How did KAREN VAN DER POLL and husband ETIENNE recover from an affair that marked the thin end of the wedge in their marriage? Karen told Thislife Online how their marriage has not only recovered but flourished, enabling them to face new family challenges as a team
Leadership and life coach Karen (54) grew up in Durban, South Africa, and studied at Stellenbosch University. She and her business consultant husband Etienne have two adult children, Lise and Xander, and now live in Solihull in the UK
WE MET IN MY VERY FIRST WEEK AT UNIVERSITY. The fresher and her senior. What attracted me to him most: his wisdom, the kind that comes with seniority. This, coupled with his integrity, made me feel safe, kept me focused and guided me to explore my potential. He says I made him laugh, that he loved my spontaneity and caring for those in my world.
We married soon after graduation. As well as our desire to be together, distance and logistics probably played the biggest part in our decision to get married so young. Without digital connection in those days, expensive phone calls and postal letters were all we had to connect us. We decided to continue with our studies, invest time and energy into our careers. Seven years on, we added to our family after testing our responsibility with a house full of cats and dogs. 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 and easy at this point. Though it would be fair to say that, apart from the privilege of raising our talented and gorgeous children, it was perhaps the perfect breeding ground for complacency. I now believe that complacency allows the seeds of selfishness to be sewn and start growing bit by bit, without initially being noticed.
Etienne and Karen on their wedding day in 1987
An opportunity presented for Etienne to work in the United Kingdom. This meant relocating our family from South Africa. We were very excited about the prospect of spreading our wings, tackling our new direction in complete agreement and with a sense of adventure. But also with a distinct absence of teamwork: the wisdom and care that had attracted us to each other seemed to have been diluted in the daily busyness 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 in SA to complete some projects. Meanwhile Etienne struggled to find his rhythm in a culture that was unexpectedly very foreign, and in a role and a business that were more challenging than anticipated.
When Etienne moved to the UK for a work opportunity, Karen prioritised her career and stayed on with the children in South Africa, leaving the couple ‘at the mercy of expensive phone calls’
Again, with the lack of digital connection we take for granted today, we were still at the mercy of occasional expensive phone calls to manage our lives and keep the kids connected to their dad. And the stark reality was that after 13 years of marriage, Etienne and I mostly communicated about practicalities. Our inability to communicate our fears, hopes and dreams on a deeper level was exacerbated by the physical distance between us. Meaningful communication can easily be overlooked in the daily busyness of life, and the lack thereof made us both feel isolated and vulnerable. We’d become a weak team.
Late one evening, Etienne called with a short, sharp message: if I didn’t come over to the UK very soon, I might as well not bother to come at all. There was an urgency, a desperation in his voice that kicked me into action. A month later I arrived at Heathrow: house contents packed up and shipped, cars sold, legalities taken care of and tears shed as we left behind our lives, our family and our roots.
Short, sharp message
If I’m honest, I knew we were in trouble the moment I saw Etienne at the airport. The months to follow revealed further challenges. I suffered a miscarriage. Away from my family and career, upon which I had built my purpose and identity, I was confronted with a grief for which I wasn’t prepared. In addition, the company Etienne worked for went bankrupt. Being on a working visa, we were faced with possible deportation. The only outcome was to transfer to an immigration programme, involving significant funding. We depleted all our savings to stay afloat.
Family move to Europe: ‘I knew we were in trouble the moment I saw Etienne at the airport,’ says Karen
I was starting to realise the fear and uncertainty that Etienne had been facing alone. But alas, it was all too late: he had met someone, and wanted a divorce. The night Etienne told me he wanted to end our marriage, I went to bed with a shattered heart. I was unable to think straight. In the middle of the night, a dream woke me up. It was a vision of what had gone wrong: rather than the events of the previous year, it was growing apart over many years that had broken us.
I never thought you had to be intentional
I woke up with clarity the next morning. I was ready and determined to fight with everything for my husband, for my children: our family. But I felt so ill-equipped. I’ve come to realise, as is the case with many married couples, I’d naïvely thought that marrying when in love was all that was 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 the career I’d prioritised by staying 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 who’d had the first affair, with a job!
