Jenny: 38, stay-at-home mom
Tom: 36, information technologist
Married: 10 years
Kids: Krissy, 10; Jon, 8
Dave Carder, Fullerton, California
Jenny's high school boyfriend, Grant, messaged her on Facebook. Frustrated with her marriage, she was soon exchanging love notes and sexy photos with him. Then Jenny agreed to meet Grant at a motel for the night. The next morning, overcome with guilt, she drove home and confessed to her husband, Tom. Jenny claims that she and Grant only kissed. Tom finds that hard to believe.
"My behavior is inexcusable and goes against everything I have ever believed in. Before I met Tom I was married for three years to someone who cheated on me. I know how it feels when the person you love betrays you. What was I thinking? How could I have done the exact same thing?
"I always thought Tom and I had a good marriage — we're devoted to our kids, active in church, and able to talk about anything and everything. But since the recession, Tom has done the work of three people. He installs computer systems for aerospace companies and sometimes he's gone four or five days a week. He tries to make time for the kids, but I can't remember the last time the two of us hung out alone.
"It seems like the only things we talk about now are Jon and Krissy and education. Three years ago we started homeschooling — all our friends at church do it. We had agreed to do it together. But since Tom's away so much, I do most of the teaching, plus everything else around the house. Instead of working as a team, we've been arguing a lot. We approach things very differently. If the kids want to do their schoolwork lying on the floor, I'm fine with it as long as the work gets done. But Tom has always been pretty rigid. He wants them sitting at their desks. I try to talk about it, but he just tells me what he thinks we should do and walks out of the room. I guess that's better than the screaming fights my parents used to have, but I get so frustrated. I want him to hear me out.
"I started to feel trapped. Being home all day long with the kids — with no time to take a Bible class, go to the gym, or even meet friends for coffee — made me so depressed that I got into the habit of spending hours online. Checking in with friends on Facebook made me feel happy and involved. Then out of the blue I got a message from Grant, who was my boyfriend for three years back in high school.
"He told me his marriage was in trouble and that he needed someone to talk to. I wanted to help. After all, I'd been through a painful divorce myself. He sent me his cell phone number and we started calling and texting.
"Soon I found myself confiding in him, too, and he was as charming and funny as I remembered. I know this sounds corny, but Grant made me feel sexy and alive. I'd been a wife and mother for so long I'd forgotten what it felt like to be me. When I'd see a text from Grant my heart would start pounding and I couldn't open it fast enough.
"After six weeks of calling and texting all day, every day, Grant suggested we meet at the beach. I wouldn't even let myself think about what I was doing — I just said yes. Then I made up a cover story, telling Tom that for Mother's Day all I wanted was a day by myself to read and write in my journal.
"Even as I drove to meet Grant, I knew it was crazy and terribly wrong, but I kept right on going. We had a dinner at a seafood place overlooking the water. We had such a strong connection that we picked up right where we left off when we were 18. After dinner we strolled back to the inn. Closing the door of our room, Grant pulled me toward him and we started to kiss — then the reality of what I was doing sunk in and I abruptly pulled back. I realized I didn't love Grant, only the idea of him, and I told him to leave.
"The next morning I drove straight home and told Tom the whole story. I was crying so hard I could barely get the words out. Tom just sat there with his head in his hands.
"I feel sick every time I think about what I've done. Tom is so angry I don't know how to convince him that I love him and only want to be with him."
"Come on! Does Jenny honestly think I believe that story? That they only kissed and he didn't spend the night? Give me a break. I'm not a complete idiot.
"When she came home and confessed, I was stunned. I was too disgusted to even say anything. Then I bombarded her with questions. I had to know every detail of what happened. I even went online to check our cell phone records and found more than 300 pages of calls between them!
"I can't stop thinking about this. We had something special. I tried so hard to make her happy. I knew the homeschooling was harder on her than we thought it would be. But I had no idea she was this upset. We've definitely fought about how the kids should be taught, and I'm not used to that kind of conflict. I don't think I ever saw my parents argue when I was growing up. But I didn't realize she thought I was cutting her off when I'd leave the room. I just couldn't stand the arguing.
"When Jenny started going online, I thought it was cool. I'm not a Facebook person but she seemed happier talking to old friends and discussing scripture with her church group. And I appreciated the fact that she was smiling and waving good-bye to me each morning. I knew she wasn't that happy doing the homeschooling, and I thought she was putting on a brave face.
"Now I realize she was just excited to have me gone so she could get online and talk to this guy. I also thought it was a great idea for her to grab some time alone and spend the night at the beach. Meanwhile, she's really at a motel with her lover.
"I feel like such a jackass. I know I need to move past this, but I can't."
The Counselor's Turn
"When Jenny and Tom first came to see me, I wasn't sure they were going to make it. Tom was furious. He couldn't believe Jenny had lied to him and he was desperate to know the details of what happened. 'Anger is healthy and you have a right to expect answers,' I said. "But to rebuild trust, you need to focus on the roles you both played in the breakdown of your marriage — and what you can both do differently.'
"Tom thought I was saying that his actions made Jenny have an affair. 'Not at all. Jenny is totally responsible for the choices she made,' I explained. 'But an affair doesn't just happen. It's a wake-up call that something in the marriage needs to be addressed.'
"To help Jenny and Tom figure out what went wrong, I asked them to try to create a timeline of their relationship by writing down major events or stresses that took place in it and how they each felt individually at the time. They saw that the tension for both of them had spiked when Tom's work schedule ramped up, as well as after they had started homeschooling. That sounds obvious, but the damage these types of changes cause to a relationship often happens so gradually that many couples don't realize what it was that initiated the problem.
"Like many parents, Jenny and Tom had become so consumed with their kids they had little time left over for each other. Jenny's world became tedious, and the fact that she and Tom weren't communicating well made everything worse. Then suddenly Grant appeared and she felt cared about and desired.
"Once the couple could see where they had gone wrong, they began to repair the damage. Tom couldn't do much about his schedule, but he could shave off an hour here and there. They decided to put Krissy and Jon back in public school, which removed a source of conflict and gave Jenny some breathing room. And Jenny agreed to cut off all contact with Grant. 'You can't have three people in a marriage,' I told her.
"Tom now leaves for work later and spends mornings with Jenny. They've developed some simple rituals that make them feel more like a couple, such as having coffee together, going out for brunch, or taking a bike ride. Tom even took the initiative to sign them up for a marriage conference weekend where they renewed their vows. He makes a point of calling or e-mailing Jenny when he's away to see how she's feeling and takes the time to really listen to her instead of jumping in with his quick-fix solutions. With no teaching duties, Jenny finally has time for herself and she's gotten involved in the youth ministry at church.
"But Tom admits it has been really hard. 'When we first sought counseling, I totally blamed Jenny for messing up our marriage,' he says. 'But I knew I didn't want to lose her. Now I see that we both messed up our marriage. And it's something we have to keep working on all the time.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. The story told here is true but names and identifying information have been changed to conceal identities. This month's therapist, Dave Carder, is the author of Close Calls: What Adulterers Want You to Know About Protecting Your Marriage.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, February 2012.