Taking a cheater back

Ours was a happy marriage: we loved each other and laughed a lot. We were healthy, we had a pigeon pair of healthy children, both of us had good jobs, a lovely home, great friends and terrific, supportive family. We had our own family language; we knew what the other was thinking before the words had even been spoken. We just worked.

Then, three years ago, I discovered my husband had been having an affair for the past six months.

He had what is termed an "emotional" affair, which is an affair that involved flirty texts, steamy emails and stolen kisses but strangely and unbelievably (as confirmed to me by the other woman herself when I confronted her), no sex. This is apparently not uncommon in these types of affairs; however they are equally as damaging because of the major breach of trust and intimacy involved. The woman was a work colleague, a vast breeding ground for affairs, I have since learnt.

I discovered the affair after my husband was very late coming to bed one night and went downstairs to find him asleep on the sofa. I picked up his phone and saw a text message from the name of a woman he worked with. Naturally, I opened it to see a whole thread of messages. Him saying, "It's over" and her replying, "It will never be over between us, never."

Seething, shocked, sickened, frightened and angry, I thought quickly. I didn't wake up my husband. I wanted to speak to him in daylight without the kids around. I called her from his phone, knowing she'd pick up when she saw his name. It was 1.42am.

She answered the call, just as I thought she would. I told her who I was and that I wanted the entire truth. She told me everything. The next morning I woke early and wrote my husband a note saying I wanted a divorce and that we'd discuss the logistics after I'd dropped the kids off at his sister's for the morning. I told him our marriage was over and wished him luck with "the other woman". And so the separation began.

He was a desperate man and pleaded with me to take him back. I told him to move on with the other woman with whom he wrecked our marriage and demanded he make it work with her - they now owed it to everyone to make their relationship last. But he didn't move on; instead he continued to ask what he had to do to show he could be trusted.

None of this made sense to me. Surely, I thought, if you had an affair, you'd want to be with that person? Then I discovered a book - Not "Just Friends": Rebuilding Trust and Recovering Your Sanity After Infidelity by Dr Shirley Glass. Glass does not make the affair excusable but understandable to both parties: she talks about boundaries and setting up sacred walls and windows in your marriage.

She details how the crossing of these boundaries creates an affair and how, in most instances, the affair partner never sees the seriousness of the affair because it is so steeped in illusion. The affair partners don't actually know each other outside of the realm of the bubble they create for themselves. There is no reality of life to deal with, no kids, no washing, no bills to be paid, no house to be cleaned. They exist in a sterile workplace and meet in clandestine situations where they have the luxury of time to talk and be physical with each other without interruption. These factors mean that one affair partner sees the other as an escape from their reality - and they rarely, if ever, leave their betrayed partner. They are usually caught out or end it when they are made to understand that you can't have your cake and eat it too.

Suddenly everything made sense; I now understood why he wasn't rushing off to be with "the other woman". And yet I was still puzzled at how he couldn't have been aware that I would take it seriously and that I would be hurt by it. He explained this by saying he just felt so flattered by the attention from this other woman that it never seemed real and he never expected it to go on or for me to find out about it. How wrong he was.

Through her own research, Glass details how many couples go on to have a better marriage. "Today, more couples are willing to try to work through their difficulties in a sustained way. They want their suffering to mean something. They want their pain to lead them to insights and new behaviours that will strengthen them as individuals and as a couple."

She goes on to explain ways the affair partner can help the betrayed partner heal and things you can both do to "affair-proof" your marriage. I put down the book and thought, "Here is this man you love, who clearly still loves you, who is desperately sorry for what he's done to you and desperate to come back, perhaps I should at least listen to him?" Then the other side of my brain chimed in, "Once a cheater, always a cheater." The endless thoughts that ran through my brain were exhausting.

According to a study by the Australian Institute of Families, 46 per cent of divorced couples regret their divorce. I didn't want to live with regret and bitterness if I stayed married to him and I didn't want that if I let him go, either. This was such a tough decision.

I spoke to Kylie Dunjey, a branch manager and counsellor at Relationships Australia who sees many couples whose marriages are in crisis following an infidelity. She says a high proportion of couples underestimate how painful both reconciliation and divorce are. "There is no easy way out of the pain," she says. "If couples can survive the intensity of the emotions that an affair brings to the relationship in the first few months, they are more likely to recover. Many couples do go on to have stronger relationships."

Several weeks passed and I did much soul searching, reading, planning and making of lists of pros and cons. And then I made a momentous decision: I was going to try to forgive him.

I came to the conclusion that by not taking him back I'd only drag my pain elsewhere. My thoughts of sharing not only the parenting but also one day grandparenting, lingered with me. I didn't want to be that woman who, in 20 years' time, sat bitter and twisted in a corner, regretful that she hadn't been more patient and showed more strength during a challenging time of her marriage. If my husband was prepared to show me that he could be trusted, then surely he deserved a second chance?

I was clear with him that now was the time for action, not words. He needed to grow up, be accountable and accept he had to show up when needed, provide me with every conceivable password he had to the telephone, email and social networking, resign and find a new job. Finally, I requested that he be prepared to answer any question I had about the affair, no matter how painful he thought I might find the answer. If he was successful in doing this, I would let him move back into the house. He succeeded in doing all I asked and more.

Initially, many people were surprised that I chose to forgive my husband and then fascinated as to how I came to forgive him. One friend said to me, "You're far braver than I am, I would never forgive my husband if he did that to me." Another said, "I'd pack his bags and change the locks." And of course one threw in, "A leopard never changes its spots." And perhaps I'd have said the same thing but the fact is, until it happens to you, you really don't know how you'll react.

Life moved slowly and was often messy as we worked through incredible pain and sadness to rediscover who "we" now were and what we wanted from our marriage for the rest of our days. Just as Dr Glass said, we wanted the pain to count for something. We are lucky to have remarkable support from our families and most of our friends. I'd say that this environment of perseverance and encouragement is a huge part of the success of rebuilding a marriage. There are friends we don't see as much any more; a situation like this can make people uncomfortable.

I am happy I found the strength to forgive my husband for the one thing he did wrong and love him for all the things he did right. No marriage or person is perfect. My husband is a good person who did a bad thing. And while a leopard may not change its spots, it can grow new ones. Plus, my husband is not a leopard.

I'd say our marriage has as much chance as anyone else's has of surviving. Maybe even a greater chance because we've experienced the pain of the alternative. One thing I know for sure as we sit together enjoying a sunset is that I'll never be sorry for trying.

The author wishes to remain anonymous.

Sydney Morning Herald