Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Why Shame is the Wrong Tool to Deal with Infidelity

Here are some of the things I said to my husband after D-Day:
You're a liar.
You disgust me.
You are nothing but a cheater and a liar.
Why would I ever believe you because you are incapable of telling the truth.

The list goes on but my memory has grown fuzzy.
Pretty horrible, huh?
I'm not saying he didn't deserve my wrath. He did. He most definitely did.
What I am saying is that that those words not only did nothing to create the possibility for healing, they also weren't true (well, except for the disgust bit. I was pretty disgusted at that point).
But they hurt him. And that was really my intention. I wasn't capable of thinking more long-term than the next five-minutes. I was in the midst of survival mode – fight, flight or freeze. And I was fighting like hell. I wanted to hurt him like he'd hurt me. I wanted him to know that I would never forgive him for what he'd done. Which also, as fate would have it, turned out to be untrue.
But more to the point, if I'd been able to stop and think, to determine what my goal was, I might have realized that what I was doing – shaming my husband – wasn't going to help me achieve it.
Which is the great misunderstanding of shame.
We think shame makes people change their behaviour. But famed shame researcher Brené Brown gives us the bad news. It doesn’t. If anything, shame makes people double down on their bad behaviour (we’re seeing this shame-and-name culture online right now and it’s ugly).
What happens, Brown explains, is that shame hijacks our limbic system – we go into survival mode. That’s our primitive brain, our reptile brain. Shame, she says, “corrodes that part of us that believes we can ever be different.”
Sadly, a lot of us grew up being shamed. More than likely, our partners did too. It’s a frequently used tool by those in authority. But shame drives a lot of bad behaviour. Shame doesn’t urge us be better, it tells us we never will be.
You’re never going to be anything but a loser, we might have heard.
Why can’t you do anything right?
Or, my husband’s father’s favorite: You’re nothing but a quitter.
And here I was, post D-Day, shaming my husband, albeit unintentionally. I was doing to him exactly what had been done to him as a child. And what he’d done to himself ever since.
Shame drives bad behaviour, Brown reminds us again.
So much of my husband’s acting out was rooted in his childhood shame. Shame kills intimacy. Shame kills empathy. Brown puts it this way: “It’s much more likely to be the cause of harmful and destructive behaviours than the cure.”
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of infidelity lately. I’ve long thought that our culture, while it loves a redemption story, loves a consistent narrative more. While we hold the possibility that people can change, we’re suspicious of it. That “once a cheater, always a cheater” mentality leaves no room for redemption, for reinvention.
Why do we make it so hard for people to redeem themselves? Why do we insist on labelling people rather than labelling their behaviour? It might seem like semantics but it’s rooted in shaming. That’s not, of course, to say that bad behaviour shouldn’t be called out. It absolutely should, especially cheating, which causes so much damage and pain to partners and kids. But there is a world of difference between expecting someone who cheated to figure out why he did and how to ensure he never does it again, and labelling them a cheater. The first allows for change. The second…does not.
I’ve long believed that my willingness to give my husband the chance to change stemmed from having grown up with an alcoholic who got sober. I had seen someone, who everyone else had given up on, choose a better path. And I had watched her not only get sober but get wise about it. I knew people could change because I’d seen it. Might my perspective have been different if she’d never stopped drinking? Probably.
It must be a careful dance, between wanting to believe our partners can change and being realistic about whether they will. Change is not a straight trajectory. It zigs and it zags but someone truly intent on becoming better will self-correct.
As Brown reminds us, when you see someone making amends, apologizing, doing better, that’s about guilt not shame.
But if they do not make amends, if it becomes clear that their words are not backed up by actions – if they refuse counselling, if they resist giving you passwords, if they push back against boundaries you’ve set in order to feel emotionally safe with someone capable of cheating, then that’s important information. And all the shaming in the world isn’t going to create that change if it isn’t coming from a reckoning within.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Thursday's Thought

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving 
to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief 
that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, 
we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, 
judgement, and shame. It's a shield.
~Brené Brown

