"My son just announced that he's getting married. But I can't share the joy of this moment with my husband, Greg," said Diane, 39, who runs a home-based stationery business. "We go through the motions of being this happy couple, but our marriage hasn't felt loving or intimate since his affair five years ago — or maybe for years before that."
"Greg was literally the boy next door. I'd had a crush on him since I was 13. He didn't pay any attention to me, though, until I was about 16, when he came home from college one weekend. We started dating and quickly fell in love.
"Actually, love was something of a foreign notion to me back then because I came from such a troubled home. My mother was an alcoholic and was abusive to my father. They divorced when I was 12; my younger brothers and I lived with my mother. Some days, after long nights out drinking, she wouldn't get out of bed. I remember being very worried that I'd have to take care of my brothers.
"Because I grew up in such a dysfunctional family, my dream was simple: I wanted to get married, have children, and be happy. Even though I took classes at the local community college, I never liked school much. So when Greg asked me to marry him after his college graduation, I was more than happy to quit school and focus on him. He had landed a good entry-level job at an insurance company. We rented an apartment in our old neighborhood and, soon after our first anniversary, our son Scott was born. Peter came along 14 months later. Life was good: Greg enjoyed his work and was getting regular promotions; I had started my stationery business and was loving it. By the time Greg walked in the door each night, I'd have dinner on the table. We were happy, and to me it felt too good to be true. Maybe it was.
"Looking back, I think we started to have our first real fights about seven or eight years ago, when our son Peter was in junior high. Peter fell in with a bad crowd and started getting in trouble: skipping school, drinking, and smoking pot. Once we caught him sneaking out the bedroom window when we thought he was asleep.
"Peter's rebelliousness pushed all of our buttons. I'm fairly strict, but Greg is like a Marine drill sergeant. We argued constantly about how to set limits and mete out punishment. For instance, when I found pot in Peter's room, I confronted him. Peter swore it was the first time he'd ever used drugs and that he'd stop. I felt I had to give him the benefit of the doubt, but Greg thought I was completely mishandling him. 'You're afraid of your own child,' he used to tell me. 'You're walking on eggshells with him!' Well, maybe I was, but I didn't have a clue what else to do. I was so absorbed with him, so worried about getting him back on track, I didn't realize how much our disagreements about how to parent our son were driving a wedge between Greg and me. Our communication was strained. We only bickered, never talked. By the time Peter was a high school sophomore, he had thankfully straightened himself out. But our marriage was a mess.
"Greg had started to work longer and longer hours. He'd always have a reason for why he had to make the later train, and I never questioned it. But he also started acting strangely — he seemed agitated, restless. Then the phone calls started — I'd pick up and someone would hang up.
"After about three months of this, clueless me finally started to wake up. I asked Greg if there was someone else, but he denied it. When I asked if anything was wrong, he'd say no. Then one day, I was in the den, and for some reason I picked up the phone and overheard him talking to a woman. I didn't catch the exact words, but I didn't need to. I heard her voice — and his pause when he knew I'd picked up. I knew right away that my suspicions were correct: He was cheating on me.
"I confronted him immediately and demanded he tell me everything, which he did. The woman, Amy, worked in another department in his firm. She was a divorced, single mother with three young children. And she pursued him. Obviously, he hadn't put up too much of a fuss. The affair had been going on for two years! Greg swore that he had ended the relationship and apologized profusely, but I was furious — and still had my doubts that the affair was truly finished.
"Tensions were high. We continued to fight; one night the argument was so intense that Greg walked out of the house and went straight to a local bar, which he never did. He got very drunk and was walking home when he tripped over a pothole and landed on his neck. It was a freak accident, and it left him paralyzed from the waist down. Miraculously, he got full movement back five months later. That period is a big blur. I had to take care of the boys and Greg, plus shuffle him back and forth to his rehab therapy sessions. The whole affair incident was placed on the back burner for a while.
"Today, five years later, Greg walks with a limp and gets pins and needles and numbness in his leg; otherwise, he's fine. But memories of his affair still pop into my head. I know Amy still works at his company, and he admits that he talks to her occasionally, insisting that she's the one who initiates the conversations.
"Preparing for Scott's wedding had pushed our problems to the forefront. I want to be able to enjoy this time in our life, and all the other family milestones, with an open, loving heart. I want to share these experiences with my husband. I just don't know how to make us feel close again."
"Those months in rehab made me realize what a fool I'd been," said Greg, 42, a tall, muscular man with a soothing voice. "I know how lucky I am that I'm not in a wheelchair. And cheating on Diane — how stupid was that? There is no explanation other than I was in such an awful state of mind at the time.
