The XX Factor

My Affair Saved My Marriage

The first of our pieces about marriage counseling comes from J., who sent in the following about why she and her husband went to seek help.

It was 1986. We’d been married seven years (yeah yeah, what a cliché-the Seven Year Itch) and had two small children. My husband is a professional musician and has always traveled for a living. Back then he was playing lead alto for Frank Sinatra, flying first class all over the world, staying in fabulous hotels, rubbing shoulders with celebrities, living the high life. Meanwhile, I was home, alone with our daughter and son, 1,000 miles away from my own family. We lived close to my in-laws, but they had a very active social/work life, and didn’t have time for much baby-sitting. I had grown increasingly resentful, disenchanted with my marriage. Mike came home from weeks on the road, exhausted, ready to catch up on his sleep, have home-cooked meals. I longed to have him step in and share child-rearing responsibilities and take me out to dinner. No such luck. The watershed moment I remember is when, in the middle of us having words, I said, “Listen, pal, when you come home, you’re HOME. This isn’t your celebrity life-the limos, hotels, fancy dinners. You carry out the garbage, help with the kids, be a partner to me-this is your REAL life.” And Mike said, “How do you know? Maybe that other life-the limos and glamour and celebrity-maybe THAT’S my real life.”

He couldn’t understand that his being happy and successful wasn’t enough for me, that I had desires and dreams of my own, a career of my own, which had been put on hold so that he could have the life he wanted while I assumed all responsibility for our home and family.

I was devastated, and my feelings of aloneness and my anger were overwhelming. I ignited a relationship with someone who was a friend to both me and my husband. It was an intensely emotional affair-he was a sweet, available, quiet, and domestic man. He wanted me to leave my husband and marry him. He was ready to take on my children, too.

When my husband found out, he was completely freaked out. After years of me asking him to go to counseling and him saying, “What for? I’m perfectly happy with things the way they are,” things changed. He begged me to go to counseling with him, even went so far as to find a therapist and make an appointment. And we went.

He, of course, felt that he had the upper hand-the moral high ground-because I’d betrayed the marriage by having an affair. I really didn’t know what to expect from our therapy; frankly, I didn’t care. I was already emotionally checking out of the relationship. The going rate for therapy back then was $70 an hour, about half what it is now. At our first session, when Margaret asked us to talk about our issues, my husband immediately talked about how I’d betrayed him and our marriage, while he’d been out on the road, always faithful, focused only on his career. And then she asked me how I perceived our marriage. Out poured all my heartache and loneliness, my terrible unhappiness. I talked about my deferred dreams, what it was like to be alone, how angry I’d been for so long.

And Margaret looked at my husband and said, “What an ass. Of course she had an affair. She had to get something from someone. She should have left your sorry ass.”

My husband’s jaw dropped. He expected to hear that I was the bad guy, and that’s not what our therapist saw or told him.

Long story short, this woman kept our marriage together, helped us to remember how we’d adored each other as newlyweds. She made us recognize that we had a good foundation for marriage-physical attraction, two children, a basic appreciation of each other. My husband made huge changes, his eyes opened up to what it was like to be the one left behind while the other flew. It didn’t change the nature of his job, but he came home a different man.

We’ve now been married for 30 years, solidly, happily. We have, in our own estimation, a very successful, close relationship. I believe our therapy made all the difference in the world. We both got words of real empathy and wisdom when we needed it. So when people say that affairs saved their marriages-it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds. Sometimes a big catalyst is necessary to move a relationship forward.

J. is a writer and musician in Chicago

Photograph of couple by Stockbyte/Getty Images.