Rock Bottom

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.)


A Shift In Tone

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.


Confidence in the Present

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.

 


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.


Stay Calm and Save Your Marriage

Shortly after I learned of the affair, I was scared to say or do anything that I thought would upset my wife. I assumed that she already had one foot out the door, and all she needed was a catalyst to get her to take that last step. I wouldn’t challenge her on lies she told me, even though I had direct evidence to the contrary. Whenever we had serious conversations, I typically started with several disclaimers about not wanting to upset her and kept the tone as non-confrontational as possible. That was obviously a pathetic situation that couldn’t survive for long. I had only just learned that we had issues in our marriage though, let alone that my wife had apparently found someone to replace me. I was completely unprepared for that situation in every way possible, and it seemed like the safest strategy was to at least work to keep our marriage together while I came to terms with what was happening.

I assumed that she had built resentment toward me by this point as I was forcing her to choose between two options that she had previously been able to share. Of course, no one could logically defend such resentment as I was simply demanding that my wife be honest with me and not conduct an affair outside of our marriage. But not even my wife defends her state of mind during that time. We were both in complete crisis mode, and neither of us were thinking rationally.

The mindset that I adopted was that I was not dealing with my wife. My wife didn’t lie, she didn’t keep secrets from me, and she certainly didn’t put her desire for some guy above her relationship with her family. It was as if someone else was inhabiting the body of my wife, and I would be damned if that person was going to make major life decisions that we would both have to suffer for. If in fact this was the new person that my wife had become, then I had to at least delay those decisions until I knew that I had no hope of getting her back.  The potential of saving my marriage and my family was too valuable to act impetuously.

I’ve read stories of other couples who have seemed more intent on attacking their spouse than in rebuilding their relationship. They seem to revel in confronting them with their lies, kicking them out of the house, screaming about the hurt they’ve caused. They’re probably completely justified in those actions, but they seem counterproductive to rebuilding a marriage. We had already caused considerable damage to each other that we needed to repair, and we certainly didn’t need to pile any more on top of that.

I didn’t need to yell and attack to communicate the anger and hurt that I was feeling anyway. That would just give her the opportunity to fight back and focus us more on our ability to hurt one another when our marriage required the exact opposite. I could actually convey those emotions more clearly through calm conversation, and instead of prompting her to fight back, it created a safe environment where we could both be open and honest.  I wanted to understand her thinking and get answers to my questions, and I wasn’t going to get that with angry confrontation.  The style of communication that we developed during that time became our standard rapport even as I regained my pride and our relationship matured.

Of course, this calm demeanor wasn’t easy. I had just as much anger and hostility in me as anyone else in my situation. While my logical mind was determined to maintain my priorities, my emotional mind wanted to attack. I started working out regularly, almost compulsively. My runs and bike rides were moments of solitude when I could think about the situation and plan my actions. When I wasn’t exercising, I was taking long walks around the neighborhood in contemplation. In my head, I would go through mock conversations with my wife. I would try to predict different reactions she might have and what my response would be in return. I would think about how much we could expect to get through in a single conversation, and make decisions on which topics to hold until later. When I was home alone I would often yell while I had mock arguments with a wife who wasn’t there.  Yelling at an empty chair may not have been quite as satisfying as yelling at my wife, but it also didn’t carry the same potential consequences.

I would constantly tell myself that there would always be time to be vent. If the marriage ended, I had plenty of ammunition that I could fire at my wife, and at the other guy as well.  The facts of the past weren’t going to change, and I certainly wasn’t going forget them.  If I ever had a doubt whether we were ready for a particular topic or whether I should divulge some information I had obtained, I’d typically wait.  There was no risk in waiting another day.  But once a statement was made, once I tipped my hand, there was no going back.  That one hurtful comment that would cut right to the depth of her emotion might feel satisfying to me in the moment, but it would forever live in her memory.

There was one moment that illustrates how tentative the situation was, and it was the closest that our marriage came to ending abruptly. One evening after the kids had gone to bed, I confronted my wife with some evidence that I had uncovered. It was the one time that I made a direct confrontation out of sheer anger.  She panicked, stormed out the front door, and actually ran off down the street.  I was in a panic for almost an hour before she finally arrived back on our doorstep.  She later confided to me that she ended up in the alley behind our house debating whether to call the other guy to pick her up.  She ultimately decided against that option since she knew that if she made that call, our marriage was over.

I’ve thought about that moment many times.  If she had made that call, she would have clearly established that she was choosing him over our family. Our marriage would no longer exist. One decision made in the heat of moment by someone not thinking rationally had the potential to completely alter the rest of our lives. The people who we are now would still be suffering from the impetuous actions of the people we used to be.

Fortunately, that was the only time during that volatile phase of our recovery that I allowed myself to lose my temper. Had there been others, each would have had the potential to result in that final breaking point, and it’s quite probable that one would have done exactly that. Maintaining my composure and clearly focusing my actions on my critical goals were key to navigating our recovery.

All of this may make me appear passive, someone so desperate to save his marriage that he was willing to give up his self respect and completely bury his very justified anger . But I was actually acting out of aggression as well, just in a controlled manner. I assumed that my wife had been focusing on my negative traits as a defense mechanism to help justify her indiscretions. The more that I reacted in anger, the more that would fuel her justification.  She was going to have to consciously walk away from our marriage as opposed to having me drive her out.  I was determined that she would have to make that decision with full guilt.

A couple of times she asked me if I wanted her to leave the house. How easy that would have been for her, run back to the other guy for comfort while I came up with some excuse for the kids. I was determined to keep her there to deal with her family. If she wanted to leave then that would be her decision, and she would be the one to explain it to the kids.

Of course, I assumed the other guy was encouraging her negative thoughts about me. The best thing that I could do for him would be to play into that, to react with anger and drive her closer to him. That would allow him to play the comforting role, protecting my wife from her irrational husband and giving her a preview of how wonderful life could be with him. The more that my wife and I became adversaries, the more that she would view him as an ally. I needed her on my side so that we could methodically push him out of our relationship.

While this patient and calculated approach was integral to saving our marriage, it didn’t come without its price.  There is value in venting your anger and releasing all of that emotion.  A simple but accurate analogy is a shaken can of soda.  If you pop it open abruptly, the contents will explode out immediately.  The alternative is to open it ever so slightly such that the contents slowly leak out.  You avoid the potential damage from the blast, but it takes significantly longer for all that pressure to be released.  I’m still working through painful memories and experiences, and I still regularly have fantasies of reacting in very different ways that I did.  As short lived as it would have been, there would have been a sense of satisfaction and justice berating my wife and the other guy.  I can internalize and delay my emotions, but I can’t avoid them forever.

But I have no regrets over the path I chose.  Working through my emotions with my family and marriage intact is far more satisfying then reveling by myself over some past brief display of anger.  As the cliché says, anything worth having is worth working for.  I worked hard for my marriage, and I haven’t for moment doubted whether it was worth the cost.