Monday, May 28, 2012

Who's to Blame for an Affair?

My friend Jamie has been re-reading her old journals. They document her days as she dealt with her husband's affair with his assistant (Lord, these men are predictable!). And as she goes through the pages, she's struck by how desperately she wanted to understand her role in his affair. What had she done? What should she have done differently? What hadn't she done that she should have? And so on.
It's a stage many of us go through. We seem to think that if we created the problem, we can create the solution and – voila – all will be as it was.
And yet there was nothing Jamie could have done. Sure the marriage had its issues – primarily, Jamie realizes now, that she allowed her husband to behave like a child and then, when she had babies, wanted him to behave like a grown-up. But, honestly, is that an excuse for a man to have an affair?
Even as she exited the marriage and began a relationship with the man who is now her husband she was dodging thinly veiled accusations from others along the lines of "what did YOU do to contribute to the breakdown of the marriage." For a while, Jamie honestly tried to answer that question. What HAD she done to drive her husband into the arms of another woman. At a certain point, though, when her self-esteem was back on solid ground, she thought, "Forget that! I did everything I could to be a good wife and mother in the face of a husband who was barely around." In other words, she admits that their marriage was under stress but that HE was the one primarily creating it. It's impossible to have a marriage in which one of the partners is rewriting reality to suit a storyline that makes cheating seem like a viable response. It's common enough to become cliché: "My wife doesn't understand me." "My wife doesn't have the same sex drive as I. " "My wife nags me." It's, of course, one side of a story that always has at least one other side.
It's a fine balance between acknowledging responsibility for the role we play in a struggling marriage...and accepting responsibility for our spouse's choice to have an affair. The former is important simply for our emotional growth and understanding of ourselves. The latter inhibits our spouse's growth by letting them off the hook for their own aberrant behavior.
These days, as Jamie reads her journal, she's reminded of how much pain she was in and how badly she wanted to understand her husband's choice. But she can also see so much more clearly that it was exactly that – his choice.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Five Steps to Healing a Marriage After An Affair

It seems presumptuous as well as pompous to suggest that I possess any great wisdom about healing a marriage after an affair. Yes, my husband had affairs. And yes, I'm still married. And yes, I would even consider myself and our marriage somewhat "healed" (if by "healed", one means that I no longer cry in grocery stores or fantasize about smothering my husband in his sleep). But wisdom? Not so much wisdom as life experience...which I suppose amounts to the same thing.
And I certainly know that, back when I was struggling to get through each hour of the day and wondering if I/my marriage was going to survive, I desperately wanted to know how others got through.
So, herewith, my thoughts. (And they are MY thoughts.  Take what you need, leave what doesn't work.) And remember too, this advice is for those who want to save their marriage...or at least preserve it long enough to determine if you want to save it.
Step #1: You have to both commit to putting the relationship first. Before your needs, before his serve the needs of the relationship, almost as if it's a child you're both nurturing. Once that is in place, you're far more free to hash stuff out without fear that one of you has one foot out the door.
This step is impossible with someone who's still deep in the fog of an affair. It takes two to save a marriage. You can try valiantly...but as long as he's refusing to take responsibility for the damage he's done, forget it. It doesn't mean it's over...but it does mean it's time for some tough love.
Step #2: You need to focus on healing yourself... Your main job in the early days following D-Day is to focus on taking care of yourself (and kids, if you have them). That means sleep, eating properly, avoiding excessive (or any!) alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling. It means surrounding yourself with supportive people. Avoiding toxic people. Steering clear of drama. And staying away from the OW. It's time to wrap yourself in a cocoon and nurture yourself back to a sense of safety.
Step #3: ...and don't manage his healing. As much as it will kill you to acknowledge, he's hurting too. Yes, he detonated the bomb that caused the damage...but likely you both built the bomb together through years of slights, lack of appreciation, misunderstandings. And as much as it will also kill you (and you don't need to be privy to much), he's possibly missing the OW and very likely missing the sense of excitement that the affair provided. You don't need to (and should NOT) have to listen to his tales of woe and self-pity. He brought it on himself. But you would do yourself and him some good to allow him to heal on his own. You don't get to dictate his feelings. You DO get to dictate the terms of what you need to give him another chance but (and here's the catch), they must be terms that are focussed on your marriage healing, NOT on punishing him. (Sometimes it may seem to be both...but always check your motives.) For example, you get to insist that he cut off contact with the other woman as a condition of you staying. You do NOT get to insist that he doesn't miss her. Get it? Stay focussed on YOU, what you need and what you can reasonably control.
Step #4: Don't take his affair personally. I know it sounds wacky. In the days and weeks following discovery of my husband's affair, I went crazy trying to figure out what she had that I didn't. And for a perfectionist like me, it was excruciating! I was fit...she wasn't. I was smart...she wasn't. I was an overachiever...she wasn't. I raised money for orphans...she didn't. You get the idea. My husband kept telling me it had nothing to do with me and I would scream at him "How could this NOT have something to do with me. You chose to spend time with HER not ME? How is this not personal?" He had no idea...he only knew that it wasn't.
Finally, one day the light went on. I wish I could tell you what made me realize but I guess months of analysis along with my husband's reassurance finally clicked and I realized that it truly, honestly had nothing to do with me. It wasn't that there was something wrong with me, it was that there was something wrong with HIM. And he took that brokenness to someone else because it felt safer. Because if she rejected him, it wouldn't hurt the way it would with me. Counter-intuitive, yes. The thought process of a fairly screwed up psyche, yes. But also a thought process that so many of us have and simply don't realize. We seek outside ourselves what is missing inside.
So...I'll say it again. Don't take his affairs personally. They're about his broken-ness, not yours.
Step #5: Don't use his affair as an excuse for your own bad behaviour. His cheating does not give you an excuse to cheat, lie, steal or be physically or emotionally abusive. I said some horrible things in the wake of finding out. I said he was a lying scumbag (which, at that point, was factually validated by his behaviour). I said I hated him. I said he had "killed me inside". I smashed a watch of his, broke a television. I was pretty wacked out. Discovering a spouse's affair can make you crazy. Just keep crazy to a minimum as best you can. It doesn't help you, definitely hurts your kids...and can hurt your marriage to unleash crazy. If necessary, schedule your breakdowns -- rage and kick and scream in your bedroom when the kids are at school. Pound on your pillow, imaging it's his face. But keep yourself inside the law...and the boundaries of decency. Which also means NO revenge affairs. That's simply inviting another person into an already nutty situation. It's tempting, I know, to seek solace in the arms of someone who reassures you that you're still sexy and appealing. But you are. You never stopped being so (unless, of course, you which case, get thee to a gym. Physical health can go a long way toward emotional health and to self-confidence.)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Is it "just as hard" to be the Other Woman?

