Thursday, April 27, 2023

On Accountability and Transformation

I screenshot this comment many months ago because I was so struck by how this question was framed:

 "How we do hold people accountable for wrongdoing and yet at the same time remain in touch with their humanity enough to believe in their capacity to be transformed?"

It's the question that's a part of the heart of this site. (I saw a part because I think the larger part of the heart of this site is to provide a safe space for betrayed wives to heal and chart out their next steps.) 
There are other sites, of course, that traffic in vitriol, in revenge. There are sites that peddle forgiveness. I like to think that this site does neither — I have tried to create a space in which we acknowledge the deep deep wound of betrayal while at the same time recognizing that a cheater isn't necessarily a monster. But neither is a cheater automatically deserving of our forgiveness. I've tried to find a path somewhere between the two where we can keep our focus on our own pain, our own healing, while — if we choose to — remaining in touch with the humanity of the person who's caused the deep wound. 
Because I remain convinced that, as upside-down as it seems (and I acknowledge that there are exceptions), most cheaters are trying to fix something broken inside of themselves. And whether or not you're interested in rebuilding a marriage with the same person, it can accelerate your own healing if you're able to remain in touch with the humanity of the person who caused your pain.
The reason is simple: In order for us to be able to extend true compassion to someone else, we need to know it ourselves. I had long been a harsh judge of others. I had no time for liars, for scoundrels, for cheats. But when I discovered I was married to someone who was all three, and that I lacked both the energy and the bandwidth to leave right away, I had to try something else.
I wrote about it in 2015: 
"Transformation, I've discovered, isn't a bolt of lightning from the sky. It wasn't magic.
For me, transformation was showing up each day, slowly opening my heart to the possibility that I could handle this. That I was worth fighting for. Not someone else fighting for me but ME fighting for me. That I was enough, just as I was. That I had always been.
And within that transformation, there were many many gifts. Much suffering too. But that, it seems, is where transformation takes root."
By truly coming to believe that I had value, I accepted that my husband had value too. And — it shocks me still to know this — I came to believe that she had value too. That she cheated with a man she knew was married because she had no self-worth. Where had she learned to live on crumbs? 
None of this is to argue that you need to stay married. That you need to forgive him. That you need to forgive her.
It is, however, to say that if we can learn to thread that needle — to hold him accountable for wrongdoing and yet remain in touch with his humanity — we learn healthy boundaries. We learn our own worth and that of others. 
When we believe in others' capacity to be transformed, even in light of wrongdoing, we create the conditions for our own transformation. 

Sunday, April 2, 2023

After Betrayal: Putting Ourselves Back Together

It sometimes feels like we are all forever putting ourselves back together, but I have only ever felt stronger for doing it. It seems to me our griefs are the very things that keep us within the world as active participants in its story, making us more effective and ultimately more joyful, despite, or perhaps because of, our breaking down.

~Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files

It has been a very long since I was where so many of you are. Reeling from the discovery of a partner's affair, or lying awake wondering if he's still cheating, or gaming out what life will look like if you stay or if you go

And yet, the pain can still surprise me — a sudden pang when my husband doesn't answer his cell phone, or an ache that settles in my chest watching a TV show in which a wife is betrayed, or a quickening heart when one of the young people in my life confide that they don't understand why their partner broke up with them. And I think but don't say, "I do. I know. I heard the way she talked about her new lab mate." 

"It sometimes feels like we are all forever putting ourselves back together," writes the always wise Nick Cave. And I know we all imagine a time when we are whole again, when the pain is entirely behind us.

Cave is writing to a reader about grief following the death of someone loved but grief is grief. And there is absolutely no question in my mind that betrayal leaves us grieving. Betrayal is loss. Whether or not the person remains in your life. We lose the person we thought we were married to. We lose the blissful ignorance of our wedding vows (or, if you're unmarried, of the belief that you both were similarly committed to monogamy). We lose the smugness that, somehow, our marriage would beat the odds — that it would remain unmarked by infidelity. 

If we're not careful, we lose ourselves. At least, until we find ourselves again.

