"I can't believe Carl has been unfaithful," said Sue, 40, the mother of 17-year-old twin girls. "And with his high school girlfriend, Jill, who dumped him ages ago!
"I never saw this coming, though Carl has been acting distant for months. I'd ask what was wrong, but he wouldn't answer. One day, for some reason, I said, 'Are you having an affair?' He got furious and stormed out. But a few weeks later I went to use the computer. The monitor had gone dark, but when it lit up again, I realized Carl was still logged on. An e-mail from Jill was on the screen. 'We'll be together soon,' it said. 'We just need to take care of things in our marriages.'
"Despite my shaking hands I managed to dial Carl at work. I read him the e-mail, and he didn't deny anything.
"I hung up feeling faint, my mind reeling: When did the affair start? How often did they see each other? I knew Jill had friended Carl on Facebook a while back, but she lives 500 miles away, in Sacramento — though her mom still lives here in San Diego. One day last summer Carl mentioned that she was in town and that they might have coffee. I didn't give it much thought, since people are always reconnecting on Facebook. Was I ever naive!
"I met Carl on a blind date when I was 20. He immediately announced that he'd just broken up with his long-term girlfriend. That was Jill. I liked him, but I was wary. Who wants to be in a rebound romance? Still, when he asked me out again, I said yes, and this time it was wonderful. He was funny, handsome, and thoughtful, and I felt close to him almost immediately.
"We got married two years later and had the twins a year after that. I went back to work full-time after a three-month maternity leave, and in some ways that's when our problems began. I'm proud of my career success — I manage a 15-person department for a chain store — and I was raised to be self-sufficient. My dad left when I was 13. Mom constantly told my younger sister and me never to count on a man.
"But I am overwhelmed. Carl seems to think that a wife, even one with a demanding job, is responsible for the housework, shopping, and cooking. We bicker constantly — about big things and little things. He can't do something as simple as fix a curtain rod without a reminder. Often he walks out of the room while I'm still talking!
"We never discuss anything meaningful. 'What time is the swim meet?' is as deep as it gets. I've lived with this man for 18 years yet I have no idea how he truly feels. And the slightest thing sets him off. I'll accuse him of not listening and he'll explode. One thing I'll say for him, he's always been there for the girls. He shoots hoops with them, makes a big deal of their birthdays, buys presents. I can't remember the last time he did something sweet for me. Is it any wonder we never have sex?
"What's odd is that when we're out with other people, we get along and I'll catch a glimpse of the witty, wonderful man I married. I can't think straight right now, but I do still love Carl and want to save our marriage."
"I didn't expect this to happen, didn't want it to happen, and don't know why it happened," said Carl, 40. "Late one night I went on Facebook and saw that Jill had commented on a post by an old high school buddy. I friended her on a whim, although Sue thinks it was the other way around. Jill confirmed right away and sent me a cheery message. Her tone was quite a switch from the last time I saw her, 20 years ago. Back then she wanted nothing to do with me.
"Jill was more than my girlfriend. She was my first great love. We started dating in ninth grade and she dumped me in her freshman year in college. I didn't go to college — I was a poor student and my parents never encouraged me — and Jill said we were moving in opposite directions. She broke my heart, but I got over it. In fact, Sue and I got together about six months later.
"My cousin, who was dating her roommate, fixed us up. I acted like a jerk on our first date, mainly because I was still bummed out about Jill. So I called to ask if we could try again. Then everything clicked. Sue was pretty, smart, and fun. Jill faded from my mind.
"Truthfully, I hadn't thought about her in years, but that tiny Facebook photo of her, smiling and looking great, piqued my curiosity. We began e-mailing and it turned out she was married and living in Sacramento but was coming here in a few weeks to visit her mother. She suggested we meet for coffee.
"I had no intention of sleeping with Jill, but the minute I saw her, 25 years simply evaporated. Old feelings rushed back and one thing led to another. It sounds corny, but being with her made me feel more alive than I have in years.
