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Meet Valerie, 44, a part-time social worker, community activist and mother of three girls, whose world is coming apart at the seams. She's just discovered that Rob, a lawyer and her husband of 22 years, has been having a long-term affair with a woman he knows through his legal work. How could he do this to her, she wonders. And what should she do now? Next you'll hear Rob's side of the story: what went wrong and why. Their tale is interspersed with comments from Bonnie Eaker-Weil, Ph.D., the New York City therapist who counseled them and the author of the book, Adultery: The Forgivable Sin (Hastings House, 1994)
Valerie: Rob has been having an affair with a woman he knows through work--and apparently, it's been going on for years. You must think I'm such a fool. I keep asking myself how I could be so naive. How could I not know? Of course, we've got problems--what couple married for 22 years doesn't? And yes, when Rob grew especially distant, I did wonder if he was cheating on me. But if I ever asked, he vehemently denied it. Besides, I always thought Rob was too honorable a man to do anything like that. In the past year, I really thought we'd finally gotten our relationship in a good place. Why, we just returned from a wonderful trip to Hawaii--and everything, including our sex life, was great!
But last week, when I went to his office to show him the pictures from the trip, I overheard him on the phone. Instantly, my stomach knotted up. Sometimes, you just know. I asked if he'd been talking to someone he didn't want me to know about. He hemmed and hawed, then admitted he'd been sleeping with this woman Claire on and off for four years. Four years! He insists he doesn't love her, that he wants to stay married, but how am I to believe that?
Eaker-Weil: An affair that's continued for many years is a devastating breach of trust and the news has hit Valerie with all the force of a hurricane. Many people can more easily forgive a one-night stand than a spouse's longstanding infidelity, and Valerie is confused and overwhelmed by a rush of powerful emotions that pull her in different directions and she'll be on an emotional roller coaster for a long time. Wounded and angry, she will alternately blame herself for the affair, then lash out at Rob, insisting she never wants to set eyes on him again, will never be able to trust him, and doesn't even want to try. The next day, she'll be desperate to figure out some way to make the marriage work.
Valerie: We met on a blind date when I was twenty-one. I was working as a secretary in a law office and he was already well established at his family's banking firm. I was smitten. He's quiet but virile, with a deep laugh and an almost magnetic aura about him. Being with him was so much fun--we went sailing on the Long Island Sound, skiing and hiking in New England. I wasn't in a hurry to get married, though, and I was surprised when Rob popped the question on Valentine's Day. Surprised but thrilled.
We did all the things young couples are supposed to do and I thought we were happy doing them: We moved into a lovely home in the suburbs, had three beautiful daughters, and started putting down roots in the community. Actually, Rob's family has lived in this area for generations. I did my best to win over his mother--his father, who was rumored to be quite a ladies' man himself, died years ago--but she was an imperious woman, tough as nails, and I could never make her approve of me. Rob says she would have resented anyone he married, and perhaps he's right.
In hindsight, there was a lot of distance between us from the start. We were both busy and we didn't get much of an opportunity to talk about anything except the most superficial things. Occasionally, Rob would grumble that his life wasn't very exciting, but if I probed any further his voice would trail off and he'd change the subject. I'll never forget the night a few years ago when I started to describe some difficulties I was having at work. He cut me off mid-sentence and snapped, "I have plenty of my own problems at work, I don't need any at home."
Eaker-Weil: Looking back, Valerie admits that there was a growing distance between her and Rob. That's often the case: Couples get so involved in the minutiae of everyday life that they don't take time to heed the signals that the road ahead is getting rocky. Valerie should have trusted her gut and dug deeper to find out what was wrong.
Valerie: We squabbled, too, but about the same things most people argue about. And they were never major, shake-the-walls kind of fights. I resented the amount of time he spent at the office and how tight he was with the purse strings, even though he was making a very decent salary. But I tried not to complain. I'd quit my secretarial job and I had my hands full with the children, the Girl Scouts, and my committee work. When our youngest was five, I also went back to school, first to finish my bachelors, then to get my masters in social work, squeezing in courses whenever I could. When I graduated, I found a terrific job working three days a week at a family-counseling center; most of my time was spent with youngsters and teens doing alcohol and drug counseling. I traveled all over the state lecturing and giving workshops. I just loved it.
