How a Hong Kong career woman got over shock of husband’s affair and moved on with her life – and how you can too
Infidelity in a partner can be devastating, but it can also change your life for the better. From coping with being on your own to healing a broken relationship, the ways to move on and focus on the future
It’s been over a year and a half since Alexis Lee (a pseudonym) divorced her husband – let’s call him Jared – after discovering his extramarital affair. Looking back, she can pinpoint moments before the revelation when she knew something was off-kilter in their marriage.
He had taken up martial arts classes, and over the months, the time he said he was spending in training had stretched to as much as 12 hours a day.
They had been together for 13 years in Hong Kong, married for six. He had never shown much interest in his mobile phone, often leaving it lying around their home. Abruptly, he had begun to guard his phone with his life.
He suddenly cared about looking younger, too. In his late forties, he began to grow out his grey locks.
Lee had defined their partnership as good and satisfying, and believed her beloved would never be unfaithful.
In hindsight, this hurt partner acknowledged the marital scales were not always even. Her career in high finance made her the breadwinner in this relationship while his career tanked. He became a serial entrepreneur with a string of failed ventures and unhatched plans.
“He certainly didn’t grow, he kind of wilted,” recalls Lee. “That’s when he cheated on me.”
In the age of social media and smartphones, it is hard to keep secrets.
She discovered a social media picture of Jared with his martial arts classmates. A woman was seated next to her husband and the way the two gazed at each other set off alarms for Lee. She confronted him about it, but he dismissed her accusation as something concocted in her head.
Months later, Jared’s indiscretions came fully to light when Alexis found an old mobile phone that he had taken on an overseas trip. “Somewhere in the texts I saw that he had told her that he loved her,” Lee recalls. The discovery winded her like a punch in the gut.
She took screenshots of this message and other, similar ones and initiated discussion about a divorce. The chastened husband initially denied having cheated, then relented – but said it was “nothing serious”.
Lee, though, deemed the fundamental rift between them to be irreparable. Not wanting to waste time being insecure about the relationship, she quickly set divorce proceedings in motion. The two officially split last year.
Lee’s recovery was a seven-month ordeal, but she found the time to heal and get back in shape on all fronts. She ate healthier food and took up meditation, boxing, hiking and swimming.
“I realised during this process there were signs I had been in a bad relationship because the answer to everything was a bottle of wine … we drank every night [and avoided dealing with our issues] so I [had] gained a lot of weight,” she recalls. Post-split, she has shed 16kg and feels good, mentally and physically.
Lee is not in the habit of divulging everything to her peers only to be inundated with their opinions.
“I’m more of a self-help person, [one] to reach out to certain friends where I need them for specific aspects to help myself,” she says. She tapped her Indian friends to learn about meditation, which helped her get a clearer perspective and sometimes revealed solutions to problems.
Another male friend, also a victim of a cheating partner, said boxing helped him get his mind off things, which inspired Lee to take up the sport. “It was fun and helped relieve stress,” she said.
Her story has a happy ending: having embarked on many travel adventures after her divorce, Lee met her current beau, who works in property.
“I didn’t care to look for anybody ever again, and he just came out of nowhere,” she said. The two have been together for eight months.
Why is a cheating partner one of the toughest crises to get over? Sebastian Droesler, a counselling psychologist and life coach in Hong Kong, says it is because infidelity damages trust between partners, a core foundation of relationships. Such a fracture can stir up anxieties and even traumatise partners.
“Intimacy and vulnerability are elements created in a long-term commitment which are precious and fundamental. That is why we engage in married life or a long-term relationship, to seek intimacy and vulnerability we don’t have with anyone else,” he explains.
Droesler describes such a bond as parallel to the special connection between mother and child, which can be fragile and vulnerable, too. “That powerful connection is based on our search for meaning and safety, so any attachment injury will take a lot of time to recover [from], and [is] sometimes painful to heal.”
At the time of the revelation, the hurt partner can experience emotional pain, betrayal, a sense of relationship damage plus loss of connection with the partner.
Any crisis requires immediate attention and intervention, and Droesler encourages the individual or couple to seek help. He helps clients cope in phases, from de-escalation and clarity to “secure functioning”.
So much fighting and hostility can arise that it is hard to reconnect with yourself and the other in the aftermath. This may not be productive or healthy for either party, he says.
The first phase is to deal with the pain and defuse the heat around the situation. Next is for both parties to open up enough to see themselves and their partner more clearly, to lead to “secure functioning”. They can then find meaning and address fundamental relationship questions such as why the affair happened, how they got into this situation, and whether this was their idea of married life or not.
Some relationships survive an affair. In other cases, partners split and each leads a happier life separately, as Lee did. Every case is different. At some point, a partner will ask themselves whether they should stay in a relationship or leave. Droesler’s view is that every couple facing a crisis is better off working on those issues in an open-minded fashion.
Having “bravery, courage and determination” will help you determine the best outcome for yourself, or for the two of you, he says.
According to Angela Watkins – psychologist, counsellor and practice director at Red Door in Hong Kong – adultery is not always an immediate trigger for separation. Many couples in Hong Kong seek therapy to try to work things out, she says. If they do opt to separate, it usually happens years later.
If the partner continues to be unfaithful, or it is a permanent issue, or trust between them has been fundamentally eroded, then in most of these cases couples tend to split.
The one-year-old Red Door practice began a group early this year to help women grappling with divorce. In Hong Kong, private sessions with counsellors can cost HK$1,000 to HK$2,500 per hour; Watkins charges HK$300 per person for group therapy. “It’s suddenly affordable” for women who are struggling with the legal costs incurred in divorce, she says.
Divorce can be disorientating, so being in a group of people going through the same experience can be therapeutic.
“Seeing others and having empathy for them and seeing others having the same problem can be quite powerful for you,” says Watkins, adding that this “vicarious learning” from group sessions helps participants heal.
The weekly sessions provide practical tips, such as training in negotiation to help participants reach financial settlements, and ways of thinking and strategies to help them get through the process. Additionally, she guides women through what she calls “conscious uncoupling” to help them set goals for what they next want to achieve in life.
“In divorce, the [cheating spouse] can feel out of your control, so part of becoming whole and happy again is to start owning the life you have and stop being the person that something has happened to,” she says.