You hurt, you hate, you want to flee. But is walking away from your marriage the only answer?
No, say these three couples, who are struggling to get past the ultimate betrayal.
By Michael Callahan
One night a year ago, Janet* answered the doorbell of her home in Virginia Beach to find her neighbors on her front porch. She didn't know the couple well, and before she could even speak, the husband said, "My wife has something to tell you." His wife mumbled something about text messages. Janet was confused, until the man interrupted. "What she's trying to tell you," he said, "is that she's having an affair with your husband."
Janet, 42, called her husband, Neal, 42, in from the other room, and as the couples stood awkwardly facing one another, Neal confirmed it: Yes, he'd been having an affair. A shaken Janet told him to sleep in the guest room.
At 5:30 the next morning, Janet stood across the living room from Neal, who was slumped on the sofa in his T-shirt and boxers, unable to look at her. For the next few hours, she hammered him with questions: How long had this gone on? Did you have sex with her in our house? Where, exactly? "You just have this insatiable need to know every little detail of this secret life that's gone on behind your back," Janet says.
When everything in your life is turned upside down, it's hard to know what to do next. Those first few volatile weeks and months after discovering marital infidelity are filled with a toxic brew of emotionsrage, guilt, sorrow. "There is an immediate lashing out," says Peggy Vaughan, author of The Monogamy Myth and creator of the extramarital-affairs resource site askpeggy.com [sic dearpeggy.com]. "Later, there is sadness and hurt and pain. That's when the victim of the affair starts to ask, 'How could I have trusted this person? What did I do wrong to cause this?' Which leads to the most confusing question of all: 'What do I do now?'"
The answer to this question is never simple. For every Jenny Sanford who refuses to stand by her man, there is a Silda Spitzer who appears to forgive, remaining at his side as he confesses all for the cameras. "At a cocktail party, people will talk about all of these politicians who have strayed, and a lot of what you hear is, 'I don't understand how she can stand being with him,'" says Jim Walkup, a New York City couples therapist for more than 35 years. "But it can work."
Indeed, for all of the "I'd throw him out and never let him back in the door" bluster that goes on at various girls' nights out, the truth is that 70 percent of couples who seek counseling after an affair come out of it intact. "When you put time and energy into a marriage, when you have a history and there are children involved, people definitely think long and hard before they walk away," says Lisa Thomas, a marriage counselor in suburban Denver. And some couples who stay together after an affair report that their marriage is more open, more honest, and stronger as a result of committing to ongoing, honest communication.
Janet lived with a constant fear that Neal would stray again. But after a year of obsessing about his whereabouts and whether he would leave her if she didn't shave her legs or if she pushed him too hard during an argument, she finally realized she had to let that fear gonot for her husband, but for herself. And Neal, through counseling and "being willing to answer a million questions," also worked hard to repair their relationship. "I don't think we're at happiness just yet," Janet says. "But we're getting there." Here, three other couples share their struggles to survive infidelity.
"In the end, our love got us through."
Alexa wasn't sure Ben was cheating, but she knew something was... off. He had been picking fights with her for no reason. He seemed distant, preoccupied.
One night, she decided to play Nancy Drew and do a little snooping. She accessed Ben's MySpace account and found suggestive messages from his high school girlfriend. Her eyes scanned the page, until they hit one message: I feel so bad about what we did last Friday....
With tears streaming down her faceand her mind scrambling to process what this meant for her six-year marriageAlexa called Ben, who was visiting his parents nearby, with a simple message: Don't come home. "I didn't know what to say," Ben says. "But inside, it was a feeling like, Holy s - t, I've been found out, and I really, really f - up."
Alexa spent hours on the sofa, clinging to her puppy and bawling. At 3 a.m., clad only in one of Ben's oversize T-shirts her underwear, she drove to an all-night convenience store to buy cigarettes and Smirnoff Ice. The cashier looked her up and down. "Rough night?" he asked.
After calling for hours, Ben walked in the door around 4 a.m. to find Alexa, and their house, a total wreck. "I broke every picture of us in the house," she says. "Your whole world has been ripped from you. Everything you've known to be true is false: your sense of security, your sense of self-worth, everythingeverythingis totally different from the moment you find out." Facing Ben, she yelled, screamed, and cried for hours while Ben sat beside her, saying little except, "I'm so sorry."
