Sunday, August 24, 2014

Crystal Balls and Stepping Into The Next Right Thing

I recently watched the TEDx talk of my newest muse, creator of Momastery Glennon Doyle Melton. And she said something that made my brain emit a tiny "eureka". She said that our feelings, which so many of us spend considerable time and effort trying to avoid, are simply guides. They are our "personal prophets" pointing the way toward the next right thing.
I've said it here too – the next right thing. Not THE right thing.  But the NEXT right thing. Big difference.
Let me explain.
Many of us, post D-Day or as Melton called it "The News", spend the next weeks and months mentally spinning in terror because we're faced with a HUGE decision. Do we stay and rebuild our marriage? Or leave and rebuild a life without him? I spent about two years in that suspended state of fear. Stay or go? My hand constantly on the door handle. My bags metaphorically packed. "One wrong move, buddy..." could have been my motto.
Of course, underscoring that BIG QUESTION is the deeper fear: Will my heart be broken again?
When betrayed wives lay out their story and ask me whether I think they should stay, they might be hoping I'll trot out the statistics about re-offending. They might believe I have some deep intel into the mindset of the average cheater. But more likely, they're looking desperately for reassurance that they're safe now. That they won't ever EVER have to go through such hell again.
Because, man oh man, those feelings were excruciating.
I wish I could offer that reassurance.
I wish I could guarantee that every guy who cheats works tirelessly to become a man who deserves that second (or sometimes third) chance.
Some guys do exactly that, of course, and their marriages become stronger and richer as a result. But we all also know that many do not. That many squander that second (or third) chance and break their wives' hearts all over again.
In the absence of a crystal ball, you need to pay attention to those feelings, those "personal prophets".
They can't predict THE right thing to do, but they can guide toward the NEXT right thing.
perhaps the NEXT right thing is to pour yourself a cup of tea and watch your baby sleep instead of asking your spouse, for a zillionth time, why he cheated.
Perhaps the NEXT right thing is to make an appointment to see a lawyer and figure out your financial situation in case you decide you can't stay in the marriage. Perhaps the NEXT right thing is to change the locks. Or maybe it's to have coffee with a friend who you can trust with your pain.
Living this way eliminates any possibility of falling down that rabbit hole in which you're already rehearsing the conversation you'll have with your daughter on her wedding day (though right now she's in preschool) about how sorry you are that you made such a mess of your own marriage. It eliminates the paralysis that comes with trying to make decisions that you're simply not ready to make. Whether or not to end the marriage? Maybe that's your NEXT right thing...but maybe you just need to separate. Or sleep in separate bedrooms. Or take a weekend holiday together.
Pay attention to those personal prophets and let them guide you to your NEXT right thing.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Mercy or Justice?

I read recently about a woman brought before a judge on drug charges, a woman who'd been given chances before and promptly screwed them up. This time, she promised the judge, things would be different and she proceeded to outline her plan to ensure it was. Finally, she said to him something along the lines of, I know I don't deserve another chance. But I'm begging you to show me mercy not justice.
The judge chose mercy, putting the woman (who became author of Harley Loco, a memoir about her drug-addled days) in a rehab facility instead of jail. It was a pretty radical thing the judge did. The criminal justice system isn't really in the mercy business. 
Our larger culture isn't so big on mercy either. Mercy is weakness. It's letting people off the hook. It's co-dependence. 
Justice is giving people what they deserve. It's punishment. An eye for an eye. Or, at the very least, locking someone away so we can feel "safe".
And when we've been betrayed? That thirst for justice seems unquenchable. We're Shakespearean, raising our fists to the heavens and demanding justice for our pain. "He will pay for this!" we vow. Or perhaps we imagine the revenge affair we'll engage in, just as soon as we can get up from the fetal position on the bathroom floor where we lay soaked in our own tears. We'll hurt him just as he's hurt us.
In the early days post-betrayal, our mindset is generally more about justice than mercy.
Thing is, justice is damn near impossible. I'm just not sure there's a pound of flesh (metaphorically speaking. Put down the carving knives, ladies) that will satisfy us. No matter what we do in order to exact so-called justice, it will never un-do what he did. It will never heal the hurt. It will never mend our heart.
What's left in our toolbox? Well, there's mercy, that pitiful runner-up to justice. 
It's hard to even consider. Especially with the cries for blood we hear from those around us. "Once a cheater, always a cheater," they say. "Don't let him do this to you," they say. "Kick him to the curb," they say. In other words, serve him up some cold-hard justice.
Mercy? That's for doormats.
And yet...
While justice is about closing your heart, mercy is about opening it up.
It can be terrifying to even think about. Your heart has been stomped on. It needs protection. It needs armour and weapons.
Doesn't it?
I don't think so.
Or rather, I think you need for protect your heart from abuse. From continued deception. From someone who refuses to acknowledge how great a gift your heart is.
But to those who come to you stripped down, marinating in shame at what they've done? Who know that they deserve justice but are asking, instead, for mercy?
Let me ask you: How many times have you been on the receiving end of undeserved grace? 
If, even once, you've screwed up and faced eyes soft with love instead of cold with judgement, you've known mercy. My kids have shown me mercy more times than I can count. My mother, guilt-ridden over her years of addiction, asked for my mercy and got it. She repaid it to me a thousand-fold, every time I blamed her for some failing of mine.
I'm slowly learning, after a misspent youth of shame-inducing acts, to grant myself mercy. To silence the voice that sneers at me as undeserving of kindness and grace. Who judges myself most harshly of all.
Mercy, for all its bad press, is powerful stuff. 

