Monday, July 17, 2017

Crawling towards the light

"The hardest times are when no one is watching and it doesn't really matter whether you're strong or not. The times when you think life is circling the drain, and the bedrock aloneness of it trumps everything else. That's when animal instinct kicks in and most of us start to crawl toward the light.... We like to call it courage, but the body doesn't recognize it as such. You just put your head down and keep moving."
~ Gail Caldwell, from the memoir New Life, No Instructions

Even now, I find myself sometimes thinking of those around me who know nothing of the struggle I fought after D-Day, "if you only knew..." Because while it's great that I survived and, to most, appear to be a healthy, stable, happy middle-aged woman, sometimes I want credit for what I had to do to get here. Sometimes I want people to know what a badass I am. How heroic I am. How many dragons I had to slay to arrive at healthy, stable and happy.
You all know. Because you've either slain your own dragons or are slaying them as I write this. 
You know the courage it sometimes takes to get out of bed and show up at work so you don't get fired. You know the particular brand of heroism required to nurture your children and keep their hearts safe even as your own feels shattered and abandoned. You know the white-knuckled self-discipline required to not smother your husband in his sleep, or resist firing off that brutal e-mail to the OW, or bite your tongue hard when your mother-in-law, who hasn't a clue about her son's, um, extracurriculars, comments on what a "good boy" he's always been. 
Those who've been decimated by heartbreak, by the particular brand of grief known to those of us who discovered we were, literally, sleeping with the enemy, know what Gail Caldwell means when she talks about crawling toward the light. Though there are many days when we're not really sure there is light. So many days when we just can't convince ourselves that there will ever be light again.
But that's where the others come in. That's where those of us who've gone before wave our lanterns from farther along the path, to beckon you toward us. To give you the light as a compass. To remind you, as often as you need reminding, that the light is in fact up ahead. Just a little bit farther. To assure you that, no, we didn't believe it either. We didn't believe we would ever laugh again, feel happiness again, trust again. But here we are. Mostly healthy, stable and happy.
Keep crawling, warriors. If you can't see the light, then follow the sound of our voices. 
You may not call it courage. You may barely be able to admit it's survival. But whether or not you consider it heroic, let me tell you that it is. It's heroic to reach out for help. It's heroic to tend to your wound. It's heroic to insist that you deserve respect and kindness and honesty. When the "bedrock aloneness" threatens to convince you that nobody can possible understand your pain, it's heroic to find your voice and share your story.
Crawl toward the light, my exhausted warriors. We're up ahead, waiting. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Lie of the Sisterhood

"If we do not transform our pain, we will always transmit it – to our partner, our spouse, our children, our friends, our coworkers, our "enemies." Usually we project it outward and blame someone else for causing our pain."
Fr. Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Some call it the "law of the sisterhood". Others refer to it as "girl code". What it stipulates is that we don't go after each other's husbands or boyfriends. What it stipulates is essentially a sort of moral high ground, in which we respect each other's relationships, no matter how cute we think their significant other is, or how much he flirts with us.
But sometimes this sisterhood feels like we're the only ones in it. I sometimes think it's the lie of the sisterhood.
My 19-year-old discovered that this week when she learned that a close friend had hooked up with an ex-boyfriend. Now the rules get a bit fuzzy with exes, at least for some people. And I've gently reminded my daughter that she was well and truly done with this guy. That, she tells me, is not the point. What hurts her more than the two of them hooking up, she insists, is that her friend did it behind her back.
And so, my dejected daughter insists, she's wiping her hands of this friend.
And I'm (mostly) keeping my mouth shut.
But here's the thing: While I don't condone her friend's behaviour (if we're being sneaky about something, that's generally our first clue that we know it's hurtful to someone and we don't want to deal with the consequences), I can empathize. This girl has had a miserable childhood with a truly appalling mother and her series of equally appalling boyfriends. This girl gets into relationships with guys who treat her badly. She craves attention, no matter where it comes from. And so, with this ex of my daughter's, she was willing to gamble her friendship for the short-term thrill of his attention.
Does that make it okay? No. And she's lost (at least for the time being) my daughter's friendship. As my heavy-hearted child noted, once someone has broken your trust, you never quite look at the them the same way again.
Tell me about it, I want to say. But I bite my tongue.
Hurt people hurt people, we often say on this site.
Father Richard Rohr says that if we don't transform our pain, we will transmit it. Those of us here were the collateral damage of that transmission.
But when we can recognize that, it helps us shake off any responsibility we might feel for how people treat us. It helps us realize that their pain is for them to deal with, that we cannot and should not be blamed, including by ourselves.
My daughter's black-and-white view of the world might soften as she ages – my own certainly did (though I remain an adherent to the law of the sisterhood). But she has reminded me what it looks like when we hold hurt people accountable for the pain they transmit. It looks like self-respect.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Why You Should Tell. And Who

The first person I told was my mother. Though she and I had a rocky relationship when I was a teen (less to do with my hormones than her addictions), as adults we were the closest of friends. I could, and often did, tell her anything.
Her support was invaluable. While I was trying to hold it together and parent three young children and reeling from the news that my husband had been cheating on me with his assistant, she was my rock.
I then reached out to an old friend whose husband had cheated on her a few years earlier. She was no longer married and, I knew, it still hurt. Her response chilled me. "I couldn't stay married to him," she said of my husband, and made it clear that was pretty much all she had to say on the topic. She even defended the Other Woman, my husband's assistant as being completely entitled to a generous severance. While it might have been technically true, I hardly wanted to hear it.
Not long after, I confessed to a friend who worked in my husband's office. I told her mostly because of her relentless questioning about what the hell was going on between my husband his assistant but there was such relief in the telling and in her response: Her eyes opened wide with shock, then filled with tears. (A few years later, she discovered the same about her own husband and I was able to return the favor of unrelenting support.)
Over time, I told other friends. It wasn't so much intentional as natural. A friend concerned over my weight loss. A friend whose own marriage was dissolving at the same time but who I didn't tell until she was on more solid ground herself.
With that one early exception, those I told responded with concern, with compassion, with incredible kindness. And not just to me. With some time having passed, they could see my husband's shift. He had changed. And now they understood why.
The one exception was painful for me. I had reached out to her almost immediately. She was an old friend but our friendship had been rocky for a time when her boyfriend-turned-husband decided I was bad news. He later cheated on her and she reached out to me again. Now it was my turn. And her response hurt me deeply. I hadn't asked her for advice. I really just wanted someone to commiserate with. To tell me I'd get through this. Instead, I got judgement over how I was handling the worst pain of my life.
Lesson learned. Again.
Betrayal doesn't just change our marriage, it changes us. And it changes relationships around us. I became acutely aware of what role each friend played in my life. The people I spent the most time with – moms on committees at school, running group – weren't the people to whom I turned. I carefully parsed who could be trusted with my pain. My friend going through divorce herself at the time remains a close friend but she's never been good in a crisis. So scratch her off the list, at least right away. My friend who worked in my husband's office wasn't a close friend at the time. But her support and her loyalty to me during such hell meant so much to me. To this day, I know she has my back.
All of this is to say that I don't think I could have made it through this without having people in my life who could help me carry my pain. My therapist was a saint. I'm brought to tears by the memory of her "just happening" to drive my house one morning (she was friends with my neighbor) and stopping her car as I was loading kids in my van for the trip to school. She looked me in the eye, asked how I was doing, and assured me that I was going to be okay. She said it with such conviction that I had no choice but to believe her.
We need those people. The ones who see the pain in our eyes and don't look away. The ones who hold our stories as sacred, who don't turn our agony into gossip, who withhold judgement or advice. The ones who are whole enough to put aside their own feelings about infidelity to make space for our experience.
These people are rare. But sometimes they don't exist so much as they are created by us. Our courage in telling them our story gives them the chance, if they take it, to step up. To be brave themselves. To open their own hearts.
Infidelity triggers a lot of feelings in people. Awful feelings. Fear. Anxiety. Shame. The most judgemental people are usually the most frightened.
Know that.
Know that their fear often comes out as anger or disgust or a need to tell you, exactly, how you should respond.
But know also that there are people who've been through this themselves and learned the hard way about the pain of betrayal. And you might just be surprised at who in your life has learned this lesson.
Take stock of the people in your life. If there isn't a single person you think you can trust with your story, then part of your healing needs to include finding someone. Or a few someones.
None of us should go through this alone. And though this community always always amazes me with the way you reach out to each other, to the way in which you wrap your virtual arms around the most wounded, real-life support is crucial too.
Telling people is an act of self-respect. It is an act of courage. It is a way of insisting that your pain matters. That remains true whether or not people have enough courage to hear it.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