Two days later, Alexa asked Ben for a divorce. "You automatically feel like you have to get a divorce," she says now. "Because if you don't, you feel that you're weak, and if you stay with him you're an idiot."
Ben moved out but kept trying to explain that the affair was short and stupid and would never happen again. He left voicemails playing their favorite song; he called in tears. "You have to understand: He doesn't cry," Alexa says. "He's been to Iraq, been to Kosovo. So for him to cry over this showed me this was a big thingthat he was truly sorry."
But Ben made one critical mistake: He didn't tell Alexa everything. So a few weeks later, when she went snooping through Ben's online files and found a nude photo of himself that he had emailed to his mistress, the whole messy drama played out againthis time with Alexa jumping into her Kia during a blizzard and Ben frantically following in his Jeep. Finally, he got her to pull into a Dunkin' Donuts parking lot, where Alexa warned him to spill every detailor else it was over. "I was scared I was going to lose her," Ben admits, "and she kept asking the same questions, over and over. I was frustrated, but I tried not to show it because she had every right to be mad."
For the next year, Alexa verified everything: where Ben was, where he was going, whom he was with. He gave Alexa all his passwords and canceled his MySpace and Facebook accounts. At that point, Ben realized that total transparency was the only way to save his marriage.
They tried a few counseling sessions, but, Ben says, "I'm just not a talker." Then Ben's sister and one of his closest friends both died within months of each other. "So our problems got put on the back burner," Alexa says. "But it was a good thing, because we were so focused on the infidelity that we were losing sight of our love for each other." Ben remembers that period well. "I was so, so upset and lost. And here I had her, and she was amazing and loving and supportive. I was reminded of what we hadour love for each otherand that it would always be there."
Two years later, Ben and Alexa are now at the point where they canvery occasionallymake a small joke about Ben's past infidelity. Alexa will ask him to do some small chore, he'll grumble, and she'll slyly remark, "Do I have to use it?" referring to the affair card. "I still love him," Alexa says, "and in the end, our love got us through."
"It's a struggleand I think it always will be."
One night Bethany came home and told her husband, Jack, that she didn't have feelings for him anymore and wanted out of their marriage. Jack suspected she might be having an affair with a male friend. He was right. That evening Bethany admitted she'd cheated, but she promised to end it. Jack was a wreck, feeling he was somehow to blame. He started calling marriage therapists.
Two months later, with counseling getting them nowhere and Bethany still acting distant, Jack found himself checking Bethany's email accountthey'd always had access to each other's accountsto confirm that she had gotten an article he'd sent her. That's when he also got confirmation that Bethany was still having an affair, spelled out in emails between her and her secret lover. "It felt like she had not only ripped my heart out of my chest, but she was stomping on it and grinding it into the floor," he says.
Sitting in their den that night, he confronted her, but Bethany tried to tell him he was imagining it. Jack knew better. After stewing for a few days, he met her at the door as she walked in from work: "I finally said, 'It's him or me,'" Jack says.
"He was adamant that he wanted to stay in the marriage," Bethany says, and it was his commitment to their relationship that made her want to try again. Seeing a chance to save her marriage, Bethany took it.
There was one big problem: Jack had no idea that this affair was not Bethany's first, but her fifth in their nine-year marriage. Bethany broke off the affair, but she continued to live with the paralyzing fear that the others Jack didn't know about would come back to haunt her. "It was like, How do I untangle this huge web that I've created?" she recalls.
A few months later, Jack was paging through the journal Bethany kept from her church group, looking for notes on a Bible study she'd been to, when he found a list she'd written years earlier, detailing her faults. There on the page was the word cheater. Jack flipped through the pages in a frenzy, his heart sinking. He now knew his wife had been unfaithful multiple times, almost from the very beginning. It was, he says, "the low point of my life." He woke up Bethany, who'd been asleep. "I found your journal," he said quietly. She says, "I felt my insides melt. All I could think was, Oh, God. He knows."
