"Larry and I were toasting our 10th anniversary when he blurted out that he'd fallen for someone else," said Liz, 37, the mother of three sons, 8, 6, and 2. "I nearly choked on my champagne. I'd have run out of the restaurant but didn't want to make a scene. So I just sat there, blinking back tears. How could he be so cruel?
"I should have seen it coming. Larry has been spending so much time at the office and the gym that I feel like a single parent. He gives me no help whatsoever with our three boys. Most nights he gets home after the kids are in bed, grabs a quick bite and crashes. And nothing is happening in the romance department! For that I have only myself to blame. I packed on the pounds with each pregnancy, and a couple weeks ago I got up the nerve to step on a scale. I'd hit 200 pounds — and I'm only 5-foot-2! No wonder Larry doesn't want to have sex with me, especially since he's gotten pretty buff.
"He has always struggled with his weight, too. The problem runs in both our families. Our parents and siblings are terrific people, but they're couch potatoes. As young adults Larry and I vowed not to follow their example. In fact, we met at Weight Watchers. While we were dating we helped each other stick to our diets and even started jogging together. By our wedding I'd lost 30 pounds and he'd lost 50. My gown was a size 12 — the smallest ever for me. We had an amazing honeymoon at a resort with a heart-shaped bed. Talk about fireworks!
"I got pregnant around our first anniversary. After our son was born, I quit my job as a dental hygienist. Larry became a partner in his family's contracting business. As we settled into married life, we both started to get heavy again. We talked about going back to Weight Watchers but never got around to it.
"So I should have suspected something when Larry hopped back on the fitness train. It turns out he did it for Carol, the receptionist at his office, who's 28, athletic, and very attractive. He said they'd begun going to the gym together at lunchtime or after work, and their involvement grew from there.
"I sat there listening to all this as my dinner got cold. Then he dropped another bomb: They'd never had sex. Apparently, early on, he tried to kiss her and she turned away. She told him she's been in a committed relationship with a woman for three years and had never thought of Larry as anything but a good friend and workout buddy.
"By now, of course, my head was spinning. Finally, Larry stopped blabbing and smiled at me. Smiled! Did he think everything was hunky-dory just because nothing physical had happened? Did he think I was fine with his behavior just because the other woman turned out to be a lesbian? Give me a break — he fell in love with her! That hurt more than if he'd confessed to a one-night stand. He cheated, plain and simple. I run myself ragged being a good mother and he's been lusting after someone else — someone younger and in better shape than I am, with no children or responsibilities.
"I pulled myself together enough to whisper, 'I'm out of here — not just the restaurant, but the marriage.' And I meant it. I agreed to counseling only so we can have an amicable divorce for the kids' sake."
"Telling Liz about Carol totally backfired," said Larry, 37. "I could have kept the whole thing a secret but I wanted to come clean. I love Liz and was bothered by the fact that I'd become emotionally involved with another woman. I picked our anniversary dinner because I wanted to let Liz know I'd made up my mind to forget Carol and focus on Liz and the kids.
"Was I out of my mind, or what? Liz was literally dumbstruck, so I kept running off at the mouth, telling her more and more. I even confessed that I tried to kiss Carol, admitting I would have had an affair if she'd wanted it. But Carol pulled away. When she told me she was in a relationship with a woman, you could have knocked me over with a feather! She'd never mentioned a man in her life, so I assumed she was single. We sat there for a few more minutes, then Carol said she hoped we could continue working out together because she enjoyed my company. I said sure but knew my feelings for her wouldn't magically disappear. And I got more attached to her as time passed. I suppose I imagined I'd be the man who'd win her over. She seemed so happy when we were together I figured she couldn't resist me forever. Well, I misread that one, too. Still, my view is that we never had sex, so you can't say I cheated.
