Ericka: 47, owner of a health club
Peter: 40, financial advisor
Married: 15 years
Kids: Janie, 22, and Sylvia, 25, from Ericka's first marriage
Robin Newman, Huntington, New York
Ericka found out that Peter slept with a gorgeous 26-year-old he met in a spin class at the health club Ericka owns. Peter is begging for forgiveness but Ericka's devastated and wants him out.
Ericka: I knew something was wrong. In the past few months Peter had become distant, short-tempered, and sulky. Sex had always been good for us and suddenly we were barely having any. Then three different clients of mine tipped me off that they'd seen Peter out with Julie, a woman who recently joined the club — and that it didn't look like just a friendly chat. I checked his phone and saw a string of text messages to one number, which of course I called. Julie answered. I recognized her voice immediately and hung up, shaking. Does it get much worse than this? Your husband sleeps with a younger woman, and you know her and everyone in town knows the story before you do?
I knew the seven-year age difference between Peter and me would come back to haunt us. I'm in good shape but I can't compete with someone my daughter's age. I feel humiliated, angry, and incredibly sad. I could kick myself for not paying more attention to the signs. Although Peter was never much of a texter, he was suddenly glued to his cell phone. He was even texting at the funeral of my best friend's mother. When I asked who he was talking to, he got defensive and quickly put the phone away. He's also been unusually concerned about getting older, fretting about putting on weight, and checking the mirror for wrinkles or gray hairs. I started to plan a 40th birthday party for him but he didn't want one.
Now Peter is full of apologies and promises that it won't happen again, but I've turned into a suspicious schoolgirl, checking his phone and rummaging through his briefcase after he goes to sleep. I'm in spy mode and I hate myself for it. Women have always been attracted to Peter and it never bothered me before. He's very handsome and charismatic — I was thrilled to have such a cute husband. I feel like a fool. And I want him out.
Peter: I made a huge mistake, but it was just sex, just once. I don't know why I did it, and I feel terrible that I've hurt Ericka so badly. The fact that Ericka's older than me had nothing to do with any of it. Our age difference has always been irrelevant.
I know how lame this sounds, but at the time it made sense: I was trying to help this woman. Julie had recently gotten divorced and lost her job, and I felt sorry for her. She was looking for a position in finance and I knew I could help with my connections. Plus, I know what it's like to have your life fall apart, because that's what happened to me after my mother died of cancer when I was 18 — I spun out of control, dropped out of college, and bounced from one dead-end job to another. Finally, when I was 23, my older sister helped me pull myself together. I fantasized I could do the same thing for Julie.
I guess I was also on edge because of work. I started my own business six months ago and it's going terribly. My business partner and I can't agree on anything and I've been scared that it's going to fail. Meanwhile, Ericka's been totally checked out — I've tried to talk to her about my work fears and she won't listen. I've been feeling like a loser both at work and at home.
So when Julie started talking to me and she so clearly needed help, I guess it fed my ego. I know that's no excuse, but I'm just trying to explain my behavior. I offered to look at her r?sum? and send it around. We met a few times and then, well, I stepped over the line. I'm so ashamed, and I'll do anything to make it up to Ericka. I love her and I want our marriage back.
Ericka: Why didn't Peter talk to me if he was this unhappy? I'm always asking him to tell me how he feels but he never does. We used to talk about lots of things — sports, movies, politics. We had so much in common. But lately we don't communicate. I had no idea he was stressed about work. He comes home and buries himself in the newspaper or plants himself in front of the TV. I'll call out, "Hey, how was your day?" and he says "Fine." If it's not fine, he needs to tell me. I can't read his mind!
Peter: She asks how I am but she's still on the phone talking to a friend. She doesn't really want to start a conversation. I'm an afterthought. I've tried to talk to her many times and she's always busy. Ericka and I don't fight much but there's no life in our marriage anymore. We were both focused on raising her kids for so long, but now that they're out of the house there's not a lot connecting us. We have our routines, our jobs, our favorite TV shows — but no spark.
I fell in love with a woman who was high energy and full of life. But now Ericka is bossy and critical. She treats me like I'm a stupid kid. I do all the food shopping but instead of thanking me she tells me I bought the wrong cereal. I clean up after dinner and she complains about crumbs on the kitchen counter. The other night I started to tell her that I'm having serious regrets about starting my own firm. She pretended she was listening, but I could see she was playing Words with Friends on her phone. "Oh, you shouldn't feel that way... you'll be fine," she said. And that was it.
I thought that once the girls were at college we'd be closer, but Ericka always has something better to do. If she's not giving a class she's racing to meet with private clients or talking to contractors about renovating the studio. I dropped by a few weeks ago to see if I could help and she scolded me for getting in the way. Does she have any idea how she sounds?
