The three words that ended my marriage
"Goodnight, my love."
Three little words. Three tender words that any man would love to hear, but these weren't meant for me. They were meant for another man. These were words of betrayal, and they reached out from the sent folder of my wife's mobile phone and formed a circle of stone-cold dread around my heart.
I looked back at her - my wife, the mother of our children - sleeping peacefully in our bed, the first early rays of the new day lighting the room. She looked so innocent. Was she dreaming of him? And who was this "him", anyway?
My body's defence mechanism kicked in, a combination of shock and fear. The cold hand around my heart moved down my body to my stomach, and then to my bowels. For a moment I didn't know whether I was going to be leaning over the toilet or sitting on it; instead I dry retched and ran 10 laps of the lounge room.
Should I wake her? What would I say? More importantly, what would she say - and did I want to hear it? This was too big and threatening to think about so early on a Wednesday morning. It was better to be in denial, so I got dressed and went to work.
I left the house and quietly shut the door behind me. I didn't want to wake my wife or my daughters - as though by letting them sleep, the dawn of our new reality wouldn't break. Was this just a road hump or a fork in the road of our life together?
Later that day, I rang my wife and suggested we meet for a cup of tea. How nice, she said - we haven't done that for ages.
My wife denied it, in fact she was indignant. Who? Never heard of him! What? Don't be ridiculous!
But she couldn't deny those three little words. And then she confessed. It was nothing. Just something meaningless. She hardly knew him.
But I had to go on, I had to fight my cramping stomach and ask the big questions. Are you sleeping with him? Of course not! Are you in love with him? Don't be stupid! She made me feel guilty for questioning her loyalty, for going through her phone. She was sorry. She didn't want to risk our family over something so trivial.
I shivered, the adrenalin started to ease and my stress levels fell as relief warmed me. I was exhausted and our conversation was exhausted, so I kissed her goodbye and said I would see her at home. Everything was going to be okay - wasn't it? We would learn from this and move on.
We spent a quiet, close, reflective evening together, and later that night we made love. But I felt detached, as though there was someone else in the room. Was he watching us, or was I watching him? I looked at my wife, her eyes closed. Was she imagining I was him? Or wishing I was? Was he going to be with us every time we made love, casting a shadow over our marriage?
We had made love for the last time.
A few days later, my wife decided that our marriage was over. She had found her "soul mate" and wanted to be with him, not me. I know it's a cliché, but I genuinely hadn't seen it coming. I felt that something wasn't quite right, which was why I had trawled through her mobile phone. But I hadn't expected to find something so final. Not in my worst nightmares. Seventeen years of marriage over, just like that.
I simply didn't understand it. I drove myself mad as I ran mental laps through my head. What had I done wrong? I thought I was a good husband and father. I had a good job, I was helpful, I did the washing-up, mowed the lawns, ironed my shirts, took the bread out of the freezer - more than a lot of men did - and, most importantly, I did my bit with the children.
I was a "fun dad". I refereed endless games of Monopoly, froze my dangly bits wading into the sea so that my daughters could swim, sacrificed Saturday mornings to go to netball with my eldest daughter and Saturday afternoons to watch my youngest at gymnastics. It wasn't always a barrel of laughs, but it was what I did. Wasn't all that good enough?
Turns out it wasn't. Although I was useful around the house I had not, it was pointed out to me, been a good husband for some time. I had become the marital equivalent of a high-end vacuum cleaner. I was reliable and rarely broke down, I was capable and did what was expected of me, but I wasn't fun to use. Practical, but not exciting or inspiring.
My wife didn't want a vacuum cleaner, even if I was Dyson-esque in my dust-sucking abilities. She wanted something special, an up-market espresso machine with aesthetic appeal to be an object of desire among her friends. She wanted the man who could do it all and apparently I couldn't but her soul mate could, even though he was still in his warranty period and unproven over the long term.
The world had become one huge out-of-control fairground ride.
I was desperate to save my marriage. Partly because I was scared (I didn't know what a future on my own might bring), partly because I liked my stable life (it wasn't always a bed of roses, but it was pretty good), but mostly because I didn't want my family to break up. I loved my family and I was proud that we were still together and our children were happy, especially when we knew of so many unhappy couples who had split up.
