Imagine that you woke up one day and realized that all of your memories from the past couple of years were false. Everything that you understand in your current life is based on your memories of past events, of how you got to the moment that you’re in now. How much confidence could you have in your present life and your current relationships if those memories suddenly became unreliable? Your first reaction to such an experience would most likely be to dig for answers, to reconstruct your memories according to reality. Whether or not those memories were more pleasant than the ones you previously held would be secondary to your obsession with discovering the truth, and you would most likely be willing to restructure your view of the present according to that newly discovered reality.
This is how I felt upon discovering my wife’s affair. I suddenly realized that my memories from the past two years were inaccurate, but I had no idea what reality was. Before I could focus on any attempt at moving forward, I had to reconstruct my memories of the past. I needed to know when the affair started and how I could have been so blind to it. I needed to know significant dates when my wife was with the other guy instead of with our family. I needed to hear the truth behind lies that I been told. Most of this wouldn’t be pleasant for me to hear, but at least it would be real.
The problem was that as I started to get those details, they tainted my existing memories. A family event that I used to look back on fondly now just felt like a façade masking our turmoil. An evening that I spent alone with our two kids now just represented my ignorance as I recalled the lie my wife used to get out of the house. On one particular Saturday, I took the kids to a college volleyball game. I later checked the phone records and realized that she had used our absence to spend the afternoon with the other guy. A positive memory of a great day with children was stolen from me and replaced with ugly thoughts of the affair.
I found myself confronted with conflicting goals. I needed sufficient details of the affair to reconstruct my past, yet those details consumed me and tainted my positive memories. My initial reaction was to try to suppress the negative thoughts, to be content with the information I had and put the past behind me. But that would mean that my wife and I would have to essentially pretend that those events never occurred and never discuss them. How could we build a marriage based on mutual trust when such a significant event in our lives was off limits? How could I have an honest relationship with my wife if I was forever left with lingering doubts that I had been given the full story?
Rather than trying to suppress the details of the affair, we had countless conversations about it. Those were thoughts that were going haunt me anyway, so there was no point in making a futile attempt to avoid them. I learned all about the other guy, confirmed suspicions that I had regarding specific dates and events, even asked details about the sex. While it was obviously painful, forcing myself to thoroughly confront that information addressed a variety of symptoms of the affair.
Your pride takes an enormous hit when you learn that your spouse has been having an affair without your knowledge. I felt stupid for believing lies she told me. I felt foolish as I recalled smug comments I had made over the years about our great life and solid marriage. I felt naïve that I never considered an affair the remotest of possibilities. But uncovering the details of that affair helped to restore my pride. I may have been stupid and naïve in the past, but at least I was being intelligent now. While it may have taken some time, I did discover those secrets. My wife and the other guy were now the ones who looked naïve for thinking that they could keep the affair a secret from me.
Married couples are supposed to share exclusive information with one another. They share special moments and have knowledge about one another that no one else has. One of the most difficult things for me to deal with was the knowledge that my wife and the other guy shared those things while I was an outsider to their relationship. As I learned more about affair, I took that exclusive information from them. Just like my positive memories became tainted by my knowledge of the affair, her memories now had to include the pain and embarrassment of revealing them to me. It was as if the affair could only survive as long as its details remained hidden, and I could dismantle it piece by piece as I slowly uncovered its secrets.
A person who I had never met knew intimate details about my life. The other guy had information about me and about my marriage that even I didn’t know. He was my wife’s confidante while I knew absolutely nothing about him. Having influence over my wife gave him an influence in my marriage that he didn’t deserve. As I learned more intimate details about him and the affair, I slowly diffused that power and shifted it to me. I had previously felt completely inferior to this person as my wife desired him enough to risk destroying our family. But now he became a vulnerable and flawed individual who was finally being confronted with the justified results of his actions.
I saw a news story recently where a woman’s ex-boyfriend posted risqué pictures of her on the internet. She responded by publicly posting her own nude photos in a more flattering context. Rather than play the role of victim, she took control of the situation and removed the only power that her ex-boyfriend had over her. In a similar way, by directly confronting the details of the affair, I diffused its power over me. I don’t have to avoid those ugly thoughts anymore because they don’t have the visceral effect on me that they used to. The affair has just become another chapter in our marriage, and we’re more likely to joke about it now than argue about it. It’s difficult for something to have power over you when you’ve reduced it to a punch line.
