Monday, January 30, 2017

Cultivating Hope When All Feels Hopeless

Hope can kinda stupid in the face of betrayal. It can feel naive. Weak. Passive.
And yet, what do we have when we discover that the person we trusted most has betrayed that trust? What do we do with the pain?
We can become brittle with anger and bitterness. We can become numb from self-protection. We can turn that anger inward and become depressed and anxious.
Or we can hope. 
Not a passive cross-your-fingers kinda hope but a rolling-up-your-sleeves hope. The kind of hope that spurs us to seek help for our pain, that pushes us out of comfort zone to ask for support, that gives us the clear-eyed understanding that his bad behaviour doesn't define us. That his betrayal is not our shame to bear but his.
Hope that we will not only survive this but triumph over it, to become stronger and wiser. 
"What I’ve observed from my own struggles and those of others is that in order to be hopeful people, we must constantly work at it," wrote Robert Hardies recently in The Washington Post.  "...hope is like love. It’s not a once-and-for-all cure, it’s one of the most important ongoing spiritual projects of our lives. Hope is a journey. A difficult path through a beautiful and broken world."
Hardies, a Unitarian minister, goes on to offer up lessons he's learned in cultivating his own hope. And while they apply to our larger world, they work for us in our private pain too. To help us recognize the courage inside each of us to ignite a spark of hope. 
1. Start where you are and take one step at a time. Hopeful people, says Hardie, "take concrete action to make a difference, even if it’s a small difference."
What might this look like in your life. Does it involve making an appointment with a therapist? Maybe it means sharing your pain with a trusted friend. Perhaps it's a daily commitment to walk, trying to notice the beauty around you and remembering that all things are temporary, including pain. 
2. Cultivate a spiritual practice.
For some of us, this means a formal religion but it doesn't need to. A spiritual practice includes anything that takes you outside of your experience and reminds you that you are part of something large and mysterious. You might find your spirituality in a grand cathedral with stained glass windows, you might find it on a yoga mat, your might find it in a basement following the 12 steps. You might find it in literature or music or in handing out lunch at a soup kitchen. The important thing is to connect yourself to something bigger than you, something that reminds you that you are only a small part of this world but that without you, the world loses some of its lustre. 
3. Don’t make the journey alone. "We need companions for the journey of hope," says Hardie  "The hopeful people are the together people. We’re on this journey together."
It's no coincidence that so much healing takes place in this rag-tag club of betrayed wives. It's because hope is contagious. When hope is extended to others by way of affirming each other's pain, through sharing hard-won wisdom, through laughing together, through crying together, through rooting for each others' healing, it grows in each of us. If she can do it, we come to believe, then I can too. If healing is possible for others, then it's possible for me too. 
And it is possible. It is even probable when you practice roll-up-your-sleeves hope. When you refuse to accept defeat as an option. Betrayal will bring you to your knees. Rest there as hope takes root. And then rise again. 

Monday, January 23, 2017

Seizing Power from the Gaslighters

After a weekend taking to the streets with so many incredible sister warriors who refuse to any longer tolerate a culture that asks us to sit down and be quiet, that tells us we have to endure disrespect of our bodies, that says we should be grateful for the strides women have made even if we're still not making the same money as a man for the same job (women of colour have an even larger wage gap), I'm more ready than ever to push back.
Let's start, shall we, with this notion of "alternative facts".
How many of us were treated to "alternative facts" in our marriage? Such as, "you're being ridiculous. We're just friends." Or "I was at the office. I can't believe you're giving me a hard time for putting a roof over our heads." Or "you're acting crazy. There's nothing going on." Check out our Stupid Shit Cheaters Say thread for plenty of "alternative facts".
But though we can sometimes laugh, let's not overlook how dangerous and destabilizing this behaviour this. Gaslighting is emotional abuse.
It creates an alternate reality in which one person is told that they can't trust their eyes, their ears or, especially, their intuition. It is crazy-making and I can remember wondering if I was, literally, losing my mind. Because what was coming out of my husband's mouth just didn't match up with what I was seeing play out in front of me.
The gaslighter knows we want to believe that we're wrong. We want reassurance that things aren't what they appear to me. We want to be told that, despite evidence or intuition to the contrary, everything is just fine and the person we trust most in the world is, in fact, worthy of that trust.
Some of us do sit down and be quiet. We endure the disrespect we get in our own homes and the larger world. We swallow our resentment and try to be grateful for the strides women have made.
But then we reach a tipping point and we just can't tolerate it any longer. Not in our homes. Not in our culture. Not in the world.
I'm having a visceral response to the public gaslighting we're seeing because it has triggered that same sense of helplessness and frustration, that fear that I'm the only sane one. Or am I the crazy one?
There are times, of course, when we're wrong. When the lunch with a co-worker really is innocent. When coming home late really is because of an accident that tied up traffic.
But there are times, oh don't we all know it too well, when we're right but being told we're wrong. When we're told that those texts don't mean anything when they clearly do. When we're chastised for being nosy even as we're turning up proof that he's lying. When we're told we're the crazy ones.
Challenge that with every ounce of strength you have. Challenge anyone who responds to your suspicion with empty platitudes or who turns it against you. Challenge anyone whose response to your genuine fear of betrayal is anything other than, what do you need from me to trust me? Let's work together to build trust of each other. 
And watch carefully what's playing out in front of your eyes on the public stage because it gives you a gaslighter's playbook. Watch provable facts become twisted. Watch as people who know better change the subject or turn the question back on the questioner. Watch as self-righteous indignation – "how can you even suggest such a thing" – is employed to imply that WE are the crazy ones for questioning any of this. Watch as "fake news" is used as a shield against any information that the gaslighter doesn't like.
Watch as "alternative facts", which are, of course, lies, are presented as simply a difference of opinion. Facts aren't opinion. They are facts.
And then refuse to tolerate it in your marriage.

