Thursday, November 19, 2015

The fraught world of post-betrayal sex or "Here's what I know...and it ain't much"

One any given day, my house is filled with my three kids, ages 12 through 17, and a collection of their friends, both male and female, gay and straight. One has to almost wade through hormones in our house. The air crackles with sexual energy. 
Dinner table conversation the other night ran from masturbation to teenage motherhood and the importance of protection ("Abstinence!" insisted my Catholic-schooled husband, who never practiced it much himself). My daughter's boyfriend shook his head in disbelief. "We never have conversations like this at my house," he said, and I wasn't sure whether to feel smug or sheepish.
But while there's plenty of talk about teen sex around our house, there's far less around post-betrayal sex. 
Sex is an arena that, almost nine years after D-Day, seems still dotted with landmines. It has become easier for my husband and I to simply avoid that topic. But, as I know all too well, "easier" can mean avoidant. And avoidant can fast-track us to disengagement and detachment, two signposts on the way to cheating.
That's not to say that I think either of us plans to cheat. It's just to say we should both know better than to ignore our own discomfort.
And sex makes both of us deeply uncomfortable.
It wasn't always this way, at least for me. In fact, I considered my sex life to be a model of agency and maturity and healthy sexuality. I loved sex, which, for me, was within the context of relationships with people I felt safe with and cherished by. I felt comfortable in my body. 
Not too long into my marriage, however, I began to notice that sex with my husband sometimes Though it offered up the expected physical pleasure, on an emotional level he sometimes seemed tuned out. Somewhere else. 
I bought Mars and Venus in the Bedroom and tried to get him to read it with me. In very broad strokes, author John Gray outlined the differences between male and female sexual desires. My husband wanted rough-and-ready sex. I preferred soft and slow. I tried to talk with him about achieving some sort of compromise, along the lines of, sometimes we do it your way, sometimes mine. But not much changed.
During that time, I gave birth to one, two, three children. I was exhausted. I became resentful. He worked longer hours. I was lonely. I freelanced part-time and mothered full-time. Sex waned. I talked myself into believing this was what life with three kids and two tired parents was like. Maybe that's true.
I was happy. Mostly. I loved being a mom. My career was going great. I had deeply fulfilling volunteer activities. I had good friends. So I avoided looking too deeply at what didn't feel right. My relationship with my husband.
We all know where this is going, right?
Dec. 10, 1996, the light in my head finally went on. My husband was cheating. My world collapsed.
For six months, I continued to believe he had cheated with one person: his work assistant. I remained baffled by the affair. It didn't add up – she was so incredibly unpleasant and his relationship with her was constantly strained – but I believed him when he said that was the whole story. And then came the day when he told me the rest: He was a sex addict who was in treatment and who had been carrying on secret sexual relationships for the entirety of our relationship before D-Day. His acting out preceded me – though, without being in a committed relationship, it appeared more as just the sex life of a 20-something than the actions of an addict.
That remaining puzzle piece explained so much that had felt wrong in our relationship. It explained my sense of feeling objectified when we had sense (his sex addiction included a lot of porn). It explained his inappropriateness around sex, sometimes making frat-boy-type jokes that to him were funny but to those around us were beyond the pale. It explained my awareness that he was often elsewhere emotionally when we had sex – present in body but not in spirit. Turns out, he needed fantasy to fuel his desire. A real-life wife – and mother of his children – didn't do the job, so to speak. 
Like so many of you after learning about a spouse's affair, my sexual identity was in tatters. I was so confused about our entire relationship – what was real? what was fake? – but especially our sexual relationship. I had believed myself desirable. I had thought of sex as connection. How could I have been so wrong?
At first, I responded with hysterical bonding. For the first time since very early in our relationship, I felt that intense connection through sex. We looked each other in the eyes, we talked and talked and talked. We tried new things. Our passion was unquenchable. 
And was over. For months and even years, we barely touched. 
In the meantime, my husband was in sexual addiction therapy and learning, for the first time, what healthy sexuality looked and felt like. 
I was just trying to hold myself together. It was enough to get through the day. My bed and my pyjamas signalled to my husband that I was closed for busines. I might as well have had a sign around my neck that read, "Leave me the hell alone." 
I began to wonder about leaving. Not the "to hell with you, you bastard" kind of leaving (which, I wholeheartedly support if that's what you want) but an "I want a healthy sexual relationship with someone who doesn't carry the same baggage" kind of leaving. I toyed with the idea of having a no-strings-attached sexual relationship outside of my marriage, feeling somewhat entitled given what my husband had put me through. But I knew I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I was violating my own value system.
Eventually, we found a therapist who specialized in sex. We saw him for about six months and though we might have inched forward incrementally, he ultimately wasn't moving the needle far enough. His most frequent recommendation was "wine time", which too often turned into "whine time" during which we complained about the kids. It sure as hell didn't lead to sex.
Back to a sexual wasteland for a couple of years.
All this time, however, we were rebuilding a marriage. Though I hold that sex is an important part of a marriage, I've come to recognize that it's not necessarily the glue that I'd always thought it was.
Marriages come in all shapes and forms and I felt no less married in a sex-less relationship than I had when we had frequent sex. In fact, I felt more married because we were so committed to making it work.
And then we found our current couples counsellor. 
We continued to try and avoid talking about sex, but she wouldn't let us off the hook. 
She'd gently remind us that we were starting over with sex. Like shy teens, we had to come together in a way that we hadn't before, or at least not for a very long time. She still reminds us that it will feel uncomfortable and embarrassing at times, and she's right. I've had to do a lot of work around my own body image, especially as my former marathoner's body has settled into middle age. Long-gone are the mind movies that tormented me in the weeks and months post D-Day but I realized that I replaced them with a squeamishness around ordinary people sex, as compared to the soft-light beautiful people sex we see on TV and in movies. Both involve somehow imagining that everybody else is having better sex than you. Both involve convincing ourselves that we're somehow deficient: we have rolls, we don't moan loud enough, we accidentally fart. And both take us out of the experience itself and into our heads, where dangerous thoughts roam and threaten our pleasure.
I've learned from one incredible BWC warrior that my own sexual pleasure isn't given to me by someone else but is mine to claim, a lesson I knew in my twenties but that got unlearned in the rubble of D-Day. I've learned that sex is many things – awkward, fun, amazing, uncomfortable – and that I don't need to feel threatened by any of that. The only person who expects me to constantly delight in bed is me. I've learned that, despite my conviction that I had no sexual hangups, I do. We all do.
I'm still learning. So is my husband.
Which is why I'm not sure if have much to offer you beyond my own story about where I am right now: A middle-aged woman who's realizing that another chapter of her sex life is still being written. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Here's How to Really Respond When a Friend's Spouse is Cheating