Over the next few weeks we talked openly, and maybe honestly, about our feelings. We talked more than we had for years. Was that part of our problem? I earn my living as a management consultant, so I've been trained to solve problems through analysis of facts, logic and carefully constructed arguments. But the more we discussed the whys and wherefores of what was happening, the more I recognised that my logical approach was falling on deaf ears. This was an emotional argument.
"But we get on so well. We rarely argue. People say that we make a great couple," I countered.
"We're a good team," she admitted. "You do look after me, but you don't make me feel special."
She was so cool, so sure it was the right thing to do. I wanted to grab her and shake her - to make her see the madness of what she was saying. I was desperate; I only had one card left. "I thought you loved me."
"I love you, but I'm not in love with you." F..., that hurt.
I had always imagined that if our marriage were to end, it would be because I had lost my life performing some heroic act to protect my family. You know the kind of thing - leaping in front of a runaway truck and pushing them to safety, or saving my children from a house fire only to lose my life after returning to the burning building to rescue my daughter's hamster. But this? Outdone by some stranger who was better than me in the "making my wife feel special" department? This wasn't heroic at all.
My efforts to appeal to my wife's brain were of no use. I needed to aim for her heart but someone else already had that. With a steadily building sense of frustration, sadness and fear, I realised I wasn't going to change her mind - a "solid", "practical" marriage is no match for a love affair.
I couldn't sleep or eat properly, my heart rate and blood pressure were rising, my eyes welled up on the train to and from work. Annoyingly, everyone else on the train seemed happy and relaxed: iPods in their ears, reading the paper or just dozing. I wanted to tell everyone my wife was behaving like an idiot, but as an Englishman, public displays of emotion are not on. I took to wearing shades - regardless of the weather or the time of day.
My wife began sleeping in the spare room on the basis that she was "seeing someone else" and it would be "inappropriate for me to see her naked". Weird - I knew every inch of her body intimately and now it belonged to someone else. She also promised not to see her soul mate until we had formally separated and were living apart. I promised not to discuss our "difficulties" - a word I found, even as an Englishman, to be an understatement - with anyone else.
I wasn't convinced she was sticking to her end of the bargain. I once came home from work to find her in the shower. She said she was off to the gym - the scene of the crime - and I suggested it seemed pointless having a shower before she went. She told me with a straight face that she didn't want to get there feeling sweaty. It was ridiculous. I was worried that my wife, who had cheated on me and was going to leave me, was cheating on me.
Looking back, it seems stupid that I tried so hard to hold on to our marriage. But in my mind we had gone overnight from being happy, to her wanting to be with someone else. It took a bit of getting used to.
Five months earlier, my father had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of pancreatic cancer, where the typical life expectancy is six months from the time of diagnosis. My poor old dad was about to enter the "living on borrowed time" phase.
Two weeks after the discovery of my wife's infidelity, I made the trip back to the UK to spend some time with my dad, swapping one emotional nightmare for another. There was so much I wanted to talk to him about, but I couldn't find the words because I was so distracted by my own life.
My mum, dad, brother, sister and me - a family unit. We hadn't been together like this without the distraction of our own families for years. I was consumed by the thought that I was part of two family units and they were both breaking up. Too much of my world was changing and I still feel cheated that I was unable to fully focus on my dad during his final few weeks of life.
I desperately wanted to tell these four people closest to me about my situation but they were suffering enough and it didn't seem right.
We sat on the sofa eating homemade scones and drinking tea. All normal. Except that it wasn't normal. My dad had a cancer growing inside him and I had my own personal cancer growing inside me. I wanted to blurt out, "I hate to burden you at this difficult time, but my marriage is over." I kept it in.
My wife and I had agreed that we wouldn't tell our children about the split and we wouldn't separate until my dad had passed away. His ability to cling on to life would determine how much longer my own family had left.
He died peacefully, his family around his bedside, on a wonderful, calm summer's evening, the sun just starting to dip below the horizon while casting a gentle light over the big oak tree in the garden. It was a beautiful place to die. As he slipped away I was hit by a towering wave of grief. My feelings of sorrow and loss for my dad were compounded by the even greater sorrow and fear over what was to become of my own family when I returned to Australia.
This was much too much. How much pain can one heart take? My dad was dead but not yet buried, my marriage was terminally ill but not yet dead.
Bollocks. Big, bastard, hairy, baboon-sized bollocks.
This is an edited extract from Single Father, Better Dad, out on August 21.
- Daily Life