"He's Sleeping with a Colleague"
She SaysShe Says
Valerie: Rob has been having an affair with a woman he knows through work -- and apparently, it's been going on for years. 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 21. 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, 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.