How does one survive deep betrayal? For most of us there is no forgiveness. There certainly isn’t understanding, and we are lucky if we can move on at all, let alone become all the better for it. So, as was to be expected, when Adele Theron’s husband of seven years admitted to having had 18 affairs in the past three years of marriage, her world collapsed. Remarkably, less than a month later she had not only completely forgiven him, she had turned her experience into a new career which has transformed her life.
Adele grew up in Kimberly, a small city in the centre of South Africa known for its diamond-mining past. She was born disabled, with a condition called hip dysplasia that affects her hip joints, and grew up feeling different and disconnected from her peers. Her father was a change management expert for Price Waterhouse Cooper, which means that he worked with individuals, teams or organisations to transition towards a desired outcome or future. Her mother dedicated herself to fundraising and charity work and used to regularly visit a local orphanage where Adele would often tag along. She spent her formative years hearing of her family’s long standing stance against apartheid and discussing social injustice. Over the years, during her visits to the orphanage, she developed a close relationship with a young child called Baby who had similar congenital hip issues and who had also contracted AIDS. Baby died when Adele was twelve, and it hit her hard.
“This was when I made many crucial decisions in life,” she remembers of that time. “I decided that I would never have children; I would only adopt. I also knew that I wanted to spend my life helping people.”
Her family had always been free thinkers and there was always an understanding that the family was different. It was driven into her at a young age to fight for those who needed help. It was in this tradition that Adele blazed her own path.
“I was head girl when apartheid ended when I was 13,” Adele tells me over a cool smoothie on a hot September day in her bubbly and gently accented voice. “However, I remember a few incidents in my youth where I stood very much alone on the matter of apartheid, protecting my friends and those close to me from abuse or insults, and it strengthened me. When it all ended, I initiated a twinning programme with a black girls’ school. We would go over and teach them study techniques and they would teach us football. It wasn’t just about race, I simply can’t tolerate injustice. In fact, not long after that my best friend in school got pregnant. In those days all pregnant girls were immediately expelled. I started a campaign to keep her in school, finally telling the principal that if my friend was to be expelled then I would leave too. I finally got the rules changed for the entire district and my friend, and so many in her situation, was allowed to graduate.”
Adele went on to study business science with minors in psychology and IT at the University of Cape Town. “I simply loved that city; compared to Kimberly people weren’t afraid to speak up. I really reveled in this new environment where being outspoken and having an opinion was admired, not reprimanded. In the third year of university I was elected to the commerce student council and started to campaign for change. Business courses in those days were all geared towards the corporate world. I finally got them to change their policies and syllabus to cover more entrepreneurial material. In the same year we had to actually set up a real business. I headed a bunch of developers and our software which built ecommerce platforms became so successful, by the time I was 20 we were employing 30 people. We got rich really fast, but then a couple of years later the dotcom burst had us broke again.”
It was at this time, when she was only 22, that she was headhunted by a software company working in artificial intelligence, one of the first of its kind in the world. “My job was to socially nomalise and manage ten geniuses. It was a massive challenge as they were so talented and yet so socially dysfunctional. A year-and-a-half later the team was stablised and I got many of them married off too – one of my greatest achievements!”
While living in Cape Town she also became a groupie to, friend of and then later in love with a musician named Bruce, whom she would later marry.
“By this time, I was beginning to look at doing something new. I had some firm achievements under my belt and I wanted to realise a lifelong dream of living in London. While I was in love with Bruce and enjoying my relationship, I should have realised that something wasn’t quite right when I told him that I was moving to London for a year. He had a meltdown, but I was just excited to go. I promised to return in a year. We stayed closely in touch the entire year and I spent it working first as a cocktail waitress then eventually as one of the assistants to critical thinker Werner Erhard, an incredible opportunity which allowed me to meet some great minds. After a year I realised that I was not ready to leave, I was enjoying myself far too much. I called Bruce and told him that I was staying on. That weekend he had his first affair.”