One of our BWC sisters recently linked to this recent New York Times column about whether or not to tell a friend his wife is cheating. 
In the summer, O, The Oprah Magazine advice columnist Lisa Kogan (whom I love and generally agree with) also responded to a question from a letter writer wondering about whether to out a cheater. 
Both Lisa and the Times' ethicist gave advice consistent with the response to affairs by our culture at large – which tends to support a "look away" approach. They pointed out that marriages are private and none of us really know what's going on, which is a way of saying that the marriage might make room for other partners in some sort of hedonistic open way that most of us can't imagine. They point out that perhaps the partner does already know and would be embarrassed by any "publicity" around the affair. They mention that sometimes partners don't want to know. They suggest that, perhaps, the partner will smarten up before anyone has to know and the couple can live out the rest of their years in bliss. 
Of course, any of these situations is possible. But probable? Please.
So I'm copying (below) the letter I sent to Lisa Kogan in the hopes that, in some small way, I'm stimulating a conversation that I believe our culture needs to have: a conversation about the true cost of infidelity; an honest, nuanced conversation that acknowledges, as one recent commenter put it, the "act of emotional violence" that is betrayal. But a conversation that also includes the possibility of true reconciliation.
To her credit, Lisa Kogan responded to my letter with a large gulp, a mea culpa and a desire to revisit her advice in a future column.
Baby steps, ladies. Baby steps.