When you feel forced to get back to "normal"

My husband would watch me like a hawk. Every twitch. Every smile. Every remark. He was seeking evidence that we were "okay". That things were "back to normal". He was seeking evidence that the crisis was over and that our marriage had survived.
And I was loathe to give him evidence because, whether or not I was having a good day, the crisis was not over. Our marriage might have survived but only for the moment. And I reserved the right the end it tomorrow should I so choose.
What's more, I'd be damned if I'd give him a moment's comfort, a second's reprieve from feeling like a louse. He deserved to be on tenterhooks for the pain he'd caused me.
Or so I thought.
A lot of us find ourselves there, don't we? Afraid to actually exhale and experience the slightest joy or relaxation or relief. Determined to make it clear that things are not "okay" and, perhaps, never will be again. That our marriage is being held together only by our inability to get it together and call a divorce lawyer. That he had better not make a single misstep or we're outta here.
Our message, loud and clear: Things are not "back to normal" so don't you even dare to think I'm "over this."
Beneath this message is a fear. A fear that "normal" means releasing him from responsibility for what he did to us. That "normal" is acting as if none of this ever happened. That "normal" means we never have to speak of this again. That by bringing it up, we're somehow ruining a good thing. A fear that he believes that everything would be fine IF WE COULD JUST GO BACK TO NORMAL.
I've got news for him. If by "normal" he wants you to go back to being the you who you were before he betrayed you, then "normal" is a fantasy. That you is gone. That you is forever changed by his betrayal. That you is replaced by a you that can absolutely get past this. A you that will laugh again and feel joy. A you that perhaps even feels joy more deeply for the gratitude it now holds. But a you that has also experienced a pain that you didn't anticipate, a wound that can heal but will leave scars.
And that's something that every guy who's ever cheated on a woman and then wants things to go back to "normal" needs to understand. "Normal" isn't an option. Not any more.
To those outside of my marriage, things look "normal". We have fun together. We are great at co-pareting our kids. We share a value system (which, now, includes the value of monogamy to each other).
But we know better. We know that our "normal" includes incorporating the painful lessons we both learned, it includes a gratitude for each other that's directly related to the recognition that we're only where we are because we worked our asses off to get here. Our "normal" recognizes that our marriage isn't perfect. That it's a process. That some days we make our marriage stronger – by listening to each other, by respecting each other's needs and wants, by making it clear to each other that we're glad to be together. Other days, well, we don't do such a great job. Which, come to think of it, is pretty normal.
But know this: You don't have to hold on to pain to make it clear that what he did was not okay. You don't have to resist any slivers of joy or contentment out of fear that he'll think things are back to "normal". You are not only allowed to talk to him about your pain, you are encouraged to do so. His ability to listen to you, to hold your pain even in the face of his own shame and disappointment, will make you stronger, will make your marriage stronger.
Don't let fear of "normal" control you. Your new normal will be a creation of your own. It might involve divorce lawyers. It will likely involve therapists. It might include new vows.
What it won't include? Amnesia. Pretence. Faking it.
But let your new normal include any bit of happiness you can. That doesn't negate what happened to you. It simply reminds you that you are healing. And healing is perfectly normal.

Monday, July 3, 2017

When counselling becomes performance art

A friend of mine is in couples counselling with her husband (after a few years of me nagging her to stop complaining about her marriage and either do something about it or get out). The change, she says, has been remarkable. Her husband is helping more around the house. He's turning off the television and listening to her. They're laughing more. Sharing more. Planning the rest of their lives.
They're also running into something that most of us hit in therapy. Or rather two things. The first is that a genuine desire for help becomes a desire to enlist an ally. Once the worst of the crisis is over and the counselling becomes about negotiating the smaller things, it can too easily slip into trying to use the therapist as backup,  sort of "see, she thinks you're being ridiculous too". After all, you think, you're clearly right and your husband is clearly wrong. And surely the therapist agrees.
But a counsellor is not there to gang up on the "wrong" partner. She is there to help you find that place where you can begin to mend some damage, to help each of you see that your point of view isn't so much as a matter of "right" vs "wrong" but to help each of you try to see the others' point of view.
A good counsellor sees his job as teaching a couple to negotiate. A good counsellor should clear the way for you and your spouse to talk to each other and listen to each other. To communicate without someone in the middle. That takes practice for most of us who never learned how to have a healthy respectful conversation in which we listened without agenda, without assumption, without bias.
Infidelity, however, does complicate things.
While it's not the job of the counsellor to pile on the cheater and harp on the pain he's caused, it is reasonable to expect your counsellor to agree with you that what he did was not okay. And counsellors who refuse to condemn the action of cheating, even while supporting the cheater, can do a lot of damage to the betrayed who feels, again, betrayed.
But note that I said it's important that the counsellor condemn the cheating. Not the cheater.
It can feel excruciating to we betrayed wives, however, to have a counsellor who won't beat up our spouse. He deserves it, after all. And especially if we're feeling unheard by our spouse, we want to be sure that he hears LOUD AND CLEAR that what he did means that he's a no-good snake and should worship the ground we walk on because we're giving him a second chance.
If you can both agree that the cheating has caused a lot of damage in the relationship and hurt you deeply, then it's probably time to move onto what you both plan to do about it, how you plan to rebuild. And that's where more typical couples counselling comes into play: How to speak with each other, how to carve out time for each other, how to respond to each other with kindness and respect. Not how to enlist an ally to help you catalogue every dumb hurtful thing your partner has ever done.
This can also morph into a second issue that can arise in couples counselling: using the counsellor as a referee instead of dealing with issues as they arise. (And, uh, guilty as charged.) Those of us who hate conflict can often put things off until we're in an environment where our partner is less likely to respond with anger, or with snark, or any other way that means we retreat into our pain rather than hold our ground. Our counsellor becomes something of shield we use.
Which is fine in the short term. Fine as we learn to use our voice to lay claim to our needs, to insist upon our value in the relationship.
But again, a good counsellor will help you gain the skills needed to tackle issues as they arise. To learn how to bring up a difficult conversation, to recognize counter moves, to know when to walk away if the conversation turns disrespectful.
In fact, the best couples counsellors put themselves in a position where you no longer need them.
It's important to take stock of what we want from our therapist. The best ones are coaches not referees.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Feeling authentically you when things aren't what they appear

