Unlike most people who discovered their spouse’s affair, I had about a month to prepare for my confrontation with my wife. That was obviously my choice as I could have addressed it with her at any point, but nonetheless it was a significant amount of time. My primary goal over that span was just keeping the family together while maintaining some semblance of my sanity.
My other focus during that time was gathering evidence in preparation for confronting her. I already had the clear pattern in the phone records that indicated when they together, and I could now line up those periods with specific lies that she was telling me about her whereabouts. But I wanted evidence that was more definitive to ensure that she couldn’t rationally deny that this was at the very least and inappropriate relationship. I had no intention of trying to berate her or overwhelm her with her lies, but I was determined to get her to admit the truth so we could start immediately down a path either to recovery or amicable divorce. I needed to have information she couldn’t possibly refute so we didn’t waste any more time playing this charade.
I watched the credit card records noting transactions she made at suspicious times and locations. The GPS in the car tracked where it had driven over the previous couple of days, so I took photos of the screen tracking her path to other guy’s place or the absence of any tracking on days that she had claimed to have gone other places. Of course I had my self imposed limits on what information I would access, but what I did gather was absolutely definitive. Once the date arrived, there was no question that she would have to admit the affair. The only question was how much of that information I would have to use.
I made the decision to talk to her as soon as she got back from taking the kids to their first day of school, and I even setup that time with her a couple of weeks in advance. I didn’t say what we were doing, and she later told me that she thought we were just going to have a nice lunch. I had no idea how she would react, and I was mentally prepared for a variety of possibilities. My experience from a quarter of a century with her told me that we would have a calm conversation, but my experience from the last couple of months told me that I could no longer no longer rely on my past assumptions. She could refuse to talk to me, storm out of the house, accuse me invading her privacy, or a host of other nonproductive reactions.
When she returned that morning from taking the kids to school, I was waiting for her. I asked her to sit on the couch while I sat across from her. I started with the opening that I had been rehearsing for weeks, telling her how the last couple of months had been even more difficult for me than I had shown. I told her that I been aware of the affair but had held back that information because I needed to wait for this moment when the kids were out of the house. Her first reaction was to attempt to deny, but it was quickly obvious that was futile. I fortunately had to use very little of the information that I had gathered before she admitted that this was an affair and she had been untruthful with me for months. We had the calm conversation that I was hoping for, but it was going to be some time before we uncovered the actual truth.
Through the phone records, I already knew that the relationship had been going on for about a year and a half, and it appeared that the activity increased in the past few months. She confirmed that he was actually spending most of his time out of the state for the first year and had found more local employment about six months previous. That’s when they started meeting regularly. He was technically still married when they started the relationship, but they were in the process of separating, and his divorced had just recently finalized.
While she did admit that the relationship was an affair though, she claimed that sex wasn’t involved and latched on to the title of emotional affair. She told me that she never considered ending the marriage and reiterated what she had been saying that this was just a friend who she commiserated with. Any rational person could tell that wasn’t truthful, but I was so exhausted from the previous two months and ecstatic that she showed interest in saving our marriage that I believed her and accepted her apologies. She lamented about how selfish she had been, and I reassured her that she hadn’t destroyed everything. We could still get past this.
What we didn’t do in that conversation is make any plans. I didn’t ask her to cut off contact with the other guy, and she didn’t offer. I realize the first step in virtually all guidance for affair recovery is immediate termination of any communication between the cheating spouse and affair partner, but that didn’t seem like the right approach for a couple of reasons.
My first concern was having her resent me since I had barely showed any notice of her personal activities over the previous couple of years. I felt that I hadn’t earned the right to start making demands like that now. I fully realize how absurd that sounds since I had every right to make such a demand considering the lies that she had just admitted. But that was nonetheless a very real possibility since rational thought wasn’t exactly a strength for either of us at this point. I was still felt that I had to simply keep the marriage together until I completely understood the situation and could make critical decisions with a coherent mind.
