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The confession was long overdue — and when it finally came, Sarah Bowles’ first reaction was a sense of release; closure after the most painful years of her life. Anger, distress and the sting of betrayal would come later.
She had been engrossed in some paperwork when her estranged husband Peter phoned out of the blue — the first time since their split two years before. In fact, she was more surprised by his making contact than by what he had to say. This despite the fact he was admitting to being homosexual — and having had affairs with men throughout their ten-year marriage.
Sarah, 49, recalls: ‘He told me he had another partner — a man. Although I was shaking, there was a sense of elation that he was finally admitting it.’ She had suspected her husband might be gay for the last three years of their marriage. Although she’d plucked up the courage to confront him more than a dozen times, he’d dismissed her suspicions with ridicule or anger.
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Sarah Bowles on her wedding day to husband Peter, who she suspected was gay for three years
‘It wasn’t until the day after his confession that the gravity of the situation hit me,’ says Sarah, a financial planner in the City. ‘I’d spent years protecting my children and worrying about Peter’s mental state, keeping my suspicions about his true sexuality to myself. Suddenly, all the emotion I’d held back came flooding out.
‘Had Peter ever loved me? Had he found me attractive? Had he truly wanted children? And, sickeningly, how many gay partners had he had while still making love to me?’
What hurt most, she says, was the fact that he had known he was gay all along; it hadn’t dawned on him over time. Although she recognises that homosexuality was less accepted when they met in the Eighties, Sarah resents having been ‘used’ as some sort of decoy: ‘However desperate I was, I wouldn’t lie to someone the way he did.’
Peter and Sarah had been friends as teenagers before they got married and she found him physically mesmerising
Her story echoes that of married BBC presenter Paul Ross, who this week confessed to a gay affair.
The 57-year-old brother of chatshow host Jonathan Ross, and a father-of-five, admitted cheating on his wife Jackie with former English teacher Barry Olivier. Jackie, whom he wed ten years ago, is standing by him.
Yet betrayal of such magnitude can only have far-reaching repercussions. Fourteen years on, Sarah still lives alone, in Holborn, Central London, and although she has dated, she is ‘still too vulnerable’ to start a relationship.
‘What Peter did shook my very foundations and led me to question everything I thought I knew. It was worse than you can ever possibly imagine. It’s going to be a little while longer before I can consider building a life with someone else.’
Then there’s the impact on their children. Sarah sent her two daughters, Rebecca and Lucy, then nine and eight, to boarding school to avoid the rumour mill after Peter came out.
The children’s relationship with their father had broken down entirely within four years and they now haven’t seen him for seven years.
Sarah says there were no clues to Peter’s true sexual orientation when they first became a couple. In fact, she thought she knew him inside-out as they’d been friends as teenagers growing up in Dover, where their parents each had successful pubs.
Sarah recalls: ‘With his strong physique, deep-brown eyes and long, dark hair, he was mesmerising. We bonded over a love of rock music and started going to parties and gigs together.’
Sarah started another relationship, which led to her having a son, Luke, when she was 19. She wasn’t aware of Peter having relationships with women but put it down to him being shy, choosy and spending most of his time with her.
Her friendship with Peter took a romantic turn when Sarah had knee surgery following a skiing accident aged 24 and he stayed with her to help with her recovery.
Sarah says ‘her heart would swell’ watching Peter and Luke playing football together or flying kites on the beach, then after one particularly happy day he put her arms around her and they kissed— their first romantic moment. They laughed it off but just a few days later, when he returned home after a night out with his friends, Peter proposed.
Sarah arriving at her wedding with her father. She feels she was used by husband Peter as a decoy
‘It was late and he’d been out for a few beers so I assumed he was drunk and told him not to be silly,’ Sarah says. ‘But the next morning he repeated his proposal, saying he’d never met a girl who was as intelligent, stimulating and fun as me.’
She was ‘stunned but thrilled’ and accepted. Six months later, in April 1990, Sarah and Peter wed in a Catholic ceremony in Dover, then celebrated with a reception for 150 people at a seafront hotel.
‘At my insistence, we didn’t have sex till our wedding night although there had been many moments when we’d had to restrain ourselves,’ Sarah explains. ‘I hadn’t slept with a man since Luke’s father.
‘When the time came it was clumsy but you couldn’t wipe the smiles from our faces.’
They had Rebecca within a year and Lucy followed shortly after. Peter also went on to adopt Luke.
Meanwhile, Sarah says their sex life remained passionate: ‘I was up at dawn to go to work in the City but we’d still find time to make love. Mostly it was Peter who initiated it. He got very jealous if other men looked at me admiringly.’ At the time she was earning £120,000 a year as a financial adviser, much more than Peter, an accountant.
While Peter played the devoted husband and father, however, she now knows he was also having illicit liaisons with men. To this day, she isn’t sure at what point in their marriage his infidelities began.
The fact that it was seven years before her suspicions were aroused will bemuse many. She puts it down to them making love most days and having the usual traditional roles at home: ‘He put the bins out and mowed the lawn, I cleaned and made the kids’ packed lunches.’
Sarah says Peter's confession led her to question everything she thought she knew. He left her for a man after 10 years of marriage.
