Monday, August 14, 2017

When You Feel Powerless

"Arrange whatever pieces come your way."
~Virginia Woolf

Most of us live in a sort of delusion that we have far more control over our lives than we do. It's an easy delusion. There's often not so much evidence that we're wrong. At least until the lump turns out to be malignant. Or our "good" kid starts stealing money to buy drugs. Or a fender bender leaves us with chronic pain that no amount of physio can fix.
Or until our spouse, the person we counted on to predictably keep the vows he took five, 10, 20 years earlier turns out to have been lying to us to five months, 10 months, 10 years.
Our delusion of control becomes clear. And it's terrifying. 
But here's what we know: We haven't changed. And what we could always control – ourselves – is still what we could always control. And what we couldn't ever control – everybody else – is still what we can't ever control.
And that, my dear soul-warriors, is good news.
It might not feel like that at first. At first, it might feel like horrible news. The worst news. How the hell are we supposed to move forward in a world where anybody can do anything at any time? Who knows what chaos will ensue? Who knows if he'll stop seeing her? Who knows if she'll respect "no contact"? Who knows if this will happen again?
Nobody. That's who knows. Nobody.
And nobody ever did know. 
We were deluding ourselves.
Life, for the most part, is a game of weighing the odds. Do I think this person is trustworthy? Does this person have a track record of keeping promises? Of being fair? Of being reasonable? The emotionally healthy among us weigh this carefully. The less healthy among us (ahem, myself included) were taught to ignore those calculations. To give second and third and fourth chances. To pay attention to the apologies and ignore the original injury. To see the smile, not the lie.
A lot of us responded to a chaotic childhood with what the psychologists call "magical thinking", which is to say that we believed we had far more power than we did. We thought we could control things that we couldn't. 
But even those with idyllic childhoods suffer the delusion of control. It's a way of surviving in a chaotic world where, frankly, anything can happen at any time. A bus can come careening around the corner and flatten us. Our child can develop debilitating mental health issues. 
To put it in the vernacular, shit happens.
But.
But...we can always control our response to what life throws our way. 
And, let me say it again, this is good news.
We have power though it might feel as though we don't.
We have the power to decide what it is that we will tolerate in our marriage after betrayal. We have power to carefully consider the consequences of a partner's deception, or continuing deception after we've agreed to give them a second chance.
We can make calculations, perhaps with the help of a therapist who's more clear-eyed than we are. We can determine what we want the rest of our life to look like if our partner cannot or will not become someone who deserves a second chance. And we get to decide what that looks like. We get to determine what our second chance consists of. Do we insist they get therapy? Do we insist that they attend a 12-step group? Do we insist upon treatment for their depression/addiction/anxiety/ADHD/impulse control/whatever? Do we insist that they steer clear of "friends" who enabled the cheating? As Steam puts it so perfectly, "My heartbreak, my rules."
It won't be easy. The right decision isn't always the easy one, though a lot of us also buy into the delusion that if it's the right decision, it will "feel" right. Nope. Not if we're accustomed to a lifetime (or even a few years) of not paying attention to our instincts. It takes practice to trust ourselves. It's a muscle that needs developing.
But that, my fierce soul-warriors, is where your power rests. In the knowledge that you have what it takes to keep yourself safe. In the recognition that you control you and nobody else. 
And, one more time, that is good news. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

*Special opportunity for BWC in the Bay Area*

For quite a while now, I've linked to Infidelity Counselling Network, a free peer counselling group that operates out of the Bay Area but is, of course, available to anyone with a phone. I know that many of you have used the network – it's impossible to overstate how valuable it can be to have someone to speak with when you're in such pain. Someone who understands, someone who's trained in listening, someone who can recommend resources and strategies to cope.
Well, Infidelity Counselling Network needs a new director (or two). It's a volunteer gig, with a small stipend. Roughly 5 - 7 hours a week. If any of you live in the Bay Area and want to pay it forward, this is your chance. 
Please let me know if you're interested – post a comment with your contact info and I won't publish it online. I'll simply pass your info onto the current director/founder.
It would be a shame if this organization had to close its doors/phone lines after creating such a vital service. 