I posted a pic on Facebook the other day. It's of my three gorgeous children. The occasion is my youngest's grade eight graduation. My kids are smiling. I know I sound like their mother but they are radiant.
I could have commented something about endings and beginnings. I could have written about the awesome teachers and incredible school my daughter had the good fortune to attend. Or about the sibling love and loyalty so apparent in their hugs and their grins.
Instead, I posted something perhaps oblique to those who don't know us well. I wrote that it's tough to be a kid. I noted that some hurdles had been cleared but we know there are more to come.
I was referring, without coming right out and saying it, to the mental health issues that my youngest – our current grad – has faced. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and, at her worst, begged her father and I to kill her because she couldn't endure another minute of her thoughts. Instead, we found her help and she participated in an out-patient program at our local hospital. For weeks, she underwent what's called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), a therapy that slowly exposed her to her worst fears – contamination – and taught her that she could not only endure it but, with time and training, accept it.
Today, though she needs to routinely do mindfulness work to stay on track, you'd hardly know she will have OCD for the rest of her life.
I was referring also to my eldest who was recently diagnosed with Bipolar Spectrum Disorder and who, in the past couple of weeks, has been on 24/7 watch to prevent her from harming herself. She's doing better but we are, by no means, out of the proverbial woods.
To most who saw the photo I posted, I'm a proud mom of three beautiful children. Which is true.
But it's only part of the story.
And that's a challenge most of here face, isn't it? How to accept that something can be true – and no less true for being only part of the story.
It can be true that my husband loved me deeply. And also true that he cheated on me.
It can be true that my mother valued being a good mom. And also true that she routinely drank herself into incapacitation.
It can be true that you are an amazing person. And also true that your husband cheated.
It can be true that your husband is a kind, good-hearted soul. And also true that he made choices that hurt you deeply.
Our job, in the wake of betrayal, is to learn to accept these seeming paradoxes. 
And it's to discover that not telling everyone the entire truth of our lives isn't the same as lying. 
You don't owe people the whole story of your marriage, of your life. What people project onto you – that your life looks "perfect", for instance – is about them, not you. You're under no obligation to open the whole of your heart.
Human beings are natural storytellers. And we often fill in the blanks of what we don't know. We peer in from the outside and think we know the inner mechanics of their relationships, of their quirks.
But we don't know.
And we never will know what it is like to live in another person's marriage. That, however, rarely stops people from projecting. We see the put-together woman with her healthy beautiful children and we figure the inside story is as glossy as the outside version. And so we're shocked to discover that perfect makeup is to hide the bruises. Or we see the frazzled mom who's routinely late and are surprised to discover she's a well-respected CEO.
We are so swayed by external evidence that we, again and again, forget that it's a package. The contents can be wildly different. And the we humans are full of contradictions.
And while it's disconcerting to discover another person's life is not what it seems, it's devastating to discover that's true for our own.
But his cheating doesn't alter who you are.
And though at first you struggle to reconcile what you believed to be true with this new information, it can become easier.
This isn't some sort of semantic hocus-pocus. There is unquestionably parts of my marriage, before D-Day, that were a lie. I believed things about my husband that were patently untrue.
But I've learned that the larger part – that I was loved – can remain true.
And, more importantly, that I am a person worthy of love isn't changed by his choice to betray me.
All of which is to say, I get to choose the parts of my story that I share with the wider world. Choosing not to tell casual friends or acquaintances – even those who express envy at my "perfect" family – isn't being inauthentic, it's having clear boundaries. I don't owe anybody my whole story. Our lives are our own, and we get to decide what parts of our lives we share with the around us.
We choose who to tell about the mental health issues we're currently struggling with. For instance, we've chosen to tell close friends. We haven't told my daughter's landlord. We've told some family members but not others.
Don't confuse authenticity with full disclosure. Authenticity doesn't require you to reveal everything about yourself, it simply requires you to be fully present and fully yourself. It requires you to be honest with yourself. Always.
I know a lot of us struggle with this and feel as though we wear a mask. Give yourself time. Share your story with people who've earned the privilege, who will hold your pain in their hearts. Or don't. The choice is always always yours.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Is Hope Lying to You?

Most mornings, you'll find me in the woods, hiking through the underbrush with a friend. As we trek, we talk – about kids, about spouses, about work and friends and life.
Over the years, I've heard often about a friend of my hiking friend. This friend of my hiking friend has had a heap of health problems, she's medically obese, her finances are a mess. And her husband has had a long string of affairs and visits to prostitutes and people on Craigslist.
She says she's finally ready to leave but has a long list of reasons why not quite yet. And it has been years of this. Years that have impacted her health. Years that have drained her finances. Years in which she has felt miserable and invisible and utterly devalued.
Her list for not leaving is long. Her religious faith dictates, at least in her mind, that marriage, even to a philanderer, is sacred, that lying (about, for instance, setting up her phone bank account, which he didn't allow) is wrong. But mostly, she's been held in place by hope.
Anyone who comes to this site knows that I'm fully supportive of staying in a marriage after betrayal when both partners are willing to do the work to rebuild. Or staying while you figure out your next right step. Or staying until you gather the money, education or whatever it is you need to leave.
What I struggle with is hearing about people who stay because they hope he's going to change. They hope things are going to be different. They hope that he will wake up, become a new man and they'll have their "old" life back.
Hope is "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all," writes Emily Dickinson. "Where there's hope, there's life," wrote Anne Frank. "It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again."
Well, yes.
But not always.
Sometimes hope keeps us where we don't belong. Sometimes hope tells us lies. That things will be different. That he'll change.
The problem is when hope is passive. When we cling to it like a life raft instead of swimming like hell.
Hope, as the saying goes, is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.
What this means is that hope makes demands on us. You're hoping he'll change? What evidence is there that this hope is well placed? You hope that your marriage will be stronger? What are each of you doing to make that happen? You hope that your kids won't be devastated by the impact of his affair? How are you supporting them or finding them support outside your home?
In other words, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Don't let hope do all the heavy lifting. Let hope inspire you to do some of the lifting yourself.
I'm all for hope. Especially when the word feels dark and hopeless. But pay attention to what hope is telling you. Is it making promises that depend on others to change? Is it keeping you small? Or is it reminding you that, no matter what, you are going to be okay? Cultivate hope that is active, that sings your song, that gives strength. That other hope? The type that keeps you rooted in place? That's just fear telling you a fairy tale. Use real hope to write your own happily ever after.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Six Things You Must Know About Being Cheated On

I will not say that my husband's affair was a good thing. The cost of his betrayal was too high. My ability to meet my children's needs was undoubtedly compromised when I could barely get out of bed. My career suffered when discovery of his betrayal coincided with the publication of my book, along with a number of related opportunities that I simply didn't have the energy or confidence to pursue. And I continue to wonder about the impact all that stress had on my physical health.
However, I recognize and acknowledge (such as here, here and here) that through healing from my husband's betrayal, I've learned and grown in wonderful ways.
Put simply, I'm not the person I was. And though I wouldn't have admitted it at the time, that is a good thing.
But when you're still in the weeds, it helps to see someone standing on the shore waving you in. So I've put together a half dozen things that you need to know about being cheated on, plus a bonus one. 

1. Affairs are about escape, not "trading up".
The stereotypical Other Woman is a sultry siren, dressed in a short skirt, and with long flowing hair and perfect teeth. So we're often shocked to discover that the Other Woman is, well, ordinary. Or younger but crazier. Or skinnier but nastier. Or chubbier and a raging alcoholic (as in my case). But his affair was never about so-called trading up. It was about escape. Consider this from New York magazine: "It might be reassuring to know that most people have affairs not because they’ve found somebody better or hotter or more perfect (perfect people don’t tend to have sex with other people’s spouses) but because affairs make us feel alive and seen; they counteract feelings of numbness or flatness or disconnection that seem like they might kill us, if we don’t kill ourselves first. And since we aren’t up for suicide, we find a work-around." 
In other words, the affair offers a distraction from those awful feelings he wants to avoid. They're the coward's way of dealing with problems. And his affair isn't about you at all. You're just collateral damage.