Karen: ‘It took two years to claw back our trust and respect for each other’
I won’t lie. It took us close to two years of blood, sweat and tears to claw back trust and respect for one another! We both had to have zero tolerance for the blame game. We each needed to maintain a mature focus on taking responsibility for every one of our actions, and on fixing them. We couldn’t have managed without counselling, to which Etienne initially only reluctantly agreed. It was hard and things seemed to go worse after every session, long before they got better.
Never underestimate the impact you can have
However, Etienne kept putting off moving out, and later said this was due to the change he saw in me. It intrigued him, and he once again saw glimpses of the laugh, spontaneity and the caring approach I had as a 17-year-old. We both learnt a valuable lesson: never underestimate the impact you can have, even if you’re the only one willing to change. We understand, of course, that there are exceptions to this, such as abusive and damaging relationships.
(Above and below) Family times with daughter Lise and son Xander. ‘We both had to have zero tolerance for the blame game, and we both learnt a valuable lesson: never underestimate the impact you can have, even if you’re the only one willing to change,’ says Karen
While dealing with the unimaginable hurt, displaced anger and utter brokenness of ourselves, I think we were both surprised by the simplicity of interventions that corrected a host of our bad habits. We learnt basic tools such as:
1) understanding we communicate almost in different languages because we have such different personalities,
2) listening in order to understand the other rather than to defend yourself
3) and appreciating that conflict can be healthy, if dealt with in a healthy manner.
Acquiring these helped 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 this simple learning that we began sharing our story and helping couples take up these tools and understand the importance of being intentional in a relationship.
Investing in your relationship, consistently and steadily, is like investing in a secure financial future. There comes a day when you realise that the dividends can even be 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 predicted.
Karen: ‘Acquiring basic relationship tools helped us support each other in a way that made us feel truly loved and safe in each other’s company. We became passionate about sharing our story to help couples understand the importance of being intentional’
Struck by another storm
And then another storm hit. Xander was in his first year at Bristol University studying medicine. Etienne and I started planning the next season of our lives. Xander came home to study for exams. He climbed up a tree for fun, slipped and fell, breaking his back on a protruding root. I can still hear the voice of the neurosurgeon in my head, telling me that our son would never walk again.
Xander broke his back, falling from a tree. ‘I’ll never forget holding onto Etienne that night, and the months that followed,’ says Karen
Etienne was working in Ireland and arrived at the hospital when Xander was already in the operating theatre. I’ll never forget holding onto Etienne that night, and the days, nights, 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.
With much better relational habits, we were prepared. We hardly spoke in those first weeks but being together was enough, words weren’t necessary. Rather than making demands on each other, we worked together silently yet flawlessly. As a team, we kept our focus on the issue at hand. Instinctively, we stepped into our strengths and played our parts as if we’d rehearsed them.
(Above and below) With his family’s support, Xander has not only continued his medical studies at Bristol University but taken on competitive wheelchair racing and rowing. ‘Our family was once again challenged, but with much better relational habits we were prepared, and played our parts as a team,’ says Karen
Xander with South African girlfriend Margaux, who recently relocated to the UK. Karen and Etienne built him wheelchair-friendly accommodation in the bottom of their garden, and christened it The Lad Pad
Recovery and rehabilitation took almost a year. Xander has now resumed his medical studies at Bristol (though currently studying online at home due to lockdown!). Amongst other things, he has taken up wheelchair racing and rowing. We’re all coming to terms with a life that will look significantly different from what we all anticipated. 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 the decision not to give up after our bad mistakes, not to let these mistakes define us but to grow as people and as a couple, helped us survive an incident that could have pulled us apart again.
Faith in the centre of it all
None of this story can be told without mentioning the role we believe God played in it all. When tragedy struck, it was what we both believe to be Him guiding us that became the foundation of our strength, the choices we made, and provided an assurance that He has a purpose for our lives. There’s a verse 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. I believe that God has taken the mess we made in our marriage and given us a story of hope and encouragement for others.’ ♦
TRIUMPH! XANDER RECENTLY STARTED USING ‘REWALK’, AN INGENIOUS BATTERY-POWERED REHAB SYSTEM THAT MIMICS A NATURAL GAIT. HERE, HIS PHYSIO JAMES BENSON AND GIRLFRIEND MARGAUX HELP HIM STAY ON TRACK
When your children drive you… Xander takes the wheel in his adapted car with a somewhat adrenalised Karen 🙂
Read our mother-and-son interview with Karen and Xander, full of positivity and featuring a video of an extraordinary rope climb by this determined young man!