"Can you imagine how I felt?" asked Cheryl, her voice shaking, her eyes narrow with rage. "I stopped by my husband's cardiology office after meeting a friend for a matinee in town. Usually I call first, but I thought it would be nice to surprise him, and maybe go out to dinner. Our kids — Diana is 12, Peter is 10 — were staying at my brother's house, so it was the perfect opportunity.
"When I got there about 5:00 p.m., I noticed that Shannon, his longtime nurse, wasn't at her desk. The door to Gary's office was locked, which I found odd, but I had a key from a weekend last winter when I had to pick up files while he was sick with the flu. I opened the door, and there he was on the couch with Shannon in the middle of a sex act. When Gary saw me, he turned white, jumped up and started babbling apologies. Shannon was silent. I felt sick to my stomach but, oddly, I also felt strong. I stood in shock for a moment, then turned and left without saying one word. Somehow, I managed to drive home. Gary arrived home soon after.
"He was crying, begging my forgiveness, calling himself an idiot and insisting that he loved me, not her. He said he already told her their relationship was over. Still numb, I calmly asked him when the affair had started — seven years ago, he said — and whether he loved her. 'Absolutely not,' he claimed.
"That was two weeks ago, and since I found out, I've been barely functioning. I want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. Other times, I'm so furious I can't even think straight.
"The truth is, I suspected Gary was cheating on me with Shannon for a long time. Often, he would call in the late afternoon to tell me he was running late and to have dinner without him. Now I know he was really checking to see if he could sneak away with Shannon. He took her out to lunch a lot and to conferences — Gary insisted to me that this was because it was important that she know everything about his practice. When I'd ask point-blank if they were having an affair, he'd act incredulous: 'How could you think that?' he'd say. Our fights always ended with, 'Cheryl, you're imagining this, cut it out already!' Hoping to get to the bottom of my fears, I even dragged us to a therapist for a few weeks three years ago. But Gary insisted it was all in my head. And by the time I walked in on him and Shannon, I had already convinced myself that I was worrying for nothing. After all, that's what I was always told as a kid.
"My parents are Holocaust survivors who emigrated from Poland after the war. I was the oldest of the family, with two brothers, eight and 10 years younger. If I had any problems, Mom would say, 'What are you complaining about?' Or, 'Nothing that's happening to you is as bad as what I went through.' Though I tried to be the best daughter in the world, my mother was always distant and sad. And unforgiving.
"I met Gary on a blind date when I was a senior in college and he was in his first year of medical school. We had a great time that night, and the relationship became serious quickly. After 10 months, we were engaged. It's hard to pinpoint when we started to have problems; they've really built up over time.
"For the first five years we were married, I worked as a guidance counselor. When our daughter, Diana, was born, I quit my job to stay home with her, and then my son, Peter, came along. I loved being a mom, but it was stressful, and I was upset that Gary was hardly ever around. He was in his residency and worked late nights and weekends at the hospital. Not much changed after he started his own practice.
"He never has had much patience when I bring up my anxieties about the kids, or anything else for that matter. He simply tunes me out, or he agrees to do something, but rarely follows through. For instance, if I ask him to enforce our son's 9:00 p.m. bedtime, he'll say yes, then let him stay up till midnight. He doesn't take my feelings into account. If I feel he's driving too close to the car in front of us, he'll refuse to slow down, saying 'I've never been in an accident.' If we are going someplace — to the theater, a movie, to my parents' house, to meet friends — he's always late. Then I lose my patience and start yelling.
"It's true that we sometimes went a few weeks without making love, but I just chalked up the lack of sex to his schedule and the general busyness of our lives. When we do make love, everything seems fine, so I've never been too concerned about it.
"Since I found out about his affair, Gary has been the perfect, attentive husband. Though I'm angry, I also see a glimpse of the kind, gentle man I fell in love with. He's incredibly solicitous — bringing me coffee in the morning; asking if I need him to do anything. So what do I do now? Gary was my first love, and I don't want to be divorced. But I feel like a fool. I don't think I can forgive him."
"It was the most humiliating moment of my life," said Gary, 41, in a trembling voice, recalling what happened. "I feel so terrible for doing this to Cheryl, to our marriage. Cheryl has given my life focus and meaning: I love her and want to be with her forever — if she'll have me.
"I've arranged for Shannon to work at a clinic that's closer to her home but more than two hours from my office. I swear I will never see her again. I know this sounds cliché, but it really was only about sex. One night, seven years ago, Shannon came on to me when we were the last to leave the office. Why didn't I stop her? Because I was flattered. She made me feel sexy, virile. It was easy — and I had no willpower. After our first encounter, I guess I figured that since I had already violated my marriage vows once, that one more time wouldn't change anything. Then one more time turned into two more, and so on, till it was seven years running.
"I kept up the lie all that time. Even when Cheryl and I went to a therapist a couple of years ago, I denied that I was having an affair. I was sure if I came clean, she'd leave me.