About seven years ago, Rob faced a business crisis that spilled over into our marriage. He'd left the bank in the mid-eighties to start his own financial consulting firm--he was desperate to break away from his family--and, for a while, he was doing great. But when the economy took a plunge, the firm almost went bankrupt. I tried to be supportive, but Rob wouldn't let me get close. He was anxious, he wasn't sleeping, he started drinking a lot, and he became even more withdrawn than usual from the kids and me. It was a terrible time for him, but I couldn't reach him, couldn't seem to do anything to make things better. When I think about it, I felt as helpless then as I used to listening to my parent's endless quarreling.
I'm the oldest girl in a family of five, eight years older than my next oldest sister. Every day after school, I had to come directly home to babysit and take care of the house while Mom, a secretary, was at work. Ever since I can remember, my parents fought--loud arguments in the middle of the night, mostly about money and the fact that my father, a teacher, had lost his job and couldn't find another--followed by tight-lipped tension in the morning, so thick you could cut it with a knife. The house was small and the walls were thin. I'd lie in bed scared and worried, praying they'd get divorced so the yelling would stop. I don't know how they lived with each other, but they never got divorced.
My parents were so embroiled in their own problems; they hardly had time for anyone else. I see now that what I wanted and cared about was pushed aside--they never encouraged me in school or took an interest in my work, which is probably why I dropped out of college during my junior year. To this day, Mother still calls to dump her many problems on me. She rarely asks how I am and I've never had the nerve to tell her how hurt she makes me feel.
Eaker-Weil: Valerie is the classic nurturing wife, raised to care for everyone at all times and to put her own interests on hold as long as someone else needs her. Often, you can trace these attitudes and actions back to her childhood. Her family was falling apart around her and she was forced to be the strong one. She's continued to operate this way in her marriage, becoming the perfect wife, mother, committee member and social worker. And, like many women married to successful, workaholic husbands, she centers her life around her children and her community. In many ways, she has no other choice: Rob simply hasn't been around.
Valerie: At the time Rob's business was in trouble, we were so distant from each other that I suggested we attend one or two couple's workshops. Rob agreed, grudgingly, but it didn't seem to help our relationship very much. Then, three years ago, just as he was beginning to get back on his feet financially, he announced he wanted to move into his own apartment for a while. I was stunned. I'd stood by him when times were bad and now he was walking out? He swore that no other woman was involved, just that he needed time by himself. I even asked him if he was involved with Claire, because I knew they'd been working on several important deals together. She's very flashy and I knew her marriage was in trouble. But he swore that it had nothing to do with her. Then he packed a bag and drove away.
Eaker-Weil: I hear stories like Valerie's all the time. Emotionally abandoned by parents who were so caught up in their own problems they had no time for her, she, like many people, grew up feeling deprived and inadequate instead of respected and valued. At first, Rob appeared to give her all the respect and joy she'd long been missing. But while she continued to be the perfectly accommodating wife and daughter, she lost herself along the way.
For weeks, I moved in a trance, going through the motions of living but not feeling anything. The girls rallied to my side and they were furious at their father--not surprising, since I'd always been much closer to them and Rob had always been so busy he wasn't really all that involved in their daily lives. But I think there was a part of them that wondered what I did to push Daddy away. They were all at that teenage testing stage--and there was a lot of yelling and stomping out of the room when I asked them to do something.
I was convinced Rob was never coming back and blamed myself entirely. I told myself I'd been too preoccupied with my own activities, the kids, and my friends, to be a good wife. And I embarked on a full-fledged plan to overhaul myself: I bought every self-help book I could find, started going to the gym and dieting even though I really didn't need to lose weight. I even took an Outward Bound course and spent three days by myself in the woods. It was exhilarating.
But three months later, just as suddenly as he had left, Rob came back. He told me he'd been crazy, that he loved me and begged me to let him move back in. Of course I did. And for the past year, he's been warm and loving. We've taken several family vacations, as well as weekends alone. Our sex life is terrific. There was no reason not to think that the bad times were behind us.
