That evening is one Anne Bercht will never forget. When her husband Brian returned home saying he had something to tell her, she assumed he had a nice surprise lined up.
After all, the couple had been happily married for almost 20 years, had an active love life and rarely argued, so there was no cause for concern. Or so she thought.
In fact, Brian had chosen that moment to confess to a four-month affair with a work colleague, an architect, leaving Anne astonished and devastated.
Afterwards, when he had gone up to bed, Anne sat motionless in her armchair until the morning trying to digest the fact that the father of her three children had been unfaithful.
Two days later, 50-year-old Brian left the family home, telling his wife he was leaving her to be with his mistress.
You might expect his confession signaled the end of their marriage. But today, not only are Anne and Brian still together, they are, she claims, happier than they would ever have been had he not had an affair.
It’s an extraordinary situation, and one that the couple have since written a book about, laying bare the uncomfortable details of Brian’s infidelity and its traumatic aftermath. ‘It was undoubtedly the most devastating time of my life,’ reveals Anne.‘ But it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to us.’
Almost as surprising is Anne’s insistence that, prior to her husband's affair, her marriage to Brian was passionate and loving. She says that they had made love ‘almost every day’ throughout their marriage.
The couple, who own a commercial cabinet-making company, first met in 1981. After an intense five-week love affair, they married in church.
‘It sounds absurd now that we married so quickly,’ acknowledges Anne, from Sunderland. ‘But Brian was strong, confident, smart and the most handsome man I’d ever seen. ‘During those five weeks we were inseparable, going to the cinema and for meals, talking for hours and playing tennis into the evenings under floodlights.’
Just before their second wedding anniversary, Anne gave birth to their first child, and two others followed.
Other than early motherhood, which Anne admits was a struggle, she is adamant that the marriage was a happy one with ‘no obvious problems’.
But all that changed in spectacular fashion that evening in May 2000.
‘I sound so naive, but I was convinced Brian must have something exciting to say and that this was going to be a romantic, cosy chat,’ she says. ‘
But when he spent 20 minutes stuttering, unable to get his words out, I began to feel sick and scared. Then he blurted out: “Anne, there’s someone else.”
‘It was like being punched in the stomach. ‘Believe it or not, the first words I uttered were: “I forgive you.”
But that was just some kind of denial in operation. In the next breath I was shouting that he couldn’t see her ever again.
He hesitated, and I realized he was trying to work out which one of us he wanted to be with.
‘My head was spinning. Did I know her? How long had it been going on? Was she younger or more attractive than me?’
In fact, Brian’s mistress was a married architect called Helen who had two children and had been working with him on a construction project. The affair had been going on for four months, with clandestine meetings for sex at lunchtimes and even weekends.
‘I was sickened at the thought of it,' says Anne. ‘He told me that the pair of them had grown close after Helen confided she was unhappy at home.’
‘That night, Brian went up to bed. But I stayed motionless in the same chair until morning. He went to work as normal and, in a daze, I drove the kids to their private school before going to my friend’s house to break the news. She was stunned.‘
People always said if ever there was a couple totally in love after years of marriage, it was Brian and me. Nobody could understand it, least of all me.
By the following day, the anger began to consume Anne. ‘Brian and I had a furious row,’ she says. ‘I shouted at him: “Who do you want, me or her?” He yelled: “Her, then!” and said he was leaving. ‘
But before he stormed off to stay in a hotel, I made him sit down and tell the children what he’d done.
They were devastated. My daughter Danielle, who was 16 at the time, even found a number for Helen’s house and called her to voice her feelings about what she’d done to our family.
‘It was strange when Brian went that night. We went out for a walk together to get some privacy, and after all the earlier rows he was so nice to me. One of the last things he said was that he’d always take care of me financially. I honestly believed he was never coming back.’
Over the next few weeks the stress took its toll, with Anne losing more than a stone and wondering how she and her children would get through it.
She recalls: ‘I spoke to Brian on the phone a few times, and twice I went to see him at work. When I told him I wanted us to try again, he said he didn’t think I could get over the affair and that I was no fun any more.’
In turmoil and still furious, Anne made her way to Helen’s house, not far away, to confront her in person.
‘Of course I was nervous but there were things I needed to say,’ she explains.
‘Ordinarily, I’m a calm person and don’t relish confrontation. She was average-looking with no curves. But she was a brunette with brown eyes like me and, mercifully, the same age. ‘
I don’t know where I summoned the composure from, but I calmly spent the first half hour getting her to tell me about her own life and marriage. Then I used it all as ammunition against her and told her that if Brian chose her, he wouldn’t be the same exciting man she’d been sleeping with because he’d be racked by the guilt of what he’d done to his children and me.
‘She was choked with emotion and couldn’t speak. Her eyes were red from fighting back tears. I felt like I’d regained some power. Despite everything, I still loved Brian and decided I couldn’t stand by and watch our family fall apart if there was the slightest chance of being able to save it. ‘
He came over a few days after I’d seen Helen. I asked him to stay and he did but he wouldn't touch me which was heartbreaking and humiliating.
‘Then he called round again a few nights later and we managed to talk a little, and the raw emotion of the situation led us to have the most intense sex we’d ever had. I know some women will be shocked at that, and feel I should have locked him out of the house, but I wanted to save my family and my marriage.’
Anne says she flitted between so many emotions: anger, upset, disbelief.
‘I knew it would take months if not years of hard work and soul-searching from both of us to restore our marriage, but I also knew that I wanted to give it another go. ‘
It was I who was convinced that the marriage could work. Brian was very ambivalent at that stage, which was difficult to say the least. I’ve since learned that such an attitude of ambivalence from the man is quite common in these situations.
