my place, I noticed tension. She's been asking a lot about Diana and our interactions (as well as my relationships with other female friends, which were as well nothing but friendship) and turning less and less happy, thinking of herself as someone of "second sort". I tried to solace and condone her, and to explain the situation, all to no success.

Since then, it was a somewhat recurring topic in our relationship, where I've often been blamed for giving too much attention and support to Diana and — allegedly — admiring and loving her, and having only being making out with Alice in despair or because of rejection. Almost always there were long conflicts abd arguments afterwards, which still led to nothing but tears and disappointment for both sides.

Despite that, we were able to get along. It was the first time for each one of us, and when the topic of me behaving too warm with Diana wasn't brought up, we were happy and friendly with each other — until next time. I have never really sat down and done a side-to-side comparison of our private conversations and interactions to prove my points and explain what I felt, so that I could be more trusted. It was (and still is) especially hard due to me sometimes lying on different topics, or generally going easy about the promises I've made, which essentially made me a really hard to trust person. It's also worth adding that Alice has had, and still has, generally low self-esteem, which I failed to boost or help her with, and all my words on the topic of Diana are always met with suspicion that I want to twist the facts and Alice herself meant nothing to me.

Yet, we were able to sweep this under the rug with intermittent success for a few years, until recently Alice confronted me again. No arguments from my side are taken serious, no attempts to sit and talk it out are appreciated, as well as my efforts to re-visit the situation and provide an explanation for my actions, and I lost most of my hope of restoring the relationship when met with denial.

This brings me to a question: is it possible to restore Alice's good faith in that I wasn't flirting, considering the prejudice, and lack of trust, and her impression of being the second option? And if yes, how?

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My undestanding of the situation is two-fold :

  1. You apparently displayed many (more ?) signs of affection/interest at Diana than your wife (whatever the reasons).
  2. Your wife resents such signs, reacts badly to them, and can’t seem to get over them.

I have been in a similar situation myself, and have learnt the following :

  1. If you did display more affection/interest at Diana, there’s no use denying it, as that’s the truth. Your wife can realisticly feel less appreciated because of this, and dismissing her feelings is not going to solve the issue.

So own up to them, sit down with your wife, recognize and explain your state of mind at the time : you wanted to give Diana support, you cherished your closeness, you don’t want to lose it as it means something to you, etc. Be honest with Alice about your feelings towards Diana, including the potential (involuntary ?) flirting… but also the fact that you did not want (and have not) to marry Diana, but Alice. It will be hard, but you need to be honest especially with the less-favorable things you did, in order to build back trust.

At the same time, stop shying away from publicly displaying your love to your wife (when appropriate of course). You chose her and she chose you, and there’s nothing to be shy about it. :-)

And, of course, if you haven’t done it already (I really hope you have), dial down your flirty behaviour with Diana. Find other way to support her and show your appreciation. Have a chat with her too, to explain why you’re doing it (this in itself could be a separate question : "How do I explain to a close friend that I’ve decided to tone down the display of affection in order to improve my marriage without them feeling hurt ?").

  1. However, even if Alice feels wronged/under-appreciated, the fact that she doesn’t take your arguments into account and keeps bringing up the issue resulting in more fights/sadness in your couple is a real issue. I’m under the impression that it stems from her lack of self-esteem and insecurity, which leads to jealousy, confrontation, permament mistrust, etc. That’s a serious issue that can only be solved by her acknowledging that, and be willing to get better (probably with professionnal help). Forbidding you to see people (be they female or male), including not forbidding but resenting you seeing them IS a red flag that you’re in a toxic relationship.

It took me almost four years, tens of arguments, and a breakup to realise that I would never be able to make my (then-)SO trust my opposite-sex friends with whom I had no romantic interest. But as soon as she realised that she was suffering from an insecurity that made her see any female as a threat to her, things started changing rapidly.

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    I like the part that recognizes that Alice may need to recognize she has an insecurity. If you don't mind sharing, could you explain how you made your SO realize that? That might very well help OP achieve the same with Alice. Or was it something you couldn't help her realize but she figured out on her own? – Tinkeringbell Oct 12 '20 at 14:04
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    @Tinkeringbell : sadly, her realisation came as she was on the verge of killing herself. Luckily she was taken to an emergency mental health professional who did an incredible work helping her. She had to figure it out on her own… but she had to be at the most desperate time of her life for it to happen. – breversa Oct 12 '20 at 14:08
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    I feel this one puts too much burdens on Alice and not enough on the OP. See for example the top two of a linked question's answers for a more balanced perspective. – justhalf Oct 14 '20 at 5:55
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    @justhalf : I edited my answer to add more weight to what OP could/should do. Thanks for your feedback. – breversa Oct 14 '20 at 9:58
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    @breversa I am a good critique :) Helping to improve your answer. – Ubi hatt Oct 15 '20 at 9:58
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Note: This answer assumes that you want to have a healthy marriage. If you do not, then you can get a divorce, or at least some kind of separation. If you want to keep the marriage, but abuse your spouse by imposing your rules unilaterally, then I consider this immoral and outside of the scope of the site.


... is it possible to restore Alice's good faith in that I wasn't flirting...

Shortest answer: most likely not. Even more, I have the feeling that you were actually flirting, even if you did not intend to.