That's why I've completely lost faith in him and myself. I had no idea he could be so devious. Some days, I live to speak to Rob, other days I hope I'll never see him again. I can't believe how fragile I feel. I thought I'd be able to handle this. But I have no confidence in myself at all--and no idea what to do next.
Eaker-Weil: Does Valerie's failure to see that her husband was having an affair seem implausible? Time and again I see this happening. Many women choose not to acknowledge infidelity, to themselves let alone to the public, for fear of risking all that they have. To lose even the semblance of a happy home, one they've nurtured for years, may simply be too much to bear. So they ignore their instincts, fail to confront their spouses, and make emotional tradeoffs with themselves--tradeoffs that ultimately serve neither themselves nor their marriage. In this sense, they bear some responsibility for what's gone wrong.
Rob: I'm not sure why I did it. Looking back, I suppose I can list plenty of reasons; it's hard to separate them all out. Maybe I just got restless. The affair with Claire started when I was in my mid-40s, my business was on the brink of disaster--and I felt like I was married to a nun. Valerie was never around. In addition to the thousand and one things she was doing with the kids, the school and all her charity work, she'd gone back to college, gotten her degrees and was working as drug and alcohol counselor. She was on a crusade to save the world--me especially. She started to criticize me a lot: She didn't like my friends, people I've known since I was a kid, who she thought partied too much; she said I wasn't spending enough time with my children--you name it, she had a lecture about it.
Eaker-Weil: Proud, aloof and pompous, Rob is unaware of his own real feelings, let alone those of his wife. Like many men, he continues to offer the same excuses that absolve him of guilt: That he did it only for the sex; that he'd succumbed during a moment of weakness' and that his wife was too critical and too busy for him. It's time to take some personal responsibility.
Rob: So maybe I just wanted to live a little bit. I've known Claire for many years. She's a lawyer and we worked on several deals together. I've always been attracted to her; heck, every man is. She's a headstrong lady, witty, sexy and a whole lot of fun, which is something there wasn't a lot of in my life with Valerie anymore. Her marriage was rocky when we first started up and she's been divorced now for several years. She never had kids--she always told me she was married to her career--but I got caught up in the thrill of the chase. I like to flirt and there was always a lot of sexual chemistry between us.
I remember working on this one deal; writing offering memorandums and fielding phone calls. We knew we'd be there late, so we decided to order dinner delivered to my office. While we were waiting for the delivery, Claire was relaxing on the couch. She'd kicked off her shoes and I noticed she was wearing a tight suit jacket, with no blouse underneath--just some lacy lingerie peeking out. The way she was sitting, twirling her hair in her hand as she gazed out the window was irresistible. The next thing I knew, I was on top of her. Fortunately, dinner took a while to arrive.
But while the sex was great, it was on-again, off-again for several years. The few times Valerie ever asked if I was having an affair, I lied. I was amazed how easy it was to do that. I denied everything, then immediately blocked it right out of my mind. At one point, I did think I wanted to marry Claire. I felt stifled at home.
Eaker-Weil: Rob has had a pattern of deception. Before he can stop, it's imperative that he understand why he acted the way he did. In many cases of infidelity, the wandering spouse is trying to stave off an empty feeling of abandonment, loss or frustration that may have roots in long-ago events. For example, divorce or death of a parent can leave a child feeling alone, unloved and unworthy of love. Similarly, a parent's adulterous affairs lends an air of tension and secrecy to a household, and loud quarreling or threats of leaving can make a child feel anxious and lack confidence.
Rob: My parents didn't have a very good marriage, either. I grew up in Connecticut, an only child. My father died of a heart attack when I was twelve but, even before that, he was never involved in my life. From what I hear, he was a playboy living the gentleman's life. Actually, Mother wasn't around all that much, either. She was a very demanding woman who set high standards that few people could meet, me especially. She was one of the top ranked women's tennis players in the Northeast and a terrific all-around athlete. Much to her dismay, I never showed any interest in sports despite all her pushing and prodding, or any interest in her social set. I had a few close friends but never felt comfortable with the whole high school scene. I wasn't in the in crowd.
