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Can an affair make a marriage stronger? One couple share their story of bonding after betrayal

It was while on holiday, in a bed and breakfast, that Mark Daniel told his wife of 18 years about the six affairs he’d had during their first seven years of marriage.

The couple’s daughters, then aged nine and 11, were in the next room.

‘When Mark said: “There’s something I need to tell you,” I thought he was about to say he had a terminal illness,’ recalls Christine at their home in Northumberland. They sit close together, looking at each other as they speak, one picking up when the other trails off.

‘We talked late into the night,’ she continues. ‘It was devastating. I’d had no idea. The sense of betrayal was vast. I was deeply hurt and angry.’

If Mark’s revelation in 2003 on their holiday in South Africa was like a bomb going off, the one that came next, that Christine had had an affair too — a one-night stand — was a second damaging strike at the heart of the marriage.

Mark Daniel, 62, and wife Christine, 59, (pictured), who live in Northumberland, reveal how infidelity brought them closer to each other 

‘I knew I had to tell him about mine. I wasn’t perfect. In my head, mine was this one idiotic, fluffy thing and Mark’s were several and awful.’

As a society we have always been fascinated by marital infidelity. From Jane Eyre to Lady Chatterley’s Lover, literature has long been peppered with betrayals.

Now modern TV drama has taken our interest to new, obsessive heights. It started with BBC’s Doctor Foster, then came steamy legal thriller Apple Tree Yard and The Affair with Dominic West and Ruth Wilson. With infidelity at its heart, The Undoing was last year’s transatlantic TV hit, while this month’s obsession The Pursuit Of Love is not short on adultery.

Next up is Fidelity by Italian author Marco Missiroli. Just published in English and adapted by Netflix for broadcast this year, the novel is a bestseller in Italy where it’s caused a stir for suggesting affairs are not always a bad thing. Perhaps, implies Missiroli, they may be liberating.

Indeed, as Christine, 59, and Mark, 62, attest, infidelity is not straightforward. ‘The affairs were messy and painful, but have also borne fruit,’ says Christine, who wants to tell her story to give others hope and to highlight the vital, if excruciating, lessons in forgiveness and honesty.

In fact, they say, their experience of adultery has fortified their relationship, forcing change and introspection, and bringing them closer than they’ve ever been in 36 years of marriage.

The pair met in 1980 at Imperial College London, where both were students — her degree was in biochemistry; he was an Army officer completing a degree in mining engineering. He asked her on a date to an Italian restaurant and collected her on a motorbike wearing a leather jacket.

‘Mark had a tuxedo underneath. I thought he was like 007. They had to throw us out, we were the last ones there. He was bold but at the same time kind.’

Mark and Christine who've been married for 36 years, were students when they met in 1980 at Imperial College London. Pictured: The pair in 1985

His first impression of Christine was similarly striking. ‘I found her wonderful, sexy and fun. The thing that got me was that she was so honest and spoke her mind where others didn’t.’

After a couple of years they married, in 1985, aged 26 and 23, and within a year moved to Hong Kong for work. By then, Christine was in banking and Mark an Army engineer who travelled.

Expat life started well: partying and six-day working weeks. But burning the candle at both ends led to arguments. During one confrontation, sparked by something neither can remember, Mark said: ‘I’m not sure I want to be married and I’m not sure I want to be married to you.’

Christine was floored.

‘I didn’t think I deserved it. I didn’t understand,’ she says. ‘I cried a lot. I didn’t tell anyone. My only way to cope was to brush it under the carpet and act as if nothing had happened.’

Mark says it was a heat-of-the-moment comment partly fuelled by alcohol. He apologised but the impact was far-reaching.

‘It affects you in ways you can’t imagine,’ says Christine. ‘We muddled along but I never really forgave him. I bottled it up.’

Mark said he kept cheating on Christine in the first year of their marriage hidden because he felt guilty. Pictured: Mark and Christine 

They returned to the UK when Mark got a new posting in Kent. In a quirk of bad luck, Christine was also offered her ‘dream’ job in Hong Kong. Swallowing her resentment, she turned it down, only to find herself alone when Mark was away for training and work in bomb disposal.

She absorbed the knocks, she says, for fear of appearing anything other than the perfect Army wife, and poured her energy into a new finance job in London.

‘I was very lonely,’ she says. ‘Our sex life wasn’t good. I tried to make an effort but it didn’t work. For years we were functioning side-by-side. From the outside, people would think we were the perfect couple: great jobs, great holidays, but inside, we were both deeply unhappy.’

Indeed, Mark had been unfaithful from the start. He cheated on Christine in the first year of their marriage. He had a one-month affair with a woman he met through Army work in Canada.

‘I didn’t see her again afterwards and I felt so guilty but I kept it hidden,’ he says. ‘I was lonely and looking in the wrong place for affection. I wasn’t aware of it then but I had this overwhelming need to be loved.’

Years later, after hours of therapy, Mark concluded that much of his behaviour, and his sometimes harsh attitude towards Christine, was connected to two events in his childhood — his parents’ divorce when he was three, and his mother’s death in a car accident when he was ten.

