"Brent has been having an affair with a coworker named Kay," said Anna, 37, a soft-spoken brunette. "He claims he wants to stay married — and I want to believe him — but the woman still works as a paralegal in his office. They see each other every day. So how can we possibly move on?
"This is so unlike Brent. I thought we had a good marriage. We never fought; we never even raised our voices. If he was unhappy, why didn't I know?
"This has been the worst year of my life. Ten months ago I had a miscarriage after finally getting pregnant through in vitro fertilization, which followed three attempts through artificial insemination. The whole process was a nightmare, but it all seemed worth it when I got pregnant. When I miscarried at nine weeks, the heartache was unimaginable. But what shocked me most was Brent's reaction. He didn't even seem all that upset.
"Brent is a corporate lawyer who just made partner at one of Atlanta's top firms. His hours have always been grueling. Mine aren't much better. I'm a director of stock research at an investment bank. Sometimes we have to check our BlackBerrys to figure out if we can have dinner together.
"Around the time I got pregnant, we began house hunting. We found one and moved in right before I miscarried. It's perfect — a half hour from our offices, with a lovely garden out back. But I had the feeling that Brent was pretending to like the house for my sake. When I asked, he said I was being my usual oversensitive self. But it's so hard to know with my husband — he stuffs his feelings inside.
"Still, I never dreamed he'd be unfaithful. Brent is just so loyal — ask anyone who knows him. I mean, he's still friends with guys he went to preschool with! But over the past few months, Brent was putting in even longer hours than usual. He was also drinking a lot. Sometimes I didn't know where he was. I'd call his cell, and it would go straight to voice mail. I'd be frantic: What if he was wrapped around a telephone pole somewhere?
"I've never been the suspicious type, but at his firm's spring picnic, I noticed that Kay gave him a hug that seemed more than colleague-friendly. When I mentioned it to Brent, he said I was being silly. But soon the clues were too blatant to ignore. One weekend I found long dark hairs on his shirt. I froze for a minute, then went upstairs and begged him to tell me the truth. That's when he broke down and confessed. Not only that, he said he wasn't sure he wanted kids after all — and that he hated our house!
"I felt as if a bomb had dropped on me. I didn't know what to do, so I called my parents. As an only child, I've always been close to them, especially my mom. They have a great marriage — I've never once heard them fight. My dad, a factory worker, was always very conservative and overprotective, but he only wanted the best for me. I went to Catholic schools, rarely disobeyed my parents, and even lived at home for the first two years of college. It was a big deal for me to move into my own apartment with a girlfriend when I was a junior.
"I met Brent not long after I began my first job at the investment bank where I still work. His friend was dating a woman in my office. They came by to pick her up, and he and I chatted for several minutes. I thought he was adorable, but when he asked for my phone number, I hesitated. I was nervous about giving my number out to a stranger. Instead, I asked for his and promised to call. He doubted I would, but he was wrong. We had our first date on Valentine's Day.
"We discovered we had similar values and backgrounds. But while I tend to be super serious, Brent is Mr. Social, and his fun side brought out my own. After dating for a year, we got married at my parents' church. His parents live a few minutes from mine, and both families have become close. Our holiday celebrations always include everyone.
"A nice life, or so I thought. Now it feels like a big lie. I love Brent and believe that marriage is forever. But how can I trust him?"
"I used to look down on guys who cheat on their wives," said Brent, a handsome man of 37. "Now I'm one of them and I'm so ashamed I can't look Anna in the eye. But I'm also strangely relieved that she knows. I'm tired of lying.
"How did the affair start? The way these things often do — after an office party, when we'd both drunk too much. Kay is very sexy and she's into a lot of fantasy stuff I could never ask Anna to do. I sound like a complete caveman, but I wasn't even thinking about the pain I would cause Anna.
"Since I was a kid, I've been the type to pretend everything's fine when bad things happen. My family was not big on talk; stop whining and get moving was the basic MO. My parents had a dismal marriage. Neither one ever expressed affection for each other or their kids. I'd do anything for my two brothers, but my parents — Dad was an accountant, Mom a homemaker — paid no attention to me. I don't remember them ever coming to my baseball games. My uncle was more of a dad to me. He gave me my first baseball mitt and took me to my first Atlanta Braves game.
"My uncle was a lawyer, so I wanted to be one, too. Luckily, I won several scholarships to both college and law school. I love my work and feel very fortunate to be with my firm. I've worked with great people on some of the decade's biggest deals.
"I wish I could be as enthusiastic about my marriage. We used to have a healthy sex life, but our focus on our careers killed the sex. Sometimes I'd want to make love, but Anna wouldn't be in the mood, so I didn't push it. Once in a blue moon we'd go away for a weekend, have fantastic sex and say, "Let's do this more often!" But we'd slip back into our old pattern.
"I'm also not sure about children. I just made partner and need time in my new responsibilities. I'm not saying never — just not yet. But two years ago Anna became hell-bent on getting pregnant. I went along because I love her, but I was ambivalent. I'm scared that in spite of my best intentions, I'll be a lousy father, like my dad. Plus, there was just so much sadness and stress around the whole infertility issue. Anna would get depressed if she got her period and bossy about when we had to have sex. Day 10? Too early. Day 14? Good to go. I felt like a machine.
"It seemed unfair that other people got pregnant immediately and we had to go through hell. When she finally conceived through IVF, she was thrilled beyond belief. Maybe that's why I agreed to this house, even though I can't stand it or the neighborhood. I figured at least it would be a good place to raise a child. After she lost the baby, being here felt pointless. But for her to suggest I didn't care about the miscarriage is dead wrong. I was torn up inside.