"I'm not excusing my behavior, but it's not as if Cheryl and I had a perfect marriage. We had problems long before I met Shannon and had the affair. Sometimes Cheryl likes to make me feel like a stupid kid who never gets it right: I drive too fast, I don't discipline the kids the right way — the slightest thing sets her off. When she lashes out at me, I want to get as far away as possible. When she's not fighting with me, she's totally focused on the kids. So much so that I feel invisible. And sex? We rarely make love anymore. This was true long before I got involved with Shannon. I don't even feel like she's attracted to me; she never initiates sex. And I feel like when I do, she treats it like a chore.
"But it's the nonstop arguing that's the hardest to live with. My parents never yelled. There was a lot of tension between them, but no fighting. My father was a businessman, a smooth-talking charmer who'd flirt with every woman he met. I'd bet anything he had affairs. My mother, who ran a local art gallery, never said a word to him as far as I know. She was very distant and kept her emotions to herself.
"I was a good kid who tried to do everything to lighten things up and please my parents. I even went to the same Ivy League school my father did. You'd think that would make him proud, but I never got the feeling that he cared about my accomplishments. His only concern was that I make him look good.
"I'm extremely sorry for what I did, but it's not enough to get Cheryl to trust me again. I promise this: I will change. If she ever forgives me, I will never, ever hurt her again."
The Counselor's Turn
"When she first came to see me two weeks after her shocking discovery, Cheryl was still reeling," said the counselor. "Infidelity is a devastating shock to the heart and mind. She didn't think she could forgive him. I told her, 'Give yourself time. You can't accurately judge the viability of your marriage when you're so hurt and vulnerable.' Infidelity doesn't always doom a marriage, I added, but it takes time and hard work on both sides to get past it.
"Gary had already taken important steps: He'd immediately stopped seeing Shannon, took full responsibility for his actions, and told Cheryl repeatedly that he was determined to win back her trust. Slowly, Cheryl went through stages typical of a betrayed partner: sadness and weepiness interspersed with periods of intense anger. As she lashed out in those first few weeks, Gary felt helpless. 'I don't know what else to say or how to comfort her,' he said. I told him the only thing he could do was to be there and listen to her.
"These two had been unable to communicate effectively for a long time, and important reasons could be traced to their upbringings. Gary's suspicion that his father had been unfaithful was key: Infidelity often yields an emotional inheritance. As a child, Gary internalized the idea that cheating and withholding secrets was acceptable. He had no examples from his own family to show how a husband should or could respond to a wife's needs in a healthy way. So whenever Cheryl expressed her anxieties and fears, Gary felt anxious and built an emotional wall. He didn't realize that his ignoring Cheryl's feelings was so hurtful to her. I told him, 'When you say nothing, she thinks you don't care.'
"And while Gary was successful professionally, on a personal level he never felt truly appreciated or loved. Cheryl's preoccupation with their children made him feel disregarded as he did as a child, and her angry put-downs further wore him down. But Gary was too out of touch with his feelings to express them. Instead, he acted out — first in a passive-aggressive manner, by yessing Cheryl to death, then by having an affair. Illicit sex with someone who looked up to him was exciting because it made him feel powerful.
"Like her mother, Cheryl had become comfortable in the role of victim and was negative and unforgiving. This distanced her from Gary and made her overfocus her attention on the children. It also allowed her to avoid resolving their problems. I told her, 'While Gary's affair was unquestionably wrong, you must understand that the way you treated him was also hurtful. By speaking to him in an angry, demeaning tone, you pushed him away.'
"After about six months of counseling, as Cheryl edged toward acknowledging the part she had played in the marital drama, her anger began to subside. As Gary became more genuinely responsive to her needs and concerns — taking a greater role in disciplining the children, for example — she worried less about his commitment to change.
"I urged them to find new ways of restoring energy and romance in their lives. That meant Gary had to stop focusing so much on his work, and Cheryl had to begin to carve out more time for Gary. They now set aside time every day for each other, simply to talk or just lie in bed and hold each other. Whenever Cheryl gets upset — and some days will be worse than others — I told her to ask her husband to console her. The exact words don't matter, I told him. The fact that you're there for your wife is what counts.
"I warned them that Cheryl was likely going to feel paralyzed in bed at first, and that Gary had to try not to feel discouraged. I told Cheryl that she shouldn't force herself to have sex if she wasn't ready, but she could try to respond positively when Gary reached for her hand, put his arm around her waist or kissed her. 'You need to let the intimacy flow between you,' I said. They did, and their sexual relationship is slowly improving.
"Cheryl and Gary were in therapy for two years. During one of our last sessions, the couple agreed that their marriage was stronger than it had ever been. 'You once told me that forgiveness is a gift you give yourself,' Cheryl said to me. 'I didn't know what that meant. Now, I know that forgiveness is a process. It's not that I have forgotten what Gary did, but it no longer consumes 100 percent of me. It has a place in our life, but our marriage is made up of so much more.'"
"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 Bonnie Eaker Weil, Ph.D., a therapist in New York City, and the author of Adultery: The Forgivable Sin. 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, June 2003.