"Two weeks ago Ted told me he's been having an affair with one of our friends! For seven months!" said Hallie, 33, a corporate executive who's been married for eight years. "Erin and I aren't close friends, but we're part of the same social circle and her son plays on the same soccer team as Liza, our 5-year-old. Apparently, plenty of people know the whole sordid story. It doesn't get more humiliating than that.
"My marriage has become strained in the last year because of all the traveling I do. Still, I never thought Ted would cheat. Three years ago, just after our younger daughter, Marnie, was born, he was laid off from his job in corporate finance at a big company here in Houston. Around the same time I was offered a promotion with a big salary increase but also a lot of travel — every week, in fact. I worried about how I'd juggle work and family, but Ted was all for it. 'Take it,' he kept saying. He acted as if being away from my children was no big deal.
"Ultimately, I accepted the job because we didn't know when or if Ted would find a job comparable to his old one. After a few months Ted invested in a small medical newsletter company, which he's been running ever since. It has good longterm potential, but his earnings are half what they were. The office is just minutes from our house, though, which makes things easier when I'm away.
"My schedule is insane. I wake up at 4 a.m. Monday, kiss the girls while they're still asleep, then catch a 7 a.m. flight to wherever I'm posted that week. I don't get home until 8 or 9 Thursday night. On Friday I work from home. I love my job and I'm proud of my success. But I miss my daughters desperately and I'm swamped with guilt about not being there for those moments that happen only once. When I am home, naturally, the girls are all over me and I want to spend as much time as I can with them. Then Ted gets testy and accuses me of ignoring him. Please. He's 34; they're 5 and 3.
"When I'm away I call every night after dinner to check in. Inevitably, the conversation disintegrates into a fight. Ted's a steady stream of complaints: The kids are driving him crazy; he's exhausted; he has no time for himself. In the past few months he's been especially short-tempered. He says I ask too many questions about the kids' day. Excuse me? I need to know what's going on! Besides, Ted doesn't always remember to give them a bath or help them brush their teeth. If I don't remind him, it won't get done. Before you know it we're yelling at each other.
"I always dreamed of having a marriage as terrific as my parents'. My dad owns a sporting goods store and my mom is an account executive for an ad agency. Her ability to combine career and motherhood — I have three younger siblings — has been an inspiration. And in the early years of our marriage it really did seem that I might manage to 'have it all.' Ted and I both enjoyed our work and earned nice salaries. We were always meeting friends for dinner or drinks. We were really, really happy.
"Everything changed once we had kids. Ted never changed a diaper or got up in the middle of the night, and he flipped out when our babies cried. He did get more involved as the girls got older. When he feels like making an effort, he's Mr. Camp Director, organizing outings and teaching the girls to ski and bike ride. But he's always been rather uncommunicative and, clearly, he's kept a lot from me.
"It all came to a head last Friday, when I was home. I knew something was wrong the minute Ted walked through the door. Erin's husband had overheard a phone conversation and confronted her. With word spreading fast, Ted knew he had no choice but to tell me about the affair.
"Ted insists that he's not in love with Erin and has ended the affair. He claims he loves me and doesn't want a divorce. I don't want to be divorced, either, but there's so much anger and hurt on both sides. I cry all the time and can barely keep from breaking down in meetings. The girls are fine, thank heaven. They know we're having a fight, but they're still very young and I've reassured them that we're okay. Now if only I could believe that."
"I knew the affair was wrong, but I didn't care," admitted an obviously chastened Ted, 34. "I feel horrible, but I have to say that Hallie hasn't been very loving to me in a long time. She's made it clear that I'm way, way down on her list. When she gets home on Thursday nights she rushes to see the girls, barely giving me a nod. Can't she manage a hello? A peck on the cheek? On weekends she plans things as if I'm not around. We never go anywhere without kids in tow. I can't remember the last time we did anything fun or romantic. Forget sex. She's either too tired or angry. At least Erin made me feel special and wanted. She asked questions about how I was feeling, what I was doing.
"I don't even remember how the affair started. Erin came on to me all the time at our kids' soccer games. It was a good six months before we actually had sex and after the first time, I swore I'd never do it again. But then… well, I just didn't let myself think about the consequences.
"The fact that Hallie is away so much puts a lot of pressure on me. I know I agreed to all the travel, but it's not working for either of us. Money was a big factor, too. When I lost my job I floundered for a long time. It felt terrible to be let go, even if it was because of the economy, not my job performance.
"I can't get work done when I have to leave at 2:30 to pick up the kids. I can't make late meetings or ever see friends after work, either, because I have to relieve the babysitter. I don't begrudge Hallie her success — she's incredibly smart and has worked hard for it — but I'm not accomplishing as much as I want to and I have no time for myself. Yes, I'm glad for the chance to know my daughters better. But once Hallie gets home, I'm back to being invisible.
"Our phone conversations are torture. Hallie interrogates me about every detail of the girls' lives: What did they eat for a snack? What did the teacher say at pickup? If I don't remember and report back exactly, I'm a negligent parent. Then she starts with the orders: Make sure they brush their teeth; don't forget to take them to swim class. Does she have to micromanage everything? Can I get a little credit here?
"I find it hard to talk about all this because I've always kept my feelings to myself. I'm an only child, not particularly close to either of my parents. Both were investment bankers who had little time for me — or each other. They divorced when I was 13 and for several years I lost contact with my father. Knowing how hard divorce is on kids, I'm determined to spare my own kids that pain.