But though it might seem to be bad news that "we are forever putting ourselves back together again", I am here — 15 years after my own D-Day — to tell you that pain is pain is pain. And if you can accept that, if you can acknowledge that we all go through pain in this life, it might both make you feel less lonely and more empathetic, to both your own and others' suffering. And pay attention too to the rest of what Cave says: "I have only ever felt stronger for doing it." None of us would ever choose this. And I'm not someone who embraces suffering because I think it's 'good for me'. (Insert eyeroll.) But this pain is yours right now and though I'm not sure it's making you stronger, I do believe it is revealing to you the strength that was always yours. 

And I believe this too: When the pain is mostly behind you, when you are only occasionally surprised by it, you will know also joy that tastes all the sweeter. If you have healed well — with self-respect and time and a soft heart — you will savour any morsels of joy all the more for having felt such deep pain. 

It has been a long time since I've posted here. But know this, too, my secret sisters: I think of you often. It remains an incredible privilege to have been trusted with so many of your hearts. And if this site does just one thing, I hope it is this: To remind you every single day that you are not alone and that you will get through this. 

Sunday, November 13, 2022

All the lessons I continue to learn

Our good friend to Betrayed Wives Club (and who created this kickass design and logo) StillStanding gave me some advice recently. I had told her how conflicted I am about this site. I lack the time to give it the attention it (and you! All of you!!) deserve. But I lack the heart to shut it down. And I lack the creative energy at this point to reimagine it — to figure out a new incarnation that continues to give the support and community that it has provided for so long to so many (more than 4 million over about a decade!).

She told me, in that wide, thoughtful way she has, that it's okay to sort of park it, to perhaps disable comments while still keeping all the posts up, and all the old comments. That it can act as something of an archive for those new to the pain of infidelity — like reading an old book of wisdom that continues to hold value. (Though please know, those of you who don't yet know, that I write something of a guide book, an Encyclopedia, to help you navigate to a place of healing.) 
And I got thinking about how valuable "permission" is — how one of the most important aspects of this site is exactly that: We gave each other permission to just feel that deep deep pain. To sit in the not knowing what to do next. To rage and cry and grow silent and scared. Because we knew, even if we didn't yet know, that all of that was important to healing. Our own and each other's. 
So that's what I will continue to do for now. I'm not yet ready to decide and that's okay. I'm not ready to move away from all of you, and that's okay too. There are far too many times that I'll be thinking about something that has NOTHING to do with infidelity — navigating adult relationships with my children, dealing with my new job, absorbing climate grief from the work I do — and I will hit upon an insight and my first thought continues to be, I need to share this with the secret sisters. Because while so much of relationships with others isn't about infidelity at all, the lessons I've learned healing from betrayal, the support and community we created here, has everything to do with how I negotiate and experience my relationships. Boundaries. Gratitude. Courage. Radical honesty. Waiting. Self-compassion
I hope you'll continue to share your pain and your wisdom and your kindness to each other. I will try to be better at moderating and posting comments.
I miss those of you who have been so pivotal to my healing. And though I may never even know many of your real names, you are so very real to me. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

When the war is happening inside

Most people haven’t even noticed their strength. They’re so focussed on their pain.

~ Rachel Naomi Remen, author Kitchen Table Wisdom

Our household has recently welcomed a family of Ukrainians, fleeing the war. It's a mother and two daughters – the husband and 18-year-old son remain in their country to defend it. 

I just returned from walking the youngest to the school bus, where she climbed on with a dozen other kids for the ride to her new elementary school. It's been just nine days since she got off a plane from Poland. 

This family is weaving itself into our day-to-day lives. Their dog plays with our dogs and cats. We all sit down to dinner together. We grocery shop together. We jokingly call ourselves "one big happy family." But I notice how often they check their phones and then exchange glances with each other. The other day, they shared with us a photo of a magnificent church in a village near to their own, the turret engulfed in flames

"I don't know how to talk to you about this," my husband said to them, his voice deep with sadness. "But I am so sorry for what you're going through." 

They smiled. Those words, for the moment, were enough. Someone saw their pain. Someone recognized their loss. Someone acknowledged that none of this fair.

I'm awed by their courage. To pack up everything into two large suitcases and a couple of backpacks. To leave their family business, their home, their friends, their husband and father and brother. But they've heard the stories of what's happening to those who stay. They know the stories. And so they roll the dice on a family they'd never heard of before, who lives across the world in a country they'd never been to. They took the chance that they would be welcomed. That they would be safe. That what they didn't know in another country was better than what they knew in their own.

