Tuesday, March 26, 2013

What Porn Really Offers: Rejection-free Sex

I've been reading BrenĂ© Brown's Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and  Lead. There's lots of insight into why we act the way we do...but I hadn't anticipated stumbling upon her thoughts on porn addiction. Although, given that the book is largely about shame, I shouldn't have been surprised.
While interviewing a male therapist about men's shame around sexual rejection, a point she considered when a male in a research group pointedly brought up how vulnerable men feel in the sexual arena, Dr. Brown sought the therapist's thoughts around addiction and pornography. His response? "For five bucks and five minutes, you think you're getting what you need, and you don't have to risk rejection."
She calls the comment "revelatory" for her because, like so many women, she'd always assumed that porn was about men seeking novelty, sexual expertise, spectacular bodies. Of course porn provides that. But in this therapist's point of view, the appeal of porn is rejection-free sex. "I guess the secret is that sex is terrifying for most men," he says, noting that porn offers "power and control". (Hardly makes porn harmless, there's still evidence that viewing it alters neural pathways in the brain.)
My husband has been telling me this for years. I didn't really believe him. Or rather, I listened. And then dismissed what he'd told me in favor of self-bashing. My body isn't firm enough. My breasts aren't big enough. My sexual gymnastics aren't exciting enough. Despite my husband's repeated insistence that porn never ultimately provided what he now understands he craved – intimacy – I too often assumed he'd simply had his fun and was okay with it being over.
I've said before, however, and it seems I've forgotten my own words: sex addiction and porn addiction are hardly "fun". The rest of us assume, because sex is generally "fun", that, as addictions go, one that allows you to indulge in sex anywhere with anyone has to be a laugh-riot.
It's not. It's steeped in shame and fear, no matter what mask it's wearing.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Help: Your First Prayer

There’s freedom in hitting bottom, in seeing that you won’t be able to save or rescue your daughter, her spouse, his parents, or your career, relief in admitting you’ve reached the place of great unknowing. This is where restoration can begin, because when you’re still in the state of trying to fix the unfixable, everything bad is engaged: the chatter of your mind, the tension of your physiology, all the trunks and wheel-ons you carry from the past. It’s exhausting, crazy-making.
Help. Help us walk through this. Help us come through.
It is the first great prayer.
~Anne Lamott, from Help, Thanks, Wow

Easy for her to say. Easy for any of us to say, perhaps, from the far shore of healing. Easy to see that the freedom was there, after hitting bottom. The freedom to wave the white flag. To take to bed. To pull the covers over our head and wait until the world made sense again.
But when it's happening to us, when we're in that moment of falling-but-not-quite-yet-hitting-bottom, it's not freedom we're feeling but sheer terror.
We're terrified that there is no bottom. We're terrified that what we think is bottom can still get worse. We're terrified that we're trapped. That we just won't be able to find our way out of the darkness of betrayal. That if we were wrong about this, about him, what could we possibly be right about?
But Lamott, who knows a thing or two about hitting bottom having done it plenty in her life, is right. There is freedom in abdicating responsibility for anyone but ourself. What's more, once we recognize that freedom, which means free from saving or rescuing anyone else, we realize that we're not trapped at all. We have choices. They might not all sound like a picnic in a park, but that's okay. Life isn't always about picnics. Sometimes it's about pain. And sometimes it's about using that pain as a compass pointing us in the direction away from it. Pain can be acute, as in discovering a spouse's affair. And it can be a dull ache, something we've grown accustomed to and hardly notice anymore. When we ignore that dull pain, the one that stops us just shy of truly feeling fulfilled, life sometimes delivers a blow we can't ignore. Like a spouse's affair. That one will knock us to the ground and leave us gasping.
Life's got our attention now.
Which is where the freedom comes in.
It was never our job to save or rescue anyone. To tell them, cajole them, beg them, plead with them, manipulate them, charm them or otherwise spend our precious time on how they should be spending theirs.
Lamott calls it "the place of great unknowing". And for so many of us, we can't imagine anything more terrifying. Not knowing means that anything – ANYTHING – could happen. Except, for you reading this, it likely already has happened. He had the affair. Or affairs. Or is still having it. And you're realizing just how much more painful it is than anyone of us thought it would ever be.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that, as Lamott reminds us, the place of great unknowing is where restoration is free to begin. While we're still holding on with white knuckles, our minds and hearts racing, we're not open to restoration. We're focused on survival. And survival, for me at least, meant controlling everyone and everything around me. Out of control was out of the question.
So finding myself out of control was at first terrifying. Then (after a long time while I refused to recognize that I was truly out of control – I'm a slow learner) it became liberating. I didn't need to have all the answers. I didn't have to be ultra-capable. I could let go and fall. I could hit bottom and I could whisper at first then shout, "Help".
And it arrived. First in the form of my mother. Then in the form of a wonderful friend. A compassionate therapist. A great Web site. Help was there, offering me signposts toward restoration.
But first, I hit bottom hard. And it wasn't the end. It was the beginning of a journey I continue still. Toward choice. And self-respect. Toward freedom.
Try it. Ask for help. Recognize that you've hit bottom, the place of "great unknowing" and that you're ready for restoration. You can't "fix the unfixable" by which I mean you can't fix anyone but yourself. Start there. Restore your own soul. Respect your heart. Slow your mind until your choices become clearer.