Bruce owned up to the affair and promptly proposed to Adele. “At first I slammed the phone down on him, then he sent flowers. I thought a party and a dress would be lovely, and so I said yes,” she laughs. “Looking back, the entire thing was just off, but I was in love, he promised to move to London, I was happy, my career was taking off and I thought it was a great idea.”
So Bruce sold his recording studio and moved to London, where he joined the corporate world and the woman he loved.
With both working in corporate change management – Bruce ended up working for Erhard after Adele moved on to join the Hackett Group – they became a power couple, Bruce holding seminars on change all over the world and Adele climbing the corporate ladder.
“I was working on massive mergers and acquisitions such as the French/Indian ArcelorMittal merger, which, as you can imagine, was a cultural clash challenge!”
Although they would see each other less and less, the pair enjoyed a healthy sex life and were very close friends. But Adele had persistent feelings of unease. One of their mutual friends started buying her a suspicious number of presents for no apparent reason, and Bruce would stay overseas longer and longer after a conference to spend time with new friends. However, each time she brought up the subject, he would accuse her of being paranoid and ask her what was wrong with her, creating endless self-doubt for Adele.
“I had no proof, but I felt that I was being lied to,” said Adele. “Eventually I decided to trust my gut feelings. I entered a ten day vipassana meditation course to clear my mind, came home, sat down with Bruce in our kitchen and broke off our marriage. He admitted to two affairs and I asked him to return to South Africa to give me space. I visited three psychiatrists that week, trying to figure out my feelings. I also stayed at home and read a whopping 27 books on dealing with my crisis, I just didn’t know what to do and so I just tried to take in as much information as possible.”
A week later Bruce called to say that he couldn’t live with himself and admitted to a total of 18 affairs. A few hours later, one of the psychiatrists Adele visited called to admit that she was one of Bruce’s women. She was to later find out that six of his affairs were with her good friends, and he that had actually fallen in love with three of them.
“I couldn’t even contain my anger,” she said of that day. “I threw the phone against the wall and started to break things. I probably would have muddled along like most women in my situation, but I needed a process, that’s just who I am. So I started writing, furiously. I wrote down a programme for me to get through this. I used similar techniques to those I use in change management, but adjusted them for my heartbreak.”
Adele’s programme was designed to anticipate the progress of grief. She created exercises for herself, told everyone she was fine, took a sabbatical off work and locked herself into her home.
“I was like a mad scientist, there were post-its and notes strewn all over my kitchen floor. I knew that I could overcome my grief if I no longer had fear. There are the usual emotions: shock, denial, panic, negotiation, and when you fail at feeling better you get angry and then you are in shock again. You have to move through the anger and have proper grief. The first four days I tried to stabalise myself – it was a process I now call the divorce cocoon, whereby you try to adjust your reactions to negative thought. The next step, metamorphosis, is when you reframe your perspectives. I also set aside a tantrum day where raw anger and emotion is released; sometimes a mere 15 minutes of pure rage can simply tap it all out. Often people don’t hang around their emotions long enough to deal with it. They either get a glass of wine, or call a friend. Sometimes you just have to face it head on. Once that happened, I found that I just felt emptiness and space. I released all of my anger by smashing bags of ice on top of which I had placed meaningful photos and words which were important to me, it was very ritualistic. When I was spent, I simply sat in the garden and stared at ants all day. After that I slept for a long time. By the time I felt better, 16 days had passed and I realised that I had to take some responsibility for what had happened. Forgiveness is normally hard, but it came so naturally in this case. I realised that Bruce had given up his dream to be with me and that I had emasculated him in many ways. He resented me for the sacrifices he made and when you compromise yourself you are not the best version of yourself in a relationship and he went to get his needs met elsewhere. He needed to be idolised and adored, and sometimes I wouldn’t do that for him. I took away his dreams and his passion, and I realised that I too was at fault.”
