I had to read the email three times before I was convinced his account hadn’t been hacked.
My ears started ringing louder and louder making my head feel fuzzy. My chest felt hollow. No heartbeat. No lungs to fill with oxygen. Just a raw, vast hole where my heart used to be.
I was looking at an unmistakably romantic email between my husband of 13 years and another woman.
I won’t go into detail about what “type” of affair it was (there are six different types of affairs) or the painful weeks that followed what I call “A-day” – the day that marked my life forever as Before the Affair and After the Affair. I will say that I’ve never felt a pain more exquisite than to have the one person I was closest to betray my trust. I hope you never have to experience it yourself.
I’d like to talk about the surprising and additionally painful reactions I got from the close friends and family I turned to when my heart was breaking.
You see, my marriage was not distant and crumbling. It was really good, satisfying, and affectionate. He was my best friend and the person I told everything to – until this. I needed someone to lean on.
The first person I told was my mother (and eventually my father). My parents have been married for 42 years and have a very pro-marriage stance. I knew this. Plus they love both me and my husband so I thought their opinion would be the most neutral. Boy, was I wrong.
My mother’s immediate response – like literally less than 24 hours after I was sitting in my ear-ringing, heartless body reading “The Email” – was that I must have done something to cause him to have an affair. She mentioned the dishes I didn’t do, the laundry in a constant state of half-doneness, or my sheer audacity for sleeping in on Saturdays. Later my father would tell me “well, he must have not been getting what he needed at home.” Ouch.
Of course, After the Affair, I was drowning in what if’s and why’s. Since we weren’t unhappy, I agonized over every detail. Hearing those closest to me blame me was like feeling the injury of the infidelity all over again.
Now, I know my parents know that he was to blame as well. I don’t think they thought he was a saint and I was a cold lazy wife. The fact is they just see no reason ever to get a divorce. Hence I needed to suck it up. Men wander. Deal with it. For the kids.
The second person I told is a good friend of mine. Our families had recently got together as our kids are the same ages. We agree on so much politically and socially and she’s one of those people who is always there for you (she once offered to loan me money to buy a refrigerator when times were tough).
Compared to my mother, I expected her opinion to be more “on my side” since she was my friend, not his. She was really there for me - she opened up her home (which includes 4 people already) to me and my three kids. She gave me a pep talk that I could leave. I’m a strong, well-educated woman and, even though I’m currently a full-time mom, I was certainly capable of supporting myself and my children. I needed to hear this.
The thing is, as with most affairs, the information trickled in. What I knew on day one After the Affair was only a portion of the true scope of the affair, which was slowly revealed over the following two weeks. By the time the whole story was out, she was practically headed to my house with a U Haul.
Once again, I needed that attitude in my friend (especially with the attitude I was getting from my parents). Each new revelation was like the initial pain and shock all over again. The re-traumatization that occurred several times over those two weeks left me very depressed and in need of daily contact from my friends to keep me going.
At the same time, I joined the forums on Marriage Builders and bought several books about surviving an affair. I eventually found Retrouvaille (pronounced Retro-vye), a peer-led marriage retreat. It was inexpensive, nearby, and scheduled the weekend of my husband’s vacation. It seemed that serendipity was telling me to go.
My friend was just flabbergasted that I would “be that kind of woman” to stay with “a cheater” considering our shared feminist ideals. She said “once a cheater always a cheater” and “I would not stand up for this and take it and say it was for my family.” She told me what I was planning to do was “sick”. At one point Tammy Wynette’s name was even invoked. She hasn’t contacted me since.
Her support completely evaporated when she heard I was going to give my marriage another chance. It hurt me very much to be told that a feminist would never let a man walk all over her like I was. She said she wouldn’t want her daughters to see her “lay down and take it” – implying I was setting a bad example for my daughter and my sons.
At the same time, my parents were glad I was going to stay but kind of like “what a waste of time and money” about the retreat. After all, I should just bury it and pretend it didn’t happen. That’s what they did. Sigh.
As I write this, we have just finished our Retrouvaille weekend. It was an amazing experience. We learned a communication technique and spent the weekend learning how to reconnect.
We have a long way to go but I’m as sure as ever that we can overcome this. I love him and he is remorseful and willing to work. He is seeing a counselor, as am I, and we will also have joint sessions with both us and our counselors.
You know what was invigorating? The retreat weekend was full of 16 other couples willing to give their marriages another chance. I wasn’t alone. All women don’t leave cheaters. I’m not weak for giving love a second chance. There were couples there in worse spots than us. One couple had been negotiating custody and visitation on Friday and on Sunday they had hope. Will all those marriages make it? I don’t know, but at least if they split up, they can say they tried.
I’m not like my parents. I don’t think divorce is never an option. But, I’m not like my girlfriend either. I don’t think divorce is the only option.
