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"
And yet there was one thing I knew right away: I was not ready to get divorced. In part this was simply because I realized I was too distraught to make a sensible decision. If I kicked Sam out in a rage, I might take him back once I cooled off, only to banish him again a few weeks later when more bad feelings hit. I couldn't do that to our kids.
But I was also reacting to the fact that I did not know who Sam was anymore; the person who had cheated on me was completely foreign to me (and to himself, as it turned out). I needed to find out who I was actually married to now. And whoever that person was, I knew (in my rare lucid moments) that our marriage must have stopped working for him somewhere along the way, and that fixing it was something we could only undertake together. I still felt attached to Sam—married to him, in my most random thoughts and habits, in my very blood and bones—and it seemed better to go through this trial with him than on my own.
The year following Sam's confession was wretched. I felt as if I were living forward and backward at the same time, excavating details about the past—ours and theirs—as I tried to figure out what came next: How could I keep our family on an even keel, and what could I do to fix our marriage, and was it even worth the trouble?
Sam went into therapy. I went into therapy. Night after night, we talked. I raged and called him names; he let me. I asked him questions and he answered, and although some of his replies will torment me forever (like, yes, they had sex in the bed in which we conceived our children), the mere fact that he was willing to talk made me feel safer and more connected, reassured me that he wasn't placing his memory of Daphne in a little private treasure box and pocketing the key.
Equally important was his willingness to apologize. "I'm sorry" is a remarkably powerful phrase when it comes from the heart.
"You can just keep on saying that," I told him. "Over and over, whenever you feel it." And he did.
There were moments when I actually felt a weird tender pity for Sam, who had come to our marriage with less knowledge of himself and less experience of the opposite sex than I had, and who seemed to have gotten in over his head with Daphne.
Weirder still, I was frequently (freakishly, it felt) turned on—especially in those first couple of months—and though I kept insisting to Sam that it was just break-up sex we were having (in the laundry room, guest room, car), I could not for the life of me understand why I was attracted to the jerk, let alone having the best sex of my married life with him.
I write this because no one told me what it would be like. When I called my closest friends in the city where I'd lived for so long (a place that suddenly felt very far away; I was unbelievably lonely that entire year) and revealed to them what had happened, I always wound up asking them if they knew anyone—anyone—who had been through this and made it out the other side, anyone who'd survived an affair and come out happily married. Because I wanted to believe it was possible, and to know how it could be done. What was normal? Was there a road map? How long would it take? None of my friends seemed to know such a couple. Other marriages might have survived an affair, but no one was talking.
"What is the difference between trusting someone and taking them for granted?"
"Nope," she cut me off, "he pretty much is."
And honestly? I'd thought so, too. I fell in love with Sam with the kind of total trust and joy a child feels when she jumps off a table into a grown-up's arms. I knew with utter certainty that he would catch me.
After we got engaged, he asked me to promise that if I were ever tempted to cheat on him, I'd come to him first and tell him, so we could address whatever part of our relationship had gone awry and was making me crave attention elsewhere. I laughed, because it seemed like such a ridiculously hopeful request. And then I gave him my word. Did I ask him to promise me the same thing? Of course not. It never even occurred to me. Sam's cheating on me was inconceivable.
What is the difference between trusting someone and taking them for granted? I think I fell into that gap. I felt so safe with Sam that it was almost an insult. If you'd stopped me on the street any time during the past five years and asked what was the single thing I loved most about my marriage, I'd have said, "That's easy: trust."
I had grown less in love with Sam than with the security I felt from him.
While it was happening, of course, I wasn't aware of any of this. I knew we were a little off, but I told myself it was just a passing phase, a rough patch on the long road of married life.
Besides, Sam and I went to great lengths to take care of our relationship. Even during the years when he was cheating, we went out on date nights every week (except when he was traveling for work—or for "work"). Every Thursday, as I stood before the mirror putting on eyeliner and brushing my hair, the children would mewl and cling to me like kittens. "Why do you have to go out with Daddy again?"
I would stop what I was doing and gather them around me and explain that our family was a wonderful, precious thing, and that my relationship with their father was at the heart of it. We had to keep our relationship strong for the whole family to be strong.
And sometimes, a few hours later, when Sam and I finished dinner (we never went to movies or shows; we always preferred to talk) and the bill came and we balked at the cost, one of us would offer up what had become a standing joke between us: "Well, at least it's cheaper than couples therapy." Ha ha. (Ask me, when all this is over, how much we've spent on therapy, individual and group and couples. It will be in the tens of thousands.)