It was always understood that I'd move into my family's banking firm. Until recently, I never even questioned it. I went to Wharton, majored in finance, and started working right after graduation. My mother dragged me to a party, and I spotted Valerie. She was adorable and spunky so I asked a mutual friend to play matchmaker. I'd dated enough women to know she was the one.
Eaker-Weil: Here's where we see some clues to Rob's character. In many ways, his life had been scripted at birth. Professionally, his wealthy family assumed he would enter the family's business. Emotionally, his distant but domineering mother made him feel that he could never measure up since her yardstick was her own interests and abilities, rather than those of her son's. Since his mother was so controlling, he assumed all other women would be, too. He grew up with a real distrust of women, and an overwhelming need to prove himself. At the same time, however, Rob was looking for someone to take care of him. This is a process known as transference--and we all do it. Patterns hammered into us at an early age cause us to try to fit every person we later meet into the holes left from these early impressions. Sometimes they fit, sometimes they don't. But always we are left with expectations that may or may not pan out. Rob found the loving, nurturing partner he was looking for in Valerie, yet deep down, he felt he didn't deserve her. That's why he pushed her away. In fact, he had never learned to truly connect with anyone except on the most superficial level. I suspect that beneath Rob's veneer of charm and confidence lies a deep sense of inadequacy.
Rob: Maybe we just got too settled, too fast, too locked in our own ways. Though I was certainly more involved with my kids than my father was with me, I probably wasn't around as much as I should have been when they were little. Valerie didn't seem to need me or to mind, for that matter. I guess you could say we were running on parallel tracks.
I trace the real problems back to the late 1980s, when the bottom fell out of the financial market. I was scared to death. I'd started my own company--just me, a secretary and a part-time intern working out of a small office--and we'd done very well for a few years. Suddenly, I could see everything I'd been working so hard for go right down the tube. I kept thinking that the recession would be over in six months, but things only got worse. At one point, I thought I'd have to declare bankruptcy, but thank God, that never happened. It took me almost a year and a half before I could see the light at the end of the tunnel and realized that I'd be okay.
The stress was unbearable. And whenever I'd come home from the office, there would be Valerie, hounding me if I had a beer or two. That's when her temper would come out--she'd snap and snarl at the drop of a hat; half the time, I didn't know what I did. My mother used to be like that and it made me nuts. I closed off automatically.
I wanted to run away--from all the pressure, all the hassles. Val never knew the whole story: Two years ago, when I left for three months, it was because of Claire. I just didn't think I wanted to be with Val anymore. We got a small apartment downtown and I tried to see my daughters on weekends, though they often canceled plans with me at the last minute and refused to return my calls.
Eaker-Weil: As he entered his mid-forties, Rob was pummeled by financial losses and what he believed might be the imminent demise of a business he'd worked hard to build. Meanwhile, he sensed that his wife, busy with myriad activities of her own, was no longer pleased with him. His background, coupled with life circumstances at the time, knocked Rob off balance and made him susceptible to the temptation of an affair. Being unfaithful made him feel invincible, attractive and attended to.
Rob: But I soon realized I didn't want to be married to Claire, either, though by this time her marriage had ended and she was hoping we'd be able to work things out. I moved back home, and for a while, things with Valerie really did seem better. She was around more; we had some fun times. The kids were very angry with me for several months, but they soon fell into their normal routines.
Then, just a few months ago, I ran into Claire at a business conference and the affair started up again. This time, it really was just for sex. I had no intention of breaking up my marriage. I did what I did and didn't think a whole lot about it.
I do feel terrible that I've hurt Val so badly and I don't want a divorce. But I don't want the same old marriage we've had for 22 years, either. Considering all the bad blood between us, is it even possible to be a couple again?
Eaker-Weil: Adultery doesn't have to end in divorce. But it is a wake-up call--a very loud one--that something is seriously wrong with the relationship. Still, if a couple can learn to recognize the real motivations for the infidelity, as well as the skills to deal with the underlying problems, they will be able to survive the trauma.