More importantly though, the motivation to cut off communication with this guy needed to come from her if we had any chance of building a quality marriage. To use a rough analogy, have you really cured an alcoholic if you just remove all the booze from the house and tell them you’re going to track their activities? Their true recovery comes when they make the personal commitment to no longer drink. I was risking my short term gratification for the long term health of our marriage. They could communicate using a variety of means anyway, so their relationship was only going to end when she made the conscious decision to end it.
But I will admit to being more naïve than strategic at this point. I was so desperate for some normalcy that I was willing to delude myself in order to get it. I had spent weeks contemplating worst case scenarios such as telling our kids their parents were divorcing or moving off to some little apartment while working out the logistics of weekend visits. I was so ecstatic at the notion of having hope again for the first time in so long that I accepted her admittedly unbelievable insistence that there was no sex and that this was not a romantic relationship.
You could argue that my accepting her downplayed version of the relationship was the wrong decision since, as I’ll detail in my next post, the affair continued for another three months. But I could also argue that it was absolutely the right decision since almost three years after these events we have a far better marriage than ever, and the affair is steadily becoming a distant memory. There’s not telling whether we would have had a different outcome had I challenged her at this point, although we both agree that it would have more than likely led to the end of our marriage.
What is certain is that this was just the first step in our eventual recovery, and we still had considerable work in front of us. That started with three months of additional turmoil as she pretended the affair was over, and I pretended to believe her. I’ll save that part of the story for the next post.
My last post, and the next couple of posts I’m working on, make my wife look pretty selfish and undeserving of much empathy. I can imagine that a reader would have a difficult time understanding why I was working so hard to salvage our marriage. This is a quick post that describes an incident that occurred about four months after the end of the affair. We still had a long way to go in our recovery, but this is a good illustration of the results of my efforts and of her appreciation of them.
It was Mother’s Day, 2013. We planned to take a drive down to the coast, have lunch at a fish restaurant my wife went to as a kid, and wander around the tide pools. Apparently, everyone else in our region had that same idea because we were locked in traffic for over an hour and had to search for parking in one full lot after the next. When we finally did find a place for the car, we had to walk precariously along a busy highway only to wait almost an hour to get our food.
It was one of the days where almost everything went wrong… yet we had a wonderful time. We laughed off one minor inconvenience after another and focused on enjoying each others’ company. The sun was low in the sky by the time we hit the tide pools, and that’s when the day actually turned into the perfection that we were hoping for.
Just before going to sleep my wife and I were sitting in bed talking about what a great day we had. Then she started crying…..”I almost threw all that away”, she said through her tears. She then thanked me for not giving up on her and keeping our family together.
I always believed that my wife was hurting herself more than anyone else and that she would seriously regret her actions had they resulted in breaking up our family. If I had focused solely on my anger, that most likely would have been the outcome. I’d probably be writing a post now lamenting about how she destroyed her relationship with our children, or gloating about how I knew she would end up alienating herself from family and close friends. It’s far more gratifying to take pride in my role in helping to avoid that negative outcome for everyone.
Anyone who’s experienced an affair can tell the details of that traumatic moment when they first discovered it. My story is a bit different though because once I discovered the relationship, I went a month choosing to believe my wife’s insistence that the guy was just a friend. I knew that she was still in contact with him, but I assumed it was limited to friendly text messaging. I was focused on changing the issues in our marriage I had recently discovered and naively thought the relationship would steadily taper off as her need for it dwindled.
Then came the worst moment of my life.
My wife was preparing for a regular getaway that she and our kids took each summer with a friend and her kids. They were leaving on a Sunday afternoon, and that morning my wife told me that she had some errands to run in preparation. She specifically mentioned getting cash and filling the gas tank in our van. I was innocently doing some work with our bills when I noticed a withdrawal entry come through on our electronic bank statement. It wasn’t surprising because she said she was getting cash, but the branch she visited was several miles away…right down the street from where the other guy lived. There was no possible reason that she would be on that side of town, other than meeting him of course.
