Few of us were prepared for the onslaught of emotions brought on by the discovery of our husband's cheating. Most of us expected we'd be angry. Most of us knew we'd be hurt. But far fewer of us anticipated the brought-to-our-knees agony we've experienced, the I-can-barely-breathe collapse of our world.
Over and over, I've read stories from women who never predicted how devastated they'd be. Who couldn't have imagined how emotionally crippled they'd feel for weeks, months, even years.
A big part of the problem is that we rarely see the impact of infidelity on the betrayed wife. Pop culture shows us angry women (cue "Before He Cheats" by Carrie Underwood). It gives us the vapid fluff of The Other Woman. But rarely do we see the empty-eyes, the rapid weight loss, the isolation of the betrayed wife.
We don't anticipate the shock of finding out we've been deceived. According to a recent Psychology Today story, "Those who have been lied to 'castigate themselves about why they didn’t suspect what was going on... The emotions they feel, while seemingly more benign than those of the perpetrator, may in the long run be more corrosive: humiliation, embarrassment, a sense of having been naïve or blind, alienation from those who knew the truth all along and, worst of all, bitterness.”
As the Psychology Today story puts it, "Friends often unconsciously blame the victim, asking whether the betrayed person really ‘knew at some level’ what was going on and had just been ‘in denial’ about it.”
One psychotherapist in the article who works with those who've been duped points out that our situation makes other people uncomfortable. We should have seen the signs. We were, in a sense, asking for it.
We're just as hard on ourselves. How could we be so stupid? How did we not see the signs? Ironically it's often those who are convinced that they would absolutely know if their husband was cheating (I thought my husband was incapable of lying to me) who are most susceptible. If there are signs, we are adept at ignoring them because they don't fit our narrative about ourselves and our spouses.
Also, what's happened to us makes people uncomfortable. Nobody wants to acknowledge their own vulnerability. Nobody can imagine that, if it did happen to them, they would be so devastated. Pull yourself together, they seem to think.
All of which contributes to silencing us. Whether we're silencing ourselves, being silenced by the perceived judgement of our social circle, or by our culture at large, the end result is that we're left to deal with our pain in a vacuum.
Consider some of these messages:
"Anyone who stays with a cheater is pretty much asking for more of the same": Ah yes, the ol' "once a cheater, always a cheater" cliché. It puts so many of us in a bind. If we stay, we're pretty much shamed for doing so because only a doormat would put up with that, right? And yet, studies show that plenty women choose to stay, more than half. Why then this pervasive myth that the only smart way to respond to infidelity is to kick him to the curb?
Our culture supports this narrative. Revenge is so much more satisfying than working it out. So much cleaner. Wipe your hands of the jerk and move into a blissful future.
At least that's the fantasy. The reality is that sometimes it takes a horrible mistake to move us to a place where we recognize what needs to change. Sometimes we want to give second chances. Sometimes those second chances lead to happiness. Unfortunately those are the stories relegated to the shadows. And even if we know of them, we rarely know the details of just how a couple was able to recover. And so, when we choose to stay (or choose to wait and figure out what we want before reacting), we remain silent.
"I suppose you're perfect, right? Never make a mistake, right? Must be nice to be so perfect." Anger is a really effective way to silence someone. It's called a countermove and if we don't recognize it, we quickly find ourselves assuring our spouse that, no, we don't think we're perfect and falling all over ourselves to not seem all judgey and morally superior. Thing is, he cheated. And while it's a shame that discussing it reminds him that he's a cheater, it doesn't change the fact that he cheated. And we didn't. And we're devastated by it. We need to talk about that if we're going to actually rebuild a marriage based on honesty and transparency.
Talking about what he did is a cheating spouse's least favorite thing to do in the world. Far better he thinks, would be to just chalk it up to something he's sorry for and move on. Except that we know that doesn't work. It leaves us resentful and silenced and unable to fully heal. And it leaves him without any genuine insight into why he cheated and therefore likely to make the same mistake, even when he swears he won't.
No, we're not perfect. But we didn't cheat. And that's what we're talking about here. Not perfection. But cheating. And why it happened. So stop changing the subject.
"Listen to you. You're hysterical. I can't take it anymore." Ooooh boy. How many of us have been called "hysterical"? Or "crazy". Or "out of control". I was called those things, which wasn't surprising because I was all those things. The truly crazy thing is that our spouses didn't expect that. They didn't expect hysterical or crazy or out of control. They might have expected anger. They undoubtedly expected they'd be tossed out (which is why they went to such great lengths to hide what they were doing or to minimize it or to mete out the details so that they could pretend it wouldn't be as bad). But they likely didn't expect the full-on craziness that is life post D-Day. Well...neither did we.
And since calling a woman "crazy" is such a stereotypical way of shutting a woman up, men tend to use it. They are frightened by our level of insanity post D-Day. So are we. But calling us crazy or hysterical is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Instead, what would be so much more helpful and conducive to actually having a productive discussion around this is for our cheating spouse to acknowledge that hysteria is actually a pretty valid way to respond to emotional devastation. That of course we feel crazy. That of course the world feels terrifying. Don't silence our craziness, call it into the room to explain itself.
"You're making me feel horrible. I've said I'm sorry. Do I have to pay for it the rest of my life?" Like anger, self-pity tends to silence us as well. Its aim is to evoke our sympathy. To make us wonder if we're making too big a deal about it. He said he was sorry, after all. Shouldn't that be enough? Puh-leeze. There aren't enough "sorry"s in the world to make up for cheating. In fact, nothing will really "make up" for it. But many of us are willing to give cheaters a chance to respond with integrity, to become better men. We (eventually) accept that we'll likely never feel as though we're "even" but that becomes less important than simply rebuilding a solid, wonderful marriage based on respect and love and commitment. We come to a place where we're able to look forward instead of keeping an accounting of who's done whom more wrong. But we get to that place a whole lot faster (and a whole lot more likely to have our spouse by our side) when he's able to put aside his self-pity and listen to us. To stop making this about him and his feelings and instead focus on us and our feelings. He chose this. We didn't.
"I'd cheat if I was married to her too": Consider the kneejerk response to news of any public person's infidelity. One of the first things anyone wants to know is what the betrayed wife looked like or how old she was. If she was middle aged (or older) and looked it, well then, of course he cheated. If she was gorgeous, we figure she must have been a nag or frigid. We might acknowledge that the guy was a scumbag but even then it's typical to look for some indication that she kinda had it coming, even if it's simply that she should have known he was a cheat and left him long ago.
It's up to us to recognize the ways in which we're silenced – or silence ourselves – and challenge that. It doesn't mean we have to shout our pain from the rooftops. But it does mean we have to recognize that our pain is valid. That's it's normal. That it deserves to be seen and heard, at least by those closest to us. We have to know that there might be pushback. There are many people who are threatened by or at the very least uncomfortable with our pain.
But this is our story. Nobody else's. And so we get to tell it.