"That was nine months ago. We've seen each other maybe six times — we meet halfway, in LA, where I go on business — but we talk on the phone and e-mail and text constantly. Her marriage isn't happy, either. She has a son and her husband travels a lot for work. We both know what we're doing is wrong but we can't seem to stop it.
"Until Jill came back into my life I didn't realize how unhappy I was. I can't stand the way Sue talks down to me — as if I'm a pet dog. She claims I don't listen, but the real problem is that she's anxious about everything. The kids, her job, our house. There's always a crisis. If I didn't leave the room she'd go on forever. And her timing couldn't be worse. She'll launch into some important issue when I'm watching a basketball game. She's a micromanager, as was my mom, who bossed my dad and me nonstop. Like her, Sue is a dictator. There's no affection between us, and we almost never have sex.
"We put on a good public face, but our marriage has been in trouble for a long time, and it has nothing to do with Jill. We've simply muddled along, and I don't want to do that anymore."
The Counselor's Turn
"Adolescent relationships can leave strong marks," said the counselor. "This is a period of tremendous physical, sexual, and emotional growth. We often idealize young romance, but it forms a core part of our identities. Sometimes it smolders for decades and any spark, even a seemingly innocuous Facebook message, can rekindle the fire. Since reconnecting online is so easy, many people don't consider the implications before clicking 'send.'
"Sue and Carl communicated poorly on the most basic level. Instead of talking they traded accusations and brushed aside big issues, such as the loneliness each felt. 'Couples get stuck in negative patterns because it's easier to ignore a problem than deal with it,' I said. 'You two had an unspoken agreement: We'll focus on our kids, our jobs, and our friends and avoid confronting our unhappiness. It's not healthy, but it is predictable.'
"Raised by a bitter single mom, Sue believed it was up to her alone to get what she wanted. She managed her household the way she ran her department at work — with firm ideas of how things should be done. Even a small deviation could trigger anxiety, which she often expressed by nagging Carl.
"Carl had little nurturing as a child and no real idea how spouses should communicate. He found it easy to let a woman manage his life. Except for the occasional outburst, he fumed silently and steered clear of Sue. At 40 he was dissatisfied with life. Reuniting with Jill not only made him feel vital again but gave him a 'do-over' — a chance to fix a failed relationship.
"It's hard to save such marriages, where blame and hostility run deep. Both spouses must acknowledge their part in the deterioration and agree to change dramatically. When I told Carl he had to stop seeing Jill, he was unwilling to promise. But he did agree not to communicate with her for six months. I urged Sue to accept this compromise since it would buy us time.
"I asked Sue and Carl to write down their wants. Topping her list: 'I need Carl to put down the newspaper and pay attention when I have a problem.' Carl wrote, 'She has to stop hounding me and not push if it's a bad time to talk.' Both viewpoints were valid.
"Since Carl's relationship with Jill had flourished via e-mail, I suggested he and Sue use it to stay in touch. This allowed her to air her concerns and him to answer on his own timetable — as long as it was within 24 hours. The 24-hour rule also applied to face-to-face conversations. If Sue wanted to discuss something, she had to give Carl advance notice. If he wasn't ready, they set a specific time to talk.
"To restore their emotional intimacy, I encouraged Sue and Carl to go out to dinner or take in a movie by themselves. 'We already know you do well in a group. Now it's time to enjoy being alone again.'
"The biggest challenge was rebuilding sexual trust after his affair. They began with nonsexual touching exercises. At first Sue saw any loving touch as a prelude to sex. But Carl was gentle and patient and after several weeks both were eager to make love. 'The sex was amazing,' Sue reported afterward, adding, 'now I'm more afraid of losing him than ever.'
"Fortunately, by then I was confident that that wouldn't happen. After six months of counseling, Carl didn't mention renewing his pledge not to see Jill. When I brought it up, he said, 'There's no need. I told Jill that Sue and I are a team and we're staying that way.'"
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2011.