Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Infidelity as Retrauma: Why some of us take longer to heal

Over the five years I've had this blog and the hundreds (thousands?) of letters I've received, I've noticed that though many of us experience the same emotions post-betrayal, we don't all heal equally. Put another way, some of us are harder hit by infidelity than others.
That's not to say any of us get off easy. Infidelity is excruciating. It is to say, however, that some of us are devastated. And others of us are absolutely crippled by it.
My own working theory is that, for those of us who brought certain wounds into our marriage, infidelity re-opens those wounds. And we all know that re-opened wounds take longer to heal.
In my case, having grown up with alcoholic parents in an emotionally unsafe home, marriage (specifically my husband) became my safe place. I believed that I'd created a safe zone in a highly unsafe world. I let my guard down. Whew.
And then...
I wasn't safe at all, I found out. The guy I thought had my back was cheating behind my back. And all those feelings I thought had been exorcised – my anxiety, my shame, my fear of abandonment, my deep deep hurt from all those broken promises – came back with a vengeance. I couldn't trust anyone, I deduced. But underneath it all was that childhood conviction that I wasn't worth loving. I wasn't enough.
Turns out my working theory is supported by some pretty smart people. Shirley Glass, who can be credited with writing the definitive guide to affairs, Not Just Friends, has this to say about it:
Individuals who did not develop basic trust during childhood are especially vulnerable to deception by a loved one. Infidelity brings back all of those childhood wounds for a person who was lied to or whose parents made promises they didn't keep. Those who were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused in previous relationships may be retraumatized when someone they have counted on betrays their trust and dependency. Judith Herman writes, "Trauma forces the survivor to relive all her earlier struggles.... Traumatic life events, like other misfortunes, are especially merciless to those who are already troubled."
Wow. And yeah.
We might have thought those wounds were healed but if we're so destroyed by infidelity that we immediately go the "we're not worthy" mindset, then we had just done a really good job of dressing those wounds up as healed.
Thanks to infidelity, they're once again exposed to us. And though they might have been healing, we might have been on our way to that magical place called "healed", infidelity rips them wide open and we're left, again, with evidence of our injury.
I had been in therapy. I thought I'd slain those particular dragons. Turns out, I'd kept the dragons at bay but there were very much alive. And at the first sign of a crack in my own armor, they were back, with their dragon eyes of judgement, and their dragon fire of shame and disgust.
The dragons, of course, are my own worst critics. The dragons, of course, are me.
My conversations with myself were more like indictments about everything I was doing wrong, from the careless remark I made at a cocktail party to the dust behind my refrigerator.
But I didn't recognize my own pain. I thought I'd healed.
I thought healed looked like a perfect marriage and well-behaved children and lots of friends and a busy social life. Add in a successful writing career to show the world how accomplished I was. Turns out "healed" looked an awful lot like perfection. And perfection, I've come to learn, looks an awful lot like a pretty band-aid over a festering wound of shame.
Perfection covered a need to prove to the world that "see, I am worthy! I am smart. I am pretty. I am successful." Thing is, if I'd actually believed those things, I wouldn't have needed to prove it to anyone.
There are gifts in betrayal, if we're willing to look for them. For me, the retrauma of infidelity revealed just how shaky my sense of worth was – a worth based on achievement. Consequently, learning how to be kind to myself, which was nothing I'd ever allowed myself before, has transformed me.
I now know that healed is compassion and kindness and lack of judgement. Healed is about giving myself permission to be who I am, flaws and all. More than that, it's about giving everyone else permission too. It's knowing that I'll never be fully healed and that's okay because none of us are.
It's about forgiveness. Of those who've hurt me. But mostly, it's about forgiveness of myself.
Which is pretty much the same thing.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Letter to a Betrayed (and Abandoned) Wife

A BWC member recently posted on one of the Share Your Story pages. She's experiencing what so many of us experience, and she asked a question that so many of us ask: When does the crazy end?
Here's a part of her letter...

I've read so many blogs and boards about giving things time. I know time is the only thing that will work but I feel like I may never heal. I am afraid I am always going to be this new version of myself, the bitter, angry, b**** who is depressed one minute and mad the next. I want my WH to feel the pain I feel, to understand the devastation and loss I feel. He doesn't and I am afraid he never will. I'm afraid there will be no consequences for him- he gets to be happy and move on. Everyone keeps telling me that his day will come, he will regret this, he will someday realize what he is throwing away. But, I don't believe it. I don't think it will ever happen and that makes me mad too. Wouldn't it be nice if all adulterers got what they 'deserve?' If they had to feel the crap we feel?? I like to think it would help me feel a bit better if he had consequences too. I have to deal with the consequences of HIS actions, HIS choices; it would be nice if he had to deal with them too.
I keep praying for strength. I keep praying that God will hear me and see my suffering and bring me out of this darkness. Thanks to everyone else who have shared their stories- it brings me comfort knowing I am not the only one dealing with this and helps me feel a bit 'normal' and not so much like a crazy person. When does the "crazy" end??

