Monday, May 12, 2014

Guest Post: How Changing the Question Can Change Everything

by Laura S.
Founder & Director
Infidelity Counseling Network

The week after my husband told me he had had sex with someone else, I threw a teacup. Granted, I went into the backyard to do so (thinking I would damage my kitchen if I threw it indoors – can you believe a part of my brain was so logical). I hurled it out the back door onto the brick patio where it smashed loudly into green and white china shards. A few days later I pounded on the hood of his car (ah, the sacred BMW), over and over, trying somehow to dent the cold gray metal. All I got for my trouble was a) a broken teacup and b) bruised hands.
Okay, so I was throwing things. But really I was throwing a tantrum. As if I could stop his actions and his choices by my physical anger. As if he would somehow be afraid of me – me, five inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter – and get that I really meant it. As if the damaged property would bribe or blackmail him, somehow, to stop. To stop seeing this woman. To stop fucking her. To stop thinking about her. To stop telling me he loved her and didn’t want to be married to me anymore.
Not married anymore? Who did he think I was? Being married was it. We’d been married for decades. We’d known each other for even longer. Like a fairy tale.            
How could this happen to me, I thought. I am a well-educated middle-class girl, raised precisely to be smart (which I am) and nice (sometimes) and funny (yup) and to have a career (well, sort of) and to get married and have a house and kids. All achieved. Just go down the list and check off the items. Everything seemed to be so pleasingly in place. A complete story. 
I never expected to have entered suddenly, shockingly, some kind of sleazy daytime talk show, the “Laura and Her Husband Show”, occurring in regular painful installments, in which HE has an affair, HE rips her heart out, HE's not sure he wants to be married anymore. SHE wonders what the hell happened to the story.
Maybe I threw things because the fairy tale was shattered. Maybe I tried to damage things to mirror my rage. At times the rage would consume me – I thought about suicide, I pictured driving my car into a wall, I considered running away and never looking back. Once I did run away – drove to another town about an hour away – and spent the day walking, eating, and thinking. Of course I returned.
It was only much later, after I had truly begun my journey of personal recovery (and as we were rockily rebuilding our marriage, which is beside the point really) that I could begin to ask “Why did this happen?” instead of “Why did this happen to me?”. Turns out that the altered wording makes all the difference in the world.
To ponder why this happened to me simply drove the stake in deeper. It made me believe it was my fault. That I must have done something very very wrong. Changing the question served powerfully to change my entire lens on my husband’s choice. Because it was in fact his choice, born out of a variety of tangled emotional reasons and reactions deep within him, not within me. Later I began to read books and websites about the factors that cause infidelity, further proof that neither I nor the marriage was to blame.
The couple’s therapist who suggested that I reframe my question was giving me a way to stop torturing myself, to cease feeling ashamed, and to start assembling the pieces of my own recovery. Part of me wanted to keep throwing things – maybe a saucer to match the cup? – and part of me still wanted to punish my husband. Yet part of me ached to take myself and my ego out of the entire painful mess. “Why did this happen?” is a question that can make us breathe more slowly and think more clearly. Throwing things was reactive; understanding the infidelity was, eventually, reassuring. I could let go of trying to “make” my husband do anything. If I had not created the problem, then it was not my job to fix it. All I had to do was repair my own self, along with the teacup. Krazy Glue is good for that.


  1. This article could have been written by me. Oldest over achieving daughter of a middle class family: education, check; career, check; husband, check; 2 kids, check; house, check. I had/ dare I say have the life every woman wants. I had no idea when I got married that I would be a member of this club. Nobody tells you how hard marriage is, and the few who do tell you seem so wacky that you choose not to believe them. You choose to believe the fairy tale, you tell yourself your marriage will be different because you are not going to make those same mistakes as so and so.

    Little do you know. But I hope I can learn from my mistakes and I hope he can learn from his. He says he has. We will just have to wait and see I guess.


    1. Sam - you're not a member of this club because you made mistakes.

      Laura S. writes:

      'If I had not created the problem, then it was not my job to fix it.'

      That's the point - it's his job. His choices at the time, regardless of your various perfectly normal imperfections, occasional selfishness, understandable concentration on things other than your marriage (children, career, house, friends, extended family, hobbies) in the expectation that your husband would at the very least respect you.

      I know a couples' therapist (socially) who told me re infidelity 'It comes out of the marriage,' as if 'it' is a kind of miasma, rather as disease was once thought to emanate from rotten matter in a noxious mist. 'It' comes out of a marriage because without that commitment there wouldn't be infidelity, but apart from that obvious fact, no, 'it' doesn't. Infidelity is a conscious choice made by an individual.