"The miscarriage was a huge blow, but little things upset Anna, too. And she's so regimented! Whether it's cleaning the basement or getting my mom a present, she'll announce that we have to do it that instant, no ifs, ands, or buts. She makes lists of her lists, and if I don't do something on her timetable, she gets mad. What I wouldn't give for a little spontaneity.
"The affair is over, and Anna knows that. It was never more than lust for me. But I have no idea how to handle the fact that Kay works at my firm and keeps making excuses to see me. To leave would be professional suicide, and as a junior partner I'm not in a position to have her transferred to another department. I just don't know what to do about any of it."
The Counselor's Turn
"Nothing prepares you for a spouse's infidelity," said the counselor. "Your self-respect and sense of control over your life get swept away, leaving you unmoored. That's why my first task was to reassure Anna that her anger and sadness were normal. 'You're mourning the illusion that your relationship with Brent was special,' I told her. 'Your reaction is appropriate.' But even though anger can be therapeutic, in the long run it keeps you stuck. Anna needed to let go of her anger in order to explore what went wrong in her marriage. 'Understanding the part you may have played doesn't excuse Brent's actions,' I said. 'But it can help you figure out what changes are needed to make the relationship work.'
"Anna and Brent took small steps on three key fronts: building trust, nurturing the marriage, and restoring sexual intimacy. The fact that Kay worked in Brent's office was an extra burden. Although he eliminated all contact with Kay unless another person was present, she kept trying to see him. Brent instructed his secretary to block all calls and e-mails. ('She probably suspects the affair, but she's discreet and I need her help,' Brent admitted.) Kay persisted until he told her outright, 'I'm sorry I have hurt you, but I love my wife. My marriage means the world to me.'
"Meanwhile, to rebuild trust, I asked Anna to write down everything she needed Brent to do to affirm his love. Her list included: Tell me whenever you see her (even if it's just a routine work encounter); listen when I need to vent; and check in with me throughout the day, especially if you have a business dinner. Brent adhered to her every wish. He also stopped drinking, which had been a problem.
"At one session, Anna asked if Kay was a better lover than she was. I had advised Brent to say just enough for a reality check — nothing hurtful or punitive. He was silent for a moment, then said, 'The sex was better than what we have had in a while, but that's because it was illicit — and because I thought you weren't interested."
"Although it stung her to hear this, Anna appreciated the honesty. 'I've always known that Brent wanted to push the sexual envelope more than I did,' she conceded. I told her that spouses frequently have different levels of desire. The most immediate goal, however, was getting a handle on her anger. While she needed to express it, uncontrolled rage is destructive. I suggested she allow herself two 20-minute 'outbursts' a day. During these periods, she could lash out at Brent while he held her and listened (his way of acknowledging his responsibility for her anger). When the time was up, she had to stop. Anna regularly used this escape hatch for several months, but as she learned to focus on improving her marriage instead of dwelling on the affair, she needed it less and less.
"We next turned to the challenge of remaking their relationship into the emotional sanctuary it once was. These two had put their marriage on hold while they concentrated on their careers. But unless a couple consciously reinforces their bond daily, it won't hold fast when a crisis erupts. This couple also had a 'polite marriage,' sidestepping conflict whenever possible. Having never seen her parents argue, Anna was unprepared for dissent in her marriage. And in her quiet but determined way she made certain there wasn't any, unconsciously pressuring Brent to go along with what she wanted. But while their marriage lacked conflict, it also lacked passion and excitement.
"Despite his confident facade, Brent had trouble connecting with others (a quality common among adults who felt unloved as children, as he did). Having been largely ignored by his parents, Brent found it difficult to express his feelings and had no clue how to deal with Anna's anxieties. Rather than risk upsetting her, he acquiesced to her wishes, then resented her and ultimately acted out by having an affair, which is appealing because it provides the illusion of intimacy without the emotional baggage and responsibility that true intimacy brings.
"Also, men often bury their fears about fatherhood. I pointed out to Brent that never revealing your true feelings can be far more detrimental to a marriage than a healthy argument. In counseling, Brent and Anna both struggled to voice their deepest concerns about the affair, as well as their feelings at the moment. In the process, they learned to really hear what the other had to say. During one weekly talk, they agreed to put off the decision to try to get pregnant again. Anna was disappointed but didn't try to change Brent's mind. 'We'll talk about it when we're ready,' she said.
"She's also learned to relinquish her need for control. Case in point: Last July 4, the couple hosted a barbecue. When Anna started to fret over the to-do list, Brent said he'd take care of everything. When July 2 arrived and he still hadn't ordered meat, she panicked. 'I told her I knew what I was doing,' Brent reported. 'She backed off, and I ordered the food and picked up everything else at Costco, and everyone had a great time.'
"The hardest part of the couple's therapy was sexual healing. Anna felt uncomfortable even kissing her husband, let alone making love. 'You can't expect to feel emotionally safe right away,' I said, 'so take it slow.' Cuddling on the couch with no expectation of intercourse, exchanging long kisses and showing affection both in and out of the bedroom help a couple feel close again. I also challenged Anna to confront her fears about resuming sex. 'Ask yourself, "What am I waiting for?" You shouldn't do anything that makes you uncomfortable, but instead of waiting for the special moment to strike, act "as if" you want to make love,' I advised. 'You'll discover that good sex builds on itself.'
"This couple finished counseling with their marriage firmly on the mend. I believe it will emerge stronger than ever as Anna continues to work on forgiveness. They will be better prepared for parenthood when and if they try again to conceive. 'Brent's affair will always be a part of who we are,' Anna told me, 'but only one part. I love Brent, and I'm finally realizing that if we're honest and respectful of each other's needs, our marriage will only get better.'"
"Can This Marriage Be Saved?" is the 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, PhD, author of Make Up, Don't Break Up. 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, July 2005.