Here’s what I want you to know if you are ever involved in or asked to support a friend in a painful infidelity aftermath.
1. You Are Not Responsible for Your Spouse’s Fidelity or Infidelity
Read that again: YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR SPOUSE’S FIDELITY. Yes, it takes two to make a marriage and it is possible (although not in our case) that a lack of sex, constant fighting, or not meeting each others’ expectations is a failure of both spouses to give their all to their union.
However, even in those cases, YOU ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR SPOUSE’S FIDELITY.
For people to blame the betrayed spouse is paramount to telling a woman she was raped because her skirt was too short. Can we learn to do more to avoid a situation in the future? Sure. Pepper spray and self defense. Marriage counseling and date nights.
Yes, a victim can change, but that does not make them responsible for the assault. My husband is solely responsible for not upholding our marriage vows. Period.
2. It’s Okay To Ask For Help
None of us are prepared with the tools to deal with infidelity. Most betrayed spouses are completely shocked and thought it could never happen to them (despite the fact that 25 percent of wives and 44 percent of husbands have had extramarital intercourse). We expect people with other life-destroying behaviors to get help.
But you aren’t “supposed” to just deal with it. Reach out. Get help. You will never regret giving your marriage the time to make a decision but you might regret making a decision in the heat of anger and hurt.
Plus, couples who try to heal their marriage and then divorce are in a much better place to successfully co-parent children.
3. Feminism Is Not About Men Versus Women
I felt my friend’s opinion was based on me, as a feminist woman, allowing a man to hurt me. And believing that men wander (as my parents implied) or are always cheaters (as my friend said) is very sexist.
Men are as capable of fidelity as women are of infidelity.
And feminism is not about man-hating.
This wasn’t an issue of Man vs. Woman. This was about my commitment to my husband and how strong I felt it was. If I’d ever have had a talk with my friend about fidelity and marriage, I would have told her I wouldn’t give up a decade long marriage without at least trying.
It isn’t that feminists always stay or always go – it is that they have the agency to enter into a commitment relationship and to negotiate for themselves what that commitment entails. I thank feminism for making it legal for me to divorce. That doesn’t mean that in order to thank my feminist foremothers I have to get a divorce.
4. You Can Have a Healthy, Fulfilling Marriage After Infidelity
I feel my friend’s opinion also assumes that “I’m staying” means I’m staying in a loveless marriage “for the kids” or out of a misguided religious conviction. Not true. I do not intend to live in a distant, loveless marriage. My husband knows this.
I want this trauma to increase our intimacy and bring us to a new level of marital unity. I want my kids to see that they can leave but they can also commit to loving someone when they seem unloveable.
As with my parenting philosophy, people can do bad things and not be bad people.
5. You Can Have a Healthy, Fulfilling Divorce After Infidelity
Divorce does not have to be the conflict-filled drama of the movies. No doubt the loss of a marriage is always difficult, but it is made more so if we make the decision out of anger.
If you choose divorce, especially if you are parents, you will continue to have a relationship with your spouse. Do you want this relationship to always trigger feelings of hurt and anger? Or, would you rather find a way to co-parent that is healthy for the kids and the parents? Healing the hurt of an affair and learning to interact harmoniously together will benefit your post-divorce family.
A divorce can also bring a new level of self-awareness and lead to deeper happiness if we can shake off the chains of “have to” and move through the decision with a clear head. Divorce doesn’t have to be something that “happens to you”. It can be an empowering experience of growth.
6. Secrets Do More Harm Than Good
I’ve debated whether or not to write this piece at all. The topic is considered very taboo and private. Society expects us to deal with this behind closed doors and then never talk of it again.
My experience with taboo topics tells me the very fact that I’m afraid to write this means that it needs to be written.
If my husband were an alcoholic, drug addict, or gambling addict, he wouldn’t be expected to recover and heal in a vacuum. No one would look at me as weak for helping him overcome his mistakes.
Keeping the silence ensures that people will always think “it couldn’t happen to me” and never take the preemptive steps to affair-proof their marriage. And, even when they are unavoidable, it perpetuates the idea that divorce is the only outcome unless you have a religious pressure forcing you to stay.
You have a 44% chance of your husband having an affair and 25% chance of your wife having an affair. You only have a 23% chance of him and 20% of her dying from cancer.
Shouldn’t we have our eyes wide open? Shouldn’t we all know some of the proven ways to avoid an affair and strengthen our marriages to resist temptation? Shouldn’t we end the myth that an affair equals death of a marriage?
Maybe if we didn’t keep this such a secret, then friends and family would better be able to support a couple dealing with infidelity.
We can learn to react in ways that do not limit a spouse’s choice but ensure they can make the most empowering decision for themselves. We can definitely take away the stigma of shame that keeps the silence.
Do you have any experience with infidelity or a friend experiencing infidelity? What are your thoughts?