      'Because it was in fact his choice, born out of a variety of tangled emotional reasons and reactions deep within him, not within me.'

      Thank you Laura S. This was exactly what I needed to read yesterday, when I felt like giving up.

    2. Sam, I agree! And even if our marriage had been perfect (though whose is?), this still might have happened. The research is pretty clear that infidelity happens in strong healthy marriages as well as in less strong ones. So I can't really blame myself or my marriage for my husband's choices. -- Laura S.

  2. I would say it happened to you because (at least in my case) the other woman targeted YOUR husband. Not your neighbor's. Not your coworkers. Yours. And sometimes it *is* that petty - at least on this other woman's part.

    1. Perhaps. Or perhaps not. Either way, my husband is an adult with free will: the infidelity was his choice, regardless of whether she targeted him or he targeted her or it "just happened" (!!). - Laura S

    2. Anonymous…I do agree that in some cases (mine being one of them), there is the factor of the OW having designs on a specific man. How ironic that when a man is happily married, a loving and involved father and a successful businessman, he is going to attract more women than a single man with a similar resume of wonderful characteristics. My theory is that he has a proven track record that is like an aphrodisiac for a certain kind of woman (let's call her predatory).

      My husband and I had a happy marriage of over 25 years when the OW came to work at his company. She was married too, but apparently unhappily so. I know my husband is a good listener, is empathetic and well liked by his peers. I have always trusted him in our marriage because he is a good man with sound ethics. Apparently she found all of this to be very attractive as well, starting off by coming to him for advice about her personal problems (which were many) and then manipulating her work position so that she would have the opportunity to travel with him on business. I even met her, AND her husband…she befriended me on FB and our families exchanged xmas cards. I trusted her because I assumed that she was married and a mother and, how naive of me, that nice women didn't target other women's husbands and try to make them husbands of their own! Well I was wrong, she didm't just want an affair, she wanted my husband to leave me for a life with her.

      Anyway, he was flattered by her attention, and she pulled out all of the stops as far as far as any kind of sex, the weirder the better. But weird sex does not love inspire. And the more he told her that he didn't want a relationship with her, the more desperate and bizarre her behavior became….

      Sorry for the long story here, I just wanted to explain that even though, yes, men do have a choice in the matter of whether or not to cheat...when a woman is throwing herself at a man, finding opportunities to compliment, share personal secrets, and ask him for "a hug and a kiss to help her feel better" (BARF!!!) it is only a matter of time before his body is going to respond. Throw a little blackmail into the mix, and you've got yourself the beginnings of a full blown affair. I absolutely blame my husband, but it is not necessary to throw too much blame his way because he spends every day kicking himself in the ass for being flattered and manipulated by someone who he didn't even like or respect. As far as blaming myself…no blame for me, just a keen new sense of awareness that trust must be earned. I am wiser about things like affairs: things that weren't even on my radar before they were rudely thrown into my life.

      Thank you for your thought provoking post, and the chance to weigh in with my story.

    3. As incredible as it may seem, there are a lot of women out there who DO target these men. My husband's whore straight up admitted it. They were friends and coworkers for several years, and he over-shared our personal life. She knew when his dad died, he was struggling with depression, etc. She saw his vulnerability and she saw her opportunity. She knew him well enough to subtly push all the right buttons and flatter him. She even went so far as to say it too her "a long time" to "catch him". He fit the profile of the man she wanted. Good looking, successful, strong family man, etc. She thought she could just somehow transfer these traits to herself. Never stopping to think that by getting involved in an affair, she was in essence KILLING all the good qualities in him she had so admired. Throw in some daddy issues of her own, and a few attempts in the past to wreck OTHER marriages, and it's quite a toxic dump. Of course, most of the blame falls on my husband. His choices. His mistakes. He has to live with that. This was a great post, as it has been a struggle for me to fully step out of any ownership of HIS bad decisions.

    4. yes!! "things that weren't even on my radar before the affair threw them into my life" ! are we wiser and less naive and strengthened (hopefully) or sullied and tarnished (only occasionally)? laura s.

  3. This was powerful. Thank you for sharing. And yes, reframing the question makes all the difference. My therapist had told me that I "co-created" this and of course, now 2 years later, I realize no wonder I was suicidal. I WAS responsible somehow for what happened!!!!!! And I have blamed myself all along for many things along the way.

    This really, really helped me today. Thank you so so much.

