Friday, September 19, 2014

The Care and Feeding of a Betrayed Spouse

A betrayed wife (thanks Jane!) sent this link, which does an amazing job of outlining just how we betrayeds respond to the crap-fest of betrayal. Read it. Feel validated. And then insist that your spouse have the guidelines tattooed on his body.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Without a Doubt: Coping with Indecision

The overwhelming question once we've learned about our husband's affair (apart from "what the HELL was he thinking?" and "how can I make it look like an accident") is whether we should stay in the marriage, or toss him out.
Oh, to have a crystal ball. Or even a Magic 8 ball that offers up something more decisive than "Ask again later".
Perhaps better than relying on outside oracles is to learn to tap into our own. Problem is, mine often seems to be dozing. I can sometimes nudge her awake with meditation or a solitary walk.
But too often, if she's offering up any answers, I can't hear them over the sound of my critic. The one who reminds me how often I'm wrong about things. The one who urges me to rely on others' advice instead. The one who whispers "you'll regret this".
Iyanla Vanzant, who writes "Iyanla, Fix My Life!" in O Magazine, recently tackled the "stay or go" question. Phrased as "How Do I Know When I'm Settling for Less?" it might as well have read "How Do I Know Whether to Stay With My Cheating Bastard of a Husband? because "settling for less" is what we often feel we're being asked to do.
Iyanla is a wise woman who knows a thing or two about betrayal. She also knows a thing or two about nudging that sleeping inner oracle awake. Her approach is to make some observations.
For instance, when your focus is on the time and energy you've invested in an endeavour [or person] rather than the love, joy, and gratification you've gained, you're probably settling. It doesn't matter if you've spent five years or thirty with someone if many of those years have been unfulfilling. But if you can honestly say that, within the time you've invested, you've experienced much joy and contentment, then it might be worth a second chance. The emphasis isn't on the investment but on the returns you've already experienced.
When you're making excuses about why you should stay put rather than going for what you truly want, you're probably settling. Sometimes we truly need to stay put in order to create circumstances that allow us to leave safely. But it's important to be honest with yourself about whether those reasons for staying are legitimate or simply excuses to allow indecision. If you stay, make sure that's a choice and not an abdication of choice. Similarly, if you leave, make sure it's a choice and not something you feel you should do because that's what our culture would have you believe.
Perhaps the wisest question we can ask is that age-old Ann Landers nugget: Am I better off with him or without him? 
If you can't hear your inner oracle over the deafening sound of your own breaking heart and our culture's collective roar to kick him to the curb, then the wisest course of action might be what the Magic 8 Ball recommends: Ask again later.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Opting Out of the Painlympics

