Love, Sex, and Infidelity
Meet three couples who survived the ultimate betrayal, and learn how to avoid their mistakes
When Danville residents Mike and Kristen married 15 years ago in a big church ceremony, they pledged their everlasting love for each other. At 32 and 27, respectively, their intention was to spend the rest of their lives together and to be faithful until death. However, Mike says now, "I really didn’t know what I was vowing. The words were there, but I didn’t have a vision of a what healthy marriage is."
Less than two years later, the couple’s relationship was fraying. Each of them—but particularly Mike—was busy with work; they weren’t seeing much of each other; and they were struggling with infertility and what Mike calls "the clockwork ritual of performing to procreate."
Rather than risk further upsetting his already anxious wife by addressing the situation, Mike survived, he says, by "compartmentalizing everything. It was easy to be somewhere and go through the motions. I could be talking to my wife but listening to every pitch [of the game] on the TV in the next room."
Under these circumstances, Mike’s friendship with a coworker began to shift "from legitimate late nights working together to sitting a little closer, a back massage, and then, I got addicted. It was like a drug. This other person made me feel good emotionally. And I went from having no romance to total excitement. The physical act of sex was so exciting because it was forbidden. Getting away with something very, very risky gave it an allure."
It was the beginning of an affair that would last for six years and would ultimately bring him to what Kristen terms "a place of total brokenness, where he realized he was going to lose everything."
While an affair might well be the final straw—the end of it all—for many of us, it was only the beginning for Mike and Kristen. After seven years, one six-month-long separation, and a renewed contact with their faith following the disclosure of his infidelity, Mike and Kristen are still together. They have a new church, a new baby, a child in elementary school, and a fresh lease on their marriage. After years of intense work, Mike has let go of the compartmentalization and of needing to act in control, and has replaced his habit of merely showing up with genuinely being present with Kristen.
Kristen has learned a few things, too. After forgiving something she once thought (and many of us would agree) was completely unforgivable, she no longer submerges her own needs in hope of keeping the peace. She tells Mike in a constructive way what she wants in marital boundaries—such as he can’t hang out with other women when she is not around. "He can no longer say ‘She is just a friend,’" says Kristen. "That line is forever gone."
Their journey beyond a belief in "true love forever" to a marriage of work, forgiveness, authentic communication, and the ability to fearlessly confront each other may seem surprising, but therapists say it’s far from unique. In fact, in our interviews with "survivors" of affairs, we found the infidelities acted as catalysts, pushing the couples involved into a kind of work that has earned them hard-won wisdom about being true to themselves and to their relationships.
These people learned lessons about relationship survival and communication under intense circumstances. Those who saw their marriages at risk realized that infidelity was often a symptom of their inability to connect with their partners in a meaningful way. They now speak as people who’ve peeled away layers of deception and uncovered their truest emotions: And their insights are profound.
Here in the East Bay, where marriages are often time-starved by competing demands ranging from stressful careers to long commutes and copious kids’ activities, it can be challenging even to find time to talk with one’s spouse. The consequence, says Walnut Creek marriage and family therapist Dan Beaver, is that marriages all around us are "running on autopilot." The couples we spoke to confirm this, consistently referencing their inattention to issues in their marriages—and to their post-affair realizations that staying together for the long haul requires deliberate devotion of time and effort.
Marriage in our society is usually viewed as the apotheosis of romantic love. Two people meet, develop passionate feelings for and attraction to each other, and then pledge their commitment to a sexually monogamous relationship that will last happily ever after. It’s a fairy tale that most of us, like Mike and Kristen, believe in up until the point when "happily ever after" surprises us by wearing off.
According to Ciele Jupe, an Orinda-based marriage and family therapist with a Ph.D. in psychology and 30 years’ experience, "Marriage is one of the hardest things in life to make work. It’s also one of the things for which we have the least amount of preparation or skill. We have few successful role models and little training, and that makes the entire enterprise very difficult." But, she says, "There’s a miracle that happens when people find the courage to say what they want or need which taps into a secret desire on their partner’s part to change."
People who do make the journey to truth and awareness, says Jupe, earn the great reward of "being deeply known, seen, and felt."
Couples who have survived infidelity speak of that reward with a similar degree of gratitude.
Sarah, an East Bay educator in her 40s who has been married for 15 years and has three young children, says that examining the roots of her husband’s infidelity, which took place 12 years ago, has brought them a particular kind of clarity. Through his affair, she says, her husband "came to understand how much I mean to him. Then, at a point four or five years ago when I was questioning our relationship, it was devastating to him.
"We went back to therapy, and we were able to get to the point we’re at now, where there’s no question for either of us that this is a relationship we want and need. And neither of us holds the other in an unrealistic regard—it’s very real now, as opposed to the fantasy life it felt like to me in the first few years of our marriage."
Kristen says, "I feel our story is one of hope. We’re never going to be perfect, but what we have now is precious to us because of all the work we’ve invested in it." In a separate interview, Mike echoed his wife’s words: "We’ve invested so much now, individually and as a couple, and I cherish what we have built."
The problem, of course, is that baring issues—speaking the truth—runs counter to our intrinsic drive toward safety and peace. "When you develop a sense of your partner as your support system, you don’t want to mess with that," says Heidi Berrin Shonkoff, a Berkeley-based licensed clinical social worker who has been in practice for 21 years. "So people stop going for what they want. They create a mutual pact to not make anyone anxious. But then they begin to feel dissatisfied."