I hadn’t checked the phone bills in a couple of weeks, choosing to believe her when she said she was having dinner with friends or off “doing errands”. But now I forced myself to do just that and found exactly the pattern that I had feared. Continuous messaging with the other guy throughout the day but then distinct gaps during those times she was out of the house, which meant that they must have been together. I checked my phone during those times and saw a variety of messages she sent me giving false details about where she was and who she was with. All lies. Explicit, detailed lies.
The charade was over. My wife was having an affair.
They were leaving within a couple of hours, so I couldn’t confront her now. I certainly wasn’t going to ruin my kids’ week, and I wasn’t going to send them off with a bombshell like that. I made some excuse to get out of the house for a bit and then focused on some mindless tasks in the yard to kill time. When they finally did leave, I collapsed just inside the front door literally unable to stand. My family was gone. My wife not only didn’t love me anymore, but she didn’t even like me. I laid on the floor for an hour sobbing with an overwhelming sense of despair and failure.
I work at home so I was by myself the entire week, and it was the closest thing I hope I ever experience to sheer hell. The pattern for each day was similar. I woke up around 4 am after only a couple of hours of restless sleep and wandered around the house in the dark until sunrise. I tried to get some work done but couldn’t sit for more than a few minutes before getting restless and wandering away from the computer. I broke down regularly, vacillating between fits of depression and rage. I cried, I yelled, I threw things. I’m actually fortunate that the neighbors didn’t call the police in response to all the noise.
As the cliché goes, you don’t truly appreciate something until it’s gone. I didn’t show my appreciation for my family and certainly not for my marriage. I had failed at the most important goals of my life and had only myself to blame. I had always enjoyed my solitude and even fantasized about having the freedoms of someone single, but now I realized the emptiness of being truly alone. I had always been closed off with my emotions and scared to expose my inner self to the point of developing the deep emotional connection that my wife was looking for, and now she had found someone else who would provide her with that.
Regardless of any guilt that I felt though, I didn’t deserve to be lied to. I spent the last twenty years providing for my family, ensuring that my wife could realize her goal of staying home and raising our children. I made sure our mortgage was paid, the college fund was growing, and that we still had enough for a family vacation. I spent time with my children and always encouraged my wife to get away from home with friends. While I may have not shown the affection that I should have, I at least deserved to know if my wife was longer in love with me. She was just as responsible for the slow deterioration in our marriage as I was, but I didn’t look outside of our marriage for a solution. Unlike her, I never lied.
I would go through mock conversations with my wife in my head, thinking how my confrontation with her would go. One moment it would be me screaming at her and throwing her out of the house. The next I would be crying and begging her to stay. At one point, I wandered into our dining room, and one chair happened to be pulled away a bit from the table. I imagined my wife sitting there and started yelling at her how I didn’t deserve to be lied to. Then I broke down in tears and pleaded to her to not break up our family. I described to her the hell I was going through and how desperately I wanted to rescue our marriage. A week of isolation in that emotional state put me on the edge of insanity. I was yelling at a fucking chair!
But isolation can also be transformative.
I had lucid moments during that week where I was able to do some constructive thinking. I knew that I wanted to keep our family intact, although at this point I had very little hope of that. I had previously underestimated the situation in every way possible, thinking that some minor changes could return us to our old marriage. Not only was it obvious to me now that our problems were much deeper than that, but I realized that our old marriage was the wrong goal. That was tainted now anyway, and it obviously hadn’t led us to positive results. We needed some means of retaining the positive aspects of our family while building an entirely new relationship.
I clung on to the bit of hope that if she really wanted out of the marriage, she would be gone by now. It was obvious though that if I gave her an ultimatum now, I would lose. Our family would lose. I couldn’t accept us trying to tackle major life decisions while both of us were in such an irrational state of mind. I had to at least keep us intact until we could get to the point of open communication free of the influence of this invading third party. I certainly had no strategy for achieving that goal at this point, but my family needed me to at least try. I’d worry about my personal well being, my pride, and my anger later.