And sometimes we'd have a fight, and after it was over we'd congratulate ourselves on the way we fought things through, really aired them and resolved them, didn't let them fester. We agreed that one of the strengths of our marriage was that we fought so well.
The idea that Sam had sat there, echoing all these preening verdicts about our marriage while he was screwing Daphne on the side, walloped me one day, many months after his confession. This kind of thing happened a lot: Some out-of-the-blue realization—some piece of the puzzle I'd somehow missed—would, out of nowhere, just stun me. Each time this happened, I went spiraling down into a three- or four-day depression. After a while, it occurred to me that maybe my mind was parceling out the pain, because I never could have handled it all at once.
"A habitual mild bitterness, a casual scorn, became my default attitude toward Sam"
And so, after some of my anger had dissipated, I began to take a long, hard look at myself. I had to admit that I was partly to blame, not for Sam's affair—that was his own stupid decision—but for the cloud of disappointment and annoyance that had become a permanent feature of our marriage. I had grown to resent him when our kids were babies—a time when his needs, even his love, felt to me like just one more tiresome burden.
Oh, I'd never stopped being generous and sweet to Sam in small ways, but deep down I had gradually divested myself of our marriage. Many years ago, I read in a magazine (Esquire, I think) that men care less about how their wives look than about how they look at them. In other words, our extra ten pounds matter far less than our critical, disappointed gaze. It had been a long time since I'd bothered to regard Sam adoringly. How could I when he neglected to call and tell me he'd be home late from work again? Or left his underwear in a wad behind the bathroom door again? Or was too busy to help when I prepared a dinner party for our friends...again? We were in a standoff—neither of us getting what we really needed, and neither of us willing to perform the first act of generosity. It felt easier—kinder, even (for the fight it avoided)—to give up, to just not care.
Of course, not caring is fine as long as you really don't care. But in our case, we actually did. A habitual mild bitterness, a casual scorn, became my default attitude toward Sam. He, meanwhile, was boiling with anger. He just didn't know what to do with it—until Daphne came along and offered him an outlet.
It is very hard to fall back in love with someone you know as well as you know a spouse after 12 years. You have none of the momentum of early love to propel you forward, and all the habits that drive you crazy to drag you down. But we both cared for our marriage enough to want to give it a chance, and to try our best not to damage it further. So we set some ground rules (which, okay, we broke fairly regularly): First, rather than blaming each other for what went wrong, we would each talk only about ourselves and how we felt—hurt, scared, unappreciated, whatever. Second, we would try to put aside our own anger sometimes and really listen to each other. And third, we'd spend as much time as we could not talking about the affair, but just talking—about the news, or our friends, or our crazy siblings. We'd go to concerts, and on hikes and bike rides with the kids. We'd cook together. We'd hold hands.
Finding a way to love again
Meanwhile, I do know this: Much as I am loath to admit that anything good could come out of his affair, our marriage now is, in important ways, often better than it ever was. Sam doesn't dismiss his anger in hopes that it will go away—and he's getting better at pinpointing some of the vulnerable feelings that the anger, like a guard dog, protects. And I've begun paying attention to the parts of him that I fell in love with 12 years ago, and that I never stopped loving, though I let them get buried beneath piles of laundry and dirty dishes. I even try to gaze at him adoringly, though sometimes it comes off more like a crooked grimace. "I'm trying!" I tell him.
A few weeks ago, I came across the push-up bra in the back of my closet. It embarrassed me—so emphatic, so blatant, more like a prosthetic device than an article of clothing. Yet I couldn't bring myself to throw it away.
So I tried it on for Sam. And it turns out it still works, still makes my breasts look amazing. He liked it.
But then, in the middle of sex, I slipped away, unable to stop myself from wondering: Did he touch her like this? Were her breasts bigger than mine? What did he say when he walked through the door of the hotel room—at any of the 21 different hotels where they had sex?
Sam held me while I cried. Later he asked how long I thought it would take until I was over it, and I had to admit I had no idea. Forever maybe. Or tomorrow.
Then he did something for me that I wasn't able to do for myself. He pulled me out of that ugly, bleak chapter of the past—our past, now—and back into the just-fine present. He said, "I am with you now. I love you now. I want to make our marriage really good again, starting now."
I blew my nose, took a deep breath, and found myself in his arms—the arms of someone utterly familiar to me, and also completely new and unknown. Which, it turns out—even after all the shock, the hurt, the betrayal—is still where I most want to be.
From the April 2010 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.