Christine’s one-night stand was during a week away for a training conference four years into her marriage. Pictured: The couple in 2002

‘There was always something wrong,’ says Christine. ‘It was like you had the perfect vision of your mother and I couldn’t live up to it.’

‘It left me believing no one loved me and it was dangerous to let anyone get too close in case they rejected me or left,’ Mark explains. ‘There was this push-pull going on. I can explain the cause of my behaviour but it’s certainly not a justification.’

He searched for emotional and sexual affirmation from other women, but says he never led them on. He told each of them he was married and it was just a fling, and in any case, the gratification he got was fleeting.

‘You feel momentarily satisfied and guilty all at once. A lot of it was about fulfilment: how do I know this woman is attracted to me? Well, she wants to get into bed with me. Once that was done, it was boring. I’d got their approval, love and affection.’

Christine’s one-night stand was during a week away for a training conference four years into her marriage. It happened on the last night after a dinner.

‘It was one of Mark’s periods away. I can’t even remember his name but he was nice and a similar age. I still feel ashamed. I put it in a box and didn’t think about it. I’ve never seen him since and it didn’t change my behaviour towards Mark. We’d got good at living life on two levels and keeping a lid on things.’

They say neither suspected the other — although, in hindsight, Christine believes the signs were there, such as Mark coming home at 4am from ‘work meetings’.

The couple began to understand how forgiveness could heal their relationship, soon after beginning counselling. Pictured: Christine and Mark 

Seven years into their marriage, when work eased, they had a baby and Christine experienced postnatal depression, a diagnosis that required medication and enveloped her in shame. They were pushed to such a low that they sought counselling through a relationship charity.

‘[The depression] was the straw which broke the camel’s back,’ says Christine. ‘I was crying all the time. I told Mark: “We need help”. I was desperate.’

Mark blames ‘male pride’ for not going to counselling sooner and they describe it as one of the most painful things they’ve done. Though it didn’t solve everything, it got them talking.

Christine discovered she was harbouring bitterness from Mark’s rejection and Mark began to understand why he pushed away those he loved and why he sought love from others.

He stopped having affairs. Still, neither spoke about their adultery. They believed it didn’t need dredging up at such a precious moment of recovery.

Soon after beginning counselling, however, they began to understand the nature of forgiveness and how this could heal their relationship.

Nine months of workshops gave them the tools to better understand each other and express themselves. And yet still there were secrets locked away.

‘They’d been put in a box. I didn’t want to damage our relationship again. I had enormous feelings of guilt,’ explains Mark.

In 2002, Mark was approached by the group that ran the workshops he and Christine had been attending and asked whether he’d like a director role. As a matter of integrity, he couldn’t accept the job while still keeping the secret. It was the push he needed to clear the slate.

Timing was important, but he was terrified. So came the trip to South Africa.

‘That first conversation was brief and calm but there were tears,’ says Mark. Christine told just one friend over the phone, making furious and disconsolate calls to her from the bathroom of the B&B.

Mark denies ever being tempted to stray nowadays and Christine said she tells Mark if she finds a man very attractive. Pictured: Mark and Christine 

Because of the children, however, they couldn’t return to the subject for another two weeks. Towards the end of their holiday, they found time to have a ‘very deep conversation’ about the betrayal both felt.

‘I’d spent two weeks living on tenterhooks, wondering how she’d respond,’ says Mark. ‘It was much more straightforward forgiving her.’

‘Although he was confessing to affairs that had ended 11 years before, and I knew he was a different person, it still smashed my trust and self-esteem. We spoke for hours. He said I could ask any question and went through each woman and spelled out the details. I said I forgave him, even if I didn’t yet mean it. We were both very emotional but it did release us.’

Over time the pain lessened, although the scars are still there. They worked on practical strategies: if Mark was getting attention from women, rather than avoiding him or getting angry, Christine would let him know she felt insecure and that he needed to involve her in the conversation. They have a new rule where they tell each other if they find anyone else attractive.

‘We knew we had to work on forgiveness together,’ says Christine. ‘Now we have intimacy at all levels — emotionally and physically — but it took a lot of work. If I’d thrown in the towel, I’d probably be making the same mistakes somewhere else.’

What advice do they have for others? Christine is adamant: ‘Work on the relationship you have. Don’t wait for a crisis or an affair to force change.’

To that end, they have developed an app, Toucan Together, to help couples resolve conflict.

While Mark denies ever being tempted to stray nowadays, Christine is more equivocal: ‘I am a red-blooded woman. I occasionally meet guys and think: “Gosh, you’re attractive”, but I don’t do anything about it. If I really think they’re attractive I tell Mark; it has only happened once.’

Mark looks at her with warmth and says: ‘Yes, well, Christine has some new glasses now so that number might increase.’

Do they think hit Italian author Marco Missiroli is right to suggest marriage constrains freedom? ‘Sex isn’t everything,’ says Mark. ‘I think the greater adventure is learning real intimacy with that one other person — emotionally as well as sexually. The levels of trust are so much greater and more fulfilling than any thrill of the chase.’

For information about strengthening relationships, visit toucantogether.com

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