We obviously couldn’t continue with this façade though, and I needed to determine how I was going to confront my wife about the affair. Our kids were still home from school for the summer and gave us little privacy to discuss our issues. I knew that divorce was a very real possibility, and we would obviously need to be honest with them should that become a reality. I would not put them through any more trauma than necessary though. They were not going to witness volatile confrontations between their parents, and they weren’t going to have either of us leave the home until divorce became inevitable. I had no idea how my wife would react to my confrontation. She had never been the volatile type, but by this point I didn’t feel that I could rely on any of my past experience with her. I made the determination that I had to wait until school started in four weeks.
During the next month we both played our roles. She pretended that she wasn’t having an affair, and I pretended to believe her. She would tell me that she was meeting a friend or had some commitment for the kids’ school, and I would go along with what I knew was a complete lie. I wanted to scream that I knew exactly what was going on, that I wasn’t so stupid as to believe the bullshit she was telling me. But I had made an agreement with myself that I would wait. That’s what my family needed to me to do.
The toll on me was considerable. I was an emotional wreck having regular panic attacks and breaking down to tears with the slightest provocation. I tried to hide it as much as possible, often closing myself in our downstairs bathroom when I couldn’t maintain my composure. I couldn’t sleep and continued to wake up about 4 am every morning. I had no appetite and hardly ate. I started working out obsessively, going on long bike rides to channel my nervous energy and give myself some time alone to contemplate. I started rapidly losing weight to the point that friends were worried about my health.
As difficult as that month was though, nothing that I was going through could compare to the horror that I imagined telling my children that their parents were divorcing. I was also concerned about my wife who I obviously thought was making some very bad decisions. Perhaps I should have focused on my anger at her, but I couldn’t throw away the twenty years that we had supported each other without making every effort to save her and salvage our marriage. The anger would have to wait. My family was in crisis, and I needed to do everything I possibly could to save it.
As of this writing it’s been two and a half years since those “two months in hell”. As time passes, it gets more difficult for me to identify with that time because we have both evolved into such different people. The memory of it used evoke a significant visceral reaction, but now it just feels like a sad movie with someone else playing the lead role. While it was unquestionably the most difficult period of my life, it was also one of the most valuable. I was able to experience the loss of the most important things in my life without actually losing them. It helped me to clearly identify my priorities and to refocus on them. Too many people reach that point when it’s too late to salvage what they’ve lost. I consider a privilege that I had that awaking while I still had time.
(I’ll get to the confrontation and the ensuing months in later posts.)
I’m concerned that someone following my blog to this point may get a false impression as to how methodical and lucid I was in response to my wife’s affair. I started this blog almost two years after it ended, and I wanted to focus on what I learned from the experience. It’s easy sound logical and coherent when you’re talking in hindsight, but I wasn’t close to that when it was actually happening.
I’ll claim some credit for keeping my priorities straight and for maintaining my composure, but I was exactly like every other affair victim just trying to get through each day. I was confused and vulnerable, having regular panic attacks and periods of serious depression. There were several times that I was completely convinced my marriage was over, and there was nothing I could possibly do to keep my family intact.
As an example, my last two posts talked about how significant gathering the details of the affair were to my recovery. At the time, I had no idea what approach would best satisfy my anxiety. Multiple times I tried to follow the cliché of putting the past behind me only to find that the ugly thoughts would continue to haunt me. Over time I slowly came to realize the strategy that worked for me, and it’s only looking back that I can describe that with any coherence. I certainly don’t think that I’ve identified some profound answer that will work for everyone going through a similar experience, but I do hope that I can provide them with some useful thoughts from someone who has the benefit of hindsight.
I have several other thoughts that I’m planning on sharing about our recovery, but in the next few posts, I’m going to take a detour into darker topics. I need to share some details of the turmoil that I went through and the anger and confusion I experienced. Some of this is just to vent, but I also hope that it will help others who might be in the middle of the hell that I experienced. At the very least I’m hoping it can provide some confidence that it is possible for a marriage to be saved even after sinking to the depths that we experienced.
Regaining trust in my wife after her affair required more than logistics such as ensuring that she was no longer lying about where she was going or watching the phone bills to make sure she wasn’t in contact with the other guy. What I needed was the confidence that she wasn’t just behaving herself out of fear of being caught, but that she had instead lost her feelings for that guy and was truly recommitted to our long term marriage.