Any time our lives are turned upside down thanks to the actions of a madman, we are thrown into a fight for our survival. Infidelity might not be war but it can sure feel like it. Our bodies don't discern between threats, they only know that the bright alarm is flashing red. And so they fight. Or flee. Or freeze.

But though it might not feel like it, we have choices beyond fight, flee, or freeze. And though you might not recognize it as you're living through it, you have a deep well of strength that you're drawing on even as you're curled up weeping on the floor. It's a strength that will serve you. It's the strength that gets you to work more days than not. It's the strength that parents your children, that comforts them. It's greater than your pain. 

Rachel Naomi Remen, the provider of the quote at the top of this post, was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease in her early teens. She spent a decade, she says, "angry". And of course, she was. It wasn't fair that she had a disease that, she was told, would cut her life short, would cause pain and discomfort. It's not fair that Ukrainians are fleeing their homes because of an ego-driven authoritarian. It's not fair that our own lives have been turned upside down because of a partner's betrayal. We can choose anger, which is reasonable. And maybe we have to spend some time there. But we can also recognize that, greater than the pain, is a strength that will help us straighten our spines and walk into a future that might not be the one we'd have designed but that we can make beautiful too. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

When do we *know* our partner's cheating?

In hindsight, I knew my husband was cheating and I knew with whom before he admitted it to me. I knew before I knew. Of course, there was lots I didn't know. The years of sexual acting out with strangers, for instance. But though I didn't know the details, I felt the disconnection. I knew...something.

But because I didn't want to know the truth, I told myself stories to soothe. We were busy with the kids, I told myself. We had growing careers. If he would just deal with his family, things would be better, I told myself (and him). He's a good man, I told myself. He loves me, I told myself. 

We lived like that for a long time. Years. A decade. 

And then...the truth

The truth was that my husband was living a secret life. It took place beyond my view, outside of the lines I drew around our family. It existed with strangers. People whose names and faces I wouldn't know if I bumped into them on the street. 

The truth was a thousand-volt shock to my life. The truth was a million stings to my soul. The truth was a red-hot branding iron to my brain. 

The truth changed everything.

"When one person has said the truth, both people in the relationship are emancipated," poet David Whyte recently said to On Being's Krista Tippet. "Even if you look away, when you look back the truth will still be there. And then you can move into the next stage of your relationship."

Emancipation. It's not the first word that come to mind when we discover a partner's affair, is it? For me, I felt the opposite. Not liberated but imprisoned. Trapped in a marriage, with three young children and a man who felt like a stranger to me. Everywhere I looked, I saw a cage. None of my choices looked like freedom.

And yet.

"When one person has said the truth, both people in the relationship are emancipated," says David Whyte.

It has taken many years for me to see the truth of that. There was freedom in the truth for me. Freedom from the fables I was telling myself. Freedom from the self-blame, the confusion. Freedom to make a choice that was the right one for me, even if the right one was far from perfect. Freedom from perfect.

It took years to recognize that. I wish that wasn't the truth but it is. But with practice, with learning to acknowledge the truth of things – uncomfortable things, things I wish weren't true – the span between knowing and knowing is getting smaller. I'm better at recognizing that what I wish was true doesn't make it true. 

It's hard. And it's sad. But it is, yes, also liberating. Emancipation.

Because only when we see people for who they really are, only when we see our situation for what it really is, can we respond honestly. It is then, once the truth has been spoken that both parties can move onto the next stage of the relationship. That stage might, like my own, mean rebuilding a marriage. For others, it might mean separation. Or divorce. 

And I get it. The truth of your marriage, when it's not what you wanted to hear, stings. It wounds. It brings us to our knees. But once we're standing again, that truth informs what's next. Our next right step is rooted in what we know and know. And from that knowing, we can truly choose what's right for us. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Stuck Between "Now" and "Not Yet"

I had never heard of Jen Hatmaker and remain somewhat mystified how she came to my attention but I think it was around the time her marriage was falling apart. I didn't recognize the name but I recognized the story. A couple everyone seemed to love – a public couple – was announcing divorce, shocking those who knew of them. Hatmaker herself issued a statement along the lines of being blindsided, not wanting this, pleading for privacy, and so on.

