Wednesday, April 30, 2014

His Cheating Can't Be Your Trump Card

Marriage is tough.
Even marriages that haven't been marked by infidelity face their share of challenges.
Even those people can be guilty of dredging up past transgressions to shame or guilt or otherwise manipulate their partner into better behaviour.
But for those of us who've survived betrayal, our spouse's cheating can feel like something of a trump card.
No matter what WE might have done – told a friend something about our spouse we shouldn't have, overridden him when he tied to discipline the kids, secretly applied for a credit card that we then racked up to quadruple digits – it's never as bad as what HE did.
In other words, we can sometimes use his massive betrayal to minimize our own.
Which might, in the short term, kinda get us off the hook. But certainly does nothing to help us rebuild a marriage based on honesty and respect and consideration.
Thing is, betrayal does loom large, at least at first. It seeps into every interaction, every altercation, every assumption.
Perhaps you're having a garden variety argument about how maybe, just maybe he could help out a bit more around the house, like do the dishes now and again, or take the kids to swimming lessons for a change, or... And then he says, "I do plenty around here. You just don't see how much I do." To which you reply, "You're damn right you do plenty. And you're damn right I didn't see it." At which point, you either fling a cellphone at him or dissolve into tears or storm out of the room.
Or his lateness becomes a huge issue because "what if... no, he wouldn't....but what if he is?!" So by the time he walks in the door ten minutes late muttering about the "damn train", you've mentally filed divorce papers and are shaking with anger and fear.
Overhearing him tell his mother that he can't visit her this weekend because he's busy when you know he's got nothing planned becomes huge because "he's dishonest about everything. Can the man even say One Single Thing that's not a total lie? What am I even doing with this idiot?"
See what I mean?
There are times when our spouse's cheating should absolutely be on the table for discussion. His lateness might be (probably is!) a huge trigger for you and needs to be addressed. His little white lies might be a pattern of dishonesty that allowed him to deceive with ease. So bring it up. Make it a goal to introduce radical honesty into your lives (which goes for you, too -- no more, "I'm fine" passive-aggressiveness). And division of labor is an issue in every single marriage I know, and the fact that so many of us were up to our eyeballs in diapers and Lego while our husbands were the ones doing the playing just ramps up our anger.
It will take a Herculean effort to bite your tongue when it's so tempting to toss his cheating in his face. And so much in the days following D-Day feels like more effort than you can -- than you should have to! – muster.
But I speak from experience. I played my trump card often. And, frankly, I never felt better. There was a momentary "so there asshole!" feeling of triumph. But it vanished quickly, leaving my husband locked in self-loathing, and no longer able to hear a word I was saying over the sound of  his own internal shaming. And it left me feeling weak and defeated. Lose-lose.
If your goal is to rebuild your marriage, then you need to be able to address issues apart from his infidelity. Using his cheating as your trump card is the marital equivalent to throwing a match on a pile of dried tinder.
It might shut him up or shut him down...but there won't be much left worth saving.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The danger of outsourcing our happiness

One of our BWC members recently wrote that the best her husband could come up with, to her question of "why...", was that, "it felt good."
We'll file that response under "Duh!", right beside any of the zillion tomes currently on bookshelves promising us how to maximize our happiness.
Happiness has become an industry and we're convinced that there's some secret formula that will unlock our own. 
And yet, in this great New York Times piece, author David Brooks notes (and I'm paraphrasing here) that situational happiness doesn't lead necessarily to, well, happiness. And though suffering is in no way to be confused with happiness it often leads to growth. And growth can lead to, you guessed it, happiness.
In other words, that which does not kill us can, with time, make us happy.
It's important, of course, to understand how we define "happy". Happy that comes from the outside – in the form of money, status, material things, sex, even people – will be fleeting. Money comes and goes, status can slip, things lose their lustre and people, even those we love deeply, disappoint us. Happiness built on that is the proverbial house built on sand. If, however, our "happy" is built on a deep sense of who we are, work (whether paid or not) that makes us feel useful and purposeful, a wisdom borne of experience, compassion for ourselves and others, it becomes less a feeling than a way of being. 
The first path is outsourcing our happiness; the second makes it an inside job. 
It flies in the face of everything our culture holds dear, especially around love. "You complete me," Tom Cruise famously said in Jerry Macguire and we all swooned. RenĂ©e Zellweger should have replied with, "only when you can feel complete within yourself can you offer me the type of partnership that will survive all the crap that is no doubt coming our way." 
Similarly, I cringe a bit when I watch the happily-ever-after storylines that books and movies offer our kids (and us adults). Or when I listen to the I'm-nothing-without-you song lyrics that saturate pop music (and I'm not even talking about the "let's get drunk and dance naked on tables" lyrics, though there's that too). My 11-year-old daughter, who resents boys for taking up half the planet, nonetheless thinks Pink's "True Love", in which she sings of a beloved whose neck she'd occasionally like to wring but also notes that "life would suck without you", is nothing like real love. Actually, I tell her, it's pretty bang on. She makes it clear that she prefers her romantic education from Disney Channel. 
I don't want to raise cynics. But I also don't want to raise fools who think that happiness is something we achieve when he thinks we're pretty. Because of course that means it can be taken from us when he thinks our friend is even prettier.
MBS, who frequently shares her insight with others here, had this to say in response to our poster's husband's "it felt good" comment:
Something we all should ask ourselves is whether we expect others to make us happy. I think we are all guilty of that. I think it is a common belief we go into marriage with. I think it is the root of most marital dysfunction. Maybe that is the lesson to be learned from infidelity and we can dismantle the myth of "true love" and "happily ever after."
For marriage to last, it means accepting each other's imperfection and still showing up with love and kindness for your spouse. He couldn't do that so he is the one who failed at being a partner. The next woman he is with will also reveal her flaws and fail to live up to making him happy and he will go looking again. The cheaters who haven't learned their lesson will endlessly repeat this cycle.So rather than dwell on how you could have made him happier, think about how you can be compassionate and kind to yourself. That also will ultimately make you a better partner.