  4. I'm not sure of a good place to ask this or place this question, so i'm just going to ask it here. We are 9 months out and things are going very well. Husband is doing everything you could want your husband to do after such a shit storm. My question is, how do you disregard others comments? Be it facebook sharing with those stupid quotes about cheating, or friends etc. How do you not let those shame you? Or make you feel bad. I love my husband and he is showing me and our kids who he truly is, who he was always suppose to be. Others is whats making me feel weak. Thanks for reading.

    1. Anon, I dont have the right answer but it was helpful for my H and I to go on a Facebook fast. He is permanently off FB. I closed my account for a few months. I am back on but it is triggering, especially because his affair has become well known and the AP is part of our (former) social circle. I am not being FB friends with anyone who is friends with her. I have also severely limited my FB use because it is unhealthy for me and triggers self esteem issues and obsessing.
      I also say "Former" social circle because I have pretty much decided that I am only going to spend time with those who support me and are friends of the marraige.
      Also, I am making it clear to others that their gossiping is not supportive of me or my children or our family. I am prepared to make new friends all together. It is too triggering to have one degree of friendship separating me from her. Its not that she should be shunned, but it is what I am comfortable with.
      I have gotten plenty of stupid comments so I have pretty much chosen to avoid those who make them. I did let one person know that her inferences about my marraige have been harmful to our friendship and I would like to talk to her about how we can continue to have a relationship. Haven't had that convo, yet though.
      I think it is hard for people to understand why I am still with him. Is it because I am desperate? Not willing to move on? That our relationship has died a natural death? I am tying him down with the kids and obligation?
      You and I know the truth. That there is now an opportunity for both of us to be who we are supposed to be. Elle's post "ruin=transformation" resonates deeply for me.
      The thing is, I don't think others would understand any of this. I don't think I would have previously understood how betrayed wives take back a spouse.
      Alot of these folks are in long term, marraiges that are in what I would call a "dead zone." The spark and early romance is gone, and the kids are sucking the energy out. So they probably think that we should just let go, as many of them secretly want to or atleast allow each other to have affairs. Or they think that affairs are death sentences with no turning back.
      For us, the affair is the death sentence for our old marraige of bad habits and living unconsciously. We are trying to turn it into the birth of a new, fuller life for us. In some ways, we are lucky (only half and eye roll, here)!
      I have avoided talking to people about it, though, mostly because they won't get it. But sadly, I have chosen to spend time with fewer and fewer people. Because they just don't get it and they make me feel bad. I am setting my sights on new friends.

    2. MBS,
      You are showing such strength in the face of such a difficult situation. I did something similar, though I didn't really know who knew what had happened, who was guessing at what had happened, and who didn't have a clue. Nonetheless, I retreated into my cocoon for a while then, when I was ready to emerge, I purged myself of any relationships that were in any way unhealthy for me. I stopped putting up with passive-aggressive comments, I stopped agreeing to things I didn't want to do, I stopped allowing myself to be used by others. You get the idea. As a result, my time was more plentiful and I used it to rebuild my marriage and myself. Now, seven years later, I am surrounded by people who genuinely care for me and I'm better able to treat myself with respect...and insist upon that from others. I'm also far better at suspending judgement of others because, I'm now all too aware, I have no idea what's really going on in their lives.
      I think your assessment, MBS, of others' judgement is bang on. Statistically speaking, more people know what we're going through than are openly admitting. Depending on how they responded to it, they're, I believe, the most radical in their response to your situation. Either supportive, or contemptuous. Either way, it says way more about them than it does about you.


    3. Anon,
      I think MBS and Iris (below) have given you really good advice. Nine months out is still pretty raw and I promise you this gets easier. You'll get far better at recognizing how others' response to not just infidelity but divorce, raising children, etc. is really about them, not you. What's more, if you take MBS' advice, you'll purge those relationships that are toxic to you. It doesn't have to be dramatic...just a retreat from people who make you feel bad. You can determine later whether they deserve a second chance or not. For now, avoid them. You're vulnerable (your use of the word "shame" reveals just how vulnerable you feel. Shame is about feeling not worthy. Please know that's not true) and you need time to heal from the blow of betrayal.
      Either cull FB of anyone who makes you feel bad (and that includes the "once a cheater" people) or stay off altogether. Even then, you'll occasionally have to listen to the comments. I've had good friends who don't know about my husband's cheating make remarks about affairs that are insensitive and I'll frequently reply with, "I know a friend who went through this and..." and explain how they rebuilt their marriage, how grateful they are they gave it another chance; or I'll mention "an article I read that outlined how most marriages survive this and can be better..." Sometimes I just make some remark along the lines of, "I can't possibly know what goes in other people's marriages so I try not to judge. I do know marriage can be really really tough..."
      By responding that way, I feel as if I'm honouring my own experience while not putting my head on the block, so to speak. Perhaps you and your husband can come up with a response that feels authentic to you.
      In the meantime, please know that those who cast stones (to use Iris's analogy) are frequently living in all-glass houses. It's one of the gifts of going through this -- the ability to feel compassion for those who struggle with such pain, rather than judgement.


