"It seems like Jack has a girl in every port," snapped Pam, 40, the mother of a 22-year-old daughter and 14-year-old twin boys. "He travels constantly for business, often three or four days a week. Over the past couple of years he's been more and more remote. Anyone else would have put the pieces together, but I guess I'm dense.
"Two weeks ago I was in the den when his cell phone rang. Normally I wouldn't pick it up, but for some reason I did — and the person hung up. I waited a few minutes and called back. A woman answered. I hung up, then checked the list of dialed calls and saw there were several to that number. Jack claimed it was a business call, but I could tell he was hiding something. I mentioned the calls several times that weekend, and finally he blurted out that he cheats on me when he travels. He insisted that he loves me and wants to stay married. But how can he love me and behave like that?
"The only positive part of the whole sordid mess is that they're one-night stands that apparently don't mean anything. So at least he's not leaving me for someone he's fallen in love with. I went through that with my dad. Our home life was very chaotic. We were well off — Dad was a successful attorney — but my parents fought all the time. When I was in high school my dad left my mother for another woman, and my world collapsed. Mom, who was a recovering alcoholic, started drinking again, and I had to take care of my younger sisters.
"I began hanging out with a guy who'd graduated from my high school two years earlier. A week after I turned 17 I discovered I was pregnant. My mom wanted me to put the baby up for adoption. My dad said I should have an abortion. I did neither. I dropped out of school, married the boy, and had Zoe. Needless to say, the marriage was a disaster. He was angry and verbally abusive, and after six months Zoe and I moved back in with my mother. I got my GED, then enrolled in college at night while Mom, who was back in AA by then, watched Zoe.
"I met Jack in class. I wasn't looking for a romantic relationship but soon fell madly in love. He was charming, thoughtful, and so much fun! He'd take Zoe and me on spontaneous outings — hiking in the mountains, picking berries, or eating lunch at a beachside shrimp shack. After dating for two years we got married and Jack adopted Zoe. He was a rising star at an international consulting firm, where he still works, and his hours were already getting crazy. When our twins, Sam and Max, were born five years later, I threw myself into being a mom. And Jack threw himself even deeper into work.
"I resent having to be both Mommy and Daddy. Jack takes care of the big things. He made sure we have life insurance and a nice home, for instance. But I'm the one who helps with their homework, goes to parent-teacher conferences, reads bedtime stories. On weekends I'll plead with Jack to come to church with us, or even for a bike ride, but he begs off, insisting he needs to catch up on paperwork. He's become more and more peripheral to our family. He'll promise something and never get it done, whether it's planning a family trip or fixing a leaky faucet. I'll make lists of stuff for him to do, but he'll be off on another business trip before a single item gets crossed off.
"Now I wonder if I should have paid more attention to him and focused less on the kids. Why else would he see women on the sly? I still love him, but I'm not sure I'll ever trust him again."
"I don't know why I did what I did," said Jack, 42. "I adore Pam and this isn't her fault. After working a 12-hour day on my trips I'd go out to dinner with colleagues or maybe someone I met on the plane. A little too much wine, some flattery…. It's not like I have a mistress; I was not in love with these women. They were one-night stands. I knew it was wrong but I just pushed those thoughts away. It sounds absurd now, but I never worried about getting caught. Being so removed from 'real' life gave me a false sense of anonymity. When Pam found out, it was almost a relief. I've been on a collision course with disaster for a long time.
"I was a Navy brat, the oldest of five kids. I had a hard time making friends when I was a kid since we'd move every two or three years. My dad was very strict, a 'yes sir, no sir' kind of guy. He'd go out to sea for months at a time, so I grew close to my mother. Like Pam's mom, she was an alcoholic who was often out of commission. I pretty much raised my siblings — changed a lot of diapers, heated up a lot of TV dinners. I was wild in high school, running around with girls and getting mediocre grades. My dad was not pleased and said so in long, disapproving letters.
"I got it together in college. A freshman economics seminar lit a fire in me, and I wound up graduating at the top of my class. I met Pam my junior year. In my family I'd been the odds-on favorite to never get married. But I knew right away that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. She's beautiful, smart, and feisty. It didn't matter at all that she had a child — I'd been around young kids my whole life and Zoe and I hit it off immediately. Pam and I got married a month after I graduated. Suddenly I was a new dad with a new job. It was intense. But we found a terrific house in a nice neighborhood and life was good. By the time the twins were born I'd risen to an executive position. That's when I started traveling almost every week.
