The Other Man

After their wedding, their marriage went downhill quickly. Was there any hope?

Posted in , Apr 1, 2005

Catherine and Mark on their wedding day in 1993

Rhonda, my new friend, and I started having coffee together every day after dropping our kids off at preschool. We talked about a lot of different things—our husbands, our work, our families. Slowly I grew to trust her. And I needed someone to trust and confide in.

One day I finally let it out and told her the whole terrible story. I talked through the shame and the hurt and the anger, and when I had finished I felt much better. But then I wondered, what would Rhonda think of me now?

She leaned across the table at the coffee shop and said gently, "You were honest, Catherine. Truth, that's the most important thing."

Yes, but would my marriage survive the truth?

Let me call him Jim. The "other man," you might say. I met him when he and my husband, Mark, were taking classes to become truckers.

Jim was nothing like Mark. Jim asked me about myself, what I felt and what I thought. He even got me talking about college and what I'd studied and how I wished I could go back to it.

It all seemed so innocent, the two of us talking in the park with my son, Nic, playing in the sandbox, but I knew there was something wrong. I was telling Jim things I'd never told my husband, and I was already fantasizing about when I'd see him again.

"Who was that guy with you in the park?" Mark asked me one night.

"Another trucker. Part of your class. He's already gone by now."

"Someone said you gave him a hug."

"I was just saying good-bye. That's all that happened." True enough, but that's not all that I wished had happened. Jim had written his phone number on a slip of paper and had given it to me. I could call him anytime. Maybe he could stop by on one of his long-haul trips.

"Are you planning on seeing him again?" Mark asked.

I stared at the floor. "No," I said.

But I kept that slip of paper in my purse, like a talisman, a desperate hope of some kind that things would change.

Mark and I didn't have the kind of marriage my parents had. They were literally childhood sweethearts. They went to college together. They knew each other their whole lives before they tied the knot. Mom was a nurse and Dad was a minister, so their very lives were all about helping people.

Mark and me? We were a couple right out of a Jimmy Buffett song.

We met at a Tijuana bar. We were both 20. Mark was in the Marine Corps, and like so many military couples before us, the relationship began over a couple drinks. I was taking a year off from college, working as an office temp. Mark was a straight shooter with a crew cut.

"I don't want to get serious with anybody," he said. Fine by me.

For three months we hung out together. Went to the beach, to bars, to the movies. We had a lot of fun. Until I discovered I was pregnant.

Overnight I had to get serious about a relationship that wasn't designed for it. Sure, Mark was decent enough. He didn't ditch out the minute I told him about the pregnancy. He even insisted on going with me to tell my parents. But was this the kind of guy I wanted to spend my life with?

Mom cried at my news. Dad had strong words for Mark. "If you don't want to be a part of this, I'll understand," he said. "But then I don't want to see you again."

Mark stuck around. I was eight months pregnant when we got married. We had a short ceremony at a strip-mall chapel by the base. The place was called "I Do Weddings." I wore a Hawaiian print gown—the only thing that fit over my belly—and Mom and Dad were our witnesses.

I had the baby and we moved to a dingy apartment with bars over the windows. Then Mark was gone. Mobilized to Kuwait.

He wrote and called, but I couldn't say I really missed him. He didn't seem like my husband. We were more like roommates who happened to share a child.

In one letter he talked about becoming friendly with the chaplain and making a commitment of faith. That was okay by me. After all, I was a minister's daughter.

But somehow it made Mark seem more like a stranger. We'd never talked about faith, despite my upbringing. He just gave me the news. Oh, by the way, I've decided to get closer to God.

After his overseas duties were ended Mark was discharged from the Corps. He wanted us to move to upstate New York, where he'd grown up. Why not? Maybe this would be a chance for us to become a real married couple, like Mom and Dad.

But with a kid to look after and my job at Wal-Mart and his truck driving we hardly saw each other, let alone talked.

The one thing we did do together was go to church. Mark was serious about it. And it was after church one Sunday that he dropped his bombshell. We were coming back from a service where the minister had preached on the importance of honesty.

"Cath," Mark said, his dark eyes staring straight ahead at the road, "I need to tell you about something."

