Photo: Zohar Lazar

Though infidelity breaks many couples apart, some say it’s a wakeup call for communication, making the partners find a new source of intimacy in honesty. Jay, a photographer, and his wife, Vanessa, both 40, have strayed over the course of their eleven-year marriage, and though it was rocky for a while, today they feel their past infidelities led to a newfound closeness. “Not that I’m advocating infidelity as a strategy,” Vanessa says, laughing.

Jay is round-faced and outgoing with a laid-back, hippie-ish manner. Vanessa, a costume designer, is a tall, stunning brunette who comes off as icy at first but turns out to be more emotional and vulnerable than she looks. I interview them separately—he at a café on Greenwich Avenue, she in her airy Chelsea office—and get a crash course in commitment in the process. They met in 1989 at a party in Austin; she had been dating mainly businessmen and lawyers and was drawn to Jay’s humor and artistic nature. He feared that she was out of his league, but he invited her to his birthday party and she showed. Things got very serious very quickly. They moved to New York together a year later and married in 1992.

In 1994, he got involved in a photo project with a performance artist, Anne, and after they’d spent a lot of time working together, he found himself attracted to her: “I was fantasizing about a life where my creativity and my partner’s creativity were really integrated, like Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore. My relationship with Vanessa was on an intellectual and practical level—and not very physical. Anne was purely physical, and I was really attracted to that.”

After the opening, he went to Anne’s house to give her some prints. As they stood on the stoop, she told Jay she thought there was a connection. “I took that as an opportunity to start making out with her,” he says. “And we made out for the next several months on a regular basis.” They didn’t sleep together, at his behest; instead, they’d listen to music at her place or go for long coffees.

The deception was easy—he was working hard on various projects, so he could be away from Vanessa for long stretches. But after a few months, he realized, “I was in half a relationship with one woman and not a very good relationship with the woman I was married to.” He thought about his father, who has been married three times and never seemed to get any happier. He decided to tell Vanessa what was going on and ask her to enter couples therapy with him. “I feel like I’m falling in love with this woman,” he told her, “and it’s because I’m falling in love with something that’s missing in our relationship.”

Vanessa threw “everything I could get my hands on,” she recalls. “If they had slept together and it was just one night, it would have been easier to take, but the relationship stuff was more devastating than a pure physical affair. It’s an affair of the heart.” She starts to break down, unable to continue. I gingerly pass her some Kleenex, but she’s already collected herself. “It’s not the memory that’s making me cry,” she says. “It’s what I believe about love, which is that when you love somebody, there are no ifs, ands, or buts. You don’t look anywhere else.”

The night he told her, he slept on the couch, and for the next two weeks, she made him camp out at his office. But she agreed to the therapy, and slowly they began to unravel their problems—her control issues, his control issues, their differing visions of partnership. “Jay was wanting more communication and intimacy,” Vanessa recalls. “I felt a lot of pressure, like I wasn’t the kind of woman he wanted.”

Four years later, Vanessa got a job on a film, and when she met the leading man, Michael, for a fitting, he flirted aggressively, even after she pointed to her wedding band. On the shoot in Vancouver, he persisted, and she started to develop a crush: “With Jay, I always felt like he was testing me. ‘Are you good enough?’ Michael seemed to appreciate everything I did.”

One night after dinner, Michael and Vanessa had a long talk by the fireplace in the cabin they were staying in, and after he walked her up to her room (next to his), she kissed him on the cheek. That kiss turned into one on the lips, and they went into his bedroom and sealed the deal.

They slept together half a dozen more times during the shoot—and though they tried to keep it secret, everyone knew. She says the fact that Jay had cheated eased her conscience: “I was feeling validated, like, He did this to me, too, so I don’t feel so bad about it.”

As soon as she came home and Jay embraced her, he felt something different and asked if something had happened while she was away. She was caught completely off guard. “I sat there silent, dumbfounded,” she says, “thinking, Should I lie? I can’t, because it’s all over me.”

She told him the truth, and he screamed and asked for all the details—what they had done, how many times, and if Michael was bigger. (Her reply: “A little longer, a little thicker.”) After several hours of fighting and crying, Jay went out to the couch to sleep. “I realized a lot of our relationship was sadomasochistic—me being unhappy and getting off on this struggle,” he says.

Vanessa realized the affair was a clue that she wanted the marriage to change: “I knew I wanted to be married, but I didn’t like where we were in our relationship. I felt that if things didn’t change, I wanted to be alone.” They went back into therapy, and she called Michael to say she didn’t want to see him. It wasn’t hard to cut him off, she says, because “the sex wasn’t that great.” She didn’t sleep with Jay right away, either. When they finally did make love again, Jay remembers, “it was tentative and uncomfortable,” not a movie make-up at all.

Today, they have stopped therapy and describe their marriage as happy and comfortable. “The infidelity was a good thing for both of us,” Vanessa says. “It made us a lot more thoughtful about what we wanted. Relationships are about choices. There’s not just the one person in your life that’s your soul mate. There are a lot of people who could be, and I chose to be with Jay.”

As for Jay, he says he’s learned not to micromanage things: “I needed to let go and be happy with the relationship as it was. I no longer feel compelled to try to manipulate her into being something else. A relationship is a process, and you have to like the road or it’s just not worth it.”