Jack insisted that she tell him every detail of every affair. For the next few hours, she walked him through all five. "I couldn't even look at him," she says. "I was completely ashamed." She kept waiting for him to utter the words, "I want a divorce." But Jack suspected that there was a hurt inside Bethanysome deep, unrecognized woundthat had caused her cheating. He thought that if he could avoid making any rash decisions, push back against the typical macho "No way am I putting up with this" cut-and-run attitude and think of his kids, then ages 5 and 3 monthsthen maybe there was a path through the pain to the other side.
Bethany was shocked. "I don't know that in his shoes, I could have forgiven," she says. "I didn't feel worthy of forgiveness." Through counseling, Bethany discovered that her affairs were indeed bandages, short-term fixes for crippling self-esteem issues she'd struggled with since childhood. She was, she says, "broken."
Their marriage was as well, and two years later it's hard for them to say what will happen. A therapist has helped, making them feel their marriage is more open, more honestmore realthan it's ever been. They also discovered a supportive community of other couples in their situation through the website survivinginfidelity.com. Jack neededand got"full transparency," with access to Bethany's email and schedule. "We're still dealing with the fallout," he says. "She dragged it out; she lied. So I still have some trust issues." Bethany understands. "Trust is still a struggle, and it always will be," she says. "My parents always taught me not to trust anybody. So how do you trust your husband, trust his love, when you don't trust anybody? But after all of this, I found out that my 'true love' feeling was still there. I just need to keep fighting to hold on to it."
"The wound is still there, but we made it to a good place."
Diana couldn't help feeling a little smug when she caught an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show about women married to "cheating husbands." It was 1995, and as she watched, she thought, Thank God I'm not in that situation.
Diana was sure her college sweetheart and husband, Willa director at a nonprofit who plays in a band on weekendswas faithful... but what could be the harm in a little checking? So Diana accessed Will's work voicemail that afternoon. What she found was an unfamiliar woman talking about how she and Will were going to "celebrate" Will's birthday, which was that very day. "I knew by her tone what she meant," Diana recalls. "And I just sat there, devastated, in shock and disbelief."
When Will came home that night, Diana sprang in front of him, demanding answers, crying and screaming at him for his betrayal. Will's reaction surprised her. "I was relieved, and I think it showed," he says. "Not because I hurt her, because that was horrible. But to me this was an opportunity to really discuss the problems in our marriage that had led to this. At one point I said to her, 'Don't tell me you didn't see any of this coming. We've had issues for years.'"
Will told Diana that he felt she'd been pulling away from him ever since their first son was bornthat after that she hadn't had any time for him. Diana responded angrily that Will didn't appreciate the exhausting work she did raising two young boys while working the graveyard shift as a hospital nurse. Deep down, Diana knew that some of what Will was saying was true. Still, she couldn't find a way to talk about it, because her rage and disappointment at Will's betrayal clouded everything. "I was just so, so hurt," she remembers. "My mind was a blur of questions: Did he love her? And, What do I do now?"
That night she called Will a few times from work. They arranged for babysitting, and Will rented a hotel room for a few days to work things through. Diana and Will say the conclusion they reachedthat they wanted to save their marriagecame about in part because, as African-Americans, both of them had seen up close the toll broken homes took on black children. Will had once worked at a youth home filled with delinquent boys "who all had one thing in common," he says: "None of them knew their dads." Diana says, "I did not want to be the single black woman raising two kids, because that's the statistic."
Marriage counseling helped, but Diana feels that the individual counseling she got was even more valuable, showing her how being adopted by a mother who was often distant and cruel had caused her to cling to a fantasy idea of wedded bliss. "That was a lesson I had to learn. There is no automatic 'happily ever after,'" she says. "You get out of marriage what you put into it."
Diana says it took her "a good 10 years" to feel really comfortable in her marriage again, to trust her husband. These days, she spends more time with Will, eating out or going to see him when his band plays on weekends. For his part, Will says, "I think I grew up a little bit, got a bit more mature, a little less self-centered." Whereas he used to go to other bands' gigs to network with musicians, arriving home just before Diana left for work, he's shifted priorities to be home more and share family dinners.
Now Diana she says she feels more connected to Will. "I like that he makes me laugh, and I like who I am when I'm with him. I think we made it to a good place."