How "innocent" chats and e-mails nearly destroyed my marriage
by David Bauer
"Here." With tears streaming down her face, Dawn,* my wife of five years, stormed into my office at work and tossed a list on my desk. "I need you to stop at the grocery store on your way home. I have to pick up the kids." "What's wrong?" I approached her, but she waved me away. "You never talk to me, and you expect me to tell you what's wrong? Forget it!" "Dawn, please. Sit down and tell me why you're so upset." "Not here. Later." She left before I could argue further. I didn't try to stop her. Dawn knew. Somehow she'd discovered the secret I'd concealed for months. I'd fallen in love with another woman. Dawn and I had been high school sweethearts. I couldn't wait to marry her. But our marriage soon began to unravel. Close ties to her family, who lived nearby, constantly interfered with our time as a couple. Dawn didn't see the need to separate from her parents and put me first. She ran to them when we had a disagreement. If we went out for dinner and a movie, she invited them along.
A change of scene
Needing a change, I enrolled in a local community college. I met Stephanie my first semester. We attended several classes together. I learned her father worked for the same company I did, and Stephanie and I both had a child the same age. She was stuck in an unsatisfying relationship with her live-in boyfriend; I was disillusioned in my marriage. We connected instantly, sharing long conversations over lunch, in-between classes, and sometimes even during class. Second semester, Stephanie and I didn't have any classes together. Deprived of the opportunity to see and talk with each other, we started to chat over the Internet. I also created a new e-mail account strictly for our correspondence. Our instant messaging began as a way to communicate during class, similar to the way I'd passed notes as a kid.
But the sessions grew more frequent, and soon I was chatting while at my job and late at night while doing homework. Our physical separation provided a false sense of security when our conversations and e-mails turned gradually more flirtatious. Stephanie stood out from other women I knew. She was free spirited-intelligent, funny, and carefree. But most important, she was attentive and non-judgmental. As our friendship grew, so did my romantic feelings. Inside, though, I was conflicted. Though I knew I was breaking my vows, I felt Dawn's rejection justified my feelings for Stephanie. I often cried out to God through journaling and poetry. I knew he'd forgive me if I repented. But at the same time, I blamed God for allowing my marriage to fall apart. And frankly, I wasn't ready to repent.
The great divide
Sensing the growing chasm between us, Dawn sought ways to spend more time together, clearing her calendar of events planned weeks in advance. She made certain we ate supper together and cooked my favorite foods. I stubbornly resisted her efforts. "How was your day?" she'd ask when I came home from work. "Fine," I'd reply, then ignore her. Although I knew I should work on my marriage, I was still angry about Dawn's loyalty to her parents and her sexual rejection of me. I wanted to hurt her as badly as she'd hurt me. Months earlier I'd planned a romantic, 5th-anniversary trip to Cancun. As my relationship with Stephanie intensified, so did my desire to get out of the trip. One week before we were to leave, Dawn and I had a heated argument. "We may as well cancel our trip to Cancun," I said. "I don't want to waste the time or money when all we do is fight."
Shocked, Dawn began to sob. I cancelled our reservations the next day. Four weeks passed. One day at work an instant message from Stephanie popped onto my screen. "I need to tell you something, but I don't know how." Replying back, I urged, "You can share anything with me." "It's really personal and I don't want to look foolish." "Okay," I said, "if it makes you feel better, send me an e-mail." Sure she was going to confide her feelings toward me, I logged onto my e-mail account. I read her message, savoring every word. "The last several weeks have been great," she wrote. "I know you're married, which makes this a lot harder." My heart pounded in my chest as I read on. "I've realized I have feelings for you. I often imagine what it would be like to kiss you." Elated, I replied back, "Me too." For the first time in months, I felt needed and wanted. I looked forward with anticipation to kissing Stephanie. A few weeks later, at a remote picnic spot, we shared our first kiss. My heart said I'd found paradise; my head screamed, What are you doing? Although we never progressed past kissing, each time we kissed the pull to go further strengthened.
As I continued to withdraw from Dawn, she became angry. "You touch that laptop more than you touch me," she complained. "Welcome to my world," I muttered, remembering her sexual rejections. "David, I've tried. Won't you ever forgive me?" "You've pushed me away for years. It's too late to fix things." I thought about Stephanie, how she gave me the attention I craved. She soothed my wounded ego with compliments and love notes, filling a void in my heart. I began to believe she was my soul mate. I was in love.
Walking a tightrope
Late one night I was instant messaging Stephanie, when Dawn sat up in bed. "What are you working on?" "Homework," I replied. A message from Stephanie popped up, and I quickly minimized it. "What was that?" Dawn asked. Adrenaline rushed through my body. "An Internet advertisement." I knew my sneaking around was wrong. I buried myself in work and school, no longer wanting to be home. Fearing my relationship with Stephanie would be discovered, I limited my contact with family and church friends. I knew I should end things between us, but I wasn't strong enough. Six weeks had passed since Stephanie and I admitted our feelings for each other. One night after skipping class to be with her, I returned home to receive a call from Alex, a family friend. He asked if I'd meet with him. "I've seen changes in you," Alex told me when we got together. "Your priorities have shifted. You're investing far more time in school and your friends there than in your wife and son." He proceeded to share how, as a young husband and father of three, he'd cheated on his wife with a female college instructor. "David, I can see my past living out in you." For some reason I confessed my relationship with Stephanie, and that I was ready to leave Dawn and our son, Drew, for her. Alex listened patiently, making one request—that I allow him to arrange for Dawn and me to meet with a marriage counselor. I promised I'd think about it.