"I feel horribly guilty for what I did to her. I knew it was wrong even when I was doing it, but I blocked out all sound judgment. Amy is an administrative assistant at my company. She's in a different department, but we'd bump into each other a lot. Sometimes we'd walk to the train station together. She came to me for help with her problems; I was her shoulder to cry on. Her husband had walked out on her and her three kids, and she saw me as the experienced father who could offer advice. Then it became more. I guess her interest in me fed my ego. Diane and I communicated so little back then. All we did was fight. So, when this sexy woman came on to me, I caved.
"Maybe my accident was God's way of punishing me. Who knows? Diane was an angel when I was in rehab. I was depressed for a long time, thinking about what I had done to Diane and the possibility that I'd never be able to walk again. Scott's engagement has been a total wake-up call for me. I need to get back on track with my marriage, put all the pieces of our family back together. I love Diane, but I hate the coolness between us. I've apologized over and over again, but I sense that she doesn't believe me. Whenever she asks me about Amy, I tell her everything. What else can I do? I can't look for a new job — in this economy and at my age, it's not so easy.
"I grew up next door to Diane. My family life was not as bad as hers — but it came close. I was the oldest of four, and my dad was an alcoholic who bounced from one job to another. Mom worked two jobs — delivering papers and as a cashier at the grocery. When Dad was drunk, he was an ogre. He backhanded us a few times. I couldn't wait to grow up and leave home.
"I was offered a football scholarship, which was my ticket out. My college years, and then when Diane and I started dating and first got married, were the best times of my life. She and I had so much fun together. I think she's right about when the problems began between us. Peter gave us a lot of grief. I thought she was letting him get away with murder. She'd harangue me for being too tough on him. We just couldn't get on the same page.
"That's when I started seeing Amy. I didn't like myself when I was doing it, but I did it anyway. Then I had my accident and I realized how close I'd come to losing everything. Since I've returned to work, I've seen Amy from time to time and we talk, but there's nothing more to it. Still, she's a ghost in the room with us. Diane can't let it go.
"Now, so many wonderful things are happening to our family — Peter's doing well, and Scott is set to marry a lovely young lady. Diane and I both know we have so much to look forward to — retirement, grandkids. I want to get back that connection Diane and I used to have. How do I prove that to her?"
The Counselor's Turn
"Diane and Greg were like many long-married couples who for various reasons, put their relationship on hold while they attended to the needs of raising a family," said the counselor. "On one level, they both believed they had moved past Greg's infidelity, yet the upcoming marriage of their son triggered feelings of longing and emptiness in both of them. They yearned to relive the joys of their 'old marriage,' yet neither knew how to rekindle the feelings they had lost.
"Part of the problem stemmed from their childhoods. Living with an alcoholic parent and having to handle grown-up responsibilities at an early age forced both of them to develop an unhealthy ability to tolerate emotional distress. The good news was that Diane and Greg knew what a happy marriage felt like, and I sensed that short-term counseling with specific suggestions they could put into practice immediately would help.
"Even though the affair was years ago, Diane was still beset with worries, still unable to trust, and she continued to feel threatened and insecure. They had never fully worked through the fallout of Greg's betrayal, since his accident forced them to focus solely on his recovery.
"I pointed out that some of the chilliness that both of them described in their relationship could be due to Diane's maintaining an emotional distance to protect herself against further pain. This wall was preventing her from re-establishing intimacy and from truly hearing and accepting Greg's heartfelt remorse. On the other hand, Greg felt resentful that, despite his apologies, he was still being rejected by Diane. He believed that the statute of limitations on his crime surely was up. When he sensed Diane pulling away, he pulled away, too.
"When I asked Diane, 'What do you need from Greg now?' she replied, 'I need him to stop talking to Amy altogether.' I agreed that was reasonable. Greg was reluctant to appear rude to Amy. So I coached him on what to say the next time she approached him: 'My marriage is the most important thing in the world to me, and my wife and I are working hard to make it stronger. When you come by my office, even to chat, it makes me uncomfortable, so please don't do it anymore.' When I asked Greg if he could say this, he said yes. When at the next session he reported that he had told Amy as much, Diane immediately relaxed.
"At this point, I suggested specific assignments that they could do to make each other feel special. These two plunged into this homework assignment, and found ways to treat each other nicely — leaving loving messages on each other's cell phones, giving backrubs, buying funny cards. The old feelings, they soon reported, were coming back.
"By their son Scott's wedding five months later, Diane and Greg were ready to end counseling. They told me they were feeling closer than they had in years, and their recovered happiness showed on their faces. Still, they admitted they had more work to do. I explained that a marriage can't move forward unless couples let go of past hurts. 'It's not that you pretend they never happened,' I explained, 'but as long as you both work on making changes in the marriage, when you let go of the pain, you are freer to connect to your partner in a more loving way.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most popular, 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 Susan Healy, R.C.S.W., a marital therapist in Merrick, New York. 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 magazine, January 2004.