2. Happiness really is a warm puppy or fill-in-blank-here.
I discovered, by accident, that the way out of my pain was noticing those fleeting moments of contentment and holding on for dear life. In my case, I took great comfort in my giant white dog whose love for me felt solid and certain. I would walk him in the morning, which not only got me out of the house and into the world, it reminded me that the world can still hold beauty even when I'm in pain. I would marvel at the sunlight scattering on the fresh snow. I would notice the birdsong. I would delight in my dog's ability to be entirely in the moment – not miserable about yesterday or terrified of tomorrow. 
So, for me, happiness was my warm puppy. For you, it might be your newborn daughter, or your grandchild, or your blank canvas, or Mozart, or the weight room at the gym, or your garden, or...,or...or.... Whatever it is, be grateful for it. Prioritize it. It will save you. 

3. People love us the best they can. And sometimes their best sucks.
I owe this lesson to my mother, who pointed it out to me when I was in the "why would he do this to me?" stage of mourning my marriage. A graduate of the 12-step school, my mom had plenty of lessons to impart. And she died weeks after D-Day #2 (when I learned the full extent of my husband's betrayal). For the six months, however, between D-Day #1 and #2, my crisis provided the opening for me to really start paying attention to my mom's wisdom. To be so grateful for the rock she provided me when I felt like I was drifting. She was speaking about my husband at the time. But this particular lesson was true for her too. The worst of her alcoholism came during my teen years, when I desperately needed a mother. She loved me then the best she could. I know that now. And when she was better, she could love me better. 

4. Judgement masks fear.
Ohhhh boy. I shake my head when I remember how certain I was that my marriage was safe from infidelity. And when I heard rumours of infidelity in other marriages, I would comfort myself with the certainty that I wasn't like those wives – who nagged, who "let themselves go", who weren't much fun. Gulp. 
In the days following my own D-Day, I admitted just how judgemental I'd been. And I realized that I hadn't a clue what was going on in those other marriages. Just like nobody had a clue what was going on in mine. What's more, it became acutely clear that feeling invisible in a marriage does things to a woman. She just might nag. She might "let herself go". She's not much fun. None of which make it okay to cheat (or continue to cheat) on her. 
When we judge others, it's like a neon sign toward our own fears. We judge others to feel superior. To feel safe. I have a friend who, whenever she's being judgey about someone else, does this: On a sheet of paper, she writes down that person's name and underlines it. Then beneath that name, she lists everything about that person that drives her crazy. And then, when she's finished her list, she goes back to the top of the page and crosses out that other person's name and writes her own. Looking over the list, she says, she always ALWAYS finds a list of things she doesn't like about herself. And that gives her the clarity she needs to recognize that her judgement about others is really fear of judgement about herself.
Fear is often behind our worst behaviours. Judgement is no exception. 

5. Perfection is the enemy of joy.
Speaking of fear, I often hid behind a pursuit of perfection, certain that if I could just be perfect, then everyone would love me and I would never be abandoned or alone. Great theory right? All it did was leave me resentful and exhausted because perfection is always just out of reach. I was never quite skinny enough, or quite pretty enough, or quite a good enough cook, or quite intelligent enough, or quite successful enough, or quite sexy enough, or...or...or... 
D-Day forced me to admit that my life wasn't perfect. I wasn't perfect. I hadn't been able to  protect myself from emotional abandonment. In fact, focusing so much on being pleasing to others left me empty. I hadn't bothered to take care of myself. I kept many people at arm's length, lest they see behind the mask. 
After D-Day, it was all I could do to remain upright. The idea of perfection was laughable, if I'd been capable of laughter. Instead, I learned something my wise mom had been trying to tell me for years. That all I ever had to do in life was "show up". Showing up was all I could do (and even that felt impossible some days). But I discovered that showing up was enough. Showing up -- really showing up, in all my imperfect authentic glory -- allowed me to have deeper friendships, it created work opportunities I couldn't have imagined. I didn't have to do the ol' jazz hands to make me notice me. I just had to show up. 
Perfection keeps us forever on the path of not enough. It keeps joy out of reach. Joy, on the contrary, embraces us exactly where we are. As exactly who we are. Joy is laughter. It's a deep appreciation for our imperfect selves and all other imperfect selves. 

6. It's possible to be happier after heartbreak. 
Raise your hand if you said, in the hours/days/weeks following discovery of your partner's betrayal, something along the lines of "I will never ever be happy again." I read it here all the time. Women who, in their agony, embrace hyperbole to insist their husband "murdered" any hope of happiness ever again, or "destroyed" their souls, or "shattered" their hearts and hopes. 
I know if feels like that. Lord, do I know! But let me tell you something I've learned on this path out of hell (there I go!): you will not – I promise! – feel like this forever. Emotions are transient. This too shall pass, the wise 12-steps folks try and tell us. And they're right. That doesn't mean it doesn't feel like your heart is in pieces. I know it does. But feelings are not facts, as my brilliant therapist reminded me over and over and over. 
And if you do the hard work of healing from betrayal, by learning how to be gentle with yourself, by learning to love and respect yourself, by letting go of any expectation of perfection in yourself and in others, you will come to a place where you not only feel happiness again, but you feel a greater happiness. It's a different kind. As one of my favourite poets, William Blake, tells us in Songs of Innocence and Experience, we gain a sort of understanding of pain having gone through this that will forever alter our understanding of the world. Our broken hearts are now capable of holding both dark and light. As Leonard Cohen puts it, the cracks are how the light gets in. 

Bonus Lesson: You do not need to be able to read your future in a crystal ball. You only need to ever know your next right step. Too often we think we need to respond RIGHT NOW to discovery of our husband's betrayal. And so we react – angrily, impulsively, thoughtlessly. We might file for divorce. We might light his clothes on fire. We might call his boss or his mother and give them an earful. We might run into the arms of another man. And frankly, any of those things might be a perfectly acceptable action. The key is to determine what you're going to do based on what is really the right thing for you. Not ready to kick him out? Then don't. (Just make sure some clear boundaries are in place.) Can't live with him in the house right now? Then don't. But before you make a difficult-to-undo choice, make sure it IS a choice. And not simply lashing out in pain. You don't want to compound your heartbreak. 
Your next right step. That might be an appointment with a therapist. It might be a facial. It might be changing the locks. But putting pressure on yourself to somehow know the absolute best way through this is setting yourself up for more heartbreak. Just focus on the now. And the next now. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Am I letting him off the hook?

