It was not until dessert that I noticed. That distinctive gray crew cut, the broad cut of his shoulders – our friend Bill was sitting at the opposite side of the restaurant. But the second my husband and I turned our heads towards him, I regretted not going to our usual haunt.
With a smile, Bill reached across the table, took his dining partner’s hand and kissed it. Unfortunately that hand didn’t belong to his wife (and my good friend) Elaine. I looked down at my crème brulee, fury rising up from my gut, but before I could stomp over to Bill’s table and make a scene, my husband stopped me. His advice? Confrontation wasn’t the best or most constructive course of action. We quickly finished our desserts and slipped out unseen. On the way home, my anger turned to worry (and later guilt) over how to tell my friend about her husband’s infidelity.
Their posting to China was their first overseas assignment. Without a network of family or friends and a different culture and language, Elaine was unsure about the move. But she was gratefully surprised by the international community that welcomed her and she settled in happily. Elaine took on the lion’s share of duties related to their relocation: finding the house, the schools, the housekeeper and shouldering the bulk of extra-curricular activities for their two elementary-school-age children.
That summer, Elaine and her children joined the exodus of expat families that returned to their respective home countries, leaving the day after school break and returning only a few days before the start of the new semester. This left Bill on his own for over half of the summer. While he was glad his family was able to reconnect, he felt alone and would have preferred that they returned to China sooner.
Elaine and Bill eventually divorced, leaving a broken family and recriminations on both sides. He stayed with the other woman – a work colleague – while Elaine and the children moved back home. Her marriage of twelve years was resolutely over.
Speaking with Elaine shortly after the divorce, she didn’t completely blame Bill. Looking back, she accepted that there were issues. She had focused all her attention on the children while their relationship as husband and wife came in a distantsecond. Bill often came home only to eat dinner alone – finding that the rest of the family had finished earlier. She regretted the times she rebuffed Bill’s invitations to join him on company trips and dinners, using the children as an excuse. And late nights at work and regular business trips only solidified the separate lives they led. They had become more like roommates than partners.
Most good marriages have a healthy level of respect, honesty, caring and understanding, but set against the pressures of family and work, we often overlook the needs of intimacy and friendship that are the keys to a strong partnership. Would Elaine and Bill still be together had they more aggressively protected their marriage? Would more time spent together as a couple have stopped Bill from looking elsewhere? No one will know, but for the rest of us, doesn’t a date night sound like a great investment? Only this time, skip the crème brulee.