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.