It feels like something of a miracle in those weeks or months following D-Day. Something makes us laugh and, for a moment, we forget that our life is a wreck. Or maybe we wake up one morning and the boulder on our chest feels a little less heavy.
Or perhaps our husband comes home to find us sitting at the table, colouring with our child and soaking up their innocence.
We almost smile at him. Then we remember. He's the enemy. And so we scowl instead.
Navigating those first few months is hell. Even if we've decided to stay in the marriage (for the time being, anyway), even if we're engaged in hysterical bonding like crazy, even if we can't imagine life without him, we can feel as though we're on opposing sides. We are loathe to, as we think of it, let him off the hook.
And what is the hook?
The hook is this misery he has cast us into. The hook is this heart of ours he has shattered. This life he took a wrecking ball to.
The hook is our fear that, if we even for a minute behave as if we're not utterly ruined that he might just think that what he did was okay.
And it was decidedly NOT okay.
It will never be okay.
But let's stop for a second and consider this mindset.
Do we really think that, without a constant reminder of the destruction he has wrought, our husband might think that he's off the hook?
Because, frankly, maintaining a look of agony, day-in and day-out for the rest of our lives in order to ensure that our husband knows he is not off the hook sounds exhausting. It sounds like manipulation. Not in the short term, of course, when we really do feel shattered. But eventually.
I remember the feeling well. I remember worrying that if I actually started feeling better and, more to the point, acting as if I was feeling better, that my husband might mop his sweaty brow, breathe a sigh of relief and think to himself, "whew. Glad that's over and I can get back to my job of ignoring her pain and doing whatever I want regardless of the impact to my marriage or her."
I might not have put it in exactly those terms. More likely, I thought of it as, if I am revealing that I'm healing then he will think he's off the hook. And he is not. He will never be.
And that has remained true.
Though it has been more than a decade since D-Day 1 and a month shy of a decade since D-Day 2, my husband is not off the hook. No matter that I now laugh, that I go days or weeks without thinking about his former infidelity at all, that I feel grateful to have him in my life, he is still not and never will be off the hook.
He knows that.
He knows that I can love my life and still never be okay with his cheating. He knows that healing from his betrayal will never make his betrayal okay. And he knows that, having been given the gift of a second chance by me, he would be a fool to ask for a third chance.
And so...I was free to heal. You are too.
You are free to laugh when something is funny. You are free to smile when you feel happy. You are free to feel whatever you might feel in the moment without forfeiting your right to NOT be okay with his betrayal of you. To never be okay about it.
You don't need to remain miserable in order to ensure his fidelity.
You can speak to him about it. Like an adult.
You can share your feelings with him. You can share just how difficult it is to heal from this and what a miracle it feels to be able to laugh again, to have a glimpse of a life that isn't utterly darkened by betrayal.
And, if he is a good, decent man doing the hard work of understanding why he made the indecent choice he did, he will listen to you. He will do his best to understand. He won't ever be okay with what he did either. He will always know that pain he caused. As my husband once said, the worst feeling in his life was seeing the pain in my eyes and knowing he had caused it.
If your husband has really acknowledged what he did and taken responsibility then he will think your laughter is the most beautiful sound in the world, not because it lets him off the hook but because it sounds like hope.
Hope doesn't erase the past. It opens the heart to the future.

Monday, June 5, 2017

What to Expect When You're Expecting

"People say that expectations are resentments under construction..."
~Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy

The day I turned nine was perfect. I awoke the morning after, went downstairs before anyone else was awake, and recreated the entire thing. I rewrapped my presents. I gathered up the kitten I'd been given the day before (not exactly the one I wanted -- I got grey and white when I wanted the ginger kitten but was a kitten!). And I felt that same sense of excitement and anticipation and delight that I'd felt the day before.
By my 12th birthday, my mother had abandoned any party planning. I invited a few friends over, cooked hot dogs, bought myself a cake in the frozen section of the grocery store. My mother, drunk but also sick with laryngitis, spent the entire party ringing a dinner bell to summon me to her bed for one thing after another. My friends exchanged looks. My helpless fury mounted. Finally, as my giggling mother requested that I get her water or fluff her pillows, I begged her to stop and let me just be with my friends. They left shortly after and I was left with my humiliation.
I've had a lot of birthdays since then. And for way too many years, I've been disappointed. However, as my old therapist would remind me, if your feelings are bigger than the situation calls for, it's always about old stuff.
My birthday is old stuff.
And yet...I can't seem to let go of those expectations.
For one day, I want it to be about me. For one day, I want people to spoil me. Just one day.
And though my family knows that this occasion takes place every. Single. Year. On. The. Same. Day. They can't seem to get their acts together to buy a card, bake a cake, choose a gift (or make one! I'm not picky!). 
Over the years, I've worked to accept reality. I know my family loves me. And I know my expectations are about "old stuff". (Though I don't think they're unreasonable.)
And so I organize something annually to mark my birthday. We see a play (and my son has sat through many musicals). This year, I bought us all tickets for a baseball game. I sometimes make our dinner reservations. This year, I bought all the ingredients for a cake and simply announced that "at some point, I would like a cake." My husband and daughter argued over whose fault it was that they'd forgotten. I didn't take it personally. I managed to find their spat amusing. 
I've come a long way. 
I've learned that, rather than nurse those resentments disguised as expectations, to give myself what I need. What I need is to feel valued. And so I value myself.
It can look different depending on the year. I might buy myself an outfit that I'd otherwise tell myself I didn't need. I might take the day away from my computer. Last week, on my birthday, I sat outside in the gorgeous sunshine and read a few chapters of a devastatingly beautiful book (The Mercy Papers, by Robin Romm). I ignored that little voice that said I should be doing something productive, like making money or taking care of someone.
I was taking care of someone. Myself.
It has taken me more than five decades to see the value in the simple act of taking care of myself. The value in not letting resentments gain a foothold.
My family loves me. I know this. They show me in many ways, none of which involve having a cake made on time or carefully chosen gifts. 
Instead they show me with last-minute promises, like my son's card that told me I'm the best mom "ever" and that he'll take me to lunch and then to the store that sells my favorite yoga pants and will buy me "anything". With homemade cards that, though created out of necessity more than desire, nonetheless are more beautiful than anything in the Hallmark store. With a cake that was, honestly, the best I've ever had, despite my daughter forgetting the eggs until the very last minute. I didn't taste even a hint of resentment in that cake.
Managing my expectations continues to be a challenge for me. People disappoint me all the time. But as I learn to go easier on myself, I'm able to go easier on others. It's not the same as letting people off the hook for bad behaviour. Rather it's about not expecting everyone to think and act like me. It's about letting them be who they are and to love me in their own way. 
But mostly it's about getting clear about what I need and then finding a way to deliver it to myself. That's what being a grown up is about. 
It's something I seemed to understand on that 9th birthday. That, even the day after, I was able to give myself what I needed, to remind myself that I matter. And, for the record, what I almost always need involves a cat. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

"I just want things the way they were": No, you don't. Here's why

"In the aftermath of an affair, one partner often says, “I just want to go back to the way things were.” And I say, “Really? How well was ‘the way things were’ working out for you if you ended up in my office?” I say this much more gently, of course, but I make sure that they hear the question and are able to reflect on it. And when they do, they realize that “the way things were” wasn’t sustainable after all."
~Lori Gottlieb, writer and psychotherapist, "Is My Husband Having An Affair", New York Magazine

