BWC member Liz recently commented on a blog post about her husband's affair, which went hand-in-hand with drug use and out-of-the-park sex acts. How, she wondered, could she ever know that she was "enough", especially since she felt uncomfortable engaging in some of the things her husband was doing?
It's a question that just about all of us struggle with at some point in our lives. Whether it's a boyfriend who rejects us, a school we don't gain admission to, a job we lose out on, a team we don't make...the question we're left with is, far too often, why weren't we "_______enough"? (Feel free to fill in the adjective you most often insert: pretty, sexy, thin, smart, funny, outgoing, athletic, talented...)
I can't say it's never worth asking. Sometimes it is. Sometimes we can learn from life's painful lessons to be more of what we want to be and less of what we don't. We can take classes, for example, to learn how to better market ourselves or network. We can train harder to improve our chances of making that sports team or performing better. We can read books to learn how to better communicate with our teens or our spouses.
But sometimes, indeed quite often, the question isn't about constructively learning how to be a better us, it's about beating ourselves up for being who we are.
And that's the category where Liz's question falls. She's wondering what her husband's choices say about her. And she's wondering whether what they're saying is that she's "boring" or not sexy enough.
We've all been there. Especially after learning of a spouse's affair.
It's almost like we're reading from the same script. "What does she have that I don't have?" we wail, desperate to understand just what we're missing that made our husbands stray.
But, as I said to Liz, I think we're asking the wrong question. We shining the spotlight on ourselves when it's our husbands who need to answer for their transgression.
The morning after learning that my husband had been engaging in sex with a wide variety of partners, I was on the phone with his sex addiction counsellor. "What do they have that I don't?" I asked him, desperate to figure it out.
His response? "What those people have, you don't want." He was referring, of course, to their lack of self-esteem. Their addictions. Their lack of boundaries. Their willingness to be used by a virtual stranger for sex. Their fear of intimacy. Their lack of trust. Their inability to handle negative emotions such as anxiety, loneliness, fear, without desperately seeking a distraction. All of which my husband also had.
People don't generally have affairs because of what their spouse doesn't have, they have affairs because of what THEY don't have. They have affairs because it's so much easier than doing the hard work of figuring out what they need to give themselves. They have affairs because it's easier than facing the truth that life hasn't exactly turned out the way they expected: Hard work isn't always rewarded. Kids aren't always born healthy. Elderly parents are demanding. Money is tight. Wives can't read our minds.
And, when we're able to be honest with ourselves, we realize that we're not always our best selves for our families. Life's about compromise. It's about balancing our needs and wants with others' needs and wants and coming up with something that approximates happiness for the largest number of people we care about.
And that's where affairs wreak their havoc. Affairs are selfish. They're about ignoring others' needs and wants in favor of the high that comes with the reflection of ourselves we see in another's eyes – someone who doesn't wash our dirty underwear, know that we fart in our sleep and hate our nasty critical mother.
So to Liz and everyone else who's ever wondered if she's "enough" to keep her straying husband happy, I say you're asking the wrong question. Ask instead what he can do that's "enough" to deserve your forgiveness for causing such pain. Ask yourself whether his plans for reparation are "enough" to allow you to open your heart again to him.
And, if it seems wise and kind to yourself, examine how you both might learn from this to rebuild a marriage that fills you both.
Friday, January 25, 2013
Above all, don’t lie to yourself. The man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point that he cannot distinguish the truth within him, or around him, and so loses all respect for himself and for others. And having no respect he ceases to love. ~Fyodor Dostoevsky
It has been interesting to read the responses to Lance Armstrong's love overdue "confession" during his interview with Oprah Winfrey. The overwhelming response seems to be "uh...what took you so long."
I'm compulsively honest. The weight of a lie is a burden that I can hardly manage. Even "little white lies" – "That haircut looks great!" – leave me feeling...unclean. Which is why I could barely fathom the level of deception that my husband was capable of during his cheating. And, from the comments I get on this blog, it's a common refrain of betrayed wives. "How could he lie to me?" they ask, incredulous.