Adele called a very surprised Bruce and shared her revelations. They held a divorce ceremony over the telephone, when they forgave each other. “Marriage is a ceremony, but divorce is administrative. I needed that ritual in order to move on,” she explained.
“Divorce can sometimes be harder than bereavement. There is no community support, and people don’t often rally because they are afraid to take sides. People are uncomfortable and don’t know what to say, and there is often so much shame involved in divorce that so many people feel very alone. You have to process the shame even though the shame is in your own head.”
“For me divorce was not just losing my best friend, but also losing the future I was living into. We had designed our lives together, and suddenly that was over. Once I reached this point of understanding, like a butterfly, I felt utter release. I felt a though I could touch the sky.”
Adele finally called her family and friends to tell them the news. “Everyone was freaking out because it just came out of the blue for them. The funny thing is that I ended up counselling them! I had already moved on by then; it had been 21 days after the fateful phone call.”
A week later Bruce came to stay with Adele for a tearful week, packed up his life and moved to the Caribbean where he lives today. Two weeks later Adele met Simon, her British fianc้e, whom she is soon to marry here in Chiang Mai.
It was a friend who turned Adele’s personal story into something far-reaching. “She had just broken up with her fianc้e and was a mess. She asked me if I could help her get over it. I sat down and put all my notes together and began sharing them with friends in need. I didn’t think much of it, and at the time was really excited about a new entrepreneurial programme I wanted to launch. Four months later Simon and I attended a conference to get feedback on this programme, and met Mike Harris, billionaire and founder of First Direct bank.”
“He was losing interest in my entrepreneurial pitch when I told him about the story of my divorce. He was intrigued and told me that that was my business, not the entrepreneurial project. I was a bit reluctant to shift focus and I didn’t quite see how it could ever become a business, but he had so much excitement for this and believed in it, he really helped me snowball the entire thing, and in 2012 my book Naked Divorce was launched at Waterstones Piccadilly. It went to number 14 on the charts which was a lovely surprise, and the media came swarming, which was a surprise too, but not so lovely. Front pages of the Daily Mail, The Mirror, The Times, The Telegraph, even magazines from Marie Claire to Cosmo asked the question “how can this woman forgive love rat who cheated 18 times?” It was awful. They didn’t focus on the positives, just on the cheating, which made headlines. Obviously Bruce wasn’t happy and it caused some friction. Interestingly he went on to do a TedTalk in Las Vegas about radical honesty. So it seems that we both took away huge lessons from this experience, we both took charge of the fallout and ran with it. Bruce is playing music again, and I hear he has just built his own guitar.”
Adele has recently finished her post-graduate studies in post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma techniques. She is soon to launch the world’s first online trauma centre, Naked Recovery, which follows the UK’s National Health Service protocol and will cover a wide variety of fields from bankruptcy to redundancy, accidents to grief.
“It’s not for everyone,” she says honestly. “Some people have traumas which require years of therapy. But for many it is very effective – last year 400 joined our programme. I now offer 21 day online courses to help overcome the trauma of divorce and I often hold an event called the Tantrum Club which is also very successful.”
Adele is currently off on one of her four big trips oversees a year, running seminars and workshops in the US, Sweden, Luxemburg, Philippines and the UK.
“We have lived in Chiang Mai for nine months now. Simon backpacked around Asia in his twenties and his mother passed away recently. He said to me early on that he wanted to truly live and had always dreamed of living here,” she explained with a smile. “So, now the roles are reversed and I am the one to move following my partner’s dream. We simply love our lives here. I love the energy in Chiang Mai and feel very happy, fulfilled and driven. I am also drawn to the refugee camps along the border and am interested in working with orphans. In the meanwhile, the second edition of the Naked Divorce, as well as an edition specifically aimed for men, is about to be launched. I never thought that such devastating heartbreak and betrayal could have turned out to have been the best thing to have ever happened to me.”