Thursday, September 27, 2012

When a Cheater is Just a Cheater: How to Know When It's Time to Bail

I'm reading Cheryl Strayed's wonderful new book Tiny, Beautiful Things – which is a collection of columns she wrote as Dear Sugar on The Rumpus. Strayed is pure magic. She offers advice with compassion and insight that I've never read in any other advice forum. Her book is a treat.
But a big part, beyond the overwhelming compassion she offers to people many of us think are undeserving of it, is her ability to draw sharp lines around a problem, thereby making it impossible to not see it clearly. Unless we're blind.
And blind is what so many of us are when it comes to the men in our lives. We want to believe they're better than they are and so we see them as better. We want to believe they're worthy of us and our loyalty and so we see them as worthy. And sometimes we're right. Sometimes they really are men who simply lost their way for a while and are desperate to become better and worthy again, despite having done something so egregious that our hearts lay shattered in a zillion pieces on the floor. Sometimes they really deserve that second chance.
And sometimes they don't.
How to tell the difference?
Stop lying to yourself.
It seems simple enough. But when many of us have spent a lifetime lying to ourselves, the truth and lies become so mixed up together it's hard to figure out where one ends and the other begins.
And so we end up with men who also mix lies and truth and it sounds so familiar to us that we settle in for the long haul.
Sometimes good men do bad things. Sometimes they don't even understand themselves why they do it. They've got their own history around sex and intimacy. Just like the rest of us, they're susceptible to our culture's marketing of love and sex as always exciting, always hot. And if it's not...well the problem can't possibly be them, it must be their partner. And so, when suddenly it seems exciting and hot with another person (or seems like it would be exciting and hot if we gave it a chance), they convince themselves that this other person must be "the one". And because they can't stand to think they're liars and cheaters, they tell themselves that they're "in love", they "couldn't help it", that they're "soulmates". And sometimes that's even true. But mostly it's not.  Mostly it's total bullshit and if they had an iota of self-awareness, they'd see that trading door #1 for door #2 just means they'll end up with a different colored door.
Some of these guys, at some point, recognize this. They realize what they were about to give up...for a fantasy. For the reflection of themselves (sexy! interesting! powerful!) in another person's eyes. A reflection that may have been missing in their partner's eyes, as time and inevitable disappointments pile up.
And maybe, with a lot of remorse, attempt at understanding themselves and a sincere desire to want to be a better person, these guys deserve a second chance. Which also means giving ourselves a second chance to make our marriage better. To ensure that it's equitable. That we're truly in a respectful relationship. That our own issues haven't also gotten in the way of a loving marriage. Because, rarely, do these things happen in a perfectly healthy relationship. Then again, perfectly healthy relationships are rare.
But this is the chance to try again to create one. To make sure that we're building a marriage on truth, not on lies we've told ourselves about our partners or ourselves.
But to figure that out, it's crucial to take a look at our partner through the lens of our entire relationship with them.
Sometimes a cheater is just a cheater.
Sometimes, when we look back, we see that they lie about lots of things. They might keep extra change that someone mistakenly gives them at a store. They might not return items loaned to them by friends. They might lie to insurance companies. To the government.
You might notice, with the eye of a forensic wife, that they lie when they don't want to get in trouble. That, for them, it's easier than telling the truth. That they hate when others are angry with them. That they can't stomach another's disappointment in them.
And so they lie. They cheat. They steal. And they refuse to acknowledge that anything – ANYTHING – is ever their fault.
Those guys? Throw 'em back.
But the others? The ones who hate who they've become and what they've done. Who shrink with shame at the pain they've cause. I'm firmly on the side of giving them another chance.
Cause sometimes a cheater isn't just a cheater. Sometimes he's good man...who did a bad thing.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"Healed" is Not a Place...But a Process

No-one can say I'm not an optimist. When I first began seeing a therapist, in my mid-20s, I was in a lousy relationship with a guy I was nuts about and just beginning to acknowledge that maybe my parents' alcoholism and volatile marriage wasn't exactly the best blueprint for an adult relationship. I figured I'd be in counselling for a month, maybe two. Then I'd be "healed" of my crappy childhood and could move forward into a perfect life.
You can imagine how that turned out.
Over the next two decades, each life stage seemed to call forth unhealthy responses in me based on unhealed injuries from my past.
And then, of course, came the whopper on December 11, 2006, when I discovered that my husband was cheating on me.
My childhood issues – fear of abandonment, insecurity, a desperate need to be perfect, an inability to "give up" – came back with a vengeance. Suddenly it was as if all those hard years of therapy, where I really thought I was getting somewhere – were for naught. I was, I believed, right back where I started, wondering where the hell I'd gone so wrong.
I wasn't, of course. I may not have reached the magical land of "healed" but I certainly wasn't back at the starting line either.

I'm often asked on this site about healing and being "healed". So many of us think of "healed" as this magical place where our husband's transgressions will dissolve into the ether and we'll face our future, confident and happy, having vanquished the past.
It's a wonderful fantasy.  But bears virtually no resemblance to the truth.

My mother was a dedicated alcoholic. She wasn't someone about whom people might wonder if she had a "drinking problem". She embraced booze with the same enthusiasm and commitment she had previously brought to the PTA and local politics. She drank vodka in her morning coffee, fell down the stairs at 3 a.m. on her way to her secret stash for "one more drink" to help her sleep. In fact, drunk became her normal. Ultimately she threw herself into her sobriety with the same ferver to which she'd dedicated herself to booze. She attended 12-step meetings two or three times daily. She read her Big Book. She talked for hours with her sponsor.
Years later, after she'd been sober close to two decades and had long since replaced her time spent becoming sober with book clubs, friendships and grandmothering her beloved grandkids, I asked her why she didn't occasionally join the rest of us in a glass of wine. I was sure, I said, that she'd never go back to drinking like she had.
My mother looked at me and she said, "The thing with an alcoholic – no matter how long sober – is that you never know. One drink just might lead to another. Then another." For her, it simply wasn't worth the risk.

That, my friends, is "healed". She no longer thought about drinking. She didn't miss drinking. She'd long since woven that part of her personality into the quilt of her life. But...she also knew it was never really in the past. That it was by sheer force of will that she was refusing to allow it into her present. She loved her life too much to even take the chance.

We, too, can reach that place where we don't think much about our husband's betrayal. We can relegate it to our past. But it will always be crouching in the shadows with the possibility of intruding upon our present. Our future will hold occasional triggers that remind us of our pain...and what we've overcome. They'll become fewer and further between. But thinking that "healed" is anything more than a process forever evolving is fooling ourselves. And most of us, I think, have vowed never to be fooled again.


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