Friday, January 20, 2017

You'll never get over this. And that's a good thing.

I was never going to get over the pain of betrayal. Not because I didn't want to. But because I couldn't fathom a day when the constant gnawing pain of what my husband did wouldn't be part of me. I imagined it would lessen, sure. But like a long-ago injury, I figured it would remain at the very least a dull ache. Worse on some days than others. But never ever gone.
It's a common fear. That the pain we feel in the wake of betrayal will be something we carry with us forever. And, I suppose, in some ways it is. It does stay with us. But not in the way we imagine.
It stays with us each time we hear about a woman discovering a partner's affair. In that moment, we know her pain in a way that we wouldn't have understood before it happened to us. In that moment, we can reach out to her and take her hand in a way we wouldn't have been able to before. To assure her that she's going to be okay. That she did nothing to deserve this betrayal. That, no matter what happens to her marriage, she is worth fighting for.
It stays with us in the way we remember to never take things for granted. In the way we're able to appreciate the joy in our lives because we never expected to feel that way again. Not ever. So it's sweeter for being unexpected. Sweeter for knowing it won't last. We now know that no feeling lasts forever. Not hurt. Not joy.
It stays with us at weddings when we see wide-eyed couples blithely promise each other that they will forsake all others. We remember that we said those things too. We probably even meant them, if we'd really thought them through. But we know now that promises get broken. That marriage isn't about what was promised that day but the promises we make to each other every day that follows. Promises backed up by hard choices.
It stays with us at funerals when we see, more clearly than at almost any other time, that it's our relationships with those who love us that matters more than anything else. Nobody's sports car shows up at the funeral. Nobody's bank account shows up, or the credentials at the end of their name. What shows up are the people to whom you mattered. The people whose lives will be emptier for the loss of you.
The pain of betrayal shows up when life knocks us down. When we don't get the job. When we're ignored or rejected. When we put on weight. When we get the diagnosis. When we feel stupid for trying. For a moment, we give in to those old beliefs: We're unlovable. We're not enough. Good things are for other people. But then we're reminded of us what betrayal taught us as we healed from its devastation. That we're so much stronger than we ever knew. That we have always been worthy, always been enough, have always deserved good things. That another's inability to see our value is their failure, not ours.
I'm "over this" in that I don't awake with a knot in my stomach and a dread of the day ahead. I'm "over it" in that I don't fantasize about my husband's death or the brutal murder of the OW. I'm "over it" in that I don't often think about the betrayal itself. But what the betrayal taught me is with me always. I carry those lessons in my heart and they are as much as part of me as what I've learned from being a parent or a daughter or a friend.
I will never stop being a betrayed wife. It's not the whole of who I am but healing from that pain cannot be separated from who I am. There is no part of me where the pain stopped and the old unbetrayed me remained.
I laugh again in a way I never thought I could. I have fun and feel good and celebrate my life in a way I never thought I could.
But I also remember in a way that I always will. I remember that people I love can profoundly disappoint me. I remember that I can only ever control myself and that's all I've ever been able to control, despite my beliefs to the contrary. I remember that I have a deep reservoir of strength that will get me through and that, when it's almost depleted, there is an army of women who will hold me up until I can fight for myself again.
I will never get over that because it was so unexpected – this anonymous support from some women I hardly knew and others I've never met. And it's one of the great lessons of my life.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Wrestling with Fear

"Fear gets its power from our not looking, at either the fear or what we're afraid of."
~Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

