What happens when an affair explodes into a marriage? Alex Gray talks to three people who have come out the other side.
Mike* will never know for certain whether or not his life fell apart because his (now ex-)wife, Claire, was having an affair. Claire has always maintained not. Mike has his suspicions. Looking back, he says, there were plenty of clues that all was not well in their marriage: a growing distance between them, her general disinterest in him and his welfare, her need for ‘space’. But perhaps the clue that looms largest is that she started spending a lot of time with an old male friend… whom she moved in with after leaving the marital home.
In 2012, according to the Office for National Statistics, adultery as the grounds for divorce dropped to an all-time low, accounting for just 14 per cent of dissolutions granted to wives in 2012. Yet in The Way We Are Now, The State of the UK’s Relationships, published in summer 2014, Relate, the UK's largest provider of relationship support, reported that one in four people in their survey confessed to having had an affair (24%). Men were slightly more likely than women to admit to having cheated (26% versus 22%) and much more likely to admit to wrestling with temptation (22% versus 13%).
“There were problems [in our marriage], but nothing that I felt we couldn’t get through,” says Mike, a 41 year old Sales Director from Middlesex. “We didn’t row until this person arrived into our life. Our marriage was based on not rowing, but maybe that was the problem. At the time it was like I’d been shot between the eyes.” One of the most frustrating things for Mike was that when the couple had found out that she was pregnant with their eldest child, Claire had said ‘I’ve always wanted to be a good wife and a good mother; ideally I would like to give up work’… and that’s what she did. “We made some sacrifices,” explains Mike, “but we made it work. When the boys were gone and at school, she turned round and said she was leaving because all I ever did was treat her like a wife and a mother!”
In one of his most popular books, marital therapist Andrew G Marshall writes that 55% of the adult population has committed adultery at some point. “Whatever the statistics, we all feel it’s never going to happen to us,” he says. “In general, [affairs happen] because people don’t feel attended to or cared about in some way. What I would say at the very heart of it is that we find it very difficult to ask for what it is we want. The myths of love say if you love me you will understand me and give me what I need, and if you’re not giving me what I need then it means probably you don’t love me.” He believes, too, that we don’t know how to negotiate. “If we say something our partner doesn’t like and they get upset, instead of saying ‘I’m sorry I’ve upset you, but we really need to talk about this’, we sort of go away and think ‘I’ll just keep my head down and carry on’. But the problem is all these problems do eventually come to the fore and you detach, you start finding more and more reasons why your partner is wrong for you and why someone else is incredibly right for you.”
Lisa, a marketing consultant from Hertfordshire, discovered her husband’s affair on Boxing Day, 2012. “Initially he broke down and said how sorry he was, how he wanted us to stay together,” says Lisa. “So we went for counselling, both individually and as a couple. We had two children together, I would have forgiven him, I would have done anything to save the marriage; I thought he was my soulmate, but no matter what we tried his heart wasn’t there, he would say the right things but wouldn’t follow up with actions. Within three months he had moved out to be with her. I don’t know what I could have done differently. You spend so much time trying to understand what did I do wrong? He blames me for everything, and still today he will blame me.” Lisa says that the only thing she can pinpoint is that they rarely spent time together as a couple: they went out a lot with friends, but never on their own.
“In this case,” comments Clare Prendergast, Counsellor Spokesperson at Relate, “there might have been a lot of thinking about it for a long time before he actually did it, where maybe if they’d had some tools or techniques they may have been able to nip it in the bud and fix things at home.”
And approaches vary between the sexes. “Men in particular would rather not talk about it. A lot of couples fall into the habit when someone says ‘how are you?’ of saying ‘I’m fine’ when you’re not. If you’ve got regular connecting and sharing inserted into your lifestyle, ideally daily, regularly having a moment in time when you just say ‘how are you?’ then the lines of communication stay open,” explains Clare.
Lisa feels now that she never stood a chance at saving the marriage: “He took that chance away from me,” she points out, “because I never even knew there was a problem. He was falling out of love with me, we had been together for 14 years, how could he not talk to me about it?”
But an affair doesn’t mean the end of a marriage, as in the case of Andrea, a 40-year-old mum from Buckinghamshire, whose husband had a year-long affair with her best friend four years ago. “In a macabre way I would say that she did us a favour,” says Andrea ruefully. “It was a lot of heartache, but we both fought for our marriage. I still loved him. And I know it wasn’t just him – I didn’t work at our marriage, I probably did neglect him, we had two kids and a new baby, I was tired, I didn’t want to have sex. He was having a tough time at work and came home every day to an exhausted wife surrounded by nappies. I think it was a build-up of a lot of things, I think he felt pushed aside and he had this woman telling him how amazing he was. If I moaned about my husband she would go back and tell him, but I didn’t know it. On New Year’s Eve I caught them. He moved out for two weeks while he decided what to do. After that we talked and talked and talked.”
The marriage survived, and Andrea made a conscious decision never to throw the affair in his face. “Believe you me that’s hard,” she says. “Every day I think about what happened, even now. But we talk about it; it’s not just shunned. She has since gone on to have another affair. We have moved house and four years later, we’ve had another child together, and our marriage is better than it ever has been.”
Mike’s ex-wife married her new partner a year after leaving her husband. One good thing that has happened, though, is that Mike believes he is now a better father. “I always felt, when we were a family, like the breadwinner but not necessarily the father, the decisions were out of my hands. I was always just told what we were doing. There are milestones; my youngest has now lived more time away from me than he ever did with me. I’ve become an uncle again, but there’s no auntie. Things like that get to you, but my number one priority is my two boys. I’m not unhappy at all, there are things missing from my life but I’m not in any rush to replace them. I don’t want more confusion in my children’s life. I couldn’t marry someone now, five years on, let alone within twelve months!”
Lisa, too, is positive about the journey she has undergone. “I really believe things happen for a reason and one day I will know why it happened,” she says. “Two years on, hand on heart I can say while I still miss the family of four and the lovely house and the plans for the future, I am a much better person. You really find yourself again, who are you? what makes you tick? what makes you get up? You do a lot of soul searching, I’m a better mum and friend, I value what life is about a million times more. Children, first, then friends and family.”
* Names & some identifying details have been changed
For help and advice on relationship counselling visit www.relate.org.uk or http://oneplusone.org.uk which offers online services to help couples.
Andrew G Marshall’s latest book, ‘How Can I Ever Trust You Again?: Infidelity: From Discovery to Recovery in Seven Steps’ is out now in all good bookshops or see www.andrewgmarshall.com