A story of how an affair, saved a marriage, when the storm hit
By Karen Van der Poll
In the beginning
We met in my first year, actually my very first week at university. The fresher and her senior. As I write this I fondly reflect on what attracted me to him most; his wisdom. The kind that comes with seniority. His wisdom and integrity made me feel safe, kept me focused and guided me to explore my own potential, as a young adult. He says I made him laugh. He loved my spontaneity and caring nature for those in my world.
We got married soon after graduation. We were still very young. Apart from our love and desire to be together, distance and logistics probably played the biggest part in our decision to get married, sooner rather than later. With the absence of any digital connection in those days, we were left with only very expensive phone calls (mostly from public phones) and delayed letters to try and stay connected, let alone attempt to nurture a relationship. Accepting we were still young, we decided in those early years to continue with our studies, invested time and energy into our careers, and tested our responsibility with a house full of cats and dogs before we added to our family seven years on. Lise was our firstborn and five years later, Xander made his appearance. Our kids were our pride and joy.
Complacency sneaks up on you
Our lives were fairly smooth up till this point. Smooth and easy enough that, apart from the privilege of raising our talented and gorgeous children, it perhaps was the perfect breeding ground for complacency. And in my opinion, complacency supports the seeds of selfishness to be sewn and they start growing bit by bit without being noticed too much at first.
The big move
During the big Y2K phenomena at the turn of the century, Etienne’s company announced the closure of the business he worked for. Not too long after, an opportunity arose for him to work for a company in the United Kingdom. This meant the relocation of our family from South Africa. We were very excited about the prospect of spreading our wings.
We tackled the new direction of our future in complete agreement and with a sense of adventure, but with a distinct absence of teamwork.
The wisdom and care that attracted us to each other initially seemed to have been diluted in the business of our lives.
Very early on, with the pressure of the arrangements and the enormity of moving country, the cracks started showing. I selfishly decided to prioritise my career and stay on indefinitely in SA to complete some projects, whilst Etienne struggled to find his rhythm in a culture that was unexpectedly very foreign and in a work role that proved to be more challenging than anticipated.
Again, with the lack of digital connection we so take for granted today, we were still at the mercy of occasional, very expensive phone calls to manage our lives on two different continents; to keep the kids connected to their dad and all the other practicalities of day to day living. The stark reality was that after 13 years of marriage, this was perhaps our only level of communication.
Our inability to communicate our fears, hopes and dreams on a deeper level was heightened by the physical distance between us. Deep and meaningful communication of that nature can easily be overlooked in the daily business of life. The lack thereof made us both feel isolated and vulnerable which weakened us as a team.
Late one evening Etienne called with a short and sharp message. If I did not come over to the UK very soon, I might as well not bother at all. There was an urgency – a desperation – in his voice that kicked me into action. A month later I arrived at Heathrow; house content packed up and shipped across, cars sold, legalities taken care of and tears shed as we left behind our lives, our family and a piece of our roots.
Arriving at Heathrow
If I’m really honest with myself, I knew we were in trouble the moment I saw Etienne at the airport.
The months to follow threw many challenges our way; the company Etienne worked for went bankrupt and because he was on a working visa issued to this company, it meant we faced possible deportation unless we transferred to another immigration program. This involved significant funding. The lack of income, meant by then, we had depleted all our savings to stay afloat, at a time that the exchange rate between the two countries were horrendous. Our daughter, who had never been to school before, was to start school in Year 2, in a language she had only been exposed to on the Disney Channel. To top it off, I suffered a miscarriage. I was confronted with a grief I was not prepared for. I had left behind the familiarity of a comfortable life, a loving supportive family and a career I had (wrongly) built my purpose, my worth and my identity upon, just to face a storm we were not prepared for and had absolutely no idea how to navigate.
We were broken
The fear and uncertainty, I now know Etienne had to face alone, due to my selfishness, were starting to make a whole lot more sense. But alas, it was all too late – he had met someone else and wanted a divorce. The night Etienne shared with me that he was having an affair and wanted to end our marriage, I went to bed with a shattered heart, and an inability to even think straight. A dream I had, woke me up in the middle of the night and at that point I had such a clear vision of what had gone wrong. It was not the events of last year that broke us, but the slow process of growing apart over many years due to a life wrapped in growing complacency.
The next morning I woke up with such clarity. I was ready and determined to fight with everything I had in me – for my husband and for my children – our family.
But I felt so ill-equipped. As is the case with so many married couples, I naively thought that being married when you are in love, is all that you needed to live happily ever after. Never had it crossed my mind that to grow together as a couple, you had to be so very intentional, hungry for that growth, continuously investing in and prioritising each other even above the children and certainly above a career, which I miserably failed at when I decided to stay behind in South Africa.
I was mad at Etienne for having an affair, for jeopardising our family, until it dawned upon me that I was the one that had the first affair – with a job that took precedence above our marriage.
The road to recovery
It took us close on two years to claw back the trust and respect we had lost for one another. It took blood, sweat and tears – I won’t lie. We had to have zero tolerance for the blame game from either of us, and a mature focus to fix and take responsibility for each of our own actions. We could honestly not manage any of this without counselling – which Etienne initially only very reluctantly agreed to. He was still adamant to merely go through the motions before he left, probably to soothe his conscience. Counselling was hard. It seemed to go worse after every session, long before it got better.