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Feeling It All

There is a story that Glennon Doyle tells in Untamed. She is at her first AA meeting and talking to a veteran 12-stepper, who says something that stuns her. "Feelings are for feeling," the sage says. "All of them. Even the hard ones."
It's an inflection point for Doyle who had, to that point, spent her life trying to be pleasing to others. To look right, to act right, to feel right. Happy was the goal, for herself and others. And yet...she felt all these other feelings too so what was she doing wrong?
Nothing, according to this woman. "Feelings are for feeling. All of them."
We are a culture that pursues happiness the way my cats pursue a beam of sunshine. Relentlessly. Only stopping for a moment when we've found it and then realizing we're about to lose it again.
We don't want those other feelings. They get in the way. We want happiness, all the time. 24/7. We'll settle for contentment, periodically. But mostly we want that pure bliss. And we're told we can achieve it, like it's something for sale in a store window if only we know where to look or who to ask.
It's a lie. The whole Industrial Happiness Complex is a total lie built by capitalism to make us constantly hungry for it, constantly striving for it. 
It's not that happiness isn't possible, of course. It is. It's just that a happy life isn't possible. Feelings are for feeling. All of them. Even the hard ones. And those hards ones will inevitably show up in anyone's life. No matter how hard we try to avoid them. No matter how high we've build the fortress against them.
And that's the thing that we don't hear about. How surviving those hard feelings makes happiness so much sweeter when we ultimately do get a taste.
My son and I are taking an online course right now. It's Yale University's most popular course and it's offered for free right now. It's about how to be happy. My son and I are only in Week Two but we've already learned that the things that we believe – that we've been told or rather sold – will make us happy not only don't make us happy, some actually make us less happy than we were. Among these things that don't make us happier are:
•weight loss
•plastic surgery
•stuff – clothes, jewellery, cars, houses, etc.
But most of us know that by now, don't we? We've learned that while that great purse might give us a momentary burst of happiness, it's pretty short-lived. By the time the VISA statement arrives and we have to pay for it, the purchase itself likely offers us no happiness at all anymore. 
But it's not all bad news. There are things we can do to contribute to our happiness. Not 24/7. But sometimes. The way happiness is meant to be experienced. It's a feeling, not a state of being.
And one of the main ways to generate more happiness in your life is:
•gratitude/savoring – science tells us that taking note of and thinking about the things we're grateful for contribute to a greater sense of happiness. As hokey as they sound, gratitude journals work. Sometimes you might only feel able to be grateful that you're still breathing. That you haven't murdered your spouse. That you stayed off the OW's social media. It still counts.
But remember that you'll feel all those other feelings too. Especially right now, when your world feels upside down. Especially, when things feel so uncertain. 
But you won't always feel so unhappy, just like nobody always feels happy.
Feelings are for feeling. All of them. Even the hard ones.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

"Becoming" pain vs "self-betrayal" pain

There is the pain of just being human, the pain of loss of losing people and animals and relationships and situations we thought we couldn’t live without. But there is another kind of pain and that is a pain that is chosen. That is the pain of a woman who has slowly abandoned herself. And that is a pain I will never choose again. If I can choose between pain and joy, I will choose joy. 
~Glennon Doyle

There is becoming pain and there is self betrayal pain. And you have to know the difference
~Brené Brown

I didn't see it at first. My husband's betrayal eclipsed all else in my life. So devastated by it, I couldn't see anything beyond what he did to me.
I completely missed what I had done to myself.
But over the following months and years, it became impossible to ignore. Yes, my husband had betrayed me, profoundly. But the deeper betrayal was how I had betrayed myself.
It had happened slowly. In hindsight, there wasn't one moment I could point to and say "there, yes. That's when I abandoned myself." 
Rather it was many smaller moments, where I chose him over me, where I prioritized his comfort over my own, where I silenced my voice so that his was all either of us heard. Let me be clear. This was not abuse. My husband isn't cruel or domineering. Rather, I had learned in childhood to keep the peace, to not rock the boat. And so, when marriage got sticky, I let him define the narrative: I was "too sensitive", I was "looking for problems". And when I pushed back, which I still had the guts to do, I was "crazy". Want to know what "crazy" looked like in my house? Let me tell you. Crazy was me pointing out when his mother was judgemental and cruel (my son was a "momma's boy" because I comforted him when he cried, for instance). Crazy was me insisting that our sex life seemed off. Crazy was me stating my truth. 
Our culture has a long history of silencing women with "crazy". And it worked. Mostly. I silenced myself. Why bother pointing out that his mother was unkind to me? Why bother asking for more help with the kids? Why bother bringing up that my work was important too?
Why bother? 
Far more important to find workarounds, to call on other people for support, to not rock the boat. Marriages are about compromise, right? All marriages have rough spots, rights? And when you've never seen a healthy marriage, you believe that yours is probably better than most. Certainly better than any you've seen modelled.
And in those words – 'why bother?' – lay my own betrayal self.
Why bother? Because I was frustrated by how low on the priority list my own career fell? Why bother? Because his mother's unkindness hurt me. No matter that he'd lived with it his entire life. No matter that she "old and unlikely to change." It hurt me. That should have mattered.
Why bother? Because we matter. Because our wants and needs matter. Because what we identify as impediments to us living a full, rich life matter. 
And when we pretend they don't, or when we convince ourselves that we can work around them rather than ask those invested in keeping them in place to help us dismantle them (and yes, I'm not just talking about my marriage here but a patriarchal, misogynistic culture), we betray ourselves.
I operated under the mistaken belief that I needed my husband to agree with me in order to create the change I wanted. If I couldn't convince him, then maybe the barriers I identified didn't exist. Maybe my wants and needs were the problem. Maybe, like we women are told so often, we want too much. We are too hungry. We are too much.
But now... Now we know that was never the case, don't we? With our blinders off, having been brought fully to our knees by another's betrayal, it's crystal clear, isn't it? The way we betrayed ourselves first. The way the system works against us. 
Everything I had identified was revealed as truth. My husband, who formerly defended his mother and dismissed me as "crazy", revealed years of emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her and his father. Our sex life? No wonder it felt like something was wrong. It was. My husband was a sex addict. The household labour imbalance felt wrong because it was. I had taken on the lion's share because I bought into the idea that the person making the most money should have the most power, completely, of course, misunderstanding the value of all the unpaid labor I did.
Every single time I questioned what I knew to be true, I betrayed myself. 
No longer.
There is the pain of becoming, says Brené Brown, and then there is the pain of self-betrayal. I know both. And I resolve to always, always choose the former over the latter. I hope you will too. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Infidelity Grief: The Death of the Life You Thought Was Yours

