SAVING A MARRIAGE AFTER AN AFFAIR: A WIFE’S STORY (PART 2)
I didn’t set out to forgive him.
Maybe if I had, I wouldn’t have ever been able to. Maybe having that goal—forgiving my husband for betraying me, for forsaking our vows, for wounding me more deeply than I have ever been wounded before or since—right from the outset would’ve prevented me from taking care of myself, really taking care of myself to the point where I only thought about what was best for me and for the kids and didn’t think of him at all.
Only after I gave myself the space for that kind of sustained self-care was I able to think about whether or not there was a “we” worth fighting for, or whether Tim had shattered it when he made the decision to start an affair, and then the series of ongoing decisions to keep the affair going.
Post-affair fallout: A wrecked vacation was the least of my problems
“So did you go to Ireland anyway?” one of the women in the support group asked me, months after I discovered Tim’s infidelity and asked him to move out.
“Oh, no,” I said. “I couldn’t.”
“You should!” another woman urged. She’d been divorced for eight years, she said during the introductions around the circle (almost apologetically, since this was ostensibly a group for women considering divorce or newly divorced), and she hated her ex more now than when she first found out he was cheating on her with his first wife. “You wouldn’t believe all the horrible things he told me about her during the years of our marriage,” she’d said in her intro. “So how could living with me make him run back to her?” She’d looked around at us with incredulity while she said that, as if we needed to reflect the insanity of her ex’s choice back to her.
“I’d go,” the first woman said. “To Ireland. I’d clean that dude out for everything he had. And have the time of my life while I was doing it.” The way she crossed her arms and set her jaw spoke of determination, not raucous fun, though.
Wedding anniversary celebrations are non-transferable
Tim had actually tried to convince me to go after I found out about his affair. After it became clear that I wouldn’t be going anywhere with him.
“You should go anyway,” he pleaded. “Take your sister.”
“Why?” I spat. “So you don’t have to look at me?”
“What? No. Because you’ve been wanting this trip for so long. And we can’t get refunds on so much of it anyhow.”
“It was supposed to be to celebrate our anniversary,” I said. “Remember?” Even the word—anniversary—felt like a cruel taunt in my mouth, a sharp-edged relic from a past life. My throat closed over it.
“I know, I know.” He dragged a hand from his forehead to his chin. He looked exhausted. We’d been at this for hours. This = me hitting him with questions (and sometimes useless fists that ended in sobbing). The questions that you’d imagine: Who is she? Where did you meet her? Where did you have your trysts with her? How long has this been going on? Do you love her? Does she love you? Etc., etc, etc. And, most of all, the loudest and most frequently repeated question: Why?
“Fun?” Doesn’t he know me?
Still, recognizing the exhaustion written on his face (and maybe what looked like remorse, too, though was it remorse over the infidelity, I wondered, or remorse over getting caught?) and even recognizing that his face was tear-streaked (and I hadn’t been conscious of anyone’s tears but my own) did nothing to make me feel for him. In that moment, I hated him.
No, that’s not true. If I had been able to so cleanly and quickly go from love to hate, I wouldn’t have been in so much pain. It’s more accurate to say that I desperately wished I could flick a switch and hate him. I hated what he had done to me, to us, and hated that he had the power to hurt me so devastatingly.
“You could still have fun, though,” he finally said. “In Ireland.”
And that felt like another betrayal of sorts, the fact that after 14 years of marriage—nearly 14 years…14 years in five days’ time, to be exact—that he didn’t know me at all. That he’d think after everything I believed about us was shattered I could still trounce off to Europe and swill Guinness in pubs. That he thought my heart was that easily mended. Or easily distracted.
Or that my heartbreak could be postponed to a more convenient time.
“You ruined Ireland for me,” I said. “I’ll never be able to go there. It will always be connected to this, to how you could come home from work every day and smile and act like this family was your whole world, all the while being…being…oh, God….being intimate with someone else.” I collapsed into another round of uncontrollable tears.
Eventually I told him I needed him to get out, and yet bizarrely and secretly hoping he could say something that would convince me to let him stay.
He didn’t even try.
A full year later he told me that he hadn’t tried because he thought it would make everything worse, but on that horrible, horrible evening of discovery, amidst our half-packed luggage open on our bed, it felt to me like another failure of his. To this day, I’m not sure that if he had launched an impassioned, convincing plea for why I should let him stay that I would have. But that night, it felt like it was too easy for him to disconnect. And of course I imagined him going to her.