  5. Anon - leave facebook. We lived without it for - oh, thousands of years. You can survive its loss. Otherwise, it can be one of the strengths you gain that you say 'I do not agree with you,' to the next friend who says 'once a cheater.. meeting 'needs' .. soul mates..' and all the other asinine crap aired by otherwise charming people who do not know what they're talking about.

    On the other hand, you can point out that deciding to stay in a marriage after infidelity with integrity is hard, for both parties, and involves a great deal of soul searching, indeed, I'm learning, a radical self-examination by the strayer, who has to face the consequences of their own actions and take responsibility for their choices in a way most of us would find uncomfortable and which we generally avoid. That this can turn out to be a good thing for all involved, especially the strayer, who may find out 'who he really is' and that he doesn't want to be that idiot who cheated. But that the cost is very, very high, and you are paying it. And it's hard to know what the outcome will be. In many ways it would be easier to walk away, but you are not going to do it to satisfy the public desire for justice. Because you love him, and you believe he wants the best for you (which admittedly he didn't give a damn about when he was behaving like a .. insert epithet of choice).

    At this point you could put a large stone in their hand and tell them if they have no reason to regret any of their previous actions, not even THAT thing they did they can't bear to admit even to themselves, they are free to lob it at your husband.

    1. Iris,
      You are so brilliant! Thank-you for your response to Anon. (And I love the stone throwing thing. We should all start filling our handbags with stones...)


    2. For Sure.

    3. Cheers :)

      There's a lot of advice out there about what to do after infidelity, and much of it is not sensible. I read today somewhere that a betrayed can never know why their partner cheated. Well, I agree that if you decide not to stay or they leave you may never know nor will you care. You may have a pretty good idea though, and it is to do with selfishness, narcissism, entitlement, poor boundaries, a willingness to lie or withhold information to get what you want and control a situation. And so on. Either you will bump into a reformed and apologetic character in a decade's time (at your daughter's wedding) or they will carry on fucking up other relationships while you make a calmer life elsewhere. Meh, as another site advises.

      But if you plan to stay with this person there is no reason they cannot work out why they cheated. Most of us can sit down and with some soul-searching and analysis work out why we did that thing we did, the thing we don't even want to admit to ourselves. The spiteful, unkind or grasping thing. The vengeful thing. That we are predisposed to certain actions and that we need to get a grip. That we have to stop blaming others for our choices, even if our present and significant other reminds us of someone who wounded us when we were small and vulnerable. That other human beings are not there to validate us, and that people who will cheat with you are not always acting in your best interests, and may well see you as an object which will provide them gratis with something they think they want. No matter how much suffering it causes your family.

      Monogamy isn't compulsory. Those who want a polyamorous relationship need only negotiate this with the people who agree to live with them. Preferably before they move in. I do not want to seem uncool, or to impose my dull middle-class, middle-aged values on all those swingers out there. I would just like to 'impose my morality' in defence of the spouse who does not know, has her hands tied and is generally, in Susan Schorn's words, 'Sucker-punched'. I was accused of 'imposing my morality' in this way by a cousin of my husband who's been 'benefiting' from an affair with a married man for the last six years. My father in law, who's a decent man of the old school, doesn't realise why his niece's beau behaves so strangely. Now they've rented an apartment by the sea and he's pleased for them, settling down at last, or at least he will be as long as I don't ask: 'But what does his wife think?'

      I asked the cousin that question, but she doesn't care. It's his business, apparently.

  6. This article is so true. Nine months ago i found iut about sexting & i obsessively began comparing myself to every younf gorgeous naked woman i saw (ok i only saw 2, but still).

    Few days later i found out about sexual affair from 3 years ago & i set out to fix myself & the marriage, blaming myself, blaming the fact that we had kids, busy careers, & no time together. & yes i still compared myself to the other woman, even tho my husband insisted i should blame him & not the kids & that i beat out the other woman NO CONTEST.