What I wanted more than anything else in the days following D-Day was a lobotomy. I wanted to carve out the painful knowledge of my husband's cheating so that I could return to my state of blissful ignorance. I imagined those days as halcyon, a period of time in which I was joy-filled and calm. Nothing like the hell I felt like I was in after discovering the truth.
Interesting thing about those halcyon days. Halcyon days, literally, means the calm before the storm. A period of time in which things seem peaceful. But clouds are gathering. The center cannot hold.
And so my nostalgia for that pre-D-Day period of time was for a time of ignorance. My marriage wasn't good and safe. I just didn't know it wasn't.
That ignorance is a dangerous thing to want back. 
Lori Gottlieb, whose New York Magazine article I've quoted above, was responding to a woman who suspects her husband of cheating and is asking whether or not she really wants to know. She signs her letter Head Happily in Sand.
I understand her impulse. I have a vivid memory of picking up the phone to ask my husband about what I thought I knew, to get his confirmation that my intuition was correct.
And I knew, by letting this particular genie out of the bottle, that there was no going back. I knew that I just might hear something I most definitely did not want to be true. My head could not be buried in the sand. 
I've never been a head burier. I far prefer the painful truth to anxious speculation. For most of my life, whatever I was imagining was inevitably worse than what was really happening.
Until D-Day.
Learning the whole truth, rather than what I'd imagined, was excruciating. It was, in many ways, far far worse. For one thing, the cheating had gone on much longer. (It was also, in some ways, better. The affair had nothing of the romance or passion I'd imagined. Instead it was...transactional.) 
But as Gottlieb points out, my desire to return to a pre-D-Day marriage omits the reality that was my marriage wasn't what I thought it was. One of us was, clearly, not fully invested. And that, as she puts it, is not sustainable.
And it's why a big part of rebuilding a marriage is about taking a clear-eyed look at your marriage. 
It's tough. A marriage counsellor my husband and I had begun seeing before I knew about my husband's cheating had told me that I had "rose-colored glasses" about my marriage. His exact words. We were "best friends", I had told him. Which begged the question of why we were in his office. 
I took offence. How dare he? 
We stopped seeing him because I didn't like him.
Now, of course, I can see that I didn't like what he was telling me. And I didn't like it because it was the truth and it was painful and it was pointing me to something I didn't want to admit to myself. The worst kind of truth. The kind that means I have to accept something I don't want to accept or change something I don't want to change. 
It was a long time before I stopped wanting that lobotomy. A really really long time. Even years later, after I felt optimistic about my marriage, after I could see how much stronger our relationship was, how much deeper, I still kinda wished I could cut out that knowledge. I envied those soap opera characters who awake after trauma with zero recollection of who double-crossed them. 
But without that knowledge, we wouldn't have the relationship we have. I wouldn't have the compassion I have for others going through this. I wouldn't know so much about human nature, about resilience and recovery, about healing. And I wouldn't have all of you.
The problem with a head in the sand is you miss the horror but you miss a whole lot of positive things too. And it's not that the awful stuff isn't happening, you're just not seeing it. 
And that's the painful truth about marriage. If one partner is cheating, it's not because there's something wrong with you. It's completely on him.
But it does mean that the marriage isn't what you think it is. And that's not sustainable.
Instead, if we're going to stay in our marriage, we need to examine the truth of it, figure out where the foundation is shaky and shore it up in ways that make it stronger – more honest and, likely, much more uncomfortable at times because you'll be dealing with problems face on rather than ignoring them or minimizing them. 
And if we're not going to stay in our marriage, then recognizing that it wasn't what we thought it was is a key part of moving on. No more rose-colored glasses. No more head in the sand. 
Just a clear-eyed assessment of our reality. And with that truth, we can move into our future. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Power of Betrayed Wives Club

"We can never protect people from anything but we can give them a safe place to heal. We can build joy in the middle of madness."
~Eve Ensler, playwright, performer, activist and founder of City of Joy

Joy in the middle of madness.
If there is anything I wish for every single woman who finds herself here, it is that: joy in the middle of madness.
Maybe that joy comes from recognition. From reading so many stories that sound like your own. From recognizing the pain that, no matter how different the circumstances of our betrayal, feels like our own. There's so much power in that recognition. In that "me too" response. We are not alone. Not at all. And if these other women can go through this pain and heal, then so we can every single one of us.
It has been a long time since I felt that sense of defeat, that conviction that nobody had ever felt so stupid, so humiliated, so powerless to stop the hurt. But I know now that the community here is more powerful than the fear that we will never ever be okay again. The community here reminds us that we will heal. We will be okay again. We will be better than okay. We will feel joy. And this community, hopefully, even gives a little taste of that joy. In the middle of madness.
Maybe the joy comes from hope. From reading others' stories in which they share that they aren't where they were any more. That they don't cry so often. That the numbness has given way to a different pain, one that they can endure because feeling something is better than feeling nothing. That they laughed the other day at something their child said. That they met with a divorce lawyer and realized they were going to be okay. That the worst was the fear, not the reality.
Maybe the joy comes from time. From realizing that, contrary to all expectations, we're surviving this. Day after day. That we're healing incrementally.
Maybe the joy comes from the liberation of finally dealing with the truth instead of so many lies. That even if it has hurt like hell to know the truth, it's still better than that am-I-crazy feeling of living with deceit.
Maybe the joy comes from a partner who is able to support us through this pain. From being able to pull closer to each other and see each other's wounds and tend to our own in a way that's gentle and compassionate.
Maybe the joy comes from finally seeing that it's time to leave and that within that painful decision, there is an opening for so much more hope and joy down the road.
Maybe the joy comes helping others. From knowing that within our own healing is a blueprint for others. That we can share what we've learned and leave it to others to take from our story what works for them and leave what doesn't.
I know not all of you can see the joy on this site, especially when you first arrive, shattered and frightened.
But I promise you it's there. I see it every day. I see it in the compassionate voices that chime in to acknowledge each others' pain. I see it in the way we hold each others' stories as sacred. I see it in the way we can laugh at Stupid S#*t Cheaters Say. In the way we cheer each other on, whether their choice in responding to betrayal is like ours or not. In the ingenious ways we help others like us, such as the woman who purchased a gift card for running shoes for her therapist to give to a betrayed client who needed help finding her feet.
We all learn through this that we cannot protect people from what happens to them. We learn we couldn't even protect ourselves. But we can give others and ourselves a safe place to heal. And we can find joy there.

Friday, May 19, 2017

How to Be Hurt and Still Show Up

I wrote this almost a year ago. I didn't publish it because, at the time, it felt too raw. I felt so vulnerable. It felt a bit like failure, too. That so many years after the bomb dropped, we were still struggling at times. Now, however, I can see it as another of those crossroads: A choice to grow and learn together or grow and leave. We opted for the former. Again. 

It was late June and my sister-in-law was visiting us from Chicago en route to her cottage further north. She had invited our family months earlier to join her and her family. I had never been to her cottage, each summer choosing instead to use the two or three days alone to get caught up on work or just exhale without kids. My husband's family and I have had a fraught relationship over the years. Choosing to spend less time with them has been one of the healthier choices I've made post D-Day. This summer, however, I understood that it would just be her family and mine.
But while my sister-in-law was here, she mentioned that her brother, the one I pledged to avoid, would also be there.
Pause for re-evaluation #1.
A few days later, I visited my 87-year-old father and was shocked to find him wearing filthy clothes and eating stale food. I spent the weekend preparing meals and doing laundry for him and promising both of us I'd see him again soon.
Pause for re-evaluation #2.
Then two assignments landed on my desk with tight deadlines. And did I mention my summer included a houseful of teenagers and their friends?
So I did what my gut was telling me to do. Wish my husband and three children a very happy weekend and use the time they would be at my sister-in-laws cottage to visit my father and get a jump-start on my work.
A tough decision from an incurable people pleaser (I'm working on it!) but one that felt right.Yay me, right?
My husband didn't share our enthusiasm. Instead, my choice ushered in weeks of confusion. He avoided looking at me. He was civil but barely. I know him. And no amount of him telling me that everything was "fine" convinced me that they were.
"I'm fucking furious," was what he finally admitted to me.
Why? I had rejected his family yet again. I was being selfish. I was the source of all his anxiety and stress. Everything wrong in his life was my fault.
But we'd been doing so well prior to this. Life was good.
Not according to my husband who dropped this bomb on me.
He wanted a separation.
This used to be his go-to threat. We spent the first decade of our marriage in this crazy dance of getting close and pushing off from each other. Any disagreement inevitably ended with one of us (usually him) suggesting we separate. Unable to stomach any conflict, he could only look for the closest exit.
So much had changed.
But here we were again.
This time, however, I knew something I didn't know back then.
I understood that he didn't want out. He just still didn't know how to be hurt and stay. How to be hurt and remain open. And, I confess, I had kinda forgotten too. Which is why, when he said he wanted to separate, I simply agreed.
He put an emergency call into our marriage counsellor who saw him immediately. And then, two days later, she saw me. And then a week after that, she saw us together.
In that time, my husband and I, a bit shocked by talk of separation, had to be brutally honest with ourselves about what we wanted. And, not surprisingly, each of us wanted the same thing: true commitment, honesty, intimacy. With each other.
We had to remind ourselves how to be hurt and still show up. How to be hurt but not reach for the nuclear codes.
I had to listen to his pain, which included feeling dismissed by me when he didn't agree with my opinions. I had to create compassion for him around his sadness that things with his family have never been easy for him either. I'm not the only one they've hurt over the years.
I thought of my ability to listen to my friends. To listen as I do my job as a journalist. To remain curious about what others are thinking, about their life view. With my husband, I had developed a bad habit of viewing any difference between us as evidence that we were mis-matched. A benign comment from him about something I felt strongly about could take me from "he's my wonderful best friend" to "I have to spend the rest of my life with this asshole" in eight seconds.
So I had to understand that my own reaction was rooted in fear. Fear that I was wrong. Fear that I had stayed with him when I shouldn't have. Fear that disagreement was the same as disapproval.
Here's what I've realized: My husband is a kind, compassionate, progressive, smart person who has plenty of strong opinions (uh, me too!) and who sometimes disagrees with me. So while we share a value system, we don't always express those values in the same way. And instead of responding to him as an enemy, I can be curious.
As for his family? He has work to do around them that our therapist told me she doesn't think he's going to do any time soon. There's so much pain there, she said. And, for now at least, there's resistance to dig any deeper.
But what he can do is respect my choice not to go there. What he can do is extend compassion to me around my needs, to learn anew to see my self-care as healthy for our marriage, to stop expecting me to behave in ways that mean he won't face his family's disapproval or disappointment. It's something he's willing to do. Or at least try to do.
Marriage is tough. Even long after I think we should be "fixed", we're still coming up against things that threaten to destabilize us. And it's when we're feeling scared and hurt that we revert to those old behaviours that often make matters worse.
I hope I can remember that within that vulnerability is where we find our common ground.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

