Rebuilding My Past

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.


Partners or Adversaries

I hear about people who, upon finding out about their spouse’s affair, take such actions as stealing their cell phone or searching through their personal belongings in order to gather evidence with the primary intent of humiliating their partner.  I can understand the desire for your guilty spouse to feel the full weight of the hurt they’ve caused in light of their betrayal.  But I was never looking for that “a-ha” moment to shove in my wife’s face since that would give me nothing more than a bit of short term satisfaction at the potential long term expense of our marriage.

I did need to do some investigative work in order to initially determine that I was indeed dealing with an affair and then to learn its details.  I  decided early on though that I needed to determine my personal boundaries.  If I was preparing for divorce, then I would have had no concerns and simply gathered everything I could.  Since I was working to save my marriage though, I had to consider the consequences of my actions.  I certainly had every right to any and all information I could obtain, and I had the technical means to access quite a bit more than your average person.  But regardless whether I had the right to that information though, it was questionable whether accessing it would be in my best interest.

I first had to think about the effect that such information would have on me.  I assumed that she was venting about me and possibly professing her love for this other guy.  There was probably some sexual conversation as well that I certainly didn’t want to hear.  It’s bad enough think about that kind of that conversation going on, but it’s quite another to actually read the words.  If our marriage was able to survive the affair, how could I profess my love and commitment to my wife with those words echoing in my head?

I also had to think about the effect on her.  She obviously couldn’t logically argue that I was invading her privacy; she gave up any right to ethical claims like that when she decided to violate the marriage.  But just because she couldn’t claim the right didn’t mean that she wouldn’t feel violated.  I was trying to save a marriage, not win a court case.  If I did uncover information that we needed to discuss, I didn’t want to give her the chance to divert the blame to me overstepping my bounds.  My desire was to eventually return to our roles as trusting partners who didn’t need to spy on one another for trust.  Privacy invasion would be a precedent that we would need to overcome for that goal had we allowed it to be established.

The basic rule I adopted for myself was that I wouldn’t access any account that wasn’t mine.  That included logging on to her e-mail or Facebook account or swiping her cell phone to read text messages.  Everything else was fair game.  If I happened across a clue as part of my maintenance of our phones and computers, then so be it.  Credit card records and the GPS in the car were of course well within bounds.  Multiple times I considered breaking those boundaries, but I had to assume that at some point I would have to admit where I got any information that I might have.  If I wanted to claim to her that I wasn’t reading her text messages for example, then I certainly couldn’t have information that could only have been achieved through that means.

Once I had confronted her with the critical incriminating information and the affair finally ended though, my investigations didn’t cease.  Now I was looking for reassurance that it was really over.  I needed to know that she was no longer in contact with the other guy.  I needed to know that when she said she was going to dinner with a friend, that’s where she was actually going.  I needed to know that when she texted me an excuse for being late, it wasn’t a cover for some other activity.  She actually encouraged me to spy on her during this time to give myself the piece of mind that I needed.  She even gave me license to exceed the boundaries that I had previously set for myself.

For several weeks I digitally watched her every move.  I would check the cell phone records and her e-mail a couple of times a day to ensure she didn’t communicate with someone I didn’t approve of.  I checked the GPS in the car and did a periodic location check on her phone to ensure that she was actually where she said she would be.  I watched her Facebook and e-mail to ensure there wasn’t any communication out of line there.  Unfortunately, none of this gave me the piece of mind that it was meant to.  Rather than assuming that no incriminating evidence meant that there was no crime, I assumed she had just figured out methods to avoid my detection.  Instead of my interest in spying gradually tapering off as I had originally intended, I was becoming more obsessed with it as it became a standard part of my daily activity.

I soon started to realize what a toll my active spying was taking on both of us.  My original intent was that I would steadily regain my trust in her to the point that it was no loner necessary.  The problem was that we were doing nothing to establish a foundation for a trust that didn’t require constant validation.  My wife was no longer my partner but had instead become my adversary as I was constantly waiting for her to make a wrong move.  She felt that pressure as well to the point that she would panic if she made an innocent put suspicious looking change to her plans.

There is a cliché that asks whether you would commit a crime if you knew for certain you wouldn’t get caught.  Is a person truly honest if they only behave themselves out of fear of repercussion?  The actions that my wife was taking were less important than why she was taking them.  If she was simply behaving herself because she thought that I might be watching, then our marriage was ultimately doomed anyway.   For it to survive, she had to be truly committed, and that’s not something that I had any control over.  If I stayed paranoid and suspicious, the only thing I could possibly accomplish would be identifying the marriage’s demise a bit sooner.  The spying was doing was not only exhausting, but it was entirely pointless.

I did my best to abruptly stop my surveillance, but even I didn’t realize what a compulsion it had become.  She would leave the house, and I would stare at my computer screen aching to click those buttons that would pinpoint the current location of her cell phone.  I might walk into a room just as she was putting her phone down and think that she was hiding a text message.  I would do my best to put the suspicion out of my head but would later break down and check our cell phone records.  It wasn’t a sense of satisfaction I would get when I determined that she was communicating with a good friend of hers; it was guilt.  I felt like an alcoholic who had broken down and taken a drink after a considerable period of sobriety.

The difference by that point though is that I had made the commitment to actually work on building proper trust with my wife.  While it was difficult to wean myself off of the surveillance, the suspicions slowly diminished.  I also steadily learned the difference between healthy awareness and paranoia.  As simple as it sounds, the key was no longer holding in any secrets.  If I felt anxious about her text messaging or  or if I saw an anomaly on the car’s GPS, I’d simply ask her about it.  That’s what partners do.


I Don’t Want to be Divorced

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.