Originally created 05/26/98

Can this marraige be saved? Confronting can restore confidence



"What have I done wrong?" says Sally, 32, a stay-at-home mother of three young children. "Steve is sleeping with Monica, a woman I considered a friend, a woman whose child had a sleep-over date with my son just last month."

Sally suspected something was wrong, but she never thought that her husband of seven years would betray her like this.

"For the past few months, Steve has been acting aloof, impatient and short-tempered with me and the kids," she concedes.

He started to buy a lot of fancy clothes and treated himself to a sleek, black Porsche. "That's not exactly a family car," Sally says. "Amazingly, he'd then blame me for spending too much money remodeling our home. It made no sense."

Steve refused to talk about his feelings, and Sally didn't want to push him:

"I was terrified he'd leave me, just as my father had left my mother. All my life, I'd felt alone and abandoned -- Steve was the only man I could count on."

But then she reached a point where she could no longer ignore what was happening. When she looked in her husband's briefcase, she found several revealing letters from Monica.

When she confronted Steve, he hemmed and hawed at first, but finally confessed that he'd been sleeping with Monica.

"I knew my marriage wasn't the greatest, and I knew Steve was a flirt -- but I never expected this," she says. "What do I do now? I love this man and don't want a divorce, but how can I go on living with him after what he did?"

Steve, meanwhile, is filled with remorse and is anxious to repair his marriage:

"I'm so sorry," says the 32-year-old pediatrician. "I do love Sally; she's the one I want to spend my life with, not Monica."

Steve doesn't know why he did what he did. "I'm under a lot of stress. Getting a practice going isn't easy and, though pediatricians make a very decent living, I will never command the kind of salary other specialists do."

And the pressure to do better and make more was something Steve has contended with all his life:

"One of my brothers is a neurosurgeon, and the other is a psychiatrist. In the medical world -- and in my status-conscious family -- those specialties garner greater respect."

Though clearly a success by most people's standards, Steve has never felt good about himself or his accomplishments.

When Monica came on to him, "I lost myself and forgot about everything I knew was right," he insists. "It was stupid and wrong. How can I prove to my wife that I love only her?"

When to confront

"An affair happens for many reasons," notes Dr. Dorothy Buckner, a marriage therapist in Atlanta. "And, often, it has a great deal to do with unresolved childhood issues with which one or both partners are struggling."

"Steve and Sally had each brought to their marriage insecurities from their childhoods that made their marriage susceptible to betrayal, preventing them from communicating in a healthy way.

"Sally, for example, is too afraid of losing Steve to stand up to him -- whether he's making key financial decisions without her, distancing himself from her and the children, or betraying her with another woman. Instead, she pleases and appeases him.

"Steve, despite his outward bravura, also lacks confidence. As a child, he often felt inferior to his brothers. Even now, he continues to hide his lack of confidence behind a facade of charm and flash. When the multiple stresses of work, finances and family became too much, he spun out of control.

"Once the affair is ended, and the marital issues resolved, many betrayed spouses feel the need to confront the person who betrayed them.

"Sally, for example, must face Monica time and again at school functions and in the community.

"It's not easy to live in such close proximity to someone who has betrayed you. How do you know when it's appropriate to say something -- and what should you say?"

The following advice helped Sally decide how to handle the situation.

-- Most experts believe you should not consider confrontation if you and your spouse are making progress in therapy; if your spouse is adamantly opposed to the meeting; if the lover is making threats against either of you; or if you are still so angry that you fear you will not be able to control yourself.

-- A confrontation may be justified if it will restore a measure of confidence. Confrontation is a way to harness anger constructively, and it may be a healthy, necessary step toward restoring your battered self-esteem and arming you against future hurts.

-- Remember that confronting the person who betrayed you is not easy. Don't expect to be able to confront someone until time has passed and you are clear about what you need to say.

-- Pick a neutral public place to meet, or call your rival on the phone. Never humiliate the lover or your mate.

-- Express your feelings clearly and succinctly. No matter how the person responds, stay focused on what you want to say.

Sally told Monica how much she had hurt her and how much she intended to fight for her marriage and her family.

"Monica stared at me with her jaw open and didn't say a word," Sally reported. "And I felt triumphant as I spun around and left her there."

From the editors of Ladies' Home Journal