That, my friends, is how to achieve happily ever after.

Friday, April 4, 2014


"Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation."
~Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things and Eat, Pray, Love

We frequently reject what's behind Gilbert's quote above. And many readers did. Here's the response she posted on her Facebook page.

Dear Ones -

OK, so I don't usually quote myself on this page, but a reader asked me today if I would take a moment to further explain this idea that ruin can sometimes be a gift in our lives.

*takes a deep breath*

Let me begin by saying that the ruin I'm talking about here is not something I would encourage anyone to ever deliberately seek. I've seen people who chase darkness and destruction on purpose (sometimes for the glamour of it, sometimes for the romance of it, sometimes for the sheer self-hatred of it) and this is not a path that I am capable of endorsing for anybody.

No, I'm talking about the ruin that happens to you, without you ever seeing it coming. The chaos that sneaks up on you.

Because sometimes the bottom falls out of our lives. People leave us. Precious certainties are yanked away. We lose our health, our money, our gifts, our faith, our familiar surroundings, our trust. All the truths that we thought we could believe in forever suddenly depart us with no warning. The ground that we always knew was solid under our feet turns out to have been nothing but a trap door all along. (And then there's another trap door under that one.) We disappoint ourselves. We are disappointed by others. We get dead lost. We are no longer longer recognizable to ourselves when we look in the mirror. It all falls to ruin.

And that, my friends, is when things start to get really interesting.

This is the chapter of life that Joseph Campbell called "The Dark Night of the Soul" — and it's a necessary step in every hero's journey. It's also the hardest thing in the world. Nobody ever chooses to stand in this place; it just happens to you. And you will often see later that it needed to happen to you, if you were to ever become more than a mere passenger on Earth. Because this dark place is where you must decide whether to die or live. You cannot go back to what you knew, because what you knew is a pile of smoking rubble. You cannot stay where you are, because where you are is a bleak shroud of despair. You can only move forward into the absolute unknown. And the only way to move forward is to change.

Change, to put it simply, is the suck.

Nobody wants to do it — not real change, not soul change, not the painful molecular change required to truly become who you need to be. Nobody ever does real transformation for fun. Nobody ever does it on a dare. You do it only when your back is so far against the wall that you have no choice anymore.

Or, rather, you do have a choice — you can always die. As Sartre said: "Exits are everywhere." But you don't want to die, so you discover that you have no choice except to find a new way to live. Which seems next to impossible, but somehow, if you fight hard enough, isn't. Because you know what else is everywhere? ENTRANCES. The task then becomes to find your entrance — to fight your way through the tunnel, into the dim hope of your own light.

The other day, I asked my dear friend Rayya Elias (who wrote the memoir "Harley Loco" about her years of heroin addiction) if — looking back on the pain and suffering of her life — she could imagine any scenario under which she could have gotten clean and sober earlier. I was imagining that maybe if she'd been sent to the right rehab, or had found a more kindly therapist, or had been told just the right words of encouragement by a wise former junkie, or had been rescued by the right family member...maybe she could have spared herself years of addiction and pain. Rayya's answer initially shocked me, and then made perfect sense. She said: "The only way I could've quit drugs sooner would have been if everyone had abandoned me sooner."

She explained that, as long as she was protected from total ruin by everyone's love and care and support and enabling, she never had to completely face her own darkest place. So she lingered in the murk, hovering just above rock bottom ruin for years, barely getting by on scraps and crumbs. It was only when she had destroyed every relationship, only when everyone had left, only when she had been banished from everyone's homes and lives, only when there was nobody left who would pick up the phone anymore when she called, only when she was dead alone with no money and no good will and no second chances left…it was only then, at the loneliest bottom of her existence, that she could finally hear the question that echoes at us constantly through the universe: "Is this really how you want to live?"