"Maybe it's because I'm away so much, but Pam often treats me like an outsider. She's a wonderful mother, yet it's clear I come last. She makes the rules and I'm expected to stick to them. Only rarely do I get to voice an opinion, whether about bedtimes or curfews. She criticizes me for not spending enough time with the kids or not getting to the long list of chores she wants me to do. I hate to argue, so I tune her out and plow back into work.
"Now I'm filled with regret. The thrill of having a prestigious job faded long ago, and the constant travel has turned me into the same kind of absentee father I had. I'm drained and frustrated, and now I'm in danger of losing the love of my life. I just hope Pam can find a way to forgive me — though I'm not sure I'll ever forgive myself."
The Counselor's Turn
"It's easy to see why business travelers may be tempted to cheat," said the counselor. "They're often lonely and stressed, far from the scrutiny of anyone they know. It's an artificial world free of family responsibilities and similar to a dating situation, with all that wining, dining, and staying in nice hotels. This provides an illusion of invulnerability.
"But infidelity doesn't just happen. There is usually a cluster of circumstances that trigger it. I sensed that something unspoken in this couple's past was at the heart of their problems. I asked them to construct a marital-satisfaction time line. 'Get out your old photo albums and examine every year of your marriage, noting what happened and how you felt about it,' I said.
"They both seemed reluctant but dutifully did their homework. At the next session, as we looked at what they'd written, they revealed a heartbreaking story they'd repressed for years. Taking a deep breath, Pam said, 'Two years after we married, our son James was born.' Jack and James, she said, were 'two peas in a pod.' Jack would come home from work, put on a Batman cape, and play nonstop with James and Zoe until bedtime. Their home was full of joy.
"Then the unthinkable happened. On a Thanksgiving weekend with Jack's parents, James, 22 months old, and one of his aunts took a walk with her dog. He chased the dog across a field and into the street and was hit by a car driven by a 16-year-old. He never regained consciousness.
"They were so devastated, according to Pam, that they couldn't even speak about their son. They never sought counseling and in time, grieving separately, they began to drift apart. After their twins were born, Pam focused all her energy on motherhood and Jack lost himself in work. Outwardly, they had put the tragedy behind them, but the emotional intimacy that had characterized their relationship had been buried along with their child.
"Pam made the connection first. Turning to Jack she said, 'We both changed after our little guy died. I think the fun went out of us.'
"Jack's eyes flooded with tears. 'It's true. I'd play with Zoe and the boys, but never with the enthusiasm I had when James was alive.'
"This was a huge breakthrough, but I also wanted them to see that their childhoods put them at risk for betrayal. Both had absent fathers and alcoholic mothers who were so checked out that they essentially let their oldest children raise themselves and their younger siblings. Like many adult children of alcoholics, Jack looked for validation in inappropriate places — in his case, through one-night stands. For her part, Pam dealt with the pain of losing both her son and the deep bond she'd shared with her husband by turning herself into Supermom.
"At this point I assigned them some exercises that required them to talk at home for 20 minutes about an assigned biographical topic, everything from family pets to favorite teachers. In my experience, there is a 'talker' in every relationship. That person often talks to elicit a response from his or her partner but usually creates the opposite effect. Pam took on this role in her marriage. In an effort to make Jack more engaged, she hounded him, issuing 'orders,' something that was bound to rankle the child of a Navy man. The tight give-and-take structure of this talking exercise kept her from doing that. It also provided security for Jack, so that instead of denying his feelings he began to share them.
"As her anger dissipated, Pam moved toward forgiveness and restoring their physical intimacy. Determined to spend more time with his family, Jack left his job and accepted an offer to be CEO of an educational publishing company, a position that requires little travel. He's always conscious of the need to rebuild trust. 'If Pam wants me to phone five times a day,' he said, 'I phone.'
"'When we started therapy, I was furious with Jack for messing up our marriage,' Pam admitted in our final counseling session. 'Now I see that we messed it up. And together we're cleaning up the mess.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, November 2009.