"Okay," I said, keeping my voice low. Nic was sleeping in his car seat.

"When I was overseas, heading to the gulf, I broke my marriage vows."

He what? The information didn't make sense to me.

"I was unfaithful to you," he said in more or less a monotone. "I had a fling with a woman I met in Thailand. I'm very sorry. That's why I went to the chaplain in the first place. Please forgive me."

I was too stunned to say very much. I guess I was surprised at how shocked I was. In a way it was the first time I ever felt really married. It took a terrible act of betrayal for me to see it.

"It will never happen again, Cath," Mark said. "Never."

He left it at that. Clearly for Mark, the confession was enough. I was supposed to forgive him and that was that. Didn't God forgive him? Wasn't that the point of the minister's sermon? Mark acted like I wasn't supposed to bring it up again. But it ate away at me.

Then I met Jim. The other man. Here was someone who in the space of a few hours told me what he thought and how he felt—how he really felt-—and he asked me what I thought. He made me feel important.

I kept that slip of paper with his phone number in my purse. Every time I saw it my mind would run wild.

One day Mark was going through my purse, looking for our checkbook, and he saw the slip of paper. "You lied to me," he said. "You promised you would never see this guy again."

But you're the one who lied, I thought. You broke our wedding vows. "It's just his phone number," I said. "I haven't seen him."

He cut me off. "Cath, I want a divorce. This marriage is just not working." Then he walked out, slamming the front door, shaking the whole house.

He was right. Our marriage was a failure, a terrible mistake by two kids who didn't know any better. I fell on the bed sobbing. Marriage had seemed so easy for Mom and Dad! They talked about everything. They could tell each other their thoughts and feelings. They had no secrets.

I wanted it to be like that for Mark and me, but it was as if a wall stood between us even before his confession. "God," I whispered in the darkened bedroom, "show Mark and me how to love."

He came home late that night. For a couple days we tiptoed around each other. Finally, I couldn't stand it any longer. "Mark," I said, "do you really want a divorce?"

"No, Cath."

"Then we have to start talking. Really talking, Mark. Both of us. I have to be able to tell you how I feel, and you have to do the same to me. We have to listen to each other."

"How do we do that?"

"I don't know...but maybe we can begin by praying." We held each other's hands, closed our eyes and prayed for God to heal our marriage, to make us close, to give us understanding.

It was hard. We'd take one step forward, then slip back. Mark bought a couple books on marriage and listened to tapes on his long truck drives across the country. I'd see little notes he'd made to himself. "Ask Cath about what Nic did today. Ask Cath how she feels."

He didn't know anything about making a marriage work—his own father had left home when he was two. He was starting from scratch, and my parents had seemed so happy I didn't know what it meant to work at a marriage.

Mark called me from the road every night to check in. Sometimes, I admit, I didn't want to talk. I was tired from taking care of Nic. But then we'd come back to the same topic. "You lied to me," Mark said. "You cheated on me," I said right back.

We had to move on or go our separate ways. But when I thought I'd forgiven him, the anger would come back stronger than ever, and so would the shame I felt over that slip of paper.

I guess that's why I ended up telling Rhonda the whole story. She had a good marriage. She and her husband, Dave, were really close. They seemed like real life partners.

"All marriages go through rough spots," Rhonda said to me in the coffee shop. "Even Dave and I have had trouble. Maybe what you need is another couple to talk to. It's tough doing it all on your own. I think we can help, as your friends."

That's what Dave and Rhonda became for us. Another couple about the same age, but stronger in their faith and commitment to each other.

We started going to each other's houses for dinner and taking vacations together. Dave and Mark went fishing and Rhonda and I could talk endlessly over a couple cups of coffee.

But most of all Mark and I talked, really talked, for the first time in our marriage. And we learned how to forgive.

One night Mark came back from a long trip. He took a small box from his pocket and gave it to me.

"What's this?" My fingers fumbled at opening it. Inside was a small diamond ring. "Oh, Mark..."

"I should have done this when we first got married. It's not too late. You were the woman I chose. And I think God chose both of us for each other. Catherine, will you be my wife forever?"

I fell into my husband's arms. The "other man" had been there all along. It was Mark.

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