    1 week ago i found out about yet another sexual affair about 10 years ago. By now i had already gone thru anger & bitterness & read so much that i confronted him sort of calmly. We discussed it 24 hours later like 2 rational adults & he explained how he saw his life passing him by & didnt want to regret his sexual & dating inexperience in his golden years. I understand that. I cant relate either because im a woman or my upbringing or both. I once told him i have no desire to have sex with many different men & thats the truth. But i understand where a man would say that.

    Then i asked him was there anything i could have done to prevent it & he said no. I believe him. Although we still havw a long road ahead of us i feel as though a huge weight has been lifted.

    I truly recommend for anyone going thru the shock of multiple affairs to read peggy vaughns book. Her husband reminded me of mine. Once he gave up the affairs they had something like 30 happy years of monogamy together. Reading her husbands desceiption of the thrill of the chase really helped me to understand my husbands side of the story. & i never felt as close to my husband as i did when we lay in bed talking this last time, not abou the details but about his feelings & motivations.


  7. I'm 13 months past D-Day and as I've said on here many times, Its not the I understand what we were going through was bad, its the HOW HOW AND HOW

    HOW could he, when something bad, very bad went wrong in our life he turned his back on me. Left me to my pain. He was not the only person suffering. And HOW did it make our life better? HOW did he think I would not find out. HOW did he not know that I could have walked away from 30 years. HOW selfish. both of them.

    HOW did she think he wanted her. They obviously spoke and had a time when they told he other their reasons. So HOW did she think he wanted her and that he was hurting from us losing everything to a failed business. HOW did she carry on seeing him when our 1st Grandchild was born 7 weeks premature. As a women she knows HOW very very special that time is. HOW could they take that away from me


    How when I found out and went to see her and told her husband, then it was the 'a mistake' sorry. they both said sorry its a was a mistake.

    Now all he wants is for us to move forward, stop asking any questions...which I've now stopped as I get a different answer! I do all the talking or shouting. So I'm expected to live the rest of my life never knowing if they had sex. Never knowing that if was the bad time in our marriage or did he 'put out' and she took the bit and he could not walk away. She gave him her mobile number in a bar just hours meeting. Shes been married for over 23years. HOW HOW HOW HOW can people do something so destroying that is a mistake.

    HOW now am I meant to be in love with someone thats capable of hurting me so deeply.

    HOW long until this pain goes away.

    A living hell xx

    1. Jane - this struck me:

      'HOW did she carry on seeing him when our 1st Grandchild was born 7 weeks premature. As a women she knows HOW very very special that time is.'

      I feel for you. There's something so incomprehensible, painful, about others' lack of empathy. How can they? Especially when they're old enough to understand how precious these experiences are. The reward, whatever that was, must have been enough. Nothing mattered as much as getting that reward. A temporary high, distraction, escape. In all likelihood something ephemeral and meaningless which afterwards made little sense.

      You have every right to know if they had sex, in fact you need to know what happened. He is still keeping you in the dark, and it isn't right. It may be that there's little to tell, and that he could relieve you of so much pain by being honest instead of leaving you to fill in the blanks. It's so little to ask.

      Though it's no excuse, maybe he just doesn't have the wherewithal to withstand your anger when he does try to explain (and it can take a while for things to make sense). I know it doesn't work for everyone and I don't know what you've done so far, but has he tried Relate? (I remember that you're British - am I right?) He can book an appointment to talk to someone over the phone and ask how he can help you. We know that he should be honest with you, but perhaps someone needs to tell him that your questions are perfectly understandable. This is very hard to deal with for anyone, however emotionally articulate or inarticulate. You shouldn't have to struggle by yourselves.

  8. Hello Iris
    Thank you for taking the time to answer. I have patchy days/moments. But I have just got myself a job, long hours but for 3 days a week. At 54 a new career path. I think I am now ready for me time. ie to do a few things that make ME happy. I need to become me again and not only think of myself as a couple or a Mum, think that's been my problem. I'm hoping it will open a few friends etc As I lost a group of friends that actually proved not to be after D Day!

    Yes you are right I am English. And he is still wanting for forget his mistake and move on, not talk about it! I am, once settled into my job going to pay for Relate. I do think he will come with as he is so upset with himself and wishes he can 'turn back the clock'.
    He doesn't know what to say to me, how to answer as the truthful answer will hurt me and being the perfect person he says he has hurt me enough. Thats why I think its easier in his mind to forget it and not talk and move on. But I am a talker and a logical person and need answers to questions. But truthful ones not answers that then get found out to be yet another lie. Thats why I'm finding it so hard.

    I'll keep you posted.

    Sending much love to you all from the UK xx



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