When People Aren't Perfect. Not Even Close.

Just last week, my 88-year-old father laid out his theory: If my mother had stuck to pills or booze rather than pills and booze, he theorized, she would have been "just fine."
Oh, dad. Seriously?
I've always kinda wished my dad was a little more like Pa Ingalls and a little less like, well, Homer Simpson. I wanted him to be wise. To be selfless. To get things, without me having to explain them.
But while my dad has many wonderful qualities, he's more than a wee bit self-absorbed. He leans on others (read: me) even when it's ill-advised or inappropriate rather than deal with things himself. In short, he's not perfect. Not even close.
Not too long ago, I expressed my disappointment to my husband about something my father had said that hit an old and painful sore spot.
"I think my job as an adult is to learn to forgive him for being who he is," I said.
It's not so hard to forgive my dad for being who he is. He's a dreamer, a gentle man with simple needs. Kind and open-minded. A guy who believes, absolutely, that he's the luckiest man in the world. That his parents were the best. That his wife was the best. His kids are the best. His grandkids are better than best. I've never known a person so content with his life. So content with himself.
In the decade since my mother died, he has created something of a shrine to her, something she, with her "everything in its place" mindset, would hate.
"She was a true friend," he tells me often.
She was. I don't know a more loyal person than my mom.
My dad? Well...
There was that little issue with a secret friend back in the 70s that devastated my mother, a secret friend my father refused to give up, even when it was clear that my mom, who'd dedicated her adult life to creating the stable home she'd craved as a child, was falling apart.
He just couldn't understand what the problem was. It wasn't a sexual relationship, he insisted. They were just...friends. Friends who did things without my mother. Friends who met behind their spouses backs. Friends. What's so bad about that?
That my father still can't understand the problem speaks to his lack of empathy, his inability to imagine how painful this was to my mother. Or maybe it speaks more to his selfishness. He liked this secret friendship and so why should he have to give it up? It wasn't his fault my mother couldn't handle it.
And yet, he will regale anyone who will listen to stories of my mom. How beautiful she was. How smart. How loyal.
My mom asked for my forgiveness for her. My dad's not-so-secret friendship sent her spiralling into addiction (though, given her family history, it was likely a matter of time before something tripped that particular wire) and she drank/drugged herself into a psychiatric hospital for most of my teens.
She found sobriety through AA. She spent two and a half decades being the mom I'd always wanted before she died.
My job, as an adult, is to forgive my parents for who they are.
It's easier, of course, when the behaviour is no longer happening. When I'm no longer reliant on these people for my survival.
Easier, too, when each has requested, one way or another, my forgiveness. Or at least my understanding.
But even if they hadn't (and my dad has never apologized), it's still my job as an adult to forgive them for who they are. Which is not even close to saying that what they did was okay. Or that, as far as I was concerned, they could continue doing it. That's not forgiveness. That's enabling. That's co-dependence. That's self-harm.
No, it's a matter of forgiving them for being who they are – for having made awful choices that caused me a lot of pain but knowing that none of us can go back and un-do those choices. They are who they are. Or who they were.
They weren't perfect. Not even close.
The beauty of forgiving others for being imperfect is that it kicked the stool out from underneath my own martyr complex. I'm imperfect too. And I can forgive myself for that.
When I commented to my husband about my father – that my job was to forgive him for being who he was – my husband responded with this: "I think it's our job as adults to forgive everyone for who they are."
Including him, this man who broke my heart with his choices. This imperfect man who has tried every day since to be better. To never hurt me like that again.
Including me.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Your Worst-Case Scenario Handbook to Surviving Infidelity

If I had a mantra in the early days post D-Day when my world imploded, it was this: I have three healthy children. 
No matter how bad things seemed – as lie piled upon lie, as each new bit of info shredded my heart into ever smaller bits – I would remind myself that, no matter how awful this was, my children were alive and well. 
Turns out, I was on to something.
As Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg reported in an episode of On Being, considering how things could be worse is a key survival strategy. It's akin, said Sandberg, to the stereotypical hand wringer  always considering new potential disasters but there's wisdom in it. Look on the bright side can feel impossible when you're going through hell. Most of the time, it seems as if there is no bright side. The trick, as psychologist Adam Grant explained, is that because it can be hard to replace bad with good, we fool ourselves by replacing existing awful with potentially worse, which actually helps us in that moment find gratitude. So, while my marriage felt as though it was an utter sham and my best friend had betrayed me in the worst possible way, I had three healthy children
My existing awful was discovering my husband's infidelity. My potential worse would be losing any one of my children. Consequently, the fact that my three kids were alive and well became something to be celebrated because I could imagine that not being the case. 
I also reminded myself that my husband's partners had been consenting adults. He hadn't engaged in anything illegal. Things could have been worse. Relatively speaking, infidelity seemed...survivable. 
Your potential awful might be: I could be dealing with cancer (which was the case for a woman I know.
It might be: What if my parents were dead? What if we lost our home? What if I contracted AIDS? And on and on. You can always ALWAYS, as long as you're still breathing, find a worse-case scenario.
And that worse-case scenario can keep you rooted in perspective.
This is not to diminish your current pain. In Sandberg's situation, her beloved husband was still dead. No amount of worse-case scenarios was going to change her brutal and painful reality. And, at first, she resisted. Grant's recommendation that she try to imagine a worse scenario – What could be worse? she asked – was met with her scorn. Grant's response? Your husband could have been driving your children when he had his heart attack. 
As much as some of is wish we were dead after D-Day, we don't really want our life to end. We want the pain to end. And as long as we're alive, there's the possibility – indeed the probability – that things will get better. 
Those of us further down the path of healing are proof of that. 
My kids are still alive and well. We have our challenges, of course. But they are manageable.
My marriage is good. I consider my husband my closest friend and our relationship is stronger for the storms it has weathered. 
There has and will be more pain. I lost my mother a decade ago in the midst of this maelstrom, and my father celebrates his 88th birthday today. Like everyone else, I grow older daily.