"The more that’s left unsaid—the more dissatisfied you are about something—the more it festers," Sarah says.
"For a long time I was afraid to tell my husband things I wasn’t happy about."
Jake, an East Bay resident in his early 40s who is the father of three school-age children, is another person who discovered that burying anxiety-producing truths doesn’t work in the long run. He says he was immensely relieved when his wife, Elena, discovered an e-mail he left open on their home computer that led to her discovering two secrets he was struggling to keep: the fact that he was having an ongoing affair with a friend who lived abroad, and the fact that the friend was a man.
Being forced to open up to Elena and explore who they were as individuals and as a couple was, Jake says, "an incredibly powerful experience that has led us both to be much happier as a result. I don’t need to project an [unreal] image to my wife because I no longer believe she’ll reject me. She knows me. I now see myself as bisexual; but the person I want to be with is [Elena]. I’m committed to walking through life with her."
For her own part, Elena says she had to get past "much disgust and anger on my side" before even agreeing to counseling. "I made the choice to try to work through it because of our three children and because I maintained my deep respect for my husband, despite [his affair]. I was willing to try to get to the bottom of what motivated him. I realized that it always takes two to result in any kind of crisis like that."
Ultimately, Elena and Jake spent two and a half years in marriage counseling. For a year and a half of that time, she says, "I thought I would leave him every day." Elena struggled with Jake’s infidelity—and with the fact that "I was living with a guy who had been bisexual in the course of our relationship. I had never seen my husband in any way other than purely heterosexual. It was an odd thing to come to terms with." Now, four years after the discovery of the affair, she has accepted this new concept of her husband, and feels that his affair created "a great opportunity for our relationship to grow."
In some cases, the first agonizing hurdle in moving toward a more connected and truthful relationship is simply admitting that something is amiss. Looking back, Elena says, "There was an increasing amount of suspicion on my side, but also denial. I was saying to myself, ‘We’re happily married; we’re having a great life.’"
For Sarah, discovering her husband’s affair was "such a shock. I thought we had a perfect relationship. I had even said to him once, ‘Is there anybody happier than us?’" Kristen says that her "level of denial was so sick that I preferred to think I was crazy rather than see that my husband was having an affair."
Even after she began to confront Mike with her suspicions, he says he "would backpedal to try to save face. I never gave her credit when her intuition was correct." Kristen got her first clue of what was going on just months after their older child’s first birthday, when she overheard Mike playing back his work messages at high speed. The accelerated sound was high-pitched and strange, but she was able to discern a woman’s voice leaving what she calls "a love message."
Kristen’s first thought was that she had made the call herself and somehow forgotten. But she continued to discover signs of Mike’s affair everywhere. It took him a year and a half to confess. Kristen calls the 18-month, pitched battle of conflicting realities "excruciating."
"I would discover receipts or other bits of evidence and I would bring them to him, and he would tell me they were something other than what they were," Kristen says. "It was as though I could smell a dead body under our house and I would come to him with a toe, and he would say ‘Oh, that’s not a toe,’ or ‘Well, yes, that’s a toe, but so what?’ I really tried to believe him, because it was so important to me that our marriage be all right. And he wanted his other world to stay intact. But eventually they began to collide, and he saw that he couldn’t maintain both, and that one or both of them was going to crash."
It was only after Kristen and their first child left him—and the other woman he was involved with moved out of the area—that Mike grasped the scope of the damage his dishonesty was doing to himself and others. "I had been living lies," he says. "And the hardest thing when it all came out was seeing the pain in [Kristen’s] face. It had become evident to me that [my affair] was a sexual thing, and it was never about what my wife couldn’t give me."
Of course, one wonders what would have happened if Mike had talked to Kristen. Or Jake to Elena. Could they have said enough to each other to avoid the fear, the hands-off attitudes, the boredom—and the affairs? Expressing dissatisfaction or a desire for change in a relationship is risky, but so is swallowing unhappiness. As Beaver, who’s worked with couples for three decades, says, "Every couple has this crossroads: Truth versus harmony. Truth is the only thing that will sustain a marriage. Harmony will kill it."
Elena, whose very basic portrait of her husband was upended by his affair, now says, "Our experience has given us a bond that very few couples have. We have explored the most horrid sides of each other and are accepting of one another. Although my husband’s no angel, in many ways he’s the most interesting person I’ve ever met. I expect to grow with him. I think our greatest times are yet to come."
With Mike’s lies finally exposed, Kristen says that she decided to stay in her marriage because her husband is "my best friend" and because "our children need parents who can be there for them." Moved to help other couples deal with infidelity with the faith-based Avenue program in Danville, it’s clear that Kristen is deeply affected by Mike’s transformation and willingness to accept responsibility for the harm his affair caused. "Seeing my husband do the hard work of being truthful and authentic and humble has made him shine in my eyes," she says. "It’s the most attractive quality I see in him now. He’s real. And you can’t get much better than that."
After years of work, Mike says he can finally "experience what’s happening, good or bad, without trying to block it out. I can express an opinion without worrying about its effect, and I can say that I don’t know something, rather than trying to come up with what I think people want to hear. And [Kristen] can tell that I’m with her, not checked out. When we’re being intimate, she’ll say to me, ‘Are you with me?’ and I’ll look at her, and she’ll know I’m really there."
Frequent contributor Darcy Brown-Martin lives in the Oakland Hills with her husband and two children.