This is one of many True Story Interviews in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/challenging/amazing things. This is the story of ‘Elle,’ her husband, his affair, and how they repaired their marriage.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I’m 49 years old, mom to three children. I’m an author and journalist. Seven years ago, when I was 42, I became a member of the club none of us wants to join – the betrayed wives club.
How did you meet your husband?
I met my husband through a mutual friend. We’ve been married for 18 years. We met when I was 30 and working as a magazine editor. He was in finance (still is). He’s smart and social. I generally prefer books to people. Our yin/yang thing works.
Prior to this experience with your husband, how did you feel about infidelity?
Like most women, my friends and I had played the “what would you do if you found out your husband was cheating” game. I insisted I’d kick him to the curb. I’d had boyfriends cheat on me in the past. Part of what I first loved about my husband was that he felt so safe. He adored me. He didn’t play games. It was all so easy. We were really good friends who fell in love.
Do you know what lead your husband to cheat?
My husband started seeking out sex as a way to numb uncomfortable feelings even before he met me. His father, who he worshiped, had died young. Then a girlfriend he was in love with said she had cancer, which turned out be a lie. He couldn’t cope with the loss, the confusion, the sadness. Sex without emotion became an escape.
I knew nothing of his sex addiction until twelve years into our marriage.
How did you find out? And how did you react?
We had married, moved cities, and altered our career paths. There had been some lean years, but we were finally doing well financially. We had three gorgeous, healthy children. Life was good.
And then…he switched jobs and took his toxic assistant with him. I was surprised. This woman drove him crazy. Nagged. Criticized. Made unreasonable demands. I figured switching firms was the perfect chance to get rid of her. He claimed that he needed her to help him get settled in his new job. That she was crazy but also good at her job.
Getting “settled” at his new job seemed to involved late nights at the office. Dinners with his assistant as they organized files. I was trying hard to be understanding because I knew he was under a lot of pressure to succeed. His company had a lot invested in him.
I was busy working on a book so I pushed my nagging thoughts aside. Besides, she was truly nasty. He wouldn’t cheat on me. Especially with her.
One night, he was out of town at a conference. I discovered she’d gone with him.
And suddenly, I just knew. It was like a light went off. I called him and he didn’t answer.
I called again. And again. And again. Thirty-one times I called and it went to voicemail every single time.
The next morning he called me back and I said, calmly: “Tell me everything.”
He, crying, admitted to an affair with her but said it was me he loved.
My world went dark.
I felt hatred toward her unlike anything I’d ever felt toward another person. She knew me. She had sat at my dinner table. How could anyone knowingly cheat with a married man? A father of three? What did she expect to get from it besides a bigger office? I was baffled. I called my husband horrible, unpublishable names. I told him he’d broken me forever. Why? I kept asking him. Why?
All he could say was that it had nothing to do with me. How was that possible? It took me a year to understand how true that was. Affairs rarely have anything to do with the wife. They’re fantasy. Escape. Which is why so few affairs last once they’re pulled from the shadows.
My husband found a therapist to help him figure out why he risked everything that mattered to him for a woman who didn’t. We fought. I cried. There were days I could barely function. I tried to take care of my kids. I finished my book though, to this day, I don’t know how. I was a mess. I couldn’t leave because I could barely get out of bed.
Six months later, the whole story emerged. He had cheated not just with this nasty assistant but with many women. Our entire relationship. He was, he told me, a sex addict. He was in treatment with a therapist who specialized in sex addiction.
To those who tell me that sex addiction is a convenient excuse that cads use when they’re caught, I say you’ve never seen sex addiction. Anyone with sex addiction, like any other addiction, is emotionally crippled by shame and self-loathing. It’s the farthest thing from sexy or convenient. Admitting it means 12-step meetings, full disclosure of everything you’ve ever done. Every lie you’ve told. It’s finally looking at yourself in the mirror and hating what you see.
What made you decide to stay with your husband and work through the issues?
My husband fully expected me to leave when he confessed but had agreed with his therapist that I deserved to know.
But when I looked at him curled in the fetal position, sobbing, unable to look at me, I saw only the father of my children – my closest friend – at the lowest point of his life.
I told him I could promise nothing but that I would be his friend. I figured that I would leave, eventually. That I would ensure he continued to get help, that once he was “healthy”, I would move on without regret.
In the meantime, however, I also was at the lowest point of my life. His betrayal triggered all sorts of my own issues – abandonment, trust, safety.
But by facing those, and watching my husband address deeply buried issues of his own, we grew together.
How have you two made it through this?
We had the benefit of a fabulous counselor who helped us work through the fallout of infidelity. Who taught my husband how to just be with me in my pain and accept responsibility without flinching. She showed us how to rebuild a marriage based on honesty and transparency. She made it clear that no marriage is immune to infidelity. And that marriage is more than sexual fidelity. That’s a part of it, of course. But it’s much more.
So here we are, seven years since my world imploded. And though I’ll never say my husband’s affair was good for us, I will say that we’ve grown in ways we couldn’t have imagined. I have found a joy I thought impossible. He is happier and more whole than he’s ever been.
In that seven years, I’ve lost my beloved mom. I’ve helped far too many friends deal with their spouse’s affairs. I’ve created a website to offer a safe, non-judgmental place for women experiencing the pain of betrayal to share their stories, seek advice, and receive compassion and support – pretty much the site I wished existed when I felt so lonely.
Surely it must be hard to rebuild trust. If you had to put a number on it, where are you guys at now?
It’s impossible to put a number on it. We’re not the same people we were. Our relationship is, in many ways, a second marriage to our first spouse.
I don’t believe I would still be in my marriage if my husband hadn’t told me he wanted to become the man I thought he was…and then took the necessary steps to battle his demons. I’m grateful that I gave him the chance. I’m grateful my children have the benefit of a dad who’s also taken steps to become a better father.
Affairs are devastating. And isolating. There’s much blame placed on the wife. Our culture supports a narrative that is blatantly untrue. That the wife must have been frigid. That she probably “let herself go.” That she must be a nag. That anyone who stays with a cheater is a doormat.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all response to betrayal. For some, leaving the marriage is wisest. For others, reconciliation takes them where they want to go. Every day I hear from women whose hearts are broken by the people who promised not to break them. They need compassion and someone to guide them toward healing, whatever that looks like for them.
Now, I’m even able to extend that compassion toward the Other Women. I’m convinced that no-one with any self-respect or decency knowingly participates in the pain of another person. These women are damaged. They settle for the ego strokes of an affair, the titillation of deceit because it makes them feel powerful. I wish they wanted more for themselves…at the very least, there would be a lot fewer women visiting my site seeking solace if other women (and, yes, men) refused to participate in their deception.
Thanks so much for sharing your story, Elle. Do you guys have any (respectful) questions for Elle? Have any of you stayed in a relationship after you were cheated on?