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Kate: 39, marketing manager
Alberto: 40, city planner
Married: 10 years
Kids: Alisa, 9; Miguel, 7
David Carrillo, Palatine, Illinois
Kate usually travels four days a week for her marketing job, leaving Alberto alone to deal with the kids. When Alberto met Nina, a mom from their children's school, they became really close friends -- maybe too close. Kate feels sure that Alberto has been having an affair with Nina, but he denies it.
Alberto had told me about a new acquaintance, a woman who's originally from Mexico, like he is, and who has children the same ages as ours. He thought I'd really like Nina, but I was on the road so much for work that meeting her wasn't really a priority for me. One week I was off on a business trip and Alberto got called in for a late-night work emergency, so he asked Nina to watch the kids. When I got back I wanted to bring her a gift and thank her in person. From the moment she opened the door, I got a bad vibe. She acted really nervous and I didn't like the way she looked at me. My gut told me right then not to trust her, but Alberto liked her and our kids had become friends, so I tried to ignore my first instinct.
Several months later Nina stopped by while we were having a garage sale. I don't know how to explain it, but her body language around my husband and kids seemed too familiar, and she was strangely comfortable in my house, going around and tidying things up. I asked Alberto, "Has she been here a lot?" He immediately got defensive, saying that she was our friend and she cares for our kids. So again I dropped the issue against my better judgment.
A week or two after that I sat down with our family laptop and it was opened to an e-mail from Nina. It was in Spanish, but I could make out the gist: "Don't throw me away. If you're not happy I can make you happy." It was straight out of a soap opera. I guess because I'd had so many suspicions, I didn't freak out. I just went downstairs and told Alberto I'd read the e-mail. Of course he denied having an affair. I just didn't believe him.
Eventually Alberto admitted that he'd been flirting with the idea of having an affair with Nina, but he insisted that nothing had happened. He said he was confused and agreed to see a marriage therapist.
We went together for several months. It was a safe place to talk and we did a lot of exercises to improve the way we communicate, but Alberto still hadn't explained what had happened between him and Nina. He wouldn't even say why he'd been unhappy enough to "flirt" with an affair. He's never been good at talking about his emotions or even engaging with mine -- it's one of the issues I've always had with him. Finally I decided I wasn't getting anything out of the counseling sessions, so I quit. I told Alberto that I had taken responsibility for what I could, but until he could come clean with what had happened I couldn't sit there and talk about forgiving him. It's hard because while I haven't stopped loving my husband, I also know he's lying to me. What does that say about me? And what does it say about him?
When Kate and I got married, her travel schedule didn't bother me. We were young and committed to building our careers. Even after our daughter, Alisa, was born it was pretty manageable. But when we had Miguel, things got much harder. I was working 50 to 60 hours a week and taking care of two kids. I was alone and lonely a lot of the time -- Kate doesn't call much when she's away and when she's home it seems like she's either focused on the kids or answering e-mails from her boss. I was holding down the fort and doing most of the parenting. Whenever someone needed to come home early for the kids, it was always me.
When I met Nina through the kids' school I definitely wasn't looking for a relationship. She just seemed like a good person, plus she was Mexican like me and I liked being able to talk in Spanish. Our kids got along great, so it was easy to hang out with her. We'd have lunch or dinner and the kids would play. Our friendship grew and we began to share more intimate things about our lives. Nina was married, too, but she made it clear she was unhappy in her relationship. I noticed she began dressing sexy and acting flirty. I wasn't looking for someone, but she was there and it was easy and, well, it just happened -- we started having sex. And once we'd crossed that line, I told myself I'd already made the mistake, so what was the harm of doing it again?
I knew that what I was doing was wrong in a lot of ways. I wasn't just cheating on my wife, the mother of my kids, but I was leading Nina on, too. She would talk about us both leaving our spouses to be together and I let her believe that might happen, when in my mind it was never even a remote possibility. I was never in love with Nina, but it was nice to get some attention and be with someone who wanted to have sex with me, since it seemed like Kate never did anymore. I felt guilty about all of it, but I justified it because Kate was never around. And Nina was an adult who could make her own choices. I figured it wasn't my responsibility to take care of her.