Alarm bells began to ring when they received a phone bill for almost £1,000 in 1997. She phoned some of the numbers only to discover they were gay sex lines.
She recalls: ‘Peter pleaded ignorance. Of course, I was naive to believe him. But then who would immediately think their husband was gay? From then on I had a niggling feeling that something wasn’t right but couldn’t put my finger on what it was.’
That was until she became a volunteer for the Samaritans and found herself lending a listening ear to three gay, married men. ‘They told me how they’d manipulate family life, ducking out of family arrangements at the last minute so there was time for them to have male lovers. ‘They talked about calling gay sex lines. I thought back to that phone bill and realised these things were happening in my own home.
‘Peter was withdrawing increasing amounts of money from our joint account and when I challenged him he told me that he was spending it on everyday things such as smoking and drinking socially.
‘He would back out of family trips saying he needed to work.
‘On another occasion, he wanted to stay behind and watch a rugby match on TV. When I got home he couldn’t even tell me the score and said he’d fallen asleep on the sofa.’
So Sarah turned detective. ‘I started taking days off work to follow Peter,’ she explains. ‘Several times I watched from my car as he spent long periods of time in public toilets, presumably fraternising with gay men.
‘I felt sick watching the pieces of the jigsaw come together, and had endless sleepless nights worrying about the situation and also Peter’s mental state.’ One night in February 2000, Peter went out to buy cigarettes but ‘didn’t return for four hours’. ‘When I confronted him, he was aggressive and flustered. I knew then really that, even though he hadn’t confessed to being gay, the end of our marriage was imminent.’
Surprisingly, Sarah says they maintained an intimate relationship, mainly ‘out of duty’ on her part. By now prone to bouts of depression and furious tempers, Sarah was fearful of pushing Peter for fear ‘he might try to harm himself’.
However, the marriage ended five months later after a bitter row.
TV presenter Paul Ross recently admitted to cheating on his wife with a man
Sarah says: ‘Peter took off on his own for two days. When he returned I told him to go and live with his mother and he left the same day.’
As news broke of their split, one close friend admitted she’d been told Peter had been sleeping with gay men. Fearing for her health, Sarah had an HIV test, which ‘mercifully’ came back negative.
Her voice falters as she recalls sending her daughters away to board.
‘I worked all hours to afford the £24,000 annual school fees, but being apart took its toll on us and I missed the girls desperately during the week,’ she adds. ‘They would get very upset, asking if Daddy still loved them. I reassured them that he did but that he was poorly. They were too young to understand.
‘One weekend when Lucy was sobbing that she missed her daddy, Rebecca told her: “It’s obvious Daddy doesn’t want to see us so there’s no point us wasting tears on him.” It broke my heart. How could he do this to them?
‘Peter’s mother took the children to see him a few times during the first 18 months after we separated but the kids became increasingly distressed by his depressive behaviour.’
Then came the phone call from Peter, admitting his secret at long last. Why confess after all those lies?
Needing answers in person, Sarah arranged to meet him the following weekend — ironically at the hotel where they’d married.
She says: ‘Luke refused to come but the girls did. Lucy was delighted to see Peter and ran to greet him.
‘We didn’t embrace but we were warm towards one another. I was struck by how much more camp he was in his mannerisms and his tone of voice. Despite my anger, the overwhelming feeling when we talked was sadness. While the girls played out of earshot, Peter finally admitted he’d been actively gay for a long part of our marriage although he wouldn’t be more precise than that.
‘It was a hideous conversation. He told me that he’d married me because he truly thought it could work and said he had loved me and found me attractive.
‘I insisted that he told the girls he was gay and with a male partner, so he told them in the simplest terms that he wasn’t coming back to the family home because he had a boyfriend. The girls were too young to understand, they simply missed our old family unit. Luke was angry and doubted Peter would want to see them any more.’
Sarah has been single since she lost contact with Peter seven years ago
Sure enough, Peter cancelled a visit with them the next week.
‘They saw him only five or six times after that meeting. Sadly, all relations broke down and we haven’t had any contact with Peter for seven years.’
And what of Sarah herself? She admits she underwent two six-week stints of therapy, where she learnt to accept it wasn’t her fault.
But there are lasting scars. ‘I have problems trusting my own judgment,’ she says. ‘And I find it very difficult to trust people.
‘I’ve had three short-lived relationships but it’s only now I’m starting to imagine there might come a time when I feel able to commit whole-heartedly to a man.’
So does she regret her marriage to a man who betrayed her for so long?
‘I regret the lies, the hurt and the deception,’ she says. ‘But fundamentally I don’t regret the marriage because I absolutely adore my children.’
Luke, now 30, is a sound engineer and is married — a huge relief to his mother because ‘it shows my own marriage didn’t put him off’.
Rebecca, 23, a music student, is only recently in a happy relationship — her mother believes for a long time she held back from intimacy for fear of getting hurt.
Lucy, 21, works in finance and is in a relationship, but ‘she was most affected because she was a real daddy’s girl’.
Despite the fact none of them see their father, Sarah says: ‘They seem to have come out of it relatively unscathed, which is remarkable, considering.’
But of herself, she admits: ‘I have slowly rebuilt my shattered self-esteem. Peter stole a decade of my life — how do I recover from that?’