Dear Lisa,

When I was nine years old and out shopping with my mother, I spotted my best friend's dad. "Hey there's Mr. Shannon," I said. And then, faltering, "But that's not Mrs. Shannon." My mom quickly shushed me, making it clear that I saw nothing and was to say nothing.
Back at the Shannon home was Mrs. Shannon, who had no "don't ask, don't tell" policy. There was no "open marriage". Mr. Shannon didn't "come to his senses" before his wife found out.
Instead, there was only a bewildered Mrs. Shannon, wondering why her husband never seemed to be home and why he found fault with everything she did. She had no reason to suspect she should be insisting on protection when she had sex with her husband. She had no reason to speak with a lawyer to ensure her self-employed husband wasn't hiding assets. 
So when he asked for a divorce so he could marry not-Mrs.-Shannon, she was blind-sided.
Fast forward 33 years and I'm in Mrs. Shannon's shoes with a cheating husband in a culture that looks the other way. So are the 2,000 women DAILY who visit my Web site, The Betrayed Wives Club.
Before I'd been cheated on, I would have given exactly the advice you gave. Don't get involved. There might be agreements in place, etc. Which is true. There might be though I doubt it. And while we're looking the other way, the betrayed wife might contract an STD as more than a few women on my site have. One woman, who contracted cervical cancer, will never know if it's because of the STD her husband passed along thanks to one of his extracurricular partners.
A betrayed wife might choose to get pregnant again, go back to school, become a stay-at-home mom. In other words, she might continue to make decisions based on having a solid marriage and a dependable partner, when unbeknownst to her, she has neither.
At the very least, betrayed wives feel utterly humiliated when they learn that others knew of their husband's affair...and said nothing. It compounds the shame we already feel for not knowing it ourselves, for not suspecting. If we do suspect and have no real evidence to back up our suspicions, we're routinely told we're crazy. "Of course not," our husbands scoff. "She's just a friend/just a work colleague/just an old college acquaintance." And so we silence that voice. I don't know a single betrayed wife who doesn't wish some benevolent person – friend, stranger, doesn't matter – hadn't taken them aside or written a letter and gently told them what he/she knew. Something like, "I hope I'm off-base here but I saw your husband having lunch with a woman and it looked a little cozy. I just wanted you to know." Or "I will keep my mouth shut to everybody else, including your mother if you wish, but I recently discovered that your husband is having an affair. I'm here for you in whatever way you need."
Sure the wife might respond with anger. She might insist that you're wrong. Her own head will be spinning. She'll be in shock. If there is some sort of "agreement" (though I highly doubt it), she can respond with "I know about that. But thanks for telling me."
Telling the cheater himself gives him the chance to go underground, to cover up his tracks, to lay low until the coast is clear. To prepare the wife to dismiss anyone else's disclosure with a pre-emptive "oh, I ran into Marilyn when I was out with Joe's girlfriend buying him a gift. She looked at me kinda funny. She's such a gossip."
Being cheated on is one of the loneliest experiences. Everybody pretends it isn't happening while your world is caving in. It's not uncommon for people who've been cheated on to experience post-trauma symptoms: hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, nightmares. 
Nobody should take any pleasure in telling someone her spouse is cheating. You're right that it's a no-win situation. But that doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do. It's just not the easy thing. 

Kind regards,
"Elle", founder of The Betrayed Wives Club

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What Does She Have? Nothing You Would Want...

One sour lemon is pretty much like another.
“Affair choices are usually far more neurotic than marriage choices. When one is chosen to be an affair partner, one should not feel complimented. The most important characteristic of such affairees is their immediate availability.” ~Frank Pittman, Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy

I once confided in my friend that I worried my husband was cheating on me with his assistant. Her? my friend scoffed. Ewww. He would never cheat on you. And certainly not with her.
I felt relieved. And, frankly, I thought the same thing. He would never cheat on me. And certainly not with her. She was portly. She was demanding. She was a drunk. She was often unkind. I reassured myself that I was just feeling insecure and neglected because my husband was spending so much time at his new job. 
Turns out, of course, that my suspicions were correct.
But still...her?
Six months later I learned that there were plenty of hers, not just one. And when I asked my husband's counsellor what these women had that I didn't, he told me, "What these women have is nothing you would want." 
While I took some comfort from his words, it was still months before I could wholeheartedly agree. After all, the one thing these women had that I wanted was my husband's attention. It was only when I began to really understand the dynamics of affairs that I understood what the counsellor meant. My husband didn't select women based on their beauty or their charisma or their sexiness or any of the attributes that he might consider in a partner. He selected them because they were willing and able. That was all it took.
On the one hand, that's pretty damn insulting, isn't it? He risked our marriage and family for...what exactly? But that's the thing with affairs. They're not rational choices. Even the language we hear around them – "we couldn't stop ourselves", "it just happened" – speak to a lack of rational thought. It's possible, of course, to argue that love isn't rational. And yet...healthy love is. Healthy love is the product of mutual respect. It's the result of two people who've taken the time to get to know each other, to admire each other, to feel safe with each other. 
Affairs reek of desperation. Unhealthy people seeking what's missing in themselves wherever they think they can find it. In that sense, people who engage in affairs are no different than people who gamble secretly. Or drink. Or snort. Affairs are a distraction from real-life. A parallel world in which the rules don't apply.
In my husband's case, he cheated with his assistant because she made herself available and he was on some self-destructive path that I still don't entirely understand. Sex, for him, meant escape. Thanks to years of porn, he had expectations that weren't necessarily in line with the reality of longtime marriage. Sex was a drug and she was one of his suppliers. It just provided the requisite high that allowed him to ignore all those uncomfortable feelings he couldn't face. Long-buried grief around losing his father. A terror of true intimacy. Years of guilt and shame around sex, thanks to an oppressive childhood. What's more, meaningless sex gave him the freedom to focus exclusively on his own physical pleasure. 
With time, however, it was becoming harder for him to pretend his actions didn't have consequences. For one thing, he was becoming disgusted with himself, less and less able to compartmentalize. His anxiety grew. He became more depressed. He was close to hitting bottom when I finally figured out what was going on – and had been going on for years. He even confessed relief in the week's following D-Day. The jig was up. The sneaking around was over. 
He could lose everything, which suddenly made him see the value in all that he'd been escaping from. He didn't know how to perform all his roles perfectly, which he thought was expected of him: to be a father, to be a husband, to be a provider, a friend. He felt like he was failing at all of them.
Without the affairs to distract him from his pain, it hit him hard. He worked with a therapist to examine and challenge the thought processes behind his actions. He felt enormous guilt and shame. He had never imagined he could be capable of such deception, of so deeply hurting the most loyal friend he had. He fully expected me to leave.
Like my husband, a lot of men have no hesitation in dropping their affair partner because the appeal vanishes when they realize the price they might pay. They're not interested in a relationship with their affair partner. They've been chasing a feeling, not a person. 
Which is why other guys have a hard time letting go. In rare instances, they really have fallen in love with their affair partner though the statistics don't bode well for relationships that start as affairs – fewer than 3% will last. But even the vast majority of those who don't want to lose their wife or their family can have a tough time giving up that feeling – that he's sexy and exciting and interesting. On top of that, our human brain craves novelty.
And yet so many of us, in the days and weeks and months following D-Day wring our hands, stalk the OW on Facebook and try to discern what she had that held our husbands in such thrall. Why would they risk everything for her?
And the answer is as simple as it is confusing to us: They were there. They were willing to participate in deception. They were willing to lie. To manipulate. To hurt.
Nothing we would want. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Come Out From the Shadows: Putting Down Your Story

"Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it."~Brené Brown
Melissa, who frequently comments on this site and who inspires us all with her resilience, her clear-eyed optimism, and her steely determination to heal from betrayal, noted in response to yesterday's post that she's found this community so valuable in helping her through this.
And though I've written often about the value of sharing our stories, I thought I'd, once again, encourage anyone who finds herself on this site to write down her pain. 
If all you hear from us is "me too", then you will have had your pain held by us, which just may reduce its weight on your heart.
And just to show that I walk the talk, here's where I recently shared my story

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

You Are Your Own Teacher

"...everyone has an inner teacher whose authority in his or her life far exceeds my own."
~Parker Palmer, A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life