I recently wrote about how betrayal can trigger past trauma. And many of you rushed to your keyboards with a "yes, yes, that's me!" response.
For one thing, let me tell you how much I LOVE knowing that I'm able to give words to so much of the confusion we feel post-betrayal.
And let me also say, I've yet to meet the person who doesn't have some pain in their past around abandonment, shame, neglect. We are most decidedly not alone.
But I've also noticed that to those of us whose stories include words like abuse and addiction and jail and so on – those of us who survived situations in which we felt powerless over the pain inflicted on us by the people who were supposed to be safeguarding our hearts – anything that sounds remotely like blame for our spouses' cheating makes our blood boil.
Which is why it can feel like another betrayal when so many of the "how to heal from an affair" books/sites imply that we're somehow responsible, even just a teensy bit, for our spouse's affair.
When you're seeking support for the incredible pain you're in and someone – anyone! – even suggests that you're the reason he cheated in the first place, it lands like a sucker punch.
And it's even more infuriating when it's our spouse. Some guy who's just ripped out our heart explains that he cheated because he felt neglected by us when we were nursing our cancer-stricken mother, or tending to our disabled child, or working to pay for our kids' tutor, or going to the gym to lose weight to get our diabetes under control or maybe just checked out because we were fed up from giving and getting so little in return. Or maybe it was his emotionally absent mother, his abusive father, his drug-addled older brother.'s at those moments when we should ensure we don't have access to firearms because Holy Bad Timing.
Thing is...he just might have a point, though, admittedly, his timing is a bit off.
I couldn't hear it at first. I didn't want a whiff of "excuse" from him. I wanted – and frankly deserved – total accountability from him. Nothing less than "I am so sorry and I will spend the rest of my life trying to be the husband you deserved all along."
But a big part of my inability to hear any explanation for his betrayal of me was my dedication to my own sad-sack story as somehow more deserving of sympathy than his.
I honestly believed that if there was a painlympics – a contest in which the suffering I'd endured was measured against his – that I would go home with the Gold. He'd be lucky to make the podium.
What's more, I felt I deserved a medal for having conquered those demons. Sure my childhood sucked, but I'd spent much of my adulthood trying to learn the right stuff and shake off the wrong stuff.
Besides, I figured I'd had my quota of pain. The universe owed me an easy time of it. I'd made peace with my addict mother. I'd dumped (or been dumped by) the bad boyfriends and married the nice guy. I was healed. Cue the hallelujahs.
Turns out, not so much healed as healing.
It also turns out that the universe isn't really keeping score.
But when we engage in the painlympics – measuring our own pain against others' in order to determine who's more entitled to victimhood – nobody wins.
I've learned this the hard way.
Case in point: A few years ago my daughter was disappointed that she didn't get the part she wanted in a play. She really wanted it. She worked hard for it. "It's not fair," she wailed. "I never get picked," she cried.
I was empathetic, at least at first. I understood her disappointment. I'd felt her disappointment. But then I got a bit tired of it. I tried not to sigh too loudly. I refrained my rolling my eyes. I didn't, however, manage to keep my mouth shut. There are children who don't have clean water, I pointed out delicately (not for the first time). There are children sold into bonded slavery. My point was clear: Your suffering isn't as bad as someone else's so get over yourself.
Fortunately, I was gifted with a daughter who'll have none of that. With the steely authority of a prosecutor, she admitted that, yes, she knows other children have it worse. But, she said, right now she didn't want to hear about them. Right now, it was about her. Right now, her pain mattered.
She was right.
Her pain, no matter how small it might measure on some universal scale of suffering, mattered.
So does yours.
So does mine.
It all matters.
Even the pain of the offending spouse.
There is, however, a deeper lesson there. I came to realize that I dismissed my daughter's suffering as somehow less than deserving of my empathy because it made me uncomfortable. I had wanted my daughter to succeed in ways I hadn't. I had wanted to spare her the pain of, well, living in this world. So when it became clear that I was powerless to protect her, I didn't want to hear it. My reaction was akin to covering my ears and insisting that she tell me a better story in which she felt loved and grateful for all her blessings.
But she was wiser than that. Not only did she make it clear that her suffering mattered, she also made it clear that she was strong enough to handle it. More than once in her so-far short life, she's told me, when I play my "children that don't have clean water" card, that she needs to just be left alone to cry and feel sorry for herself...and that she'll come out of her room when she's feeling better.
And that's exactly what she does.
I've noticed that she's equally capable of being with others in their suffering – no matter how "small" – without fearing becoming lost in it. She sees it for what it is. An open wound that needs love and compassion to heal.
Suffering doesn't frighten her, it pulls her in.
All suffering matters.
I know this is radical. And I know it pisses off those of us who hold firm to some deep belief in fairness.
People like me, for example. People who inwardly scoff at those whose suffering, in the grand scheme of things, seems pretty silly.
Like a husband who claims that he cheated on us because his mother didn't hug him enough.
Silly, right?
Not exactly.
It took me a few months before I could handle listening to my husband finally purging decades of pain that he'd adeptly buried. But once I did – once I could acknowledge his suffering as no less valid than my own – something shifted. He stopped being the enemy and started being a fellow human being, doing his best (which, frankly, sometimes sucked) to get through.
And that changed everything.


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