Powerful enough to change everything.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Depression: It's Real, It's Horrible, It Can Be a Consequence of Betrayal. But It Doesn't Have to Be Fatal

I recently read a Goodreads interview with The Alchemist author Paulo Coelho about his latest novel  Adultery. Asked why he chose this particular topic, he responded that he was planning to write about depression because so many of his social media followers dealt with it. But when he asked his followers to talk to him about their depression, he discovered that, for many, the depression was a consequence of betrayal.
And then news came that Robin Williams died. His battle with depression was well disguised by his infectious energy and the beauty of that Cheshire cat grin, but it was there. Hungry.
And while Williams' depression was mental illness – presumably the result of out-of-balance brain chemistry – depression triggered by a painful life event is as real, as devastating and as deserving of our compassion. For self and others.
As so many Facebook posts and Tweets are reminding us today, depression lies. Depression tells us we don't matter. But we do. Depression tells us things will never get better. But things do get better. Sometimes they get worse first...but every day we have proof that things get better. Illnesses are healed. Friends reach out. The clouds part and the sun shines down, literally. Things don't always get better as quickly as we'd like. And depression relies on us not having the patience to wait it out.
Depression insists that we're to blame for our problems. If we were smarter, if we were prettier, if we were thinner/kinder/more fun...then he wouldn't reject us. He wouldn't choose someone else over us.
That, too, is a lie. And a dangerous one.
But depression's biggest lie is that life isn't worth living. 
I believed that. I believed it so much that I thought about ways to kill myself. After swimming my entire childhood in emotional neglect and shame, I thought I'd built my adult life on solid shore. So when that turned out to be an illusion, I wanted to give up. I didn't think I had the strength to get back up again. I told my therapist I was just too tired. Too tired of getting knocked down and picking myself up. Too tired of being hurt. Too tired to convince myself that life wasn't just a slog to the end.
She urged me to try anti-depressants. I resisted. My mother had spent decades on lithium and years trying to get off it. She had mixed her prescription meds with plenty of booze and gone, literally, crazy. I would visit her in the psych hospital, extend my hand and say, "I'm Elle. Your daughter." It hurt like hell that she remembered my brother but not me. More proof, I figured, that I didn't count for much.
So, given that the only other viable alternative for me seemed to be swerving my bike into the path of an oncoming truck (I figured it would be considered an accident and my kids would not suffer the stigma of a mother who killed herself, as my own had attempted more than once), I caved in to the meds.
Within a few days, the clouds seemed to lift slightly. Within a couple of weeks, I had the energy to put some effort into getting dressed.
And slowly, with therapy and time and those detested meds, the depression lifted. I also revisited those old childhood wounds, ripped open and bleeding from my husband's betrayal, and challenged many of my deeply entrenched beliefs. That I never quite measured up no matter how perfect my life appeared on the outside. That people only cared about me because they didn't know the "real" me. I can see now that I vastly overestimated my ability to fool people and vastly underestimated the love and compassion that exists in this world. People prefer the imperfect me to the "perfect" one, hands down.
But I'm also aware, as I write this, that I've relegated that dark chapter of depression to my "past" and that I wonder how effectively I respond to those of you who still are there.
I wonder if my rah-rah brand of betrayal support doesn't acknowledge enough just how debilitating depression can be.
If I've ever seemed dismissive of your pain, I'm sorry. It's not that I don't remember how horrible it was to feel nothing but blackness. It's that I now know it's possible to move forward from that.
But I want to take this opportunity to say that I'm aware that depression sucks the marrow from our bones. It turns us into shadows.
But the you – that beautiful, divine you that the world needs – is still there. And you need to fight like hell to find your way into the sunlight again. Maybe it's with the help of meds. Maybe it's with the help of a therapist or two or three. It takes a village, after all. Maybe it's with the support of a remorseful spouse or with the absence of one who never deserved you in the first place. Maybe it's posting like a madwoman on this site or any other that feeds your soul.
Let us be your army in this battle. Let us remind you as often as you need it that we have fought and, in so many cases, triumphed.
Depression is real, it's horrible, and it can absolutely be brought on the deep wound of betrayal.
But it doesn't have to be fatal.

