Brian Bercht cheated on his wife, Anne, 10 years ago. It was a full-blown affair, with clandestine lunch meetings and a growing emotional attachment to the other woman.
It wasn't that Brian didn't love his wife of 18 years, he says. But he felt empty and vulnerable. And he was unprepared for the attraction he felt toward the co-worker who would become his lover.
"I didn't think it would ever happen to me," he says.
For her part, Anne Bercht remembers the pain. She describes how she did not sleep or eat for months.
"If we had been fighting, if we had had a bad sex life -- if we had been struggling -- maybe I would have been able to accept it," she says. "But all of that increased my level of devastation and shock. I couldn't think straight."
Not only was she grappling with the pain coming from her marriage, Anne says, she felt that she was facing a world packed with stereotypes and snide jokes, but very little practical advice. In some ways infidelity was everywhere -- on television and in songs, in grocery checkout magazines and whispered water-cooler conversations, but it was also nowhere. People might allude to others having affairs, but nobody talked about it in the first person. It was never about them.
If a society's approach to infidelity and marriage shows a lot about that culture, then it's not a stretch to assume that the United States is one confused place.
A spate of recent public scandals -- from Tiger Woods to David Letterman, from Sen. John Ensign to Gov. Mark Sanford, to the suspected shenanigans of Jon Gosselin of reality TV's Jon and Kate -- might make it seem as if this is a country well versed in the moral and emotional ambiguities of infidelity. But Anne Bercht's experience, say therapists and researchers who work with couples, is far more typical.
Despite all their exposure to and snickering about infidelity, Americans are becoming increasingly conservative about marital transgressions. At the same time, however, they are more likely to accept infidelity in their own relationships -- and, with the help of a cottage industry of therapists, counselors, and gurus, more likely to confront it directly.
The explanation for this dichotomy -- Americans maintaining a uniquely idealistic view of "I do" while seeming to accept a new strain of realism -- is rooted in fundamental changes in notions of morality and marriage. And it is all amplified by that modern-day tempter and confession booth: the Internet.
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The moral crosscurrents Americans feel about infidelity are reflected in the arithmetic. According to the National Science Foundation's longitudinal General Social Survey, Americans say they are becoming more intolerant of extramarital relationships: In 2006, 80.6 percent of Americans said that infidelity is always wrong -- up from 73.4 percent in 1991. (Another 14.6 percent in 2006 said that infidelity is "almost always wrong.") In the 2008 Gallup Values and Beliefs poll, Americans as a group found extramarital affairs morally worse than polygamy, human cloning, and suicide.
Yet many Americans cheat. Although numbers on adultery are notoriously difficult to pin down (in large part because people lie to researchers), many studies put lifetime infidelity rates around 30 percent for men, slightly lower for women. (There are various estimates, however, that range from 3 percent to 80 percent.)