Allison was a new mother when her husband, Andrew, dropped a bomb on their relationship. "When the baby was about six months old, he told me that he wasn't happy. He said that he loved me but he wasn't in love with me." For Allison, the revelation was a complete shock.
Theirs had been a storybook romance. They'd been classmates in Grade Six, started dating in Grade Seven, and were almost inseparable by the time they were in their teens. "She was my dream girl," Andrew remembered. After the fairytale wedding, their life began to unfold just the way Allison had dreamed it would. They had a dog, a bird, and then they had a baby, AJ.
But the plot took a twist that caught Allison completely off guard. According to Andrew, a distance had begun to develop between them even before the birth of their daughter. Allison was satisfied with the life they had built together, but Andrew was getting restive. He had worked hard in his business life and pushed himself relentlessly to get his financial life in order, but he was discovering that he needed other things to be fulfilled. "I wanted more adventure, to travel and do exciting things that I would never have dreamed I would have the ability to do. She was strolling through life, and I was sprinting."
They tried marriage counseling for a while in an effort to resolve Andrew's dissatisfaction, but they weren't able to make much headway. The marriage was foundering, and finally it sank when Allison discovered there was another reason Andrew was so unsettled and unhappy. "He left, and I found out that actually he'd been seeing a woman since I was I don't know how many months pregnant. That was the messy part."
As Allison tried to re-establish some stability, Andrew was full of indecision. Over the next year, he and Allison wrestled with what to do. They attempted to reconcile three times, but it never lasted. Though he cared for his wife and adored his baby, he was madly in love with another woman, Elizabeth. Allison's challenge was to make sense of why her husband had chosen someone else. "After a while, I realized I didn't want to be with someone who didn't love me. That gave me a lot of power when I realized that I had a say in what was going to go on, and that's when things started to change for me."
Their final parting happened during a weekend visit Andrew made to Allison's family cottage. "One of the defining moments in the story was actually our anniversary," Allison recounted. "We weren't together, we were separated. He was with Elizabeth, but he showed up at my parents' cottage. All of a sudden he was there and we were all like, 'Oh my God, Andrew's just walking through the door. What are you doing here?' We sat down outside on the porch that evening, and I guess everyone thought that we were getting together. We were talking for hours, but we were actually letting each other go, and we were deciding that together."
That's when the rebuilding began in earnest. During the year it had taken for them to resolve what to do about the marriage, things had been uncertain and painful for everyone. Now they could get on with creating a new life -- one that worked for both of them. Andrew was true to his promise that he would support Allison in raising their daughter. Allison stayed in their house for several years, and Andrew continued to commute between his new home and Allison's. Allison, meanwhile, had made a remarkable decision about how to deal with Andrew after her discovery of his affair, and their breakup. "I became committed to being co-parents who loved each other no matter what. After all the time that Andrew and I had known each other and all the history, I wanted the love to still be there, but a different kind of love. I wasn't committed to my daughter having anything less than she would have had if we were together."
The first year of Andrew's and Allison's separation was also difficult for Elizabeth, who was single, unencumbered, and three years younger than Andrew. She had to deal with being "the other woman," and the cliché of "the other woman." Andrew never wavered about his commitment to his daughter, and Elizabeth always knew that whatever relationship she chose to have with Andrew, his ex-wife and daughter would be part of the picture. Why did she stay? Most affairs end in disaster. "I felt that we connected at such a level that I didn't really have a choice. I loved him so much... I wasn't going to let the work hold me back."
Eventually, things began to thaw between Allison and Elizabeth. They were slowly beginning to build their own relationship. Everyone's relationships were going through a kind of normalization which Allison cherished. "It was better that we all get along and that my daughter have more people loving her," she said. She and Elizabeth were in complete agreement about the importance of having these priorities straight. “The single leading factor in making the whole thing work is that we've put AJ's best interests first," says Elizabeth.
As the new family triad began to figure out how to set things up for the longer term, they decided to sell the house Andrew and Allison had owned in Aurora, Ontario and buy two affordable houses close to each other in Markham. Andrew knew a developer who helped them find homes that were just twelve doors apart. When Allison moved in, Andrew pitched in and set up her closet organizers, hung her shelves, and arranged to have her air conditioning installed.
Eventually, they shared time equally with AJ, who flourished. There was a lot of overlap between the two homes, and schedules and boundaries were remarkably flexible. Allison remembered that "AJ loved it. We were parents who still parented together. We had keys to each other's homes... and everyone helped each other out." For AJ, this family with an odd shape made complete sense, and Allison smiles as she describes her daughter's comfort with a situation that had taken such measured control to craft. "She just grew up with it, Daddy and Elizabeth and Elizabeth's mom and me. That was her family. Whenever she drew pictures of her family at school, it was always all of us and the dog."
When AJ was about three years old, a new man, Kurt, came into Allison's life. They quickly became serious, and after a short courtship, they decided to marry. The introduction of a new character to the mix necessitated some tinkering with the balance of the arrangement. Although Kurt's personality was completely different from Andrew's, that didn't stop them from making an effort to connect with each other. Over the years, the two couples have maintained cordial relations. Both couples attended each other's weddings. They each have new babies who were born at almost the same time. And lately, the two families have even traveled together. "I see Allison as a friend, and it's fun, we'll have great chats," said Elizabeth. Andrew wants AJ to grow up with the sense that she lives in an extended family, an idea everyone has embraced.
As if everyone's lives weren't complicated enough already, another wrinkle appeared in the arrangement. Kurt was offered a job in Winnipeg, and since jobs in his area of expertise are hard to come by, he took it. He and Allison consulted with Elizabeth and Andrew and then began to organize themselves to maintain a commuter marriage. Elizabeth and Andrew have been supportive of this and have switched to a two-week-on, two-week-off schedule with AJ to facilitate the arrangement.
Allison is living a life she couldn't have imagined as a teenager growing up in the suburbs. "It's not the white picket fence, but it's exciting. When Andrew and I broke up, I was pushed and I grew. Maybe what happened with Andrew and me set me up for this, like I got trained."
And at the center of it all is a little girl who has never been forgotten. She is why all these adults have compromised and cooperated and sacrificed. She's the reason for all of their efforts. "I want her to have as normal a childhood as possible, and I want her to see her parents happy," says Andrew. "We always pose for a picture with the three of us, and I've told her, 'Daddy and Mommy love each other tremendously, and Daddy will do anything for Mommy. We don't live together, we're not married, but I want you to know that the two people that made you are very, very tight with one another.'"
From Reconcilable Differences: Marriages End. Families Don't. by Cate Cochran. Reprinted by permission of Second Story Press. Available at your local bookstore. To find out more or to order copies, visit Second Story Press.