When I was 38, I found out my husband was having an affair.
To answer your first questions: No, I never saw it coming. And if I could, I wouldn't go back and change what happened to us, for one simple reason: It has allowed our love, and our marriage, to reach levels they never would have otherwise.
Right now, everyone is consumed by Sandra Bullock and her plight: Should she stay, or should she go? Jesse is making the rounds on the morning shows, contrite. What I would tell Sandra is: Hang on, and don't make a rash decision in the moment. If the love was real, it can survive.
I won't pretend it's easy. It's a long road to recovery. And I know, because after living it, I wrote the book that I couldn't find out there to help people like me heal. I didn't want to read about cheating from some academic in an ivory tower. I wanted to hear answers from a real woman who'd lived through infidelity.
Now I have, and as the author of "My Husband's Affair Became the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me
," I can tell you why Sandra or Silda or Hillary -- or millions of women you don't know by just their first name who feel the same pain -- are equally anguished by the decision of whether to walk out that door.
Here's what happened in my marriage, and why I'm still proud to call Brian my husband today.
Brian and I had been married 18 years at the time of his affair. We had a strong marriage; that was safe to say. And I didn't see it coming at all. In fact, I distinctly remember the night I found out.
I was taking voice lessons, and I was in the car when that Toni Braxton song "Unbreak My Heart" came on. I was singing out loud and proud, the way you do in the car, thinking, This is such a great song, and it's right in my range. Oh, those words are so depressing, but I have such a great marriage. That could never happen to me.
When I got home that night, Brian said to me, "Anne, I have to tell you something." I went into complete shock.
There had been zero signs it was happening. And I'm now completely embarrassed by the first words that flew out of my mouth, which were "I forgive you."
Say what?! Now, I know that those words weren't acceptance; they were denial. But at the time, I thought if I just said them, we'd go back to our happy Cinderella life and I could pretend nothing had happened.
But no sooner had I said that than a totally different wave of emotion washed over me.
"Who is she?" I screamed. "Do I know her? Is she married? Does she have kids?" I needed to know who this woman was with every fiber of my being. Brian didn't know what to do. He didn't tell me. He just sat there, stoic, until he finally retreated up to bed. But I didn't sleep a wink. In fact, I sat there all night, awake, and didn't move until the morning light filtered into the room.
The next two days were pretty chaotic. I made a lot of threats and declarations. "You will never see her again," I told him a few days after he dropped his bomb. That was followed by a long, protracted silence, and despite the pain and the anger and the denial all mixed up in me, I realized this situation just wasn't that simple. He was going to see this woman again. He had feelings for her.
In fact, I think you could safely say my situation was worse than Sandra Bullock's: Brian wasn't contrite in the beginning. And, like Sandra and Jesse James, we also had the complicating factor of kids. Ours at the time were 16, 14 and 12.
By the time we finally had some time away from them, I had come up with an ultimatum: her or me.
"Make up your mind," I yelled. "I'm not going to share my husband with another woman."
And you know how some people react when they're in a corner with someone screaming at them?
"HER THEN," Brian roared right back.
He packed his duffel bag, left and went to a hotel. I spent two weeks believing that our marriage had ended.
And then one day, he came back.
"What are you doing here?" I asked him. "Are you here to visit, or are you home?"
What he said was, "I guess I'm home."
Here's the thing: That wasn't how I had imagined the thing that could never happen to me playing out. In my version, if your husband had an affair, and then he was sorry, he should get on both knees and beg, arms outstretched, holding flowers. That would be more appropriate. Why did I even leave this door open?
Convinced I was leaving, but still searching for answers, I called a good friend. "Anne, you have every right to leave this marriage, and if you want to, nobody will blame you," she said. "But I've seen you two together, and I know Brian loves you. I don't know what's going on right now, but I know he loves you. Don't make a decision yet."
And she was right about that: What was I going to do? Throw out my husband of 18 years and start dating someone tomorrow?
Within a week of Brian's telling me, we told the kids. They each dealt with it in their own way. But I won't sugarcoat it: As Brian puts it now, our oldest daughter, who has a really strong personality, pretty much "hated his guts" at the time. She watched me like a hawk, then she got hold of the other woman's number, and called her up and confronted her.
Then there was me and Brian and our personal roller coaster. His revelation came in May 2000. The next three months I define as Pure Chaos. From three to six months came the Period of Fighting. We tried to seek out professional help, but a lot of it wasn't really ... helpful. So we fought a lot, and what we were doing in the middle of that fighting was peeling our relationship apart like an onion and getting to the core to understand what had really happened between us.
What I needed answered -- what every woman needs answered -- is this: If you loved me, how could you do this to me?
But the answers you get in the first three months, or even the second three, aren't what we now call Truth.
Brian's Truth was that he just started a new career, and he was focused on that instead of our marriage. We'd just moved to a new area -- near Vancouver, right by the border -- and he didn't really have any good male friends he could talk to anymore. We were dealing with our kids moving into the Terrible Teens, and most of our new friends' kids were much younger, so we were alone in that phase. Then Brian's dad died.
None of these things, of course, excuse his behavior, but we also didn't understand how all of it had affected our relationship. And they are partial explanations of what led to Brian's affair. When he finally explained to me who she was and how it happened, he seemed almost as surprised by it as I was: He never saw it coming either, in the sense that he always thought an affair began with a blatant proposition. Instead, he said, it felt more like having a friend -- and then things went too far.