"How could he do this to me?": You may never understand. And that's okay.

The one cloud that hung dark in the days/weeks/months after D-Day was this question: How could he do this to me?
Inherent in that question is, of course, a whole lot of fear. How could I have been so wrong about him? What does she have that I don't have? Is he lying to me now?
I was certain that if I could just understand what he was thinking, what motivated this behaviour, then I could anticipate it happening again, I could gauge the likelihood of a repeat performance, I could protect myself from further pain.
I've come a long way since then. I no longer torture myself at 3 a.m. with toxic worry. I no longer believe that I can choreograph others' actions. I catch myself when I begin to assume blame for others' bad behaviour. 
And though I've gained a lot of insight into my husband's choices, I'm not sure I will ever understand how he could do this to me. Not really. 
But I know something else. It doesn't really matter.
There are lots of reasons why people cheat. But most of them fall under the umbrella of "I liked how it felt." That can include the sex itself – the physical feeling – but more often it includes the psychological feeling. People who cheat like the excitement. They like the anticipation. They like feeling as though they've turned back the clock: they're sexy, they're interesting, they're young. And, frankly, who wouldn't like that? I can remember all those feelings from back in the day. I loved flirting. I loved knowing that the person I was with was dazzled by me. We're our best selves when we spent only bits of time with another person. It's easy to hide our flaws, easy to imagine that life will be easier.
Those of us who can't imagine cheating, however, have an ability to think a few steps further down the road. We can imagine coming home and looking at our partner. We can imagine the day he finds the text. We can imagine our affair partner giving us an ultimatum – him or me. We can imagine just how awful it must feel to betray someone who doesn't deserve it. Consequently, we can't imagine cheating. The price is simply too high. 
Cheaters? They don't get past the "I like how this feels" stage. Or, if they do, they go back and rewrite history to somehow justify what they're doing. We're nags, they tell themselves. We've lost interest in sex. We're probably miserable too. In fact, they wonder if we're cheating. Or if we want a divorce. In any case, if nobody finds out, nobody gets hurt, right? Seems like everybody cheats anyway. 
In my husband's case, cheating was like booze. It was a way of numbing himself from feelings he couldn't stand. Even before I entered his life, he relied on sex to to keep at bay his feelings of loneliness, inferiority, grief. 
Do I understand how he could do that? Not really. Not anymore than I can understand my mother pouring herself a vodka and coffee for breakfast.
But I can understand that a whole lot of people prefer distraction over feeling their feelings. It happens all the time whether I understand it or not.
So "how could he do this to me?" isn't the right question for me. It gets me nowhere.
The right question, for me and for any of us who want to rebuild our marriages, is this:
What is he doing to ensure he never cheats again?
Is he doing the hard work of figuring out how he did this? To understand the stories he was telling himself? To learn how he was affected by cultural messages, family messages? Is he willing to really feel his feelings – including those around his cheating? Willing to listen to your pain even though it makes him feel terrible? Willing to support you as you inch your way through days and weeks and months of trauma?
Because that matters far more than how he could do this in the first place. Sure it would be nice if these guys were incapable of cheating. But they are. And so what shapes our marriages from here is how far they're willing to go to repair the damage they've caused.
It's really really hard. The issues that led them to cheat are the same issues that make it hard for them to own up to it, to accept responsibility, to do the painful work of understanding why. I don't know of many who can do that alone, without the help of a therapist or a support group. They lack the emotional bandwidth, the psychological tools to heal themselves and, therefore, help you heal too. 
But that is for them to manage.
You? Your job is to stop asking "how could he do this to me?". You only need to know that people cheat because they're damaged in some way. Hurt people hurt people. Damaged people damage people.
They did not do this because there's something wrong with you. They cheated because there's something wrong with them. 
And they need to fix it.


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