"When Dick told me he'd been having an affair for two years with his secretary, Marcy, a birdbrain 10 years his senior, I was stunned," admits Janet, a successful 33-year-old partner in a top-notch law firm, who wore big sunglasses to hide her swollen eyes. "The fact that the cheating went on for so long hurt almost more than the infidelity itself," she admits. "When he said he was finished with her forever, tears ran down his face. We both started crying," Janet continues, "but now we don't know what to do to get our marriage back on track."
Not that Janet was Miss Innocent: When she and Dick spent three post-college years in Italy, they hung out with a jet-set crowd, and Janet, much more than Dick, loved the fancy ski lodges and extravagant parties. She even succumbed to the wiles of two different men. "But they were both one-time meaningless affairs," she says defensively, "and I don't think my husband had any idea about them."
Though she admits her marriage to Dick has never been particularly passionate, she thought they were both reasonably satisfied. "I can't believe my husband of eight years was actually in love with another woman," she says with a heavy sigh. "I wish I knew how to make sure it doesn't happen again."
Dick, 34, a banker, doesn't know what, if anything, is left of their marriage, either.
For a long time, he's suspected that Janet thought he was unexciting in bed and needed to spice up his act. "I've always been very insecure when it comes to women," Dick admits. "When Jan told me she was a virgin back in college but still wanted to make love with me, I told her I thought I was too inexperienced to be her first lover. She had to convince me it didn't matter."
And for years, it didn't seem to. "But, you know, Janet has never once told me I was good in bed. Marcy always said I was terrific. Janet would barely muster an "OK" when I asked."
In fact, Dick felt he could talk to Marcy about anything. She made him feel at ease and fulfilled while his super-efficient wife, who managed to excel effortlessly at every challenge, did not.
"The first time I slept with Marcy was the night Janet's colleagues took her out to celebrate her partnership," Dick recalls. "I guess I couldn't handle her success."
Dick ended the affair because he truly wants to save his marriage. But he's confused and lonely. "I want to start over with Janet," he says, "but how can we?"
Why couples stray
"The first step in rebuilding closeness and trust after an affair is for both partners to understand what precipitated the infidelity in the first place," says Marc Snowman, a marriage and family therapist in New York. Studies show that there are many reasons why a marriage may fall victim to infidelity. In fact, all couples can benefit from knowing which factors make a marriage vulnerable and ensuring they don't allow communication problems to damage the emotional bond between them.
According to social scientists, marriages are most susceptible to cheating:
* After the birth of a baby: If one partner feels left out and resents the baby as an intruder in a once-close relationship.
* When there is some change in economic status: For example, a partner loses a job, gets a promotion or the wife rejoins the work force and has the opportunity to meet men during the workday.
* At midlife or at a landmark birthday: When both partners have to adjust to aging (for example, at 30, 40, 50) as well as career and family expectations that may not have been met, or an empty nest as children grow up and move out.
* After a move to a new community: Moving is stressful for everyone. If you've just relocated to a new area, you are both bound to feel a sense of loss of familiar surroundings as well as a network of emotional support from family and friends. An affair may seem like a way to compensate for this loss.
Once Dick and Janet understood why their marriage was vulnerable, they vowed to improve communication so that they both felt loved and respected. Committed to saving the relationship, they set aside time every night, despite their busy schedules, to talk. They turned on the phone-answering machine and concentrated on expressing their feelings openly, listening empathetically to each other's fears and concerns, and tuning in to whether they were dismissing each other or offering emotional support.