I don’t want to be divorced. I don’t want to have to sit in front of my children and tell them that their entire world is being destroyed. I don’t want to move to some shitty apartment and wake up by myself every morning. I don’t want the woman who has been my partner for over half my life to become my adversary as we divide our assets. I don’t want to join some online dating service and desperately look for another companion. I don’t want to put my children through an uncomfortable meeting with a woman who would potentially become their stepmother. I don’t want to experience the awkwardness of splintered families during major events and holidays.
I want to see my children off to school every morning and have dinner with my family every night. I want to take family vacations. I want to experience those goofy family moments where we jokingly make fun of one another and laugh hysterically over farts. When I envision my future, I see graduations and grandchildren and family holidays. I see a friendly old couple who is known around the neighborhood as regulars at the local coffee house and wine bars, a couple who talks about the entire life they spent together and boasts about the accomplishments of their grown children. I see a future with my wife.
Of course, people get divorced, and they find new companions and new lives. They may not match their original fantasies of their future, but plans change as we get older. Kids experience divorce, and they grow up with a healthy relationship with both parents and often with their parents’ new companions. But that alternate future couldn’t possibly match the potential of a future with my wife. No one has the shared history that we do with one another. Her irreplaceable role in our current family dynamic is obvious, but I’m thinking well beyond when the children are grown. No one could possibly share the pride that I will when watching one of our children graduate from college or feel the joy that I will the first time that I see one of our grandchildren. I want holidays with my entire family, where grandchildren can listen to stories about their parents when they were young. I want to pose for a family photo with a proud grandma and grandpa at the center. I want to grow old with my wife.
When I chose to try to save our marriage, I was trying to salvage the future that I had so long envisioned for myself. I described in a previous blog entry of the value of staying calm and focusing on my priority of keeping my marriage and family intact. That was often a very difficult attitude to maintain amidst the anger that I was feeling. Why should I focus on my wife’s best interests when she obviously wasn’t concerned about mine? If she wanted to ruin her life by running off with some loser and destroying her relationship with her family and friends, why should I stop her? It was during those times that I would focus on myself. Hers wasn’t the only life that would be getting ruined. I deserved that future even if she didn’t. If I got trapped in short term thinking of blame and retribution, then I was ultimately only harming myself.
In addition to me though, I had other people to worry about. When I found out about the affair, I thought that perhaps I should demand that my wife leave the home. Even if we were still willing to work on the marriage, she deserved some punishment for violating it. But our children are the ones would have really been punished. We had one child at the time in their first year of high school and another the first year of middle school. Those are major transitional points in a child’s life with all the stresses of self-identity and peer pressure. The last thing they needed piled on that was a potential break up of their family. They should be focused on homework and friends and eventually college applications, not worrying about where one of their parents was spending the night. They didn’t need to have their perception of marriage forever tainted by enduring that kind of drama at such an impressionable age. If my personal future wasn’t motivation enough to maintain my priorities, then protecting my kids was. They didn’t ask for this, and they had certainly done nothing to deserve it. I was going to do everything I possibly could to ensure that the entire situation had as little effect on them as possible.
I often hear people talk about maintaining their marriage until the kids are raised and out of the house, as if their parents’ marriage suddenly becomes irrelevant to them. Even after they’re grown with families of their own, I want my children to be able to look to my wife and me as a model of the marriage to which they aspire. I want to provide them with a point of stability in their lives, that home base that they could always count as they made their steady transition to adulthood. Wherever they go in their life, they always know that they have a safe haven where Mom and Dad will be there waiting for them. And when we grow old, they become that safe haven for us.
I actually think about that potential moment in the distant future when one of us can no longer care for themselves, when I either become the caretaker for my wife or the recipient of her care. We’ve all felt strong emotion as we’ve witnessed old couples in that position. While we look at them with pity because of their current fragile state, we also envy them because of their good fortune to have experienced a lifetime of love and devotion.
Of course the challenge would be admit when that entire dream was no longer a possibility for me. I had to be honest with myself and admit when it appeared that we reached the point that all efforts to rebuild the marriage had been exhausted, when our only chance at happiness was an alternate future. As traumatic as divorce would be, we weren’t going to become one of those miserable couples who stays together for the sake of the kids, and in turn achieve little more than giving them a jaded view of marriage. If divorce was unavoidable, then it made sense to give us as much time as possible in pursuit of our separate lives. But while I was prepared to accept that future if it was indeed inevitable, I refused to abandon the ideal while I still thought it was possible.