But what can you do?

Well, you made your choice. You have a wife now. Understand what she wants and adjust your behavior.

The best family strategy: Discuss openly all issues. Do not wait until the small problems become huge. This is valid for both parties, and both of you should encourage each other to be open.


The biggest no-no in a family

If the following are all true at the same time:

  • you are married;
  • you do something that does not make your spouse happy;
  • your spouse requires you to choose between them and your other interests;
  • you want to have a balanced happy family;

then there are just a few things you can do.

Short term:

  • define your priorities. What is more important: the family, or the other interests?

  • do whatever you need to save your family. In the extreme case, (temporarily) stop following your other interests.

Long term

  • "work" with your spouse to (re)build their self-confidence, as well as their trust in you;
  • your friends should be at least their acquaintances;
  • whenever your spouse asks something, is worried etc., take your time to discuss the issue. Maybe their assumptions are wrong. Maybe you need to change something about yourself.

Note: your spouse might be wrong to ask you to not have other friends, but you are also wrong about forcing your spouse to accept unconditionally your other interests. How you reach consensus, is a matter of discussion, between you and them. What fits for me might not fit for you, or for your spouse.


My examples

  1. I had a girlfriend which was alerted by me exchanging a kissing smiley over the net to some girl. I never knew who that girl was. I only remember that it was related to some on-line game I was playing. Her question was: "Why did you kiss with her?" - even thought the kiss was a "thank you". I learned my lesson. To be on the safe side, I never use the kissing smiley any more.

  2. I had another girlfriend. One of my (then minor, but post-puberty) female acquaintances from another city was hospitalized in my city. I thought it would be a nice behavior for me to visit her in the hospital, together with my girlfriend. In my mind, I was showing that I was proud of my girlfriend. In my girlfriend's mind, I was interested in other girls, and she could not understand why I was dragging her around.

  3. I have a friend, she happens to be a girl, we are not together. She was never married. In the past, she had many male friends, and they had good times together. She is not sad / disappointed that the former male friends pretty much broke the ties with her, at the requests of their wives. (I did not inquire about the details of the friendship, and I do not know the number of male friends. Everything happened before I met this girl.)


The future course of action for you

  • Just find out what your wife expects.
  • Make visible efforts to improve. And also actually improve - the efforts alone are not enough.
  • Expect that occasionally you will fail to meet her expectations and she will be angry. Be ready to work around the situation.

UPDATE

I want to add one detail, which I overlooked in my original answer.

When going into any kind of misunderstanding, to not hesitate to apologize if you did wrong (or if you created that feeling in her unintentionally). Just tell her about your true feelings, and explain how you came to do whatever bothers her.


When she felt depressed or sad, I sometimes would cheer her up with a compliment. To add to that, we used to call each other various diminutives, or wish good night, or make virtual hugs. There was one time we exchanged real letters, very kind ones.

and

After me and Alice started making out, I continued being friends with Diana and behaving this way. I was sincere, supportive and open with Alice, but at the same time I was pretty shy about her being mine, so I behaved more quietly and didn't act as open on public as I did with Diana.

Maybe I am from an outer world, but isn't that what a man is supposed to do with his girlfriend / wife? Actually, this behavior is courting, significantly past flirting.

As assumed in a comment, your wife might have a low esteem. Possibly true. But why do you feel the need to still have such a close relationship with Diana, while you are married?

Also, you are more open to appear in public with Diana than with your own wife. That is another "down-vote" for your behavior from your wife.

I think you really need to decide your priorities, before irreparable damage is done.

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    -1 because I cannot condone advising "no longer entitled to have […] friends". IMO it’s a red flag that OP is in a toxic relationship. It’s my understanding that Alice, lacking self-esteem, will mistrust ANY and all friend that OP might have (Should OP someday come out of the closet as bi- or -homosexual, I guarantee that Alice’s mistrust will instantly extend to OP’s same-sex friends). I’ve been in such a situation, and it only improved when my SO started realising that the core of the issue was her own lack of self-esteem, not my behaviour. – breversa Oct 12 '20 at 10:04
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    @breversa: In a more theoretical environment, I would agree with you. But in the "objective" reality: 1. Women are not happy when their husbands have friendships with other women. 2. Husbands tend to transform the friendship into lover-ship. The examples are so abundant, even though exceptions exist. The same comment hold valid if reversed, from the point of view of the man. – virolino Oct 12 '20 at 10:51
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    I'm sorry for the world you've found yourself in, but in my objective reality there is nothing wrong with men and women being friends and those who have a problem with that seem to be suffering from jealousy, low self-esteem, or a combination of both. – Erik Oct 12 '20 at 11:34
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    You outright state that "you can't have female friends", so even if they are different, it doesn't seem to matter. Also in my world, people do fall in love with other people, and most of them talk about it with their spouses, joke about it together, and go on being friends with those people. – Erik Oct 12 '20 at 12:11
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    Well, it happens in my community I guess. But I don't think it is (or should be considered) a fictional world where men and women are confident and trusting enough to not be bothered by their partners having more friends of different genders in their lives. And the default solution to it should definitely not be "give up all your other-gender friends because you don't need them anymore". That's toxic advice. – Erik Oct 12 '20 at 13:25

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