Her answer, to her own surprise, was "No." And when that answer, loud and clear, becomes NO…that's where our transformation always begins.

The changes in your life from that point forward will not be immediate and crisp. They never will be. Transformation isn't easy. It isn't pretty. (Ever watch a bird hatch? It's fucking exhausting.) You don't ascend from that lowest place of your life in a tidy straight line, moving a few inches upward every day. No, it's a messy and jerky and unpredictable trajectory. But it is a trajectory. And the general direction — from the moment of your decision forward — is always going to be UP. Up and out. You will shed whatever (and whomever) you need to shed. You will find whatever (and whomever) you need to find. You will crawl and bawl. Until eventually you are standing, finally, on your own two feet in your own shower of light. Until you are the person you never would have been, had you never met your own worst darkness face-to-face.

And that is the gift that ruin offers us.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

My Letter to Husbands: Just Talk About It, For F&%#$ Sake

I get letter upon letter from women who are desperate to be heard in the wake of your betrayal. And over and over again they tell me that you won't talk to them about, won't go to therapy with them, don't understand why they're not "over it."
You want to know why we want – why we need – to talk about it? Because you shattered our faith in you as a decent honest man, and the only way we can reconcile our desire to stay with you with our knowledge that you lied and cheated and violated your vows is to try, as best we can, to understand just how you could do that and still be someone worthy of our love. We're begging you to help us love you again. And the best most of you can do is ask, aloud, why we aren't "over it."
There isn't a woman on this site who doesn't desperately wish she could be "over it". We're not a bunch of masochists, revelling in our pain, compulsively picking away at the wound. We are women who are experiencing more pain than we ever imagined.
A lot of us had, perhaps, wondered abstractedly what we might do if our husbands cheated. I always thought I'd just be pissed off. I figured I'd get angry, show him the door and that would be the end of it.
I never ever imagined how emotionally crippled I would be by the realization that my husband had cheated on me. I just never imagined it. Anger? Hell yeah. But a pain so deep I could hardly breathe? Wasn't expecting that.
Psychologists and marriage therapists aren't surprised. They've seen how damaging what they term "trust violations" are. They've seen what a deep primal wound it causes. It's no coincidence that children who experience trust violations, if they aren't given help to heal, go on to experience the world as a terrifying place. In fact, many therapists insist that often what they see in partners who've been betrayed are symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Free-floating anxiety. Fear of what could happen. A lack of trust in our ability to handle things. A feeling of numbness. Sudden rage or terror. Sounds an awful lot like your wife after learning of your affair, doesn't it? And though many of us get better at managing those emotions, the best way to eliminate them is to process them.
And we do that by telling our story. Sometimes over and over again. And we need you to listen. To answer our questions, even if you've already told us (it's amazing how foggy our brains are post-betrayal).
I know it's hard. I know it requires you owning up to, over and over, just how shitty you feel. We know you feel shitty. But that doesn't change how we feel. It just makes this about you and your feelings instead of about us and our feelings. It requires a really brave man who can admit his shortcomings.  Who can face that he made a choice that devastated the one person he promised never to devastate. In means doing the hard work of figuring out just what story you were telling yourself that made cheating okay. And figuring just what part of that story still needs addressing. You don't feel heard in your marriage? That's legitimate. Talk to her about it. You feel like little more than an ATM? Not uncommon. Talk to your wife about it. But talk about it after you've dressed her wound, so to speak. She can't hear you and your pain when she's metaphorically bleeding all over your floor.
Tell her that nothing she did made what you did okay. That you hate that you were that guy. That you are doing everything you can to never be that guy again. That you know how hard it is for her to give you a second chance but that you are going to spend every day of your life deserving it.
Hold her, if that's what she needs. Listen to her, if that's what she needs. Pour her a bath, if that's what she needs.
And know that you may need to do that again tomorrow night. And the night after that.
But please also know that, the more you do this now, the stronger she'll become. It's like depositing into a bank account now and letting the interest accrue so you can simply enjoy it later.
Now will be hell. I get that. Just when you want to forget about this, she wants to go over it. Again.
She's not doing it to punish you. She's not doing it to hurt you. She's doing it because her brain is trying to process something confusing and excruciating. She's doing it to figure out what little clue she missed so that she can be sure she never misses it again. Sometimes she's doing it because she saw something that day that triggered her pain in that deep, deep place. And she felt vulnerable and scared.
She's doing it to heal.
So please, don't dismiss her pain. Don't insist that she should be "over this by now."
The good news? It seems counter-intuitive but the more you talk about it and validate her pain, the more quickly she'll move through it. She'll be better able to replace those fears with the assurance that you're there for her. Maybe not then...but now. Now you are.
Betrayal changes everything. And while you can't undo what you did, you can take steps to show that you've learned from it. That you're a better man than that. That she's worth going through hell for. And that so are you.


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