In my experience, however, an affair that's been going on for years is much harder to reconcile than a one-night stand, since a person who has a history of deception is likely to continue to lie over and over again. Nevertheless, Rob insists he wants to stay with Valerie and, though unsure of success, he seems ready to at least give counseling a try.
Before we can begin, however, he must first take responsibility for his actions and end the affair with Claire. That means breaking off all contact--phone calls, letters, messages. You cannot fix what is wrong with a marriage by adding another complication to it. And all the counseling in the world can't help if there are three people in a relationship. I knew it wouldn't be easy, since Rob and Claire's professional responsibilities put them in the same banking and legal circles, but New York is a large enough city that Rob could, with effort, manage it.
Once he did, we began discussions aimed at uncovering, with clarity and without blame, the reasons for the affair in the first place. As we discussed the wounds and lessons from their respective childhoods, Valerie and Rob began to feel closer to each other. Confiding their personal histories and fears, and empathizing with each other as they spoke, didn't make the affair less upsetting but it did allow them to understand why they both felt inadequate and unsafe in their marriage. Hearing the depth and intensity of each other's feelings also helped them see that they had been reacting more to past experiences than to each other. Over the following weeks, they began to feel more like allies than enemies.
At this point, they were ready to make specific changes to manage their differences and make sure the temptation for Rob to stray didn't arise again. The most difficult changes focused on restoring trust. To do this, I pointed out that they may at first have to act as if they feel more loving, more secure and more forgiving than they really do. For Rob, this meant not just apologizing with words but by showing Valerie in concrete ways how important she was to him. For Valerie, it meant acknowledging Rob's efforts with love and support. This was particularly hard for her since she rarely took her own needs into account and was still struggling with so much pain and anger. However, I told her that if she waited until she felt no ambivalence at all toward Rob, she might wait forever
I asked them both to list behavior changes they want their partner to make. Valerie said she wants Rob to let her know every time he saw or spoke with Claire. She also expected to be kept informed of his business meetings and travels so she knows where he was as well as when he's working late and with whom; that he talk to her about his intimate feelings about life and work; and that he share with her his hopes for their future together. She also needed Rob to hold her and be more affectionate outside of the bedroom so she felt cared for.
On his list, Rob wrote that he wanted Valerie to stop criticizing and lecturing him about having an occasional drink. And he hoped she'd spend more time with him, no matter what else was on her calendar.
These attempts at repair went slowly. One problem was that Valerie was so hurt and felt that she had been making so many accommodations for so long that Rob needed to demonstrate his loyalty first. "Your indignation is understandable," I told her, "but it stands in the way of your ability to heal your wounds and heal the trust that has been broken. Try instead to adopt the attitude that if you change your behavior and become more open to him, he'll be more likely to respond in kind. Don't waste time arguing with yourself about whether your anger is justifiable. That only makes you feel like a victim. Putting your anger and pride aside will help you create a new life together."
Over the next few months, Valerie was gradually able to do this. They began to spend more pleasurable time together, playing tennis, taking golf lessons together, and making new friends at the club. Several times, they left the girls with friends while they went skiing alone for the weekend.
In one of my private sessions with Rob, he confessed that he was disappointed in his lovemaking with Valerie since it lacked the lust and excitement of their early years. I explained that the passion one feels during the honeymoon stage of marriage couldn't be expected to last for twenty years. But just because something is different, doesn't mean it can't be better. I also suggested that they re-romanticize their relationship by thinking back to what turned them on sexually when they first met. What clothes did you wear? What perfume or aftershave lotion? "Get dressed up when you go out for dinner," I suggested. "Make it feel special."
Rebuilding trust after an affair can take at least a year, and every couple must find their own way. Rob and Valerie stopped counseling after two years, though I continue to see them from time to time. Most importantly, they've continued to show each other, every day, how much they care. By not retreating into silence, by listening with love to each other's concerns, and by making their marriage a priority, they are strengthening the intimacy that brought them together in the first place and keeping distance and alienation at bay.