"Liz doesn't see it that way. As soon as we got home she went ballistic, yelling that I betrayed her. She called her mom to say I was a terrible person and that she was coming over with the kids. But you have to understand something: I was attracted to Carol because she's the opposite of what Liz has become. I want to be attracted to Liz, but she's gained a lot of weight, and that's a turnoff. Carol, on the other hand, is a knockout. Once I began going to the gym with her, she kept me motivated, even if I wasn't in the mood to exercise. And I loved being around someone so upbeat and fun. We'd joke and laugh and she'd encourage me. All I ever hear from Liz is nagging: 'Do this, do that.'
"Maybe I thought if I told Liz about Carol, Liz might get the hint and become my workout buddy. That's how our relationship started back in our 20s. Yes, there are three kids in the picture now. But Liz's mom likes to babysit. We could do it if Liz wanted to try. But she's barely speaking to me at this point and is only in counseling, she says, to figure out our divorce. She says Carol's being a lesbian is a non-issue and that she'll never trust me again. I vowed to stop seeing Carol outside the office, but Liz says it's too late. I didn't want to fall for Carol or jeopardize my marriage. It just happened. But I know I've been a first-class jerk and I'm sorry."
The Counselor's Turn
"Studies show that women are devastated by emotional infidelity," said the counselor, "while men are typically more hurt by sexual infidelity. The fact that the 'other woman' here turned out to be gay was, as Liz noted, a non-issue. Larry had invested his heart and mind in the relationship — and would have had an affair if he could have. Liz's self-esteem was low because of her lifelong weight problem, and she was more overwhelmed by motherhood than Larry realized. She desperately needed his support and reassurance, but his attention was elsewhere.
"I always tell clients that feelings are innocent. By that I mean that no one is to blame for what he or she feels. Larry was especially vulnerable to emotional involvement with another woman because Liz not only didn't turn him on physically but also tended to nag and criticize. Rather than condemn Larry's feelings, I said, they should explore them openly. With my guidance Larry explained to Liz that her weight gain and criticisms made him feel uninterested and unloved. I told him not to use accusatory language such as, 'You're not even trying to lose weight, and you nag me all the time.' Instead he learned to express himself by using 'I' sentences: 'I loved it when we exercised together and helped each other maintain our weights. And I know I need to pay more attention to the kids and to household chores.'
"Liz, too, changed her communication style. Instead of saying 'You never lift a finger and barely interact with the boys,' she'd say, 'I can't handle the housework alone and feel the boys are missing out on quality time with their dad.'
"Eventually Liz and Larry discovered that she wanted to lose weight as much as he wanted her to, and he wanted to enjoy his family as much as she wanted him to. They began to work as a team to change the destructive patterns they'd fallen into. Among these was Liz's unspoken belief that she was fated by genetics to be overweight. Larry reminded her that he had a similar family history and that initially they had bonded over their joint determination to overcome that legacy. 'We were so close then,' he said. 'Let's see if we can get the magic back.' It helped that Carol was no longer a daily distraction. She found a job at another company and switched gyms.
"I suggested that the couple devote one evening a week to being together without the kids. This 'couple time' was often spent in long discussions about the issues that had driven them apart, which was very helpful. But the real breakthrough came when Liz reached a point where she could admire Larry's honesty in telling her about Carol. 'Okay, you snuck around and even tried to get physical with her,' she said. 'That still hurts, but what matters is that you told me. At the time I thought you were kicking me when I was down. Now I realize you couldn't have known how bad I felt about myself.'
"In our final session Liz was excited that she'd started going to the gym with Larry two evenings a week while her mom watched the kids. 'I've dropped five pounds,' she said. 'Larry's my cheerleader.'
"Her mom also offered to babysit while the couple went away for a long weekend. 'It's our first vacation alone since we became parents,' Larry said. 'We're going to a resort with lots of activities; we don't plan to hang around the buffet table.'
"'But we do plan to spend a lot of time in our room,' Liz added with a grin. 'We've booked the honeymoon suite. Now that our marriage is back on track, I can hardly believe I was ready to walk out.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, January 2009.