When Kate found that e-mail from Nina I panicked. I didn't have the courage to tell my wife the truth. I was afraid I might lose her, so I lied to her. My family is the most important thing in the world to me. It's not like I was looking for a way out -- I was just lonely. After we started counseling, I completely cut off contact with Nina, but I think that's making Kate even more suspicious. I feel guilty about the relationship and guilty about lying but I don't know how to get out of the mess I've made. Seeing a counselor has helped a lot, but I'm still scared to tell Kate the truth. I don't want to get divorced.
From the first time I met her, I was impressed with Kate's strength. She walked in and said, "Look, if this is happening, I want to know so we can work through it." She wanted the truth, even if it was hurtful. When Alberto was unable to level with her, she told him he needed to work on his issues on his own. She was right.
Alberto told me about the affair in a private session. He was struggling with whether to tell Kate the truth and worried about what would happen to him if he did. My first goal was to be sure Alberto understood what was at stake if he slipped back into the relationship with Nina. He would lose Kate, see his children only part-time -- and it was possible that things with Nina wouldn't even work out. In time he was able to see that his affair, like most, was a flight into fantasy. For a while 20 stolen minutes here or there can be exciting, but all relationships have issues. I tried to help Alberto understand that when the fun part fizzled, he'd be left with new and different conflicts, in addition to a broken family.
In our early sessions Kate had made it very clear that although she loved Alberto, her life would go on with or without him. She didn't feel like his affair meant that she was unattractive or unworthy and she very clearly wasn't afraid of the truth. Alberto was able to see that she wasn't going to fall apart or be the victim, which gave him the strength to start being more honest. Still, he kept trying to give Kate bits and pieces of information, which just made her angry, since she could tell there was more. "Unless your wife hears the truth and feels it's the complete truth, you're going to lose this marriage," I told him. At last, in a conversation eight months after Kate found the e-mail, Alberto came clean. Kate was relieved that he was finally being straight with her. They came back to see me as a couple and basically said, "Now what do we do?"
What I saw was a wonderful woman and a good man who made a mistake and realized it. Kate's response was rare and very positive. Most people react to news of an affair with rage, sadness, and depression. They act out and do things impulsively -- they'll leave a solid 20-year marriage because their spouse had a one-night stand. But Kate was able to step back and look at the situation in a more logical way. And she was willing to take some responsibility, too. As hurt as she was by the affair, she admitted that while she'd been dedicated to her children, she had definitely neglected Alberto.
Alberto made a great start by telling his wife the whole truth about his affair. We then worked on getting him to share his feelings, both good and bad. He had been feeling lonely and unappreciated, but hadn't talked about any of that with Kate. Instead, he just let those things ride and acted out his frustration by finding another person to meet his needs. A lot of affairs happen for just that reason.
Once Alberto started talking, Kate actually listened to what he had to say. She cut back a little on work and began to focus more on her husband when she got home, giving him some of the affirmation he was missing. When she traveled, she agreed to call him more often and have deeper conversations. And I encouraged both of them to take some time each week to talk about the little things that made them feel good about their marriage. Having your partner acknowledge your day-to-day contributions can make such a big difference in how appreciated and connected you feel. I also taught them "active listening" where you repeat back what your partner has just said. It's a great technique since it gives the speaker a chance to correct or clarify, cutting down on misunderstandings. Through exercises like this, Alberto and Kate have learned to communicate more honestly and effectively, and their relationship is deeper and stronger because of it.
"My marriage isn't defined by this affair," Kate said recently. "I have so much more with Alberto than one summer when he made a bonehead decision. I won't lie. It hasn't been easy. But do I trust him? I couldn't be married to him if I didn't. I have a better understanding of what Alberto needs from me. Also, we have clearer boundaries. I don't police him -- he has to police himself. But I've also made it clear that it can't happen again."
"We both learned a lot from my mistake," Alberto said. "There were things missing from our marriage and in retrospect I'm glad we got it all out in the open. While I hurt Kate pretty badly, I'm more dedicated than ever now, trying to show her that she can rely on me and to make her feel loved every day. I have to work hard to keep her trust, but that's a price I'm willing to pay."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2011.