So many of you come to this site for answers. Can I get past this? Will he cheat again? Am I a fool for giving him a second chance? How can I stop thinking about the Other Woman? When will I be healed? Why do I want sex with my unfaithful husband? The list goes on. And on.
But I believe that behind the many specific questions is this one: How do I survive this pain?
And though I have plenty of advice to offer, as do a few of my wonderful guest bloggers, the deepest truth is something only you know.
The "how" is personal.
For some of us, the "how" is working to rebuild our marriage.
For others, the "how" is separating to sort things out.
For some, the "how" is by walking away from the marriage.
And within those options, there's plenty of variety around "how".
I confess I feel as if I've been letting some of our newcomers down. I've been busy lately and my responses are, I think, perfunctory. I trot out my usual bromides: I'm so sorry you're here. Please know that his cheating isn't about you but about his own demons. Yes, you can get past this no matter what he does or doesn't do. No it's not going to be quick. And, always, be gentle with yourself. You're walking a tough road and it serves nobody to beat yourself up. 
And while I stand behind every word I say, I wish I had the time to let each of you that I read your words and wish that this was easier for each of us. I want each of you to know that you have found a place where you are welcome and valued and heard.
But what I wish each of us knew from the beginning is that you already know what's right for you. You are your own teacher. This is why it's so important for you to learn to pay attention to what's inside your own heart and mind. You'll no doubt find yourself responding, physically, to some of the comments on this site. Yes! Those are MY feelings, you might think. One woman's approach to her husband's refusal to answer her questions might help you clarify your own thoughts around that. Another's suggestion about how she stopped obsessing about the Other Woman might seem like something you could try.
But you must know that there isn't a one-size-fits-all response to surviving infidelity. Rather by giving ourselves the attention we need, we can begin to cultivate that inner teacher in a way that, perhaps, we haven't.
What's more, it puts the rest of us in the position that we should all and always be: That of compassionate witnesses to your pain. Cheerleaders to your healing. 
I don't have all the answers, nor does anyone else. Whether you should stay or go or sit and think about it for a month or a year is a choice for you to make based on what feels like the next right step for you and your family. None of us has to live with your choice. You do.
And if your teacher needs coaxing out, begin by paying attention to where that wisdom shows up in your body. Your gut? Your head? Your hands? What happens physically when you imagine making certain choices? Notice.
And then acknowledge that wisdom. You've had it all along.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Grief is Not About Giving Up But Giving In

"The other thing I know now is that we survive grief merely and surely by outlasting it – the ongoing fact of the narrative eclipses the heartbreak within..."Gail Caldwell, New Life, No Instructions

Tim Lawrence's recent post has gone viral. Lawrence wrote about how everything doesn't happen for a reason, something most of us know all too well. 

We know that sometimes life sucker punches us. But we also know that, even though we think our husband's affair was the worst thing that could happen to us, we can learn from pain. Even if the something we learn is the human spirit's ability to survive things we didn't think were survivable. And that our ability to refrain from justifiable homicide is awe inspiring.
Tim Lawrence makes the point that, when we're brought to our knees by heartbreak of any kind, the only sane response is grief. It's a point I frequently make too, such as here. And here
It's not a popular opinion to hold. We don't like grief. Grief feels passive and there's little our culture hates more than passivity. We like a can-do attitude. We like stories of triumph over adversity. We want heroes. And we want those heroes to be fierce and formidable.
Grief? That's for old women who wear black. For those who've given up.
Grief is a recognition of our pain, an acknowledgement of our loss. In a culture that offers myriad ways to insulate ourselves from this pain – from drugs to sex to food to cat videos on YouTube – just sitting with it is heroic. And sitting with another in her pain, without trying to fix or reduce it or somehow control it – is downright revolutionary.
We can't fast-track grief. There's no going over it or under it or around it. Those who try will find grief emerges in strange places, baffling us with tears when we think we're happy. Or numbing us from feeling anything at all. 
Grief is a shape-shifter and only when we give in to it do we begin to recognize the many forms it takes. Sometimes tears, sometimes laughter, sometimes a belief that nothing matters, other times a conviction that everything does. And always a deep crack in our hearts.
But to give in to it is also where healing takes root. Tiny seeds of compassion and wisdom are sown in the fertile soil of our pain and nourished with our tears. The day will come – I promise – when the dark cloud of grief becomes the sunlight toward which our healing bends. If we have shown ourselves compassion for our grief, we become better able to extend that compassion to others. If we have been gentle with ourselves in our grief, we become better able to be gentle with others. If we have been merciful with ourselves, we are better able to show mercy to others. Grief has softened us even as it as strengthened.
We haven't outwitted grief, or outsmarted it. But we have endured it. And our life goes on.
What this means for you is that this is going to be a long road. But here you will find those who understand your grief and feel no need to transform it. It's enough to be with you in your grief, and for you to join us in ours.


Related Posts with Thumbnails