Grief feels bigger than sadness, more all-encompassing, threatening to retrieve every shard of loss and sorrow from the past. It can feel like a weight on the chest, leaden limbs, dulled thinking. It veils the eyes and shutters out the light. It's physical; it yawns open its maw like a Grand Canyon slash in the earth. There is no crossing from one rim to respite on the other rim without going down into the wound.
~Kathy Karn, photographer/retired psychotherapist

One of the things we least expect to feel in the wake of betrayal is grief. Which is why so many of us don't recognize it even as we're experiencing it. Grief is about death, right? It seemed unfortunate on D-Day that my husband was very much alive. Being a widow struck me as far preferable to being a betrayed wife. But there he was, alive and appallingly well. So...why would I feel grief? 
Murderous rage? That made more sense. Sadness? Sure. But though I didn't recognize it for a very long time, I was grieving. And I didn't recognize it in part because our culture doesn't associate grief with infidelity. 
It should. Betrayal ushers in a death. Of the marriage we thought we had. The life we thought we knew. The man we thought we could trust. There's so much loss in betrayal. So much, yes, death. Hence...grief.
Dammit, huh? Cause grief doesn't take the short road. Grief meanders, never in a rush. It lingers. Which is bad news for those of us who just want this to be over. To get back to "normal". To move past this ache.
Psychotherapist Kathy Karn notes that grief feels all-encompassing, "like a Grand Canyon slash in the earth". We can imaging falling in but can scarcely believe we'll emerge. But the thing with grief, if we give ourselves the chance to trust the process, is that we'll not only emerge, we'll emerge carrying the seeds of transformation within us. 
It's a bittersweet thought. I remember hearing all of that "suffering makes us grow" stuff and even while I hoped it was true, I resented it. I didn't want to grow. I wanted to not be in so much pain. The idea of grief was more than could bear. It meant that this wasn't something I was going to "get over" quickly. Grief requires time and patience and I was out of both. 
The thing with grief, however, is that there's no fighting it. It casts its shadow over us whether we try to move into the sunlight or night. The best approach, we learn, is to stop resisting it. Stop pretending that this pain has a quick-fix, stop pretending that something didn't die. Stop pretending and give in to the reality that grief is going to be our companion for a long while.
And when we stop resisting grief, we can begin, well, grieving. We can remember to be more gentle with ourselves. We can try and judge ourselves less harshly. And when we allow ourselves to grieve – to feel the pain and the loss – our hearts become a wee bit less restricted. Like the hand squeezing them loosens its grip just slightly. And then slightly more. 
Because though grief doesn't gallop, it isn't immobile either. There is respite on the other side, as Karn reminds us, but not without going into the wound.
And so we descend. Into grief. Moving through it like wet cement. 
The day will come when we climb out. Not all at once, perhaps, but finger by finger, limb by limb. Moment by moment.
And when we have emerged, we will see that grief was never the enemy, but the guide.
It's crucial that we keep our hearts soft or grief will have done nothing but knock against a hardened heart.


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