Through the counselling it became apparent that it was in fact years of neglect, unmet expectations and small unspoken disappointments in each other that led to the breakdown in our marriage.
It was not just the seemingly bad decisions we both made towards the end that was the ultimate culprit, but the lack of investment and attention to ‘us’ in the mundane and ordinary of our everyday life, that weakened us as a couple.
What Etienne later admitted to and the main reason he kept putting off finally moving out, was the change he saw in me. It intrigued him. He once again saw glimpses of the laugh, the spontaneity and the caring, selfless approach I had as the 17 year old fresher – and this time his eyes were opened to so much more. We both learnt a valuable lesson in that time: never underestimate the impact you have, even if you are the only one willing to change. We understand of course that there are exceptions to those who might be in abusive and damaging relationships.
Surprised by simplicity
Apart from dealing with the unimaginable hurt, sometimes displaced anger and utter brokenness of ourselves, I think we were both surprised at the simplicity of interventions that corrected a whole host of our bad habits and behaviours towards each other.
Understanding that we communicate almost in different languages because we have such different personalities, coming to grips with the power of listening to understand and not merely to defend yourself, to know that conflict can be healthy if dealt with in a healthy manner, are just a few of the basic tools we acquired to help us support each other in a way that made us feel truly loved and safe in each other’s company. We became so passionate to pay forward these simple learnings that it kick-started the beginning of the next 15 years of sharing our story, and helping couples to understand the tools and the importance of being intentional in the investment of their relationships.
A valuable investment
Investing in your relationship, consistently and steadily, is like investing in a secure financial future. There comes a day that you realise that the dividends paid out might not just be an added bonus to be treasured and enjoyed, but a lifesaver in a time of crisis.
Our dividends paid out two years ago when tragedy struck our family in a way we could never have seen or predicted.
Struck by another storm
Xander, our youngest, had just left for university. Contemplating our empty nest, Etienne and I started planning the next season of our lives. Towards the end of his first year at medical school, Xander came home to study for his final exams of the year.
After lunch, on a very ordinary Thursday afternoon, he took our dog for a walk in the park and decided to climb an old oak tree he used to climb when he was little.
His foot slipped and he fell onto a protruding root and instantly knew he was in a lot of trouble. Six hours of surgery revealed that the damage the root had caused to his spine was permanent and the voice of the neurosurgeon still lingers in my head as he told me that our son would never walk again.
Etienne was working in Ireland at the time. He arrived back in the UK later that night when Xander was already in the theatre room. I will never forget holding onto him that night. And the nights and days, the weeks and months that followed. Our family was once again challenged by the unthinkable.
But this time we felt united, armed with knowledge and tools and with much better relational habits.
We were prepared. The dividends were cashed in. To be honest, we hardly spoke in those first weeks. Being together was enough. It was as if words were not necessary. We intuitively knew what each other thought. We had no demands on each other. We worked flawlessly, yet silently, together as a team and we kept our focus on the issue at hand. We instinctively stepped into our strengths and played our parts as if it was a finely rehearsed performance.
Recovery and rehabilitation took almost a year. Xander had to lie on his back for six weeks without moving. It turned out to be closer to eight weeks in the end. In that time he took the brave decision to write his exams whilst dealing with the loss he had to face. To come to terms with a life that will look significantly different from what we had all anticipated. The accident had an impact on all of us. Not just on me, Etienne and his sister, but our wider family and the community that held our lives together in the year that followed.
We spent almost 4 months in hospital in a specialist spinal care unit near Wales which was almost two hours drive from our home. Etienne commuted to and from Ireland, then to our home in the Midlands and up to Wales on a weekly basis, whilst I hardly left Xander’s side. We were physically and I suppose emotionally exhausted. The financial cost of running 4 homes was astronomical. There was Xander’s accommodation at university, until we found another lodger to take over his contract, Etienne’s accommodation in Ireland, accommodation near the hospital in Wales and of course our own home. We then made a decision that Xander and I would continue his rehabilitation for another 4 months on a program we found in South Africa, leaving our family separated over continents. Arriving back home in the UK, we were faced with a building project to accommodate Xander, as our house was hardly deemed accessible to his needs, as well as all the arrangements for him to return back to university. The planning and logistics of it all was ongoing and relentless.
We were strong
Statistically a major event, especially involving the death or long term illness of a child has a very high risk of breaking up a marriage.
But for us, when we chose not to give up, after our rather bad mistakes years prior, to not let those mistakes define us but to choose to grow as people, to grow as a couple – however painful and hard at the time – helped us survive a tragic incident that had the potential to pull us apart.
Faith in the centre of it all
None of this story can be told without mentioning the role our faith in God played in it all.
Both Etienne and I grew up with a Christian faith and when tragedy struck, it was our shared faith that became the foundation of our strength, our guidance for the choices we made and the assurance of the purpose that God has for our lives.
There is a scripture in the Bible which promises that all things will work together for good for those who love God, who have been called according to his purpose. God has taken the mess we made in our marriage and given us a story of hope and encouragement for others.
Karen Van der Poll
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Read the reaction to Karen and Etienne’s story here.