Suicide hotlines -- international list
National Association of Mental Illness/Depression
Mind Your Mind/Canada

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Next Right Thing...Will Bring You Home

This...on Momastery:

In the midst of the pain, find some time to Be Still every day. Turn off the voices of friends and family and media and church and blogs and books and listen there for the voice of wisdom that arises in stillness. Because right now – making decisions is not about doing the right thing or the wrong thing. It’s about doing the PRECISE thing. The PRECISE thing is always incredibly personal and unique and often makes no sense to the people in your life. That doesn’t matter right now. You answer to no one except yourself in the quiet.Don’t get too excited, because this voice will never offer you a five year plan: just the Next Right Thing. It will never tell you what’s at the end of the path – just where to step next. Luckily – this is always good enough. The Next Right Thing – One Thing At A Time – Will Bring You All the Way Home.

Monday, July 14, 2014

More on Judgement...

"Secrets are the spots in our lives where we are most devoted to being preachy." ~Penelope Trunk 

Certain people in my life seem heavily invested in convincing me about their life choices. For instance, a stay-at-home mom I know frequently points out that the reason her children are thriving is because she's been so dedicated to their well-being, as if women who've chosen to work outside the home have not.
Another friend whose husband cheated (before I realized mine was too) defended her choice to divorce (though I wasn't judging her for it. I figured I'd divorce too) by citing all the ways in which it was impossible to reconcile with someone who had done such a thing. She later, in a moment of candor and after I'd decided to reconcile, admitted that she regretted the divorce.
In other words, the people who most vehemently defend their life choices are generally the ones most unsure about them. Please agree with me, their words say. Please tell me I'm doing the right thing. 
We all fear making mistakes. I think the so-called Mommy Wars are nothing more than women at their most vulnerable trying to convince themselves that their way is the best way. Those who feel safe in their choices don't have a need to convince anyone else. Those who trust their own experience – and response to it – aren't threatened by someone choosing differently.
Life is messy. Husbands do sometimes cheat again (or never stop). Ex-husbands sometimes turn out to have learned a painful lesson that positively impacts their future relationships. Careers don't work out. Kids rebel. For all our best intentions, life generally doesn't go exactly how we'd like it to go.
Which is why it's so crucial that we make our choices based on what feels best for us, regardless of what those around us are telling us. They aren't the ones who have to live our choices.
If we're unsure what's best? We need to give ourselves some time to get clear. Or at least clearer. It might help to solicit advice from those who've proven wise and compassionate.
But everyone else? Especially those who don't know us, or are most certain that they know how everyone should be living their lives – and that includes headline writers for tabloid magazines? Know that their secret is that they're terrified. Acting certain is nothing more than a masquerade for fear. Judgement is insecurity with a megaphone.
The truly brave among us admit that they don't know what's right for anyone but themselves...and sometimes not even that.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Other People's Judgement

...too often we aren’t willing to do the hard work of feeling where the weight of that pain resides in us. Instead, we get stuck, carrying around other people’s judgments of us and then having to figure out how to shield ourselves from this unhealthy residue left inside of us. This is the root of a lot of physical ailments – from weight gain, to anxiety disorders to chronic health conditions. The effort to silence our pain requires so much attention and, like a dog at our heels, continues to attract more relationships to us which confirm our worst fears about ourselves.
~Wendy Strgar, creator of Good Clean Love