Ah, I thought to myself. He cheated. 

And though Hatmaker's language remains somewhat cagey, you, my dear readers, know as well as I do how to read between the lines. He cheated. Of course, he did.

But though I still don't know a lot about Jen Hatmaker and am not part of her cool Christian girl club (no disparagement – just not my scene), I've become quite fond of her as a public figure. For one thing, she's funny. She's honest about who she is. She's eloquent. And recently, she was on Glennon Doyle's We Can Do Hard Things podcast at which point she made reference to that stage – one we're all familiar with – of being caught between "now" and "not yet". 

"Now" is what's happening. It's the gut punch of D-Day. It's the sleeplessness, the churning anxiety of "what if he's still cheating? How will I know?", it's the mask we wear to work. It's the "how long will I feel like this?". 

"Not yet" is that water hole up ahead, the one that promises to quench our thirst, the one that keeps being just a few steps (a thousand steps!) beyond where we are right now. 

You'll reach "not yet", I promise you will. And I know how agonizing it is to feel stuck somewhere in between. Maybe the pain isn't quite so acute. Maybe you've decided to stay and it seems to be working. Maybe you've decided to leave and you're settling into this new reality. Maybe you're still figuring out your next right step. But you don't feel there yet. You don't feel like this is in the rear-view mirror. You haven't made it to "not yet". Not yet, anyway. 

Be patient with yourself. Be patient with your shattered heart. Stop periodically and check in with yourself. Am I where I want to be? Or, if that's impossible, am I where I can find a way to be my best self? Sometimes we can make the choice and sometimes that choice is forced onto us. But we can still honor ourselves. Jen Hatmaker makes that clear too. That we can make healing our focus and that, no matter how much we may have not chosen our new reality, we can center ourselves and keep our hearts soft and find joy in the world

Let those of us further ahead beckon you forward. Let us be the light that helps you see your way through. Though I'm not as active on this site as I was (when we get to "Not yet", infidelity becomes something that happened long ago), I do still read your comments. And I do hope this site remains a safe space for all of you to find community and the reassurance that though you might feel stuck right now, "not yet" is possible, indeed a promise, for all of us.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Just Enough

We've all heard the analogy of the frog and the boiling water, right? How a frog put into a pot of water that's slowly heated until it's boiling won't jump out because he's only barely aware that the water is getting hotter. It's happening so incrementally. Yet, if a frog is dropped into a pot of boiling water, he'll leap out with a "yikes, no way" (assuming frogs can talk). 

How many of our marriages are slowly boiling water? How many of us are oblivious frogs?

How many of us stay because it's Just Enough for us? 

How many of us, when our husbands stop showing up for us, turn to girlfriends, to sisters, to work, to hobbies? Maybe to less healthy relationships, like food, over-exercising, booze or drugs?

Just Enough.

A lot of us are queens of Just Enough. 

Just Enough keeps us confused but stationary.

Just Enough might have us occasionally wondering what's wrong but all too quickly blaming ourselves.

Just Enough is believing him when he says he's working late, that he's stressed, that he doesn't know what we're talking about, that we're just acting jealous, or crazy. 

We hang our entire lives on Just Enough.

What if, instead, we imagine ourselves, a decade ago, being dropped into the water in which we're in right now? Would we stay? Or would we jump the hell out? Would we scream no way!

Would we second-guess ourselves? Or would we know we already know, deep down? Something's wrong. I don't like this. I can't live in this situation. It is harmful to me.

Would we demand the truth, even after he insists he's giving it to us? Would we insist on seeking outside help, even if he says we're being ridiculous? Would we pack our bags because if no matter what he says, this isn't okay for us, this isn't healthy for us? 

What changes when we conclude that Just Enough is a death sentence? Either for us or our marriage?

Just Enough is our warning that we're in dangerous waters. That something has to change in order for us to thrive, to be our best, to parent well, to live well. 

The change can be us, it can be him, it can be our marriage. Ideally, it's all of those things. Because Just Enough is actually Not Enough At All. 


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