Ericka: I didn't mean to snap when Peter came into the studio the other week. I was in the middle of an argument with the electrician about the air conditioning, and I needed to stay focused. Still, this is a reason to cheat? My first husband had an affair and that's why we split. I'm totally freaked out that it's happening again.
The Counselor: When I first met with Ericka and Peter, she was understandably angry and he was tense and tearful. Peter was so ashamed that, without prompting, he'd already begun a campaign to win Ericka back by severing all contact with the other woman and reassuring his wife how much she meant to him. Those actions, along with his willingness to respond to her questions and angry venting, were critical in helping her feel secure.
My first goal was to help Ericka calm down and stop demanding that Peter move out. I strongly believe that couples should try to work through problems while they live under the same roof. "Betrayal turns your world upside down," I told her, assuring her that the emotional roller coaster she'd been riding was normal. "But his infidelity is not proof that you're unattractive or unlovable. It simply means you have a problem in your marriage that needs to be resolved. We're going to work on that together. So hold off on the ultimatums."
Like many couples, Ericka and Peter had placed their relationship on autopilot while they raised Ericka's daughters and built their careers. "If you sleepwalk through a relationship, you're setting yourselves up for the possibility that one of you will look outside the marriage for comfort and connection," I told them. In my experience, affairs are rarely about sex. Partners stray because they want to feel wanted. "Saving" this young woman, who needed and admired him, helped Peter feel better about himself during a difficult time in his life.
Despite Ericka's desire to call it quits, I had a gut feeling that she and Peter would be able to work through this crisis. They'd been very much in love earlier in their relationship and it was clear that they truly liked each other. But the infidelity was a wake-up call that their marriage needed tending. While Peter's behavior was clearly wrong, they both shared responsibility for the erosion of intimacy in their relationship. They had to work at restoring it together.
We looked at Peter's past for clues about his cheating behavior. Peter had felt rejected most of his life. He'd never had a relationship with his dad, who constantly criticized him. And though he was close to his mom, she died after a long illness when Peter was only a freshman in college. When you lose a parent at a young age, it can be very difficult to handle. Even though he knew he had no control over his mother's death, Peter felt that he should have been able to save her. His dad's criticism only underscored his belief that he was a failure, and he went into a tailspin.
His marriage to Ericka had boosted his self-esteem, but his ego was still pretty fragile. So the combination of turning 40 and struggling with his new business, especially when Ericka's was successful, made Peter feel as powerless as he'd felt in his 20s. His wife's apparent lack of interest in his emotional life intensified those feelings. He felt lonely and unappreciated. Meanwhile, Julie's neediness made him feel like the strong, capable man he yearned to be. Though Peter's initial intentions were innocent, the choices he made — meeting Julie for coffee, helping her write her r?sum?, and sending it to his colleagues — led to infidelity.
Hearing Peter describe his loneliness moved Ericka deeply. She acknowledged that she'd been too wrapped up in her own world to be the kind of partner she wanted to be. And she agreed that she had to curb her criticisms and rethink her communication style. Ericka grew up with alcoholic parents and learned early on that she needed to take care of herself. Yet her independent nature sometimes made her insensitive and brusque. She frequently talked over and interrupted Peter, who took longer to gather his thoughts. When that happened, I'd say, "I'd love to hear what your husband thinks about that!" She got the message that she needed to pause, breathe, and slow down so she could choose her words more carefully. I coached Ericka and Peter on how to become better listeners. "When Peter tells you something about work, don't let your mind wander or offer your own opinion," I told Ericka, as an example. "Look him in the eye and rephrase whatever he tells you so he knows that you've heard him."
Ericka took all these ideas to heart, even suggesting that she and Peter make evenings a cell phone–free time, except for calls from her daughters. Without that distraction, they've been able to strategize about how Peter could handle problems with his business partner. Ericka and Peter also started creating more of the kind of small daily or weekly rituals that can act as superglue for a marriage. Ericka stopped going into the studio on Sundays, leaving her assistant manager in charge. After church they pick a new restaurant for brunch, then spend the afternoon walking along the beach or trying a new recipe for dinner. They've started training together for a marathon, too.
As the tension at home eased and their connection deepened, conflict around small issues took on less importance, and the pain of the affair started to fade. Looking back, Ericka couldn't pinpoint when things turned around for her. "I just started to feel more confident," she said. "Over time, there were far fewer days when I thought about Peter's infidelity and many more when we'd talk, laugh, and hug each other like we used to."
Can This Marriage Be Saved? Is the most enduring women's magazine feature in the world. The story told here is true, although names and other identifying information have been changed to conceal identities.