Imagine that you woke up one day and realized that all of your memories from the past couple of years were false. Everything that you understand in your current life is based on your memories of past events, of how you got to the moment that you’re in now. How much confidence could you have in your present life and your current relationships if those memories suddenly became unreliable? Your first reaction to such an experience would most likely be to dig for answers, to reconstruct your memories according to reality. Whether or not those memories were more pleasant than the ones you previously held would be secondary to your obsession with discovering the truth, and you would most likely be willing to restructure your view of the present according to that newly discovered reality.
This is how I felt upon discovering my wife’s affair. I suddenly realized that my memories from the past two years were inaccurate, but I had no idea what reality was. Before I could focus on any attempt at moving forward, I had to reconstruct my memories of the past. I needed to know when the affair started and how I could have been so blind to it. I needed to know significant dates when my wife was with the other guy instead of with our family. I needed to hear the truth behind lies that I been told. Most of this wouldn’t be pleasant for me to hear, but at least it would be real.
The problem was that as I started to get those details, they tainted my existing memories. A family event that I used to look back on fondly now just felt like a façade masking our turmoil. An evening that I spent alone with our two kids now just represented my ignorance as I recalled the lie my wife used to get out of the house. On one particular Saturday, I took the kids to a college volleyball game. I later checked the phone records and realized that she had used our absence to spend the afternoon with the other guy. A positive memory of a great day with children was stolen from me and replaced with ugly thoughts of the affair.
I found myself confronted with conflicting goals. I needed sufficient details of the affair to reconstruct my past, yet those details consumed me and tainted my positive memories. My initial reaction was to try to suppress the negative thoughts, to be content with the information I had and put the past behind me. But that would mean that my wife and I would have to essentially pretend that those events never occurred and never discuss them. How could we build a marriage based on mutual trust when such a significant event in our lives was off limits? How could I have an honest relationship with my wife if I was forever left with lingering doubts that I had been given the full story?
Rather than trying to suppress the details of the affair, we had countless conversations about it. Those were thoughts that were going haunt me anyway, so there was no point in making a futile attempt to avoid them. I learned all about the other guy, confirmed suspicions that I had regarding specific dates and events, even asked details about the sex. While it was obviously painful, forcing myself to thoroughly confront that information addressed a variety of symptoms of the affair.
Your pride takes an enormous hit when you learn that your spouse has been having an affair without your knowledge. I felt stupid for believing lies she told me. I felt foolish as I recalled smug comments I had made over the years about our great life and solid marriage. I felt naïve that I never considered an affair the remotest of possibilities. But uncovering the details of that affair helped to restore my pride. I may have been stupid and naïve in the past, but at least I was being intelligent now. While it may have taken some time, I did discover those secrets. My wife and the other guy were now the ones who looked naïve for thinking that they could keep the affair a secret from me.
Married couples are supposed to share exclusive information with one another. They share special moments and have knowledge about one another that no one else has. One of the most difficult things for me to deal with was the knowledge that my wife and the other guy shared those things while I was an outsider to their relationship. As I learned more about affair, I took that exclusive information from them. Just like my positive memories became tainted by my knowledge of the affair, her memories now had to include the pain and embarrassment of revealing them to me. It was as if the affair could only survive as long as its details remained hidden, and I could dismantle it piece by piece as I slowly uncovered its secrets.
A person who I had never met knew intimate details about my life. The other guy had information about me and about my marriage that even I didn’t know. He was my wife’s confidante while I knew absolutely nothing about him. Having influence over my wife gave him an influence in my marriage that he didn’t deserve. As I learned more intimate details about him and the affair, I slowly diffused that power and shifted it to me. I had previously felt completely inferior to this person as my wife desired him enough to risk destroying our family. But now he became a vulnerable and flawed individual who was finally being confronted with the justified results of his actions.
I saw a news story recently where a woman’s ex-boyfriend posted risqué pictures of her on the internet. She responded by publicly posting her own nude photos in a more flattering context. Rather than play the role of victim, she took control of the situation and removed the only power that her ex-boyfriend had over her. In a similar way, by directly confronting the details of the affair, I diffused its power over me. I don’t have to avoid those ugly thoughts anymore because they don’t have the visceral effect on me that they used to. The affair has just become another chapter in our marriage, and we’re more likely to joke about it now than argue about it. It’s difficult for something to have power over you when you’ve reduced it to a punch line.
I don’t want to be divorced. I don’t want to have to sit in front of my children and tell them that their entire world is being destroyed. I don’t want to move to some shitty apartment and wake up by myself every morning. I don’t want the woman who has been my partner for over half my life to become my adversary as we divide our assets. I don’t want to join some online dating service and desperately look for another companion. I don’t want to put my children through an uncomfortable meeting with a woman who would potentially become their stepmother. I don’t want to experience the awkwardness of splintered families during major events and holidays.