Monday, March 4, 2013

There is Only One Right Path to Healing: Yours

There's been a bit of...debate...raging on another Web site dedicated to helping women deal with infidelity. It began with a post about infidelity being abuse. Similar to a guest post on this site, that blog post was adamant that infidelity is abuse.
I commented that while I think it can be abuse, it isn't always abuse.
I won't revisit the issue. If you're interested (trigger alert: please don't read it if you're feeling fragile!!), you can check the site.
But I want to examine what happened in the wake of my comment and subsequent address by the woman who runs the site. My argument was deconstructed. Commenters offered up pity to me. They offered plenty of well MY ex was a rat-bastard and though I hope I'm wrong I pretty much think yours is too and you're abused but simply can't see reality.
Of course, the site's motto is "leave a cheater, gain a life" so it's not surprising that my plea for open-mindedness around reconciliation wasn't embraced. Most commenters admitted that reconciliation hadn't exactly worked out for them. Fair enough.
Nonetheless, the response took me back to post D-Day when I was so damn confused and afraid. When I wondered what the hell had happened to my life and what I could possibly do to get it back.
And it took me back to how few people in my life were able to be with me in my uncertainty.
Humans hate uncertainty. Humans "have a desire to impose certainty on something that it inherently uncertain," says Malcolm Gladwell. Like our future, for example. 
Even watching another grapple with uncertainty makes us acutely uncomfortable. But what are you going to do? we ask those at crossroads. And when they don't really know, we tell them what we think they should do.
What's more, if we've gone through it ourselves, we have a hard time entertaining alternatives, as if someone else making a different choice somehow threatens our certainty that we made the right choice.
But, when it comes to infidelity, there is no right choice. There is only the choice that's right for us.
But getting clear on that can be a challenge.
For one thing, our cultural conversation around infidelity lacks nuance. Those who kick the cheating bastard to the curb? Well, after we've silently judged the woman for being cheated on (she let herself go, she's a shrew, blah blah blah), we applaud her chutzpah. Those who stay? Kinda...pathetic. After all, who puts up with that? Unless they're codependent. A doormat. Abused. 
But as Cheryl Strayed reminds us in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar,  "Most people don't cheat because they're cheaters. They cheat because they are people.... Which is a complicated way of saying, it's a long damn life..."
BWC member Laura S. puts it this way: "We cannot judge another woman's choices, and unless we have walked in her shoes we cannot know what her world is like."
All this is not to say that the answer to whether you should stay and rebuild your marriage or toss it on life's garbage heap and move on is an easy – or clear – one. 
It is to say that nobody knows what's right for you, except you. Even if you don't think you know, you do know somewhere, perhaps deep down in a place you've forgotten about. A place that bends towards healing like a flower bends toward the sun. 
It's also to say there are no guarantees. You might choose to stay and discover that your husband never stopped his affair. Or has another one. Or the marriage might fail for other reasons entirely.
You might choose to leave, thinking the whole problem is the cheater...only to discover he was a symptom of your unhappiness not the cause.
Certainty is a construct. 
So ignore the people in your life who think there is just their answer. A friend of mine, who'd left her husband after his affair, dismissed my confusion with "well, I could never stay." Which might have been true. But was hardly helpful. 
Equally unhelpful were the pleas to "think of my kids." I was thinking about my kids. I did little more than think about my kids. But did that mean I should stay and show my kids that sometimes we give those we love second chances? Or did that mean I should show them that when someone betrays our trust, we don't give them the chance to do it again? 
I've chosen to stay and rebuild. My husband, thus far, has worked harder than I ever imagined he could to exorcise his demons and become someone who deserves redemption. And I've become someone who's lost a lot of her moral certainty and made room for nuance. For possibilities I'd never thought I could consider. 
I'm happier than I thought I could ever be again. I'm able to witness others' pain without thinking I know what they should do to stop it. I see beauty in imperfection and strength in struggle where before I saw failure and disappointment.
I don't wish this pain on anyone. And I still refuse to say it was "good" for me. But I've followed my path toward healing. And it's been just right for me. Right now.


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