We also explored the ways in which we hadn't been connecting, just on a personality level. We talked for hours and hours. And more hours. And sometimes you have to face Truth that isn't easy to hear. For example, to hear that there was fun that Brian had had with this other woman that he wasn't having with me was excruciating. "I was unhappy," he kept saying, and at first, I had no desire to hear that. He
was the one who had done something wrong.
I do remember one breakthrough moment. Brian had been saying to me, over and over again, "You're not listening!"
"Yes, I am!" I said, just as many times. Finally he said, "You know, one of our friends told me, with the way I've been feeling, he thinks it's a wonder that I didn't have an affair years earlier."
When I heard that, I hit the roof.
"WHO WAS IT?" I screamed. "Who told you that?"
What awful person masquerading as our friend would say such a thing? Brian kept telling me it was irrelevant, but I persevered until I finally got it out of him. And then I was struck silent: This person was someone who was really near and dear to us -- and still is today. I felt like he was blaming me for Brian's affair, but I knew that this person cared about us -- both of us -- and I was truly confused.
Still, I called said friend the very next morning. "How dare you say that I made this happen?" I yelled.
"Anne," he said, calmly, "I didn't say you deserved to have this happen to you. I just said, '
Considering the way Brian was feeling ...'"
And this time I finally heard it. What
was he feeling?
I wondered. Finally, I moved into listening mode.
And when I did, Brian was able to move into repair mode. Now he was doing everything right: bringing me flowers, taking me out for dinner, writing me love letters, telling me I was beautiful.
Our emotions were still raw and intense, but we were both beginning to heal.
Brian started to tell me things, like the pain that he had been going through over his father's death. And I realized that I hadn't really been there for him. I had tried in my own ways, but it wasn't enough.
The truth of the affair was really hard to hear. I would listen with tears streaming down my cheeks, but I learned not to interrupt. "Thank you for telling me the truth," I told him instead. I had to learn how to reward him for being truthful.
I also learned a few things about myself. I had really worked hard at our relationship, but not necessarily in all the right ways. I had read a lot of books on relationships, and I would go to seminars, so I had a bit of a self-righteous attitude. I thought
I had my act together: You needed to keep up your appearance; you had to show admiration to your husband. These things I knew, but it was like a checklist to me: Brian, am I admiring you enough?
One of the things that we had to learn was that we didn't need to give up our identities for the sake of the relationship. One of the differences was in our personalities: Brian is more fun-loving; fun is a top priority for him. By nature, I'm a more serious person, the kind who has to find the moral of the story at the movie theater. To me, fun was something you did once you'd taken care of all of your responsibilities. Simply put, I thought my way was right.
We learned that there wasn't a right and a wrong -- that people have different needs. I had to realize that his need for fun was just as important as my need for security. When your spouse comes to you with something like "Here's a difference," you tend to hear it as a judgment, and the normal response is to get defensive. I finally learned to stop doing that.
But because my trust in Brian had been blown to bits by his betrayal, I was an emotional wreck for the better part of two years. I would have a bad day, and think, There's no way. I can't do this. I can never get over this. I just want a divorce.
Then Brian would do a bunch of wonderful things, and I would decide that I didn't want to divorce him after all.
And then, one year, it was Christmastime. I remember thinking, Oh my gosh, this probably isn't going to work. Christmas is going to be forever marred as the time that Mom threw Dad out.
I got really scared about forming that memory for the kids, and I came to Brian with a suggestion that we put this whole thing on hold for the holiday season. He agreed.
And what wound up happening was that we had one of the most amazing Christmases ever. That gave us hope. It made us realize that we really did have a relationship worth saving.
Two years out was the mile marker for me. It's not a magic number, and it doesn't work for everyone; it was just my decision. I decided that if I truly could not forgive Brian by then, the only humane thing would be to divorce him. I couldn't continue to hold this bad thing over his head: You're lower than me. You cheated.
One day I went hiking in our lovely mountains with a backpack and a notepad, and I wrote down all the things that Brian had done, and how he hurt me, and I thought, OK, Anne, you can hold onto this stuff, and you can get a divorce.
And my brain was going crazy: But if I get a divorce, how am I going to trust any other man? Brian has a strong character. I know that, and he cheated, so what would stop someone else?
And then there was our shared history, and the fact that we did love each other. And, I thought, from my perch on the mountain, There's a much better chance of monogamy with someone who's learned the lesson and realized we're all vulnerable.
That day I decided I wanted to stay in my marriage. Before I hiked back down, I dumped my lists -- and my mistrust -- into a nearby river, and I watched them float away as far as I could see.
My feelings didn't necessarily match up all the time. I still felt like I had a black spot on my marriage, but after my decision by the river, every time I got those dark thoughts, I would re-read Brian's love letters. Within six months, by October 2003, I found that that sad feeling had finally left me.
It's not to say that the journey of healing is easy, but the reward is incredible. That's why I'd like to say to Sandra that marriage can be made that much stronger.
I would never say to somebody that you need an affair to make it better, but once it's happened, you also can't turn back the clock and undo it. So it's a matter of finding meaning, and making it worse or making it better.
The choice is up to the two of you.
Anne Bercht is the co-founder of Passionate Life Seminars, a business in which she and Brian help other couples heal from an affair. She is also the director of the Beyond Affairs Network, an international network of support groups for people who have been betrayed. "My Husband's Affair Became the Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me" is the book she wrote about their story.