"You cannot be a hero without also being a coward." ~George Bernard Shaw
Over on the Feeling Stuck? forum, there's been enthusiastic discussion about men who see themselves as white knights, rescuing what we've dubbed "dumsels" in distress.
Aelia blew us all away with this:
I feel like so much of this is about the men chasing a self worth high. Not just basic self worth but HERO level self image. They want someone to look at them and treat them like they are THE MAN so they can feel alive and valuable because they haven't learned to feel that way without the outside help.Those, my dears, are tough questions. They're the questions that put some of us on the path to rebuilding a marriage and others on the path to the divorce lawyer.
And they get this high soo easily from the dumsels. The rescue missions tend to be pretty low hanging fruit and they are richly rewarded with adoration and admiration. But wives expect SOO much more! Being our heroes means climbing to the top of the damn tree for the fruit and maybe even dealing with thorny branches and falls and when you get down we may still treat you like you're just doing what you're supposed to be doing. At least, I know that was the way I used to be. I wasn't about to kiss his feet for the crappy job of husbanding that he was doing.
But I wonder that continuing to live with them happily requires that we bridge that gap? Yup, he's a double villain now like Phoenix says. But he's still desperate to feel like a HERO! How do you rebuild a man when you feel like kicking him in the balls? How do you do it with your own integrity intact?
H asked me at one point post-shitfest whether I thought he was a good person and the best I could answer at the time was that I could tell he was trying to be a good person. Is there any way we can find to show them that they CAN earn our respect back? To make it feel possible that he can be our HERO..... someday.... with lots of work... and copious integrity.... and many hours of taking the emotional beatings which he has coming to him.... but when he gets there it will be because we know the real him and not because he play acted a hero for her.
Because if he can't ever get what he needs from us, then we're wasting our time with him. If he can't feel like that's a possibility then he'll feel like he's wasting his time with us. Can we respect him for the effort he's putting into to becoming a better man for us? Can we be grateful for the loving gestures we receive from him?
They're also why some marriages can be so much better after an affair, which still strikes me as crazy but I also know to be true.
It's also true that plenty of marriages without infidelity are horrible, marked by a lack of courtesy and respect, characterized by two people miserable about their situation and entirely sure their partner is to blame.
Cheating, of course, raises the misery ten-fold. And in marriages where the betrayed actually thought her partnership was pretty good, it's shocking and destabilizing to learn that her spouse viewed it so differently.
Aelia asked, "Is there any way we can show them that they CAN earn our respect back?" My answer? I don't know. When we're in the midst of our own agony, it can be hard to brush our teeth let alone help rebuild the esteem of the man responsible for our pain. What's more, trying to save people from themselves is a thankless and fruitless job. Change comes when we're fed up with ourselves and determined to do better. If he sees no hope for change in himself, then cheerleading on our part won't make one bit of difference. His transformation is an inside job. And with someone who's been outsourcing their sense of worth to an affair partner, we're asking for a wholesale change in his life view.
In my husband's case, it was the day that he told me he was going to do better for himself whether or not I was staying or leaving that I really felt hopeful. He wasn't play-acting his change of heart, it was real. Whether or not I liked who he was, HE wanted to like who he was. And though, at that moment, he loathed himself, he was able to imagine a day when he felt differently. He's was willing to do the work necessarily to find his way to that day. And that's the difference between someone susceptible to flattery and ego-stroking and the escape of an affair and someone whose eyes are wide open and whose sleeves are rolled up. It's the moment, to use George Barnard Shaw's point, when the coward realizes he has it within himself to be a true hero.
It's a pivotal moment.
It's the same for us when we realize that we, too, can be the heroes of our own lives, no matter whether our spouses beg us for forgiveness or serve us with divorce papers. The moment when we realize that we're at our lowest...but that we don't have to stay there. The moment when we look inside ourselves for our value instead of outsourcing it. When we truly and absolutely get that his affair wasn't about us. That our value is not dependent and has never been dependent on someone else seeing it.
Can we rebuild a man who feels vilified wherever he looks? To us, he's a villain. To his affair partner, if he breaks it off, he's a villain. To our culture at large, he's a villain (though our culture saves enough blame for the betrayed spouse too, who surely deserved this in some way).
I don't think it's up to us to rebuild him, nor can we. Personal transformation is an inside job. It's a hero's job.
I think what we can do is stand firm in our own integrity and live by example. I think we can insist upon a relationship that allows each partner to feel respected and valued. I think we can do our part to treat our spouse with dignity and kindness, to be honest but kind when asked those tough questions about whether we love them or respect them.
I watched my husband earn back my trust. In fact, I have more respect for him now than ever because I've seen him work so hard to slay his own demons. I've watched him go into incredibly uncomfortable territory when the easier thing would have been to refuse. To blame me. To blame his parents.
We can't save them but we can certainly applaud them for being willing to save themselves.