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After the Storm - Page 7

The Explorers

"The affair was a shock that forced us to get unstuck," was Julian's unequivocal response in an interview five years after I'd seen him and his wife, Claire, in couples therapy. "I agree that our relationship is now much better than it ever was," said Claire as she turned to Julian and added, "but I still think that you acted like a jerk. You didn't need to cheat on me to make the point that our marriage was in trouble." While they still disagree on the way Julian delivered his "message," they agree his affair transformed their marriage.

Julian had first set eyes on Claire standing in front of him at the Student Coop 15 years earlier, and he made sure to get her phone number before she reached the cashier. With her beguiling smile and the mysterious way she hesitated ever-so-slightly before giving her name and number, she hooked him. In those first moments, they began to take on the roles that would continue into their marriage. Julian would be the initiator—of social life, of sex, of decisions about vacations—and Claire's protector from the world. Claire would be the graceful, albeit somewhat tremulous, helpmate, always following his lead, reassured that, with his firm and reliable hand on the helm, she never needed to worry. What came as a surprise for Julian through the years, however, was the volume of worries he was expected to assuage: almost anything could be fodder for Claire's anxiety. She could never arrive early enough at the airport; her trepidation about hosting a dinner began days in advance; and for her to feel comfortable about having sex, conditions needed to be perfect—which they rarely were. Over the years, he grew tired of the veto power she was imposing on their lives: "You want to go out?" he'd ask. "NO," she'd respond. "Let's get together with some friends." "NO." "I want to make love to you." "NO."

With so many noes ringing in his ears, Julian welcomed the resounding yes from Emma, whom he met on a business trip and continued to sleep with for a year and a half. It wasn't just that he wanted more sex: he wanted to recapture the feeling of playfulness and freedom that sex used to allow him. The affair with Emma brought with it a sense of vitality that he'd been missing. With her, he threw off the growing lethargy that had smothered his life. He once again experienced the excitement, attention to preliminaries, sense of timelessness that fills lovers' hearts.

Claire found out about Julian's affair through accidentally discovering e-mail messages. Deeply jolted, she sought individual therapy and reached out to her friends. But along with giving her support, they asked her to see that, while Julian had betrayed her trust, she herself had—as she later put it—"betrayed my vows." Knowing that Claire didn't want to lose the man she loved, her friends encouraged her to fight for him. So she reached out to him, and they talked with each other as they hadn't done in years, sharing feelings and thoughts that had long been tucked away. As the conversations evolved and they began to narrow the distance between them, they felt awakened into a new experience of connection, in which they felt both great pain and excitement, as they never had before.

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