The next day, Dawn confronted me in my office. Alex must have told Dawn about Stephanie. I stewed as I drove home from work that night, bracing myself for the confrontation to come. How dare Alex tell Dawn! When I arrived home Dawn's face was puffy and tear-stained as she prepared supper. After an uncomfortably silent dinner, I tucked Drew into bed. Walking downstairs, I found Dawn sitting on the couch, waiting. I sat on the floor and said, "Is there anything you want to ask me?" "Who is she?" Dawn asked. "How long has this been going on?" I told her Stephanie's name and that we'd been involved for six or seven weeks. "Do you love her?" "I think so," I admitted. "I'm not sure I can end the relationship. How did you find out?" Dawn started to cry. "Alex told Mom and Dad. When I stopped by their house this afternoon, Mom was crying. They didn't want to tell me what was wrong, but I guessed." It figures, I thought angrily. Once again Dawn's parents had come between us. I felt I was on trial as I confessed everything—that I'd become emotionally involved with Stephanie through e-mails and instant messaging, and that the affair was on the verge of becoming sexual. I hoped Dawn would give up on us. Since I didn't have the courage to end our marriage, I wanted her to do it.
When I revealed that Stephanie's mother attended the same woman's group as Dawn, her control snapped. "What?" she yelled. "It's her?" Eyes flashing with anger, she ran to the basement. Grabbing a plastic baseball bat, she beat it against the stacks of Rubbermaid containers and cardboard boxes. "You're nothing but a liar!" she wailed loud enough for me to hear her upstairs. "How could you betray me like this?" I stood in the kitchen, torn between anger and shame. You drove me to it, I thought bitterly. You chose your parents over me, so I chose Stephanie over you. Dawn finally came upstairs, red-eyed and exhausted. "What are you going to do?" she asked. "I don't know." "I'm willing to work through this," she said. "But it's your decision. Either you end your relationship with Stephanie, or it's the end of our marriage."
The next five days were the darkest I've ever experienced. My secret was out. Our family and church friends knew what I'd done. Inside me, a spiritual battle raged. I replayed the notes, the cards, the conversations, and the physical attraction that drew me to Stephanie. Though ashamed, I didn't want the fantasy to end. A few days later I received a letter from a respected friend. I wept as I read her loving admonishment. "I fear that if you turn your back on Dawn and Drew, you'll forever be haunted by deep regrets and wounds that will never heal completely. Yes, God forgives, but we must bear the 'blisters of the heart.'" I wept most of that night. Dawn stayed with me, comforting me. The next day I knew what I had to do. I e-mailed Stephanie that I'd decided to work out things with Dawn and was ending the relationship. "Please don't contact me anymore," was my final statement. Stephanie responded angrily. "I wish you'd made that decision earlier so I didn't end up hurting people I care for!" Two days later Dawn and I entered marital counseling. As we talked, I was able to make Dawn understand how deeply she'd hurt me. "I felt as if you loved your parents more than me," I confessed. "I'm so tired of feeling rejected. So I decided it was less painful if I pulled away from you." "I'm sorry I made you feel that way," she replied. "I'm completely committed to fixing our marriage, whatever the cost." As we worked to bridge the distance between us, physical love became a catalyst for our healing. "I need to be close to you," Dawn told me. "I feel as if we're becoming one again."
While it took just weeks for my heart to stray, restoring our marriage took much longer. At times I questioned if staying with Dawn had been the right decision. When we fought, I'd recall the good times Stephanie and I had shared, and I was tempted to pick up the phone or e-mail her. Dawn had doubts as well. "I still don't trust you 100 percent," she confessed nearly two years later. "Sometimes when we fight I wonder if you're still sneaking around." More than five years have passed. Rather than involving her parents in our disputes, Dawn now seeks counsel from two women. They help her see when she's right, when she's wrong, and how to grow in her role as a wife. Though my job requires that I correspond with colleagues, male and female, through e-mail and instant messaging, I limit my conversations to work-related topics. If a conversation drifts to a personal tone, I end it. I also meet with six other men to share, study, and pray on Sunday mornings. As Dawn and I continue to rebuild trust, we're committed to being honest about our feelings and thoughts and with each other.
* names have been changed David Bauer is a pseudonym for an author living in Minnesota.
(EOPC DOES NOT AGREE with always cutting off the 'other woman' who was truly a pawn in all this - 'David' could have taken a break from Stephanie, and worked to reframe their friendship after working on his marriage. Though some therapists say cut it off - it makes life MUCH TOO EASY for the cyberpath & traumatizes the victims (often the spouse/ partner AND the other woman). We don't agree.
Considering he & Stephanie never physically consummated things - and that Stephanie was very supportive to him - it also ends what could be a decent friendship. The current advice of just 'cutting it off' is turning out to be more harm than help psychologically to victims. And far too easy for the predator. Especially for the other 'person' who is often a pawn or target. 'David' could have introduced the 2 women eventually if he wanted - and worked on his marriage while making appropriate amends to Stephanie. Stephanie got hurt and used, and now this writer is talking about how great it all was for him to save his marriage. While saving the marriage was a good thing, where does that leave the 3rd person? Something's not right.... Our 10 cents - EOPC)
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