I had no expectation this would happen immediately. Issues that had been steadily developing in our marriage for years weren’t going to be solved overnight. Regardless whether she was justified in developing feelings for the other guy, she couldn’t simply choose to absolve herself of them. I understood that it would take time for us to repair our relationship, but I also knew that we would never achieve that point if we didn’t have complete honesty with one another.
She initially downplayed the seriousness of the affair saying that it was just a good friend with no sex, and she had never considered leaving our marriage for the other guy. That was difficult for me to believe though since she had risked her entire family multiple times over that relationship. Just a couple of months after it ended, she said that she was essentially over the relationship and rarely thought about him. But phone bills had shown me that right up until the end of the affair she was in contact with him constantly through the day from the moment she woke up. No one could just casually walk away like that from someone who had so consumed their everyday life. While I wanted her claims to be true, they simply didn’t seem to fit with reality.
One evening we were talking about our day, and she told that she had a realization that afternoon that she hadn’t thought about the other guy all morning. She considered that a positive since she was successfully moving him out of her thoughts and becoming more engaged with our relationship. While I also agreed that it was positive, it confirmed my doubts by completely nullifying her previous claim that she rarely thought about him. By this time, she had been saying for months that her feelings for him had been dwindling, but that comment told me that our recovery wasn’t nearly as far along as I was led to believe. It damaged my confidence in her honesty since she had apparently just been telling me what I wanted to hear. While it may have also been what she wanted to be true, my confidence depended on what actually was true.
I was working to build a story of the affair in my mind that went beyond dates and events. If I was going to be confident that she was truly committed to the marriage, I needed to understand how she reached that point after being so far away from it. I needed to be able trace a path from our marriage slowly deteriorating, to her developing feelings for the other guy, and finally to her working through those feelings and recommitting herself to me.
My confidence in that story would be based on how well it matched with her behavior and the details about the affair that I had been able to confirm. I knew my information was imperfect with plenty of loose ends, but it at least had to make logical sense so I could be reasonably confident that I had the truth. The challenge was that we were still discussing the affair and uncovering new details. If new information didn’t fit into my story, then it must mean that my understanding of events wasn’t correct.
Multiple times we followed a similar pattern. We would have a conversation where some new piece of information would come out, and I would spend two or three days analyzing it. It could be a completely casual conversation where we only touched for a brief moment on the affair, and the new information could be a seemingly innocuous detail. Even a minor detail though could contradict something significant, which could ultimately destroy my entire story. It was as if every time I learned something new, the story of the affair became tentative until I could verify that new piece of information logically fit.
On one occasion we were talking about the other guy and how his dating life might be going. She initially claimed to have no knowledge whatsoever, but then a couple of days later she admitted that she had heard from a mutual friend that he was in a relationship that had gotten quite serious. That detail itself wasn’t particularly consequential, and it certainly didn’t bother me that she was discussing him with a mutual friend. Of course she was going to be interested in his relationship status, and I knew that the mutual friend was still in contact with him. What I realized from that simple interchange though was that she still couldn’t just speak openly with me. She still had a guard up and had to consciously think of what she could say and what she should hold back. It didn’t necessarily contradict any part of my story, but it did tell me that I couldn’t yet have complete confidence in it.
As time progressed though, my doubts did steadily diminish. Each time a new detail fit, it gave me an additional bit of confidence that I wasn’t going to eventually find a significant contradiction. Each time she shared something new, it was another step closer to complete and open honesty. I chose to focus on our positive progress as opposed to dwell on suspicions. If she revealed something now that she had previously held back, for example, I focused on her current honesty as opposed to her past obfuscation.
While my confidence in the present is dependent on my understanding of the past, I know my story of the affair will never be entirely complete. I’ve reached the point though where I’ve lost interested in filling in any remaining details. At some point you need to let the doubts go and focus on moving forward with your marriage. It took time and a hell of a lot of work, but I think we’re finally there.
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.