Two weeks after D-Day #1, my mother was hospitalized with a lung infection. She had COPD thanks to years of smoking so this lung infection quickly became critical and she slipped into a coma. Doctors gathered us at her bedside and told us to think hard about whether we wanted her on life support or "do not resuscitate". Alone with her not long after, I whispered in her ear. "Not now, Mom. I need you. You can't die now."
Her doctor laughingly called it a "miracle". "We thought she was a goner," he said. But while she was relieved to have emerged from the coma, she was also terrified. "It was so dark," she told me. Though she had a strong religious faith, she became terrified of dying. Not of death, she told me, but of dying. My mom, however, had never met a fear she wasn't willing to stare down. So she began talking about this fear. To her doctors, to her minister, to her family. Her doctors assured her that, if she was suffering, they had ways to minimize that. Her minister assured her that she believed God would be there to meet her. Our family assured her that we would do what we could to ensure that she wasn't suffering and advocate on her behalf.
Six months later (three weeks after D-Day #2 for those keeping track of just how hellish this time was me), she slipped into a coma for a second time. This time, I whispered in her ear that if she was ready to go, I was ready to let her go. But, I told her, "I will miss you every day for the rest of my life."
She died a few hours later. It was peaceful and beautiful and it felt like a privilege to witness her passing.
And it also taught me something valuable.
About fear. And our response to fear.
She began by naming her fear. Not death. Dying. We can't underestimate the power of naming what we're afraid of, nor can we battle something that we can't name.
And then she gathered those around her who could help her dissect this fear -- to address each aspect of it. She was the one who did the hard work of wrestling with it. She was the one awake at 3 a.m. thinking it through. But she felt surrounded by those invested in supporting her.
What are you afraid of?
So many of us feel terrified after a partner's betrayal. My fear was being abandoned, which, I've come to learn, wasn't so much a fear based on current reality as a knee jerk reaction to long-ago issues with my dysfunctional family. It took a lot of time and therapy to face down that fear and come to a place where I feel confident in my ability to be "abandoned" and be just fine.
A whole lot of us fear making the wrong choice about staying or going. We fear going through this pain again. We fear being duped. We fear that we can't trust ourselves. The list is, no doubt, long.
But as long as those fears remain nebulous, as long as they drift just out of reach, they will remain terrifying. They will feel like a threat.
But if you nail each one down as best you can, if you gather those around you who can help you dissect them and really determine how realistic your fear is, you can eliminate a whole lot of them.
Fear of being abandoned? Well...what would that look like? Painful sure. But what does it really look like? You would have been left by someone who doesn't value you enough to stay. That stings. But, to an outsider, you just escaped someone who doesn't value you enough to stay. That's...a good thing. The fear, I suspect, is more around what you're telling yourself. That you aren't loveable. That you aren't worthy. That you aren't good enough. And that's entirely different than being abandoned. That's you abandoning yourself. And you can do something about that.
Maybe your fear is rooted in being "wrong" for staying. Well, what does that look like? How can you prepare yourself for that possibility in a way that reduces the logistical issues. See a lawyer perhaps and determine what position you're in should you separate? Think through your finances? Get a therapist to help you create a system of transparency so that you'll know sooner than later if he's cheating? In other words, create a plan.
What I'm advocating is having the courage to stare down your fear. To name it and to refuse to let it control you. To wrestle with it.
To take away its power. And realize that the power is yours.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Good Grief: How Our Healing Holds Grace

"...grief is not a problem to be solved, not a condition to be medicated, but a deep encounter with an essential experience of being human." Francis Weller, from The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief

Not a problem to be solved. Not a condition to be medicated. 
Yes but how many of us understood that before now? How many of us struggle with that still? 
To start, let's be clear. It is not that our methods of managing grief are necessarily wrong. If your grief is incapacitating, then please, see a doctor and determine if medication can help you. If your grief is swallowing you whole, then please know that there are strategies for coping.
What Weller, a psychotherapist and grief counsellor goes on to say is that it's our culture that convinces us that grief is unnatural. Grief becomes problematic, he argues, when the conditions necessary to help us manage it are absent. 
How many of you come to this site for the community it offers? How many of you soak in the compassion that's here, the recognition from others that your grief is real and valid but that you have the strength to feel it and heal? Most of you, I imagine. And yet, those communities in which we can share our grief are rare. Despite what we know about the healing power of community, our culture pressures us to "get over it". We're not a society that's comfortable with others' grief or our own. We vilify emotional pain and are masters at avoiding it. We dismiss it as weakness. And so we mask it with anger. We numb it with booze or shopping. Some, like our husbands, distract themselves from emotional pain with infidelity.
And look where that got us.
It is a part of our human experience. No more. No less. It is a season in our lives, sometimes lingering, sometimes surprising us with how quickly it passes. And sometimes, too, surprising us with the gifts it brings, with the lessons it imparts, with the grace it ushers in.
But it needs to be respected. We can't rush it. We have to resist the pressure to "get over it" on another's timeline and instead honor our soul's work, as Weller puts it. Sure it's great to triumph over adversity. We all love a story in which the heroine rises and conquers. But that's never the whole story and we can't gloss over the part where the heroine pulls the covers over her head and sobs great gulping sobs. We can't ignore that, though we can't see the healing on those days, it's taking place beneath those covers, just as a deep cut heals incrementally, invisible to our critical hurry-up eye. 
There is no moral failure in grief. Rather there is danger in rushing a crucial part of the human experience of loss. The danger is an unhealed heart. The danger is moving forward when we're not ready, in appearing stronger than we actually are, in trying to stand alone on still wobbly legs. 
Rather we should take Weller's advice and rest on that healing ground until we are certain. We need not apologize for the time it takes to heal from our grief, to disentangle the emotions within. (And we need not apologize for the pharmacological help we seek when grief turns toxic for us.)
Rather we should accept this season of grief, no matter how long it lasts, and prepare to recognize the grace that always always appears at the threshold of healing.

Monday, January 2, 2017

They don't get it. And that's okay because we do.

Every year my husband and I hold an annual holiday party (except for that year. You know the one. The one where I could barely lift my  head off the pillow, let alone host a party for four dozen of our closest friends).
This year was particularly fun. I had good friends visiting from out of town, both of whom know the whole story of me. Both of whom love me and my husband, even though they urged me on as I verbally ripped him a new one in the early days post D-Day. They, somehow, have hearts big enough to love him for how hard he worked to repair the damage he caused.
Another good friend was also at our party. Two years ago it was at our party that she confessed to me that she and her husband were separating. He had been seeing another woman. And despite appearances of the perfect marriage, it had been hell for years. He's a charming narcissist and all I saw was the charm. All she got was the narcissism.
The divorce is not settled. He fights her on every single thing just to flex his muscle. He's determined to punish her in every way he can.
Despite this constant hell, she's doing pretty well. She's a highly respected doctor who works shifts and, when she's not saving people's lives (literally), she takes care of her kids, mentors medical students and makes me laugh.
And yet, a mutual friend of ours at the party commented to me that our friend "is still pretty bitter".
Wow huh? "Still pretty bitter."
This less-understanding friend just doesn't get it. Where I see a warrior fighting every day to shield her kids from her ex's manipulations, others see someone who isn't moving on. At least not fast enough for them. Where I see someone who somehow has managed a challenging career as well as two teens with their own issues and an eight-year-old who misses his dad, others would prefer she didn't air her dirty laundry.
I responded that yes, she's pretty bitter though I think she disguises that bitterness brilliantly most of the time. But that this time, this particular night which she spends each year with our family and friends, she felt safe enough to share her pain. And, after all, we're her friends right? The least we can do is listen to her. To remind her she's among friends.
It's this whole culture of infidelity, isn't it? A culture that never really reveals just how shattering betrayal is and so those lucky enough to not personally experience it just don't get it. A culture that prescribes the 'kick-him-to-the-curb' response because, after all, "once a cheater, always a cheater". A culture that thinks we should be over it by some arbitrary period of time that makes everyone else comfortable. A culture that prefers to hear about infidelity on the pages of the tabloids, not in the kitchen of a house party.
A culture in which infidelity is as common as dirt but where nobody wants to talk about it, not really talk about it.
If you've found support in your real life, as I was lucky enough to do with my friends (though it took me close to a year to confide in them), then hold fast to those people. They are rare gems indeed.
And even so, you'll likely also be subject to those other people. The ones who insist that the only response to cheating is to walk away. The ones who know, exactly, what they would do if it ever happened to them, which it won't. Ever. The ones who can't believe you didn't know. That you didn't somehow kinda sorta deserve it.
The rest of us? You'll find us here. Learning to laugh about the inane comments we endure. Remembering that we were, sometimes, those people so smug that our husband would never cheat. Ever.
We'll be here. Somedays we'll "still be bitter" and other days we'll realize that the good days outweigh the bad and amen for that. Some days we'll need a virtual hug and other days we'll be offering up high-fives like a Pez dispenser to the amazing warrior wives who are walking, every single day, toward healing.
Lots of people don't get it. I hope they never have to because I wouldn't wish this on anyone. But that's okay. Because we get it. We really really get it.


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