unmade bed
Photo: Jeff Spielman/Getty Images
I have a black lace push-up bra left over from my days as a mistress. I was in my early 30s then, and fed up with relationships, fed up with falling for men who, the moment they noticed that I was sweet on them, would ask me to please stop liking them so much because it was making them feel claustrophobic.

Dating a married man who lived 3,000 miles away was different. To him, I represented the opposite of claustrophobia. I was freedom, excitement, possibility. To me, he was a kind of pause button in a dismal romantic life, and if I hadn't been feeling like such a misfit at dating I probably never would have gotten involved. I saw him maybe half a dozen times in five months. It never felt right—I worried more about his wife than he seemed to—and it was a relief to put an end to it when I met Sam (not his real name), the man who became my husband 12 years ago.

Sleeping with a married man taught me that an affair is mostly about carving out a little make-believe space in your life and then filling that space, helium-like, with passion. I also learned that sex occupies most of your hours together, and that preparing your body for sex occupies most of what's left of your free time. (I have never spent so long bathing and waxing, getting pedicures, and shopping for lingerie.) I learned that you regard someone differently when he is not a prospective mate; if he has an annoying habit—or an annoying personality, for that matter—so what? It's another woman's cross to bear. I learned that, in an affair, you are always on your second date, just about to fall in love, always witty and delightful and utterly uncomplicated.

It is tempting to romanticize that charmed bubble, especially when you compare it to the fatigue and frustration and bill-paying and child-disciplining and flinch-inducing touches and bad breath and underhanded jibes that fill the middle years of marriage. But an affair only briefly obscures the dark grief every spouse surely feels over the dwindling of marital love, while doing nothing to address what went amiss.

I knew all that, and I also knew (from People magazine if not from experience) that an affair can destroy a marriage. What I didn't know is that some marriages can withstand the damage. And that some might actually benefit from being broken open, because the breaking—however painful—opens the door to rebuilding something better.

It turns out that my marriage was—is—one of those.

In December 2008, nine days before Christmas, and barely four months after my husband, three small children, and I had moved to a new town where I knew not a single person, Sam came home from work, ate supper, sat me down on the sofa, and confessed that he had been having an affair for the past three years. I can still remember the way his face looked when he spoke those words—crumpled and terrified, it trembled and spasmed like a bird that has been hit by a car but is not yet dead.

Sam said the affair was completely over. He said he was deeply regretful, that he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that all he really wanted was us—me, our three amazing kids, our life together. He promised that he would not communicate anymore with Daphne (not her real name, either), and that if she tried to reach him, he would let me know. He called it a big mistake. He called it a bad choice. But he also said that he had truly loved and admired Daphne, whom he met working on a long-term project on the other side of the continent. He said she was funny, smart, and ballsy. That she was married with two small children. (How small? They met when she'd just come back from maternity leave. She had actually introduced Sam to them, and to her husband. And to her parents.) Oh yes, and he also mentioned that they'd neglected to use any birth control whatsoever, either of them. Ever.

"I was hurt, shocked, heartbroken, furious, traumatized, upended, terrified"