I want to see my children off to school every morning and have dinner with my family every night. I want to take family vacations. I want to experience those goofy family moments where we jokingly make fun of one another and laugh hysterically over farts. When I envision my future, I see graduations and grandchildren and family holidays. I see a friendly old couple who is known around the neighborhood as regulars at the local coffee house and wine bars, a couple who talks about the entire life they spent together and boasts about the accomplishments of their grown children. I see a future with my wife.
Of course, people get divorced, and they find new companions and new lives. They may not match their original fantasies of their future, but plans change as we get older. Kids experience divorce, and they grow up with a healthy relationship with both parents and often with their parents’ new companions. But that alternate future couldn’t possibly match the potential of a future with my wife. No one has the shared history that we do with one another. Her irreplaceable role in our current family dynamic is obvious, but I’m thinking well beyond when the children are grown. No one could possibly share the pride that I will when watching one of our children graduate from college or feel the joy that I will the first time that I see one of our grandchildren. I want holidays with my entire family, where grandchildren can listen to stories about their parents when they were young. I want to pose for a family photo with a proud grandma and grandpa at the center. I want to grow old with my wife.
When I chose to try to save our marriage, I was trying to salvage the future that I had so long envisioned for myself. I described in a previous blog entry of the value of staying calm and focusing on my priority of keeping my marriage and family intact. That was often a very difficult attitude to maintain amidst the anger that I was feeling. Why should I focus on my wife’s best interests when she obviously wasn’t concerned about mine? If she wanted to ruin her life by running off with some loser and destroying her relationship with her family and friends, why should I stop her? It was during those times that I would focus on myself. Hers wasn’t the only life that would be getting ruined. I deserved that future even if she didn’t. If I got trapped in short term thinking of blame and retribution, then I was ultimately only harming myself.
In addition to me though, I had other people to worry about. When I found out about the affair, I thought that perhaps I should demand that my wife leave the home. Even if we were still willing to work on the marriage, she deserved some punishment for violating it. But our children are the ones would have really been punished. We had one child at the time in their first year of high school and another the first year of middle school. Those are major transitional points in a child’s life with all the stresses of self-identity and peer pressure. The last thing they needed piled on that was a potential break up of their family. They should be focused on homework and friends and eventually college applications, not worrying about where one of their parents was spending the night. They didn’t need to have their perception of marriage forever tainted by enduring that kind of drama at such an impressionable age. If my personal future wasn’t motivation enough to maintain my priorities, then protecting my kids was. They didn’t ask for this, and they had certainly done nothing to deserve it. I was going to do everything I possibly could to ensure that the entire situation had as little effect on them as possible.
I often hear people talk about maintaining their marriage until the kids are raised and out of the house, as if their parents’ marriage suddenly becomes irrelevant to them. Even after they’re grown with families of their own, I want my children to be able to look to my wife and me as a model of the marriage to which they aspire. I want to provide them with a point of stability in their lives, that home base that they could always count as they made their steady transition to adulthood. Wherever they go in their life, they always know that they have a safe haven where Mom and Dad will be there waiting for them. And when we grow old, they become that safe haven for us.
I actually think about that potential moment in the distant future when one of us can no longer care for themselves, when I either become the caretaker for my wife or the recipient of her care. We’ve all felt strong emotion as we’ve witnessed old couples in that position. While we look at them with pity because of their current fragile state, we also envy them because of their good fortune to have experienced a lifetime of love and devotion.
Of course the challenge would be admit when that entire dream was no longer a possibility for me. I had to be honest with myself and admit when it appeared that we reached the point that all efforts to rebuild the marriage had been exhausted, when our only chance at happiness was an alternate future. As traumatic as divorce would be, we weren’t going to become one of those miserable couples who stays together for the sake of the kids, and in turn achieve little more than giving them a jaded view of marriage. If divorce was unavoidable, then it made sense to give us as much time as possible in pursuit of our separate lives. But while I was prepared to accept that future if it was indeed inevitable, I refused to abandon the ideal while I still thought it was possible.
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.
When I first learned of my wife’s affair, I actually held myself responsible. I focused on the guilt for my role in our marriage going bad, and I barely blamed her for her actions. My therapist identified this in my first session speculating that I felt that I had wronged my wife was now trying to change into what I thought she wanted. She was absolutely right, and I now realize how unhealthy that position was. As it turns out though, it was one of the keys to our recovery.
