While it’s nearly impossible to get a sense of how many people cheat on their partner (data is scarce because, well, people who are unfaithful aren’t always the most forthcoming), it happens. A lot. In fact, the rate of infidelity, per social scientists, has risen steadily over the past decade. That it happens is not a surprise; the why, however, is always a bit more surprising. And of course, if couples choose to stick it out instead of calling it quits in the face of betrayal, there are a lot of questions. A lot of concerns. A lot of trust issues. And plenty of pain.
John K* (not his real name) is married to his high school sweetheart. Very shortly after graduating, they had kids. That was nearly ten years ago. Although they’ve been together for over a decade, issues kept cropping up. They couldn’t communicate. They were fighting. They both had affairs. John had more than one. Instead of looking at their life together and calling it quits, they both started looking for answers, and for help. And while they are still working through the aftermath of the affairs and the betrayal, John thinks they have the tools to make things better.
Here, John talks to Fatherly about how he and his wife always look at the big picture, and how they talk to their children about their relationship.
We dealt with infidelity a few times. Initially, it was me that strayed from the relationship. After the first time it happened, we just kind of tried to deal with it. We blew it off. And then, it happened a couple more times.
Initially, I went to talk to somebody by myself. We decided it would be a good idea for us both to go. That particular counselor we saw wasn’t a good fit, but it did help us, in some ways. And then after the second affair, and things happening on her end, I wanted to try to figure something out that we could do.
We eventually found a program that helps couples that are on the brink of separating or are already separated. It was different than just going to a counselor or just doing a course or just reading a book. I got to meet couples that had gone through similar things that we did. To me, that’s a big deal. I’m the kind of person that likes to model after something. And if I can’t see a model, then it’s just not going to work. We had real couples we could talk to. All of those people were there because they wanted to help others because obviously, it helped them.
Why did you two decide to keep working through it after you both had affairs?
We got together when we were very, very young. We had kids when we were still pretty much in high school. And I know it sounds kinda weird, but I never lost attraction for her, or stopped loving her. Whenever things did come to fruition, where she found out about things, it was never my intention to leave.
It was the same for her. Even though she knew that what she was doing was wrong, it was like, she was trying to force something. She was trying to make something feel right with someone else that wasn’t necessarily there. She knew that she really wanted to be with me.
We both wanted to be with each other. It’s just the history, and the past, and all of the complications that led to infidelity. At those moments, we weren’t thinking about each other in the best way. We weren’t even taking each other into consideration. But in the big picture, we both knew we wanted to be with each other.
A lot of people say both people need to make it work for any kind of counseling or therapy to be worthwhile.
Our relationship was like an ocean. Sometimes, I was pushing more for the relationship and tried to make more of a case for it, and sometimes it was her. We’ve gone back and forth on that throughout the years, but now, we’re definitely on the same level.
What were the issues that you and your spouse had to work through specifically?
That’s the thing. There were just a lot of issues. That’s what we learned. We weren’t communicating, and it wasn’t even effective communication. We learned about active listening. And allowing the other person to speak, instead of just cutting them off. I listened to her respond. All of these different things. These little things that were just like, wow. We do that.
Before counseling, had you realized how many of those small issues had been piling up?
It was eye-opening when we started to work through it. Everyone knows that they have flaws, but putting it in perspective helped me see everything more clearly.
When you’re just by yourself, and you’re not taking the dedicated time to work on that, it’s harder to see it. But if you see other couples talk about it, and you’re reading about it, answering a ton of questions about yourself, then you learn something.
Were there any points where you just thought, “We can’t fix this?”
Oh, yeah. It was really tough. There were times where we got into arguments on our way to counseling. It felt like we just weren’t following the advice that the counselors were giving us. Obviously, in an ideal world, you have two healthy people who were already at their highest potential before they get together, but we were both so young and crazy when we got together. We both had a lot of issues. I think that we’re conscious of that now.
There are times when the past comes up and we are kind of like, man, is this going to work out? I think, at the end of the day, if you have the desire, that’s the glue. The desire to make things work. The thoughts still come up, but the glue is the desire. Maybe things aren’t working out, but we try to fix it, because we don’t want to split up. We just try to figure out how to make it work.
How would you describe your relationship today?
In comparison to the affair period? It’s a complete 180. But it’s not perfect. We’re still growing. We still have issues. We’re a lot more aware of them, so that helps, but we’re still doing self-help and reading books and talking about our issues and going to group.
A lot of our conflicts before were just us blaming each other for stuff. Now, it’s like, even if we get upset, we take time to self-reflect. We know we have problems. We don’t throw everything on each other.
We are also better equipped to deal with guarding our relationship, honoring it, communicating about it. And just have a better appreciation for our relationship. I think it’s like, when you’re looking outside, and you see other people’s relationships, you think, “Oh, they’re perfect.” But a lot of people have issues. You can appreciate what you have and what you’ve worked for. I think we appreciate our relationship more.
Do your kids know that you two went to counseling?
Yes. Now, how much they know about our issues and our history, that’s questionable. But they know that we’ve been to counseling and we’ve had issues, because we’ve separated for some time before. We try to explain to them that sometimes, we have problems in our relationship, but we try to work through it. Since we got together so young, they see some of the mistakes that we’ve made, and we constantly talk to them about it to help them understand that if something’s not working, you need to change it, so it can become better.