I had to pick up my children at school just hours after having my suspicions of an affair confirmed by my husband. I felt shaky. Stunned. Nonetheless, I put on my Mommy mask, made small-talk with the teachers, deflected a casual friend's inquiry into whether I was "okay" (of course, just tired, I told her) and acted to my children as if it was just another normal day.
It's an act I've kept up to some extent every day since.
I have my reasons, of course. We all do. I wanted time to figure out what I was going to do. I didn't want to upset my young children. I didn't want acquaintances to know about my private life.
But mostly? I didn't want others' judgement.
Judgement never feels good. Some of us are, of course, more susceptible than others. Those who, like me, grew up in a shame-filled home seem acutely sensitive to the sting of judgement. But even the thicker-skinned among us aren't impervious.
D-Day, with its nuclear-bomb-like destruction, can make even the most confident of us feel as vulnerable as a newborn.
And it's then, when our very sense of reality is shaken, that judgement threatens us the most.
Judgement around infidelity is harsh. Our culture responds harshly.
Among the most vocal are those who've a) never experienced it personally but think they know all about it from watching Dynasty or b) those who have experienced it personally but never really healed from it. And those are the people who aren't the least bit shy about sharing their opinions.
And their opinions generally consist of extremes. Either you leave the cheating bastard or you pretend it never happened and "leave it in the past". It's judgement based on blame. Either he's a total jerk and you're better off without him, or you somehow brought this on and it's best to just move on from it.
But no matter that it's judgement based on little understanding of the dynamics of an affair (or of marriage, for that matter), it still hurts. It's an assault on our already shaken confidence. And, too often, it's judgement that silences us.
While I long for the day when we can discuss infidelity with the openness that we've come to discuss other challenges, such as cancer or even alcoholism (though there's still some shame around addiction), we're nowhere close right now. Infidelity's power remains its ability to evoke strong opinions that effectively shut down any possibility for discussion. We need nuance. The chance to say, here's my story. What's yours? and actually listen to each other's experience without judgement.
We're off to a good start on this site. I love the compassion with which so many of you support each other's experiences.
But we need to be able to take that compassion into the larger world. And to respond to others' judgement with trust in our own experience. Maybe not right away, not right when you're feeling your most vulnerable. But someday, when you can respond to that "once a cheater, always a cheater" with a confident "not true. At least not for me."
In the meantime, try and recognize others' judgement for what it is: fear, an unhealed wound, false bravado, emotional disconnect. A way to silence their own pain.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Guest Post: When He Cheats with Your "Best" Friend

A woman recently posted about how to deal with the pain of her husband's affair with her (former) best friend.
Iris, who many of  you have come to know on this site for her compassion, wisdom, and humour (in equal parts), offered up such a lovely reply that I asked to post it here for everyone. Iris graciously said yes.

Dear Doubly Betrayed Wife,

How would it be if people – even a couple of people who know both of you – did know what happened?

When this happened to a friend of mine involving a close family friend of long-standing my friend told mutual acquaintances why the two couples would no longer be socialising. She wondered what reasons they'd think up for a sudden split and she preferred to be honest. It did mean that she had a lot of support from those around her, rather as if there had been a bereavement. And many of us were able to support her and her husband when we saw how remorseful he was and how hard he worked to understand his behaviour and make amends. There will always be casualties as far as friendships go when betrayals like this happen, but asking for help is one way of finding out who your real friends are.

Make sure you're not isolated. Remember these were your husband's choices – they don't reflect poorly on you. I know it can feel as if they do. 

As for the best friend – there can hardly be a worse betrayal of trust. We expect so much more from the friends we share our lives with as mothers. I would hate her too. But hate is such a heavy burden for you to carry. It doesn't help that there's a commonly held idea that somehow only the cheating spouse is to blame, as if we shouldn't have anger toward someone who has violated our boundaries in the worst possible way. In your case she knows intimately the children who will suffer through her behaviour. We're supposed to be somehow 'dignified' about this.

One of the five precepts of mindfulness is helpful here (and mindfulness generally can be very helpful – as someone who breaks the other precepts by drinking alcohol, eating meat and killing clothes moths, so don't worry about MY spiritual superiority). This is by a lovely man, a Buddhist monk called Thich Nhat Hanh:

'Sexual expression should not take place without love and commitment. Be fully aware of the sufferings you may cause others as a result of your misconduct. To preserve the happiness of yourself and others, respect the rights and commitments of others. 

It is quite clear. This is not just Buddhist; it is universal. It is the right medicine for our illness. When we and our children take the precepts, it means we accept the medicine to protect us.'

'I will do everything in my power to prevent couples and families being broken by sexual misconduct'. 

We should all 'respect the rights and commitments of others' out of basic decency, and we should ask that others do so too. It needn't be a question of outdated morality suggesting property rights, but an understanding that we're all responsible for each other and especially for the well-being of children. I see it as a humanist stance. Be confident that there's nothing wrong with your continued suffering, it's understandable, and extend compassion to yourself for being placed in a position (like so many others) of feeling anger toward someone you trusted and liked. You didn't seek out this hatred.

She has caused you a great deal of pain but much more damage to herself. Even if no one points out to her how badly she's behaved (and personally I don't think that would be a bad thing) she will have to carry the consequences of her actions for the rest of her life. No karma required. You can let your anger wear itself out with time and you can be stronger trusting that for all the faults you do have, as we all do, you haven't abandoned integrity and kindness. She will have to work very hard to recover the integrity she's lost, whether she understands this now or has yet to realise. I wouldn't want to experience such remorse. 

I suppose the bottom line is that you can't make yourself forget (I think I would move house, but that's another issue). You have to learn to hold yourself through this ordeal, to breathe through it, to 'stay in your back' and not lose yourself. It could be the making of you. 



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