My friend Cleo met her husband Eric twenty-five years ago when she moved into her parent's retirement home in Miami after she graduated college. She took a waitressing gig until she figured out how to mobilize a degree in English literature into cash and Eric was a bartender at the same joint.
Cleo was a petite, blonde firecracker and Eric looked like Fabio, but not cheesy. He was the Uncheesy Fabio. Their chemistry was palpable. They were frequently advised to "go get a room."
Cleo and Eric married two years later and I was an envious bridesmaid at their wedding, getting a little too drunk and making a pass at a Latvian busboy because I couldn't get my boyfriend at the time to commit to calling me when he said he would, let alone marrying me.
Last year, on the eve of Cleo and Eric's 22nd wedding anniversary, she called me in tears. She'd found messages on Eric's Facebook page. She didn't even know he had a Facebook page. He'd been corresponding with a high school girlfriend who still lived in Madison, Wisconsin where Eric grew up.
It was obvious in reading the messages that Eric and this woman, who we'll call ... hmmm ... what would be appropriate? ... Former flame? Love interest? Or maybe Bitchtastic home-wrecking protoplasm? ... yes, that seems right ... It was obvious she and Eric were having an emotional affair that was heading into the planning stages of becoming a physical one.
Cleo hadn't yet told Eric she knew and was calling me for advice.
"First of all, there's been no intermingling of genitalia," I said, which made her laugh. A good sign. "Have you had any prior indications that Eric is a serial, secret-keeping cheater before this incident?" She said no.
This is the moment I should've told her to sign them both up for couple's counseling, but I had an opinion and was compelled to express it, which of course I did.
"You have to tell him you know. Then you have to figure out what's going on in the marriage that made Eric feel like he needed to get some kind of approval or stimulation outside of it, which DOES NOT MEAN it's your fault, but this is where the two of you need to start digging."
Over the years Cleo had evolved into the main breadwinner as a high-level manager for their family of three (they have a son). In the meantime Eric floundered at several different professions -- scuba instructor, bar manager, construction worker. He just couldn't seem to find work that wasn't enervating while Cleo thrived.
She admitted to me that she resented being the main earner and that, at times, she felt like she was Eric's mother rather than his wife -- that she did nag and control and admonish. Turns out there was an ocean of anger below the surface.
I said that sometimes a marriage has to be cracked open to expose the rotten parts in order to rebuild a stronger foundation. It's a risk, of course, cracking any relationship open can mean the end of it, and I was worried maybe I'd given her bad advice.
Then Eric and Cleo called me two days later. This is when I found out she too had been dabbling in an emotional affair at work, but was too ashamed to admit it to me. In some ways I became their confessor. Shortly after that they found a professional to help them navigate the dismantling of their marriage in the hopes of rebuilding it more soundly.
A year later Cleo and Eric are still together. It's not perfect. But now they have no secrets from one another. They have all the same passwords and all of their electronic communications are transparent. There's no more Facebook or Twitter and Cleo left the job where she'd had her emotional affair.
I like to think I'm a liberal person, but in some ways I'm an absolutist. Prior to knowing about Cleo and Eric's problems I thought a marriage with infidelity (emotional or otherwise) was doomed to failure. But life is messy. People are messy. We have blind spots. Egos. And we often don't understand the mysteries of our own hearts.
I'm rooting for my friends and hope, should my marriage come under fire, that I'll have the kind of unvarnished honesty and humility my friends have displayed in the fight to save theirs.
Cleo and Eric gave me permission to write about them, but their names have been changed to protect their family.