"I realize I was a selfish idiot and I've ended my relationship with Erin. I love Hallie and want us to stay together. I want to be the father I never had. But my marriage just isn't making me happy."
The Counselor's Turn
"It's increasingly common to find one, if not both, spouses traveling for part of the workweek," said the counselor. "But the issues that wreaked havoc in this marriage do so even in marriages involving no travel. Like Hallie, many women are emotionally and physically depleted by the family-work balancing act. Unable to cut back without jeopardizing their jobs, worried about sacrificing emotional closeness with their children, these women often put their marriages on the back burner. And like Ted, many husbands are none too happy about it. Without quality together time, it's hard to sustain a relationship on an emotional, sexual or spiritual level.
"Yet Hallie and Ted had had a good relationship before they had children. My goal was to help them rediscover the joy they used to share. 'Try to remember the way you loved each other, the activities you enjoyed, the plans you had for the future,' I urged. 'If you can hold on to even a few positive memories, it will be easier to move forward.' I also assured them that the ambivalence they each felt about their marriage was normal at this point. 'But you can't wait until you are 100 percent sure,' I said. 'Commit to working on this relationship — and acting as if you will succeed.'
"Needless to say, this was tremendously difficult for Hallie. She ricocheted between feeling numb, tearful, confused and enraged. Meanwhile, Ted was a mixture of remorse and defiance. Caring for his daughters had proved far more difficult than he'd imagined. But instead of being forthright about his feelings, he pouted. His resentment was further fueled when Hallie ignored him at home and peppered him with questions while she was away. He didn't understand that her questions were a way of staying connected; instead, he felt criticized and infantilized by them and used those feelings to rationalize his affair.
"Indeed, Ted often mentioned feeling ignored by Hallie. His sense of abandonment was no doubt heightened by the fact that his parents had been too wrapped up in their own lives to pay attention to him. His anger was also a defense mechanism, shielding him from guilt. Ted thought that ending the relationship with Erin and apologizing to his wife meant they could 'put all this behind us.' I told him it was only the beginning. 'You've committed a serious breach of trust and it's not going to disappear just because you want it to,' I said. A betrayed partner is tormented by questions. One of our ground rules was that Ted had to respond to every one — but only for a three-month period, after which the inquisition had to stop. 'Your need to know is understandable,' I told Hallie, 'but unearthing every excruciating detail won't be helpful.' In fact, Hallie concluded well in advance of the three month deadline that digging for information about the affair only kept her stuck in the past. It also helped enormously that, by a happy coincidence, Erin's husband was transferred to Phoenix for his job and the family moved away.
"To move forward, Ted and Hallie had to learn to communicate clearly and often about their feelings. I taught them a structured, two-part exercise I call the Feel Better Letter. First, I instructed them to write down four or five feelings, positive or negative, that they needed to share. Simply writing down one's thoughts can help defuse hot emotions and allow the person to more clearly see a partner's viewpoint. Hallie's list included: I'm angry because you humiliated me in front of our friends. I'm sad our marriage meant so little to you. I regret that I made you feel like an incompetent parent.
"In the second part of the exercise, partners switch roles and write down the response they'd like to receive from the other. Hallie wrote: Thank you for caring enough about our marriage to give me another chance. I understand how much I hurt you, and I will never betray your trust again. I will always be there to listen and respond to your questions. I love you, Ted. This was helpful, since it gave Ted insight into what his wife needed. When it was his turn, he was able to explain how rejected he felt, how much he needed time alone as well as with friends and how belittled he felt by Hallie's instructions.
"Slowly, they made important changes. Every Saturday night is now date night. Even if they just go for a walk, they hire a babysitter so they can focus on each other, alone. 'Maintaining a ritual — be it Sunday morning breakfast or a glass of wine after the kids are asleep — is important,' I explained. 'It says to your partner, "you matter." '
"When Hallie gets home on Thursday nights, she now hugs Ted before she greets the children. She's also become more attentive and has stopped second-guessing his parenting. For his part, Ted has significantly curbed his grumbling.
"Resuming intimacy was much harder. Hallie felt self-conscious (she worried that Ted would compare her with Erin), vulnerable and awkward — all of which, I assured her, was normal. 'But here, too, you can't wait until you feel 100 percent sure,' I added. 'To be closer you have to get closer.' Until she was ready for intercourse, I suggested they simply lie in bed together, touching as much as Hallie felt comfortable with. I also encouraged Ted to be more loving outside the bedroom. After four months, Hallie felt safe enough to resume lovemaking.
"She was still unsure, though, about her job. After much discussion with Ted and her boss, Hallie agreed to complete her current project, which would take another six months, with the promise of another position with no travel when it's finished. 'We can handle another six months,' Hallie said. 'In truth, my travel wasn't the real problem; our inability to communicate was.'
"This couple was in counseling for nine months. 'Have I totally forgiven Ted? I'm not sure,' Hallie said in a forthright manner. 'The pain is still there, but I try not to think about it. Instead, I focus on how happy we are right now.' "
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. This month's case is based on interviews with clients and information from the files of Nancy Stokes, M.S., L.P.C., a marital therapist in Dallas. The story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is a registered trademark of Meredith Corporation.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, April 2008.