But things can (almost) always be worse. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Trusting your version of events

But willingness comes from the pain, and when I got to the point of believing I had really lost my mind, another voice inside me stepped in, grown-up and gentle. This one said, "Well? Who knows. Maybe not..."
It was lovely and amazing. I was marshalling a parent who I hadn't had consistently as a child, who assured me that we would figure it out, together. The person believed what I reported, and felt that my perceptions could be trusted or were at least worthy of investigation.
~Anne Lamott, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace

I recently visited with my 88-year-old father who dropped this little nugget of his wisdom on me: You know, he said. If your mother had just stuck with either pills or booze and hadn't combined the two, she would have been just fine.
There should be some sort of Razzie for a guy who can live almost to 90 and still be so clueless about his wife of more than 50 years. It takes some serious effort to have absorbed literally nothing from her 25-plus years of hard-won sobriety. To be able to convince himself that, sure there were months spent in locked psychiatric wards, years lost, hopes dashed, and – oh yeah – a daughter who essentially raised herself because her parents were fighting over who was more horrible than the other, but that's because she mixed her poison. Seriously.
What's more, my father has kept up his defence of an emotional affair with a woman he worked with as "harmless" for half a century. The problem wasn't his secret friendship with this woman, it was my mother's response to it, by descending into years of addiction to numb her pain.
Clearly, denial still runs deep in my father's bones.
So it's not surprising that I've spent a significant part of adulthood wondering where the truth lies. Was I being "dramatic", the often-lobbed challenge to my version of events in childhood? Did the two drunk adults somehow have a tighter grasp on reality than I did? That was certainly what I was told. That everything was fine. That I was the one rocking the boat. That if my mom just drank herself into a stupor rather than mixed in pills, she would have been great. Mother of the year. Pillar of her community.
It has taken me a lot of years and a lot of therapy to be able to say this: That is total and absolute bullshit.

Fast forward from my fiction-is-truth childhood to months before D-Day. I was pretty sure something wasn't right but my husband assured me I was mistaken. He promised me that everything was fine. Ignore that knot in your stomach, he might have said. Dismiss that nagging doubt in your brain. Don't believe what's right under your nose. Instead trust me. If I'd had any sense (and hadn't had years of grooming to doubt my own reality), I would have said this: That is total and absolute bullshit.

It's one of the great casualties with infidelity: Our version of reality becomes shaky. Even for those of you who didn't come from a long line of bullshitters, it can be hard to hold tight to what you know when what you know seems so contrary to what you want to believe. Or to what you thought you knew.
But, as Lamott reminds us, if we can listen to still small voice, the one that whispers rather than shouts, we'll often hear the truth. It's a voice that suggests we've always known who to trust (spoiler: ourselves). It's a voice that urges us to ignore that other version of reality when it doesn't sound...right. When it doesn't sound true, no matter how badly we wish it was.
At the very least, that voice will encourage us to investigate our version of reality, to give it the dignity of consideration.
As for my dad, he's 88. And while it seems he hardly learned a thing from those crazy years, I was lucky enough to have my mom until she passed away almost a decade ago. And she learned tons. She would never EVER have pretended that her problem was a consequence of what she mixed, rather than how she coped. She would have howled with laughter at my dad's version of events. Because the most important lesson she learned through sobriety was to trust herself and her reality. To stand firm in her convictions and make no excuses for anyone, least of all herself.
I miss her. I thought, as I drove home from my visit with my dad, how we would have laughed at what he said. She would have shaken her head with exasperation and said to me what she often did when I brought to her some other version of a story that I was trying to figure out: "Oh sweetie. You know exactly what's true."
In other words, if my mother ever swore (which she didn't), she would have said, "Hey, the other guy's story? Total and absolute bullshit."

Monday, May 1, 2017

Control is an illusion: The key is surrender

"The world is a terrifying place. We manage it by believing we can control it. And when it hasn’t been controlled—when it doesn’t bend to our wills—we either look for something to blame, or we surrender."
from the essay SuperBabies Don't Cry, by Heather Kirn Lanier

My daughter had a favorite children's book we read often. Piggie Pie was a hilarious retelling of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. One particular riff on Wizard of Oz had a wicked witch broom-writing above Old MacDonald's farm: Surrender Piggies!
No way were those piggies going to surrender. Not to Gritch the Witch. In fact, they were already disguised. They were undoubtedly going to outsmart the wicked Gritch.
Surrender. It feels a whole lot like failure, doesn't it? Like weakness. Giving up.
Especially in our amped-up fight-like-hell culture.
Indeed, dictionary definitions of surrender focus on defeat. Except for this one: "to yield oneself".
To yield. To make way for something else. To take your foot off the gas pedal and wait. 
In the wake of betrayal, we expect ourselves to act. Faced with our partner's choice, made without our input, beyond our control, we often compel ourselves to take control. And yet, for many of us, never has control felt so elusive.
Not only can't we control whether he continues his affair or not, whether he continues to lie to us or not, whether he stays and fights for us or not, we realize that the control we thought we had all along was an illusion. 
The world is a terrifying place. Ask anyone who's experienced a sudden tragic accident, a life-changing diagnosis, death, assault... And so many of us adopt the illusion of control because the alternative – accepting the randomness, the casual cruelty, the lottery luck of life – is too frightening. 
I did it. 
I believed that, after a chaotic childhood in which I controlled nothing, least of all my parents' addictions and consequent behaviour, I could control my adult life. And, of course, there were things I could control. Where I worked, for instance. Where I lived. Who I spent my time with.
But I bought the fantasy that there was a power that could prevent rejection or loss or failure or betrayal. I convinced myself that if I could unlock the secret formula that created a blissful life, it would be mine too. Perfection, I became certain, was the key.
And perfection was something I could control. It simply meant always looking good, always pleasing, always performing, always improving. It meant ensuring that everyone around me understood their importance, their value. It meant being available to them. It meant being whoever they needed me to be.
It meant sacrificing myself for some fantastical guarantee that they would never abandon me. 
And when it all blew up in my face (it blew up more than once. I'm a slow learner) with my husband's betrayal, I had one more choice to make. Was I going to look around and find someone to blame for what happened? Or was I going to surrender?
I chose blame for a year at least. I blamed my parents at first. My husband's betrayal unearthed some long-buried trauma that I enthusiastically excavated and flung in the faces of my parents who, to their credit, loved me through it. 
I moved onto the Other Woman. This was her fault. Her fault and the fault of every Other Woman who takes what isn't hers.
It was my husband's fault. Him with his missing moral compass. Him with his lies.
And persuasive arguments could be made that the blame for my situation lay at the feet of all of these people. Add in popular culture, add in social media with its click-to-get-laid technology, add in my husband's parents, the list goes on.
Ultimately though where did blame get me?
Absolutely nowhere.
Surrender though? Now we're talking.
Surrender wasn't failure at all. And it certainly wasn't weakness.
Surrender was yielding. Surrender was an acceptance that this was my situation and no amount of mud-slinging was going to change a damn thing. 
In a novel I've been reading, one of the characters gets in a physical fight and remembers something he learned in a martial arts class. Rather than continue to kick and flail when your opponent has you up against a wall, you go limp. You surrender. And in that act, you throw your opponent off. You become dead weight. Your opponent relaxes his grip.
When we surrender to our new reality, we're no longer expending our energy kicking and flailing at the universe, at our fate. When we're not railing against the injustice that this shouldn't have happened to us (and why not? awful things happen to good people all the time), we can focus on our injury. We can begin to heal ourself. 


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