He didn’t. He went to his brother’s. (Tim’s brother came to see me the next day, told me that he had had no idea about what was going on till Tim told him the night before, said that he gave Tim hell when he heard and will continue to give him hell but it wasn’t like him at all to be unfaithful, that’s not how their parents raised them, blah blah blah and the only thing he could think was that Tim was stressed at work and going through some type of midlife cri— I held up my hand for him to stop. I appreciated him coming to see how I was doing, but I couldn’t stand to hear any excuses being made for Tim.)
His affair, my shame: Why the lies on my end? Why the shame?
Although I didn’t take the trip, I kept the plans in place for the girls—for their sake and mine.
My oldest daughter was enrolled in overnight dance camp and my youngest was to spend the Ireland two weeks with my parents. I couldn’t tell anyone in my family the truth of why we didn’t go. Not then. I envied Tim being able to tell his brother that very night, but I chalked that up to the unique license granted to the unfaithful party.
For some reason that I still don’t understand, I felt crushing shame, even though logically I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. Part of me, much later down the road, wondered if it was because I wanted to hold the door open for the possibility of reconciliation, and I knew if I told my parents and sister about Tim’s infidelity, they wouldn’t ever be able to forgive him.
Still, the only feeling I could get in touch with, no matter how puzzling it was (and is) to my rational brain, was shame. Deep, deep shame.
I hid my excruciating emotional pain from my girls the very best I could, white-knuckling it for the day-and-a-half till I saw them off. I had to extravagantly lie to my parents, though in retrospect I guess it wasn’t that big a lie: Tim and I are having problems, need some time, will you still take Bethany for the two weeks?
The lie was one of omission: I didn’t explain why I was effusive about the forthcoming trip one day, and was calling it off the next. The vague “problems” implies a slow simmer, not a sudden explosion.
But I needed time alone.
Or at least time without people who needed me. I know that’s not a luxury everyone has who finds themselves in my shoes, and I wish I could make it that all victims of infidelity get weeks of time to do what they need when they first learn of the affair(s).
I sank into a dark, hopeless place…or maybe I sank into myself for awhile
So in those two weeks where I didn’t have to be Mom, where I didn’t have to go to work because I’d already gotten the time off for the trip, where I didn’t have to look at Tim—though part of me desperately wanted to see him all the same; I don’t ever remember being so viciously torn—
I cried and slept at the wrong times (and thrashed around in bed when the rest of the world was asleep) and stared vacantly at vacant TV and curled up with the cat until the cat, needing space, wriggled away and ate non-nutritive things like Cheez Whiz sandwiches and spoonfuls of ice cream pressed between Oreos (and yes, where I occasionally dulled the pain with too much wine, though the pain always seemed to come back stronger after that)…
and all that may sound like doing nothing, or maybe it sounds like acting out in a sluggish thoughtless way, but months later I saw that those weeks were my first step toward healing.
True, they were messy, sad weeks, and I probably only showered five times in all, but that’s what I needed, and now I am glad I gave it to myself.
Most of the time I was alone, though I did confide in one friend, and I spent some teary phone time with her, and some teary times when we sat on my couch and she held my hand and passed me tissues. She called Tim every name in the book, and that felt good, so good. It was like she was shouldering the anger for me, since I was so consumed with raw pain and shock and grief that I couldn’t manage pure anger too. The anger felt like a place to aspire to, strangely enough. It felt more powerful than where I was slumped in my salsa-stained sleep-shirt and holey socks.
Post-affair emotions: My last spoonful of rage
But then, one day several months after these two weeks that both steamrolled me and provided a gateway to my healing, one day when I was sitting in the support group feeling how much hate and anger there was in the room being telepathed out toward our collective group of men, I realized that although I had taken part in that myself, I was ready to move on.
Whether or not I ultimately forgave Tim wasn’t the point when I made that decision. At that fragile crossroads, I just knew that I didn’t want to keep consuming hate and anger as a steady diet and wondering why I wasn’t feeling any better. I knew I wanted to lay down my weapons for myself.
What I needed to learn by living it, was that although I had told myself I was sending the rage outward toward Tim, all that vitriol was really landing right back in me. And although the anger still seemed justified, I didn’t want to feel it anymore. I didn’t want it as my go-to companion.
Even if I never laid eyes on Tim again (at least not as a wife; I knew I’d have to still have contact with him until the girls were grown), I knew I had swallowed enough morsels of rage to last me the rest of my life and was ready to hunt for a type of forward-looking sustenance.
Thank you for reading.
Wishing you clarity and strength,