A few weeks later, Brian moved back home, marking what Anne describes as the start of a two-year battle to save their marriage.
While her younger daughter Tamara, then 12, and her 14-year-old son were accepting of their father’s return, 16-year-old Danielle struggled with the idea.
‘When Brian walked into a room, she would walk out,’ says Anne. ‘But I understood her anger. There were times when I was furious with him, like when he said he wanted to remain friends with Helen.
Thankfully the business project they’d been working on together had come to an end, and after a month he promised he’d broken all contact.
So how did she start repairing the grievous damage to their marriage after her husband's affair? ‘It’s not as if we drew up a plan,’ says Anne. ‘In the first three months it was chaos, and there was lots of upset.'
It was only after that that we started to address why he’d strayed. ‘At first, he quite seriously told me the reason was because I didn’t like watching football on TV.'
We laugh about it now, but at the time it wasn't so funny although I told Brian I'd learn to like football. ‘After endless talking, though, Brian admitted feeling stressed in the run-up to the affair #— with work, our teenagers playing up and unresolved issues he’d had with the recent death of his father. Then Miss Starry Eyes turned up and started confiding in him about her miserable marriage, and he felt a connection with her’.
‘I feel strongly about not accepting any responsibility for his affair, but if you’re going to make a marriage work after infidelity you both have toexamine your own behavior. I realized that I hadn’t always listened to Brian properly; I would often be too busy with the house and the children to sit down and ask him how he was feeling, or why he’d had a stressful day. ‘
So I worked hard at learning to be a good listener and had counseling to deal with the affair. Like most men, Brian didn’t feel comfortable with counseling, so he sought advice from close friends instead.
‘But if it sounds like Brian got away with what he did, trust me, he didn’t.‘ That’s the thing about affairs: if a marriage is going to recover, both spouses have to be committed to making changes.
For me, Brian’s biggest failing had always been his inability to communicate openly and honestly. There were many times when I’d tried to draw out of him what he was feeling, but he didn’t have self-awareness of his own feelings or the ability to express them to me.
That was the major thing he had to work on so that we had completely open communication.
’Anne says it took two years and a lot of hard work before the pain of Brian’s betrayal began to subside. And the result? A marriage, she claims, that’s stronger than before.'
‘It might sound unbelievable but it’s true,’ she says. ‘As a result of the affair, we never let issues go unresolved, and we are now very conscious of how the other is feeling. We also make an effort to have lots of fun, doing things together as a couple such as nights out and weekends away.‘
The biggest single change has been the openness between us, and I’m certain an affair won’t happen again because we’re both aware of how and why affairs happen.
‘We discuss difficult issues now, too — for example, Brian is able to tell me if he’s felt an attraction towards another woman, which has happened since the affair, and we talk about it and work out the reasons for that attraction. It actually makes me feel closer to Brian.Attraction to other people will always happen in life, but most couples don’t feel able to talk about such things.'
At a more basic level, if I put a dress on and ask him if it makes me look fat, he’ll be really honest if he doesn’t like it and thinks something else would look better. Without the affair, we wouldn’t have made these changes.
‘I know some people will think I was mad to forgive Brian, but I couldn’t give up on a marriage that had been so good and a man I adored. Sometimes it’s easier to walk away than it is to stay and work things out, but we’re so glad we did it ‘
Would I advise all women to forgive an affair? No. It’s very painful and has to be an individual decision. If you feel it would be too tough to stay and try to work it out, then it’s a woman’s right to walk away.
All I would say is that you shouldn’t give up on a marriage within the first three months of finding out about an affair. You have to get past those first three months of raw, rollercoaster emotion in order to see whether there is a chance for the marriage to work again.
The other most important thing is that both spouses have to be willing to make changes, or it simply won’t work.’
THE HUSBAND’S STORY
Brian says: ‘My relationship with Helen began like lots of affairs at work. We worked closely on a project and developed a friendship. I was flattered by the attention, and before I knew it we were sneaking around, going out for dinner and to the theatre.'
‘I felt guilty, of course. I knew it was wrong. But I justified it by telling myself that we hadn’t done anything too bad.‘ That was until one night, after we’d been out, we ended up having sex in the car.
‘It was out of control and went on for three or four months before I told Anne. I confessed because Helen was putting a lot of pressure on me to leave Anne and marry her.'
Anne would tell you herself that she is thankful for that pressure, otherwise the affair might just have carried on the way it had been going.
At the same time that I told Anne, Helen broke the news of our affair to her husband. The aftermath was devastating. I hated seeing how much I’d hurt Anne.
‘Initially, I felt torn between her and Helen because I’d developed feelings for Helen, too. But when I really thought about it, I realized there was no contest. I wanted to be with Anne.'
Did I honestly believe that we could save our marriage? I was skeptical as I’d never heard of any couple who’d fully recovered from an affair. But we had to try.
‘Once we’d made the decision, we had to set ground rules — that you can’t talk all night about the same issue, you can’t throw blame around, truth always has more than one side and we had to listen to one another equally.'
There were countless setbacks, arguments and uncomfortable times. But after a year the difficult days became fewer, and I finally thought we were getting somewhere.
People assume that it’s the cheated spouse who heals the slowest, but it’s often the opposite. The cheater has to deal with all the guilt and shame and the sadness they’ve caused, and that’s what took me longer.
Anne and I have a maturity about how we communicate now and are both committed to being intentional about our relationship. By that I mean that we consciously keep a check on each other’s feelings as well as our own, instead of just letting things happen to our marriage and assuming that things will be OK.
‘Now, our marriage couldn’t be stronger, and I know that I’ll never betray Anne again.'
©Copyright 2005 Anne and Brian Bercht. All rights reserved.
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