Honestly? I don't know.
But Lance Armstrong and Dostoevsky's quote give us a clue.
For starters, lies conveniently allow us to do what we want while avoiding negative consequences. And though I called myself compulsively honest, in the wake of my husband's deception I took a long hard look at my own relationship to the truth. And there are many ways to lie, including lies by omission, or only owning up to part of the truth. It's all dishonest.
But outright look-me-in-the-eyes-and-lie deception? That's beyond my ability.
My husband, however, is a master.
It's a skill he developed over years of growing up in a highly judgmental home. His parents disapproved of many things – his friends, his course selection, his music, premarital sex. Far easier than living with their disapproval or fighting for what mattered to him was lying. His teen years were almost like a double life. He was a "good" kid at home where his parents could see him but he was someone different away from home. I should have been tipped off when, early in our marriage, my husband advised me on the best way to deal with his mother. "Just tell her what she wants to hear, then do what you want," he said simply. I laughed. Turned out he wasn't joking. That was exactly how he "handled" me too.
It sounds psychopathic. And in some ways lying is exactly that. It's manipulative. It's hurtful. It's disrespectful. But for many people, it's survival. The idea of owning up to who they really are is terrifying. If they're not these "good" people who follow the rules, then who are they?
But life isn't black or white. All of us, even someone like me who calls herself compulsively honest, has thoughts that I keep hidden. I don't tell my friend, for example, that I think her 18-year-old son is sexy as hell. I know I wouldn't act on my thoughts. But I feel perverted...and a bit ashamed. He's a child, for god's sake. So I "lie" by omission. But I'm being honest with myself that I'm a 48-year-old woman attracted to a young man. That doesn't make me "bad". It makes me human. And it's healthier than telling myself that I'm not like that. Than lying to myself.
As Dostoevsky points out, too much lying blurs the truth within ourselves. We start to believe our own lies. In a marriage vulnerable to infidelity it can take the form of "my wife always nags me", "no-one appreciates me" or "she doesn't like sex the way I do." None of which may be true, or they may be partly true. But they become the complete truth, and offer some sort of implicit permission to step outside the marriage.
I remember watching Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith tell an interviewer once that they share their attraction to other people with each other. At the time it seemed almost cruel. Now though I can see that by sharing that part of themselves – which goes against our idea of a perfect marriage meaning we'll never be attracted to anyone but our spouse – it puts both husband and wife on the same team. By pulling those shameful parts of ourself into the light of day, we can deal with them and defeat them. Or accept them as part of the whole.
So many of us, in the wake of discovering our spouse's affair, are stunned by the lies. But by taking a "how could he!" stand – shocked and disapproving – we prevent any opportunity to really explore exactly what lies were being told about the relationship. And not just by the cheater.
I had to admit that, although I wailed about the loss of my "perfect" marriage, I hadn't been all that happy for quite a while. My marriage wasn't perfect at all. It was good. And it was worth saving. But I had been ignoring my own malcontent in favor of peace.
My husband, once he was able to talk to me candidly and without fear of repercussion, owned up to years of lies. The result of a lifetime of feeling shame about who he was. He was tired of the mask. He was sick of the lies.
And, if I'm to be completely honest, I saw the signs and lied to myself. It was easier than facing the truth.
Which is why, after sifting through my husband's lies, I began to examine my own. The lie I lived to the world about my "perfect marriage". The lie I lived for a decade when my mother was in and out of psychiatric hospitals that I was "fine".
Striving toward a life lived with authenticity keeps us clear about when we might veer into a lie, including one we're telling ourself. By allowing others that same freedom to be honest with us, even when it might hurt, we're far more likely to prevent a more painful deception.
It's hard to allow ourselves and others to fully be themselves. To reveal things that are ugly and wrong. But by pulling our ugly selves out from the shadows and acknowledging they exist, we strip them of their power over us.
What's more, we gain an ability to recognize lies. We learn to trust that part of ourself that nudges us when something doesn't seem quite right. And that ability to trust ourselves is more likely to keep us safe than anything anyone else can ever tell us.