Since that initial shock, I’ve tempered my opinion in the sense that I now hold her solely responsible for her actions. But while I don’t accept any responsibility for the affair, I share in the responsibility for the problems in our marriage that led to her seeking it out. I also contributed to the lack of communication that resulted in a marriage that actively avoided issues of deep significance. We would choose to pretend that all was normal rather than actually acknowledge any significant problems that we might need to confront. This situation certainly fit that category, and we were completely unprepared for it.
There was no distinct point where our marriage suddenly turned bad. As I outlined in Our Story, it happened so gradually that it was virtually imperceptible, at least to me. I wasn’t even conscious of any problems until the jolt of the affair made me realize what had been in front of me for so long. When the kids were younger, we would regularly have evenings where we put them to bed early and I made dinner for the two of us. Now she and the kids went upstairs immediately after dinner while I remained working in my office until well after they fell asleep. The only times I would cut my personal evening short was when I thought we might have sex. She would leave for the evening with friends, and while I would happily take care of the kids, I would barely show any interest in where she was going. I certainly didn’t spend much time asking her about her evening. She didn’t have to bother to hide the affair, because I wasn’t even bothering to pay attention.
I certainly had no appreciation for the life issues that she dealing with. I would often comment about how I couldn’t wait for the kids to be grown and out of the house so that it could just be the two of us with complete freedom. Of course, the kids had been the center of her life for years, and being a mom was her primary function in our family. Without them, how was she supposed to spend her time, let alone take any pride in her daily accomplishments? What’s the point of having freedom with a spouse who can’t be bothered to spend time with you let alone show the affection that actually makes you feel desired? She later admitted to me that any thoughts she had of her future included her on her own. I hadn’t earned a place in her mental picture.
None of these are excuses for her affair. They aren’t excuses for lying. She should have confided in me and explained how serious things had gotten for her. If she needed to give me the ultimatum to make changes in our marriage or start planning for divorce, then that’s what she should have done. I honestly don’t know whether such a confrontation would have jolted me into action the way the affair did, but I deserved the chance to at least understand the truth of the situation. I was completely ignorant while she was actively preparing for a future without me. Rather than confide in the husband who had been committed to his family for twenty years, she chose to leave him behind to address her personal needs.
Regardless of her actions in response to our marital problems though, those problems were very real, and I shared equal responsibility for them. She has since taken full responsibility for the affair and makes no excuses for her behavior. But if we didn’t work on the underlying issues that drove her to that affair, then they would still be there when the recovery was complete. In fact, with those problems still existing, what would be the point of recovery only to return to a marriage that neither of us was particularly happy with? I have no interest in being married to a wife who is acting out of guilt, constantly working to atone for past actions. At some point, I needed to fully forgive her so that we could once again be equal partners, and the only way we could achieve that is for us to take an equal role in our recovery.
This may sound as if I’m making excuses for my wife and trying to soften the seriousness of her indiscretions by assuming some of the responsibility for them. I’ve actually found this to be an empowering position for me though. Any victim of an affair will tell you that the hurt and anger will still manifest itself even years later. Many people appear to limit their recovery to simply waiting until those feelings magically disappear. They take the attitude that their spouse bears sole responsibility for recovery since they are the one who caused the situation in the first place. I’ve experienced too much anxiety and sense of powerlessness over the past couple of years to be passive now. Taking an active role provides me a means of channeling that anxiety and giving me some control in achieving the marriage that I want.
I actually don’t think I would have made it through the recovery had I not carried that initial guilt, and I doubt I would have wanted to. I would have been far less forgiving of her actions, and I’m not sure whether I would have wanted to return to a marriage that could never match its previous quality level. That marriage was forever tainted, so our only option was to work toward something entirely new. Through personal changes that we both made, we started to find a relationship with each other that neither of us had experienced. Instead of simply working to return to normal, we were working on a completely new and improved version of our marriage.
I feel for fellow victims of affairs who can’t see past their anger to accept any personal responsibility. I’m not saying that they should claim responsibility that they don’t deserve. But if they truly don’t see their role in the degeneration of the marriage and are willing to actively work on changes in their own behavior, then it probably means that they are actively refusing to acknowledge it. The only other option is that they actually are blameless, and they have a spouse who didn’t share their commitment to the marriage. In either case, I don’t see how a return to a quality marriage with mutual respect and trust by both partners would be possible.
An irony in all this is that while I am just as committed to my marriage as ever, I’m now less scared of losing it. When I found out about the affair, I assumed my only two options were to save the marriage or to be alone. I had been married since my early twenties and suffered from a lack of confidence in social situations. As a result, I dreaded the idea of dating and didn’t feel capable of finding a new companion with a similar set of qualities as my wife. As I worked through my personal issues in an effort to improve my role as a husband and father though, I gained a new confidence in my ability to relate with other people. The marriage that we have now is not just a result of two people who worked to improve their relationship but also two people who worked to improve themselves.