I recently came across a comment to my Letter to a Cheating Husband in which the writer – who's been propositioned (or more, the note isn't too clear) by a married man – notes that "it's just as hard to be the other woman".
And I had to stop for a second. Really? Harder? It's a blessing and a curse that I'm able to put myself in another's place. And for a split second, I agreed. Because I would HATE to be the Other Woman. I would loathe myself and that would be the worst feeling of all.
But then, I thought...wait a minute. Harder? No way. Not by a long shot.
Thing is, most of grow up thinking that we won't put up with cheating. We can even imagine the moment we find out and, in that particular fantasy, we toss our cheating ass of a husband out the door, dust off our hands, look around the home that now belongs to us alone...and make ourselves a lovely dinner, with perhaps even a glass of wine to toast our strength and conviction.
The reality, as we all know, is nothing like that. We turn to stone. Or we collapse to the floor. We weep. We scream. We beg. We threaten. We become strangers to ourselves, capable of things we never dreamed. We become crazy with grief and fear.
And my guess is this Other Woman can't even imagine that. I couldn't have imagined it...until it happened to me. I was sure I'd be the calm, cool, collected fantasy "betrayed wife". The one who washed her hair of the bastard and strolled into an idyllic future.
The thing with being the Other Woman is that she's got more information than the wife. It might be inaccurate information (ie. "my wife doesn't understand me", "she's not interested in sex", "she's let herself go"), it might be outright lies ("we have an open marriage", "she's got cancer and I can't leave her right now"), but the OW knows we exist. We can't say the same about her.
And it's that level of deception, that bold lie that completely unhinges us. It rocks our very world. It threatens our sense of safety, our trust in ourselves (which is an even more damaging consequence than losing our trust in another), and our conviction that we are safe in this world. We lose our sense that what we see is, in fact, real. The OW is the grown-up version of the boogyman – and this boogyman really has been hiding under the bed. Or in it.
So while I'll acknowledge that being the OW comes with its own pain (or, perhaps more accurately, shame), it's nothing like the pain of being a betrayed wife.
Harder? Not a chance. And I hope you never have to find out just how much harder this is.


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