...and my response:
Dear "Crazy",
Let me start by telling you how sorry I am for what you're going through. Here you are with two young children and a husband who's suddenly AWOL. Your poor heart has been through the wringer.
You're right that you're having to deal with the fallout from HIS choices. This absolutely isn't fair. And that notion of "fair" was what tripped me up so often in the early days. "But this isn't FAIR," I would scream, night and day. Nothing about betrayal is "fair" so the sooner you can stop obsessing about what you can't control, the sooner you can move on to what you can control, which is yourself.
Yes, you need to give yourself time. This has been a huge shock to your head, your heart...and the practical part of your life (bills, mortgage, how you spend your time...). You need to grieve the loss of the life you thought you had. Anger is a pretty standard emotion for what's happened. But I want you to think about what's behind that anger. Anger, as my therapist often reminded me, is a secondary emotion. It generally masks hurt and fear, and I would guess you're feeling both in spades. The thing is, hurt and fear make us feel vulnerable. Anger makes us feel powerful. It's an illusion though. Anger isn't power. And usually the only person we hurt with anger is ourselves. So exorcise it. Get it out. Punch a pillow, take kickboxing, go for a run, park your car somewhere in the country and scream until you're hoarse. Write a horrible scathing letter to your jerk husband and his icky girlfriend (don't send it).
And then...let it go. Do this as often as you need to. The anger won't disappear. But it will slowly dissipate. It will slowly give way to what's beneath it -- the deep hurt you feel from what you perceive as his rejection of you, and the fear of what's ahead. Both are legitimate emotions that all of us feel post-betrayal. But, I want you to know, you can get through this. We want to help you get through it without turning into a bitter shell of yourself.
Your prayers for strength are working, though you may not be able to see that yet. You are strong. You are upright. You are taking care of your children. That in itself shows Herculean strength. Getting out of bed takes strength. Acknowledge yourself for the strength you're showing. Be kind to yourself. None of this is easy. Acknowledge that right now, just getting by is enough.
Focus on you and take the focus on him and his "new" life. Nothing is as good as it appears on the surface. No matter how it looks on the outside, he has left his wife and his babies. That can't possibly feel good. He has chosen escape rather than facing his issues. Lots of people do, through affairs, addiction, distraction. It seems easier in the short term but will undoubtedly bite him in the ass as time moves on. No matter, that's his problem, not yours.
Figure out what you want going forward. You're going to lose parts of your life that you enjoyed, but you can gain things you never thought of. Make a list of all the things he did that drove you completely crazy...and take a moment of gratitude for no longer having to deal with it. 
I would strongly urge you to find a therapist to help you process your grief and loss and guide you forward.
Your husband won't understand your pain but I assure you he isn't "happy" in the way you think he is. He has to live with himself as a liar and a cheat. If he's the kind of guy who thinks that's okay, then he's NOT the kind of guy you want in your life. He might regret it, he might not. But by the time he figures that out, you'll likely be able to see him for the half-man he is, who runs from his emotions rather than deals with them honestly and with integrity.
As so many of us discover, the karma bus will hit him...but we don't always get to be around to see it happen.

Please know that the darkness doesn't last forever. Begin to pay attention to those tiny slivers of light. The sound of your children's laughter. A friend's kindness. The taste of coffee in the morning. The women here who share your pain and want you to know that you'll get through this, wiser, stronger, more compassionate. That your children will benefit from your strength. That you'll teach them to keep their hearts open but share their hearts only with those who respect them and show them kindness and compassion.
"Crazy" will end the day you recognize that you're just fine. That you've always been fine. That even though you've experienced deep betrayal, you're fine. That even on days you thought you couldn't face on more minute, you're fine.

Him? Not so fine.
I think adulterers, those who never acknowledge or grow from their betrayal, do get what they deserve. Relationships devoid of true commitment. Never knowing the deep satisfaction of fighting through hell and coming out the other side or the peace that comes with integrity and self-respect. They settle for a life of always running – from commitment, from pain, from loss, from themselves. Sounds exhausting to me. Frankly, it sounds crazy.


Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Why, why, why? Here's one idea...

“Not every infidelity is a symptom of a problem in a relationship. Sometimes it has to do with other longings that are much more existential. Sometimes you go elsewhere not because you are not liking the one you are with; you are not liking the person you have become.”
~Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, from this NYTimes article

Monday, May 12, 2014

Guest Post: How Changing the Question Can Change Everything

by Laura S.
Founder & Director
Infidelity Counseling Network

The week after my husband told me he had had sex with someone else, I threw a teacup. Granted, I went into the backyard to do so (thinking I would damage my kitchen if I threw it indoors – can you believe a part of my brain was so logical). I hurled it out the back door onto the brick patio where it smashed loudly into green and white china shards. A few days later I pounded on the hood of his car (ah, the sacred BMW), over and over, trying somehow to dent the cold gray metal. All I got for my trouble was a) a broken teacup and b) bruised hands.
Okay, so I was throwing things. But really I was throwing a tantrum. As if I could stop his actions and his choices by my physical anger. As if he would somehow be afraid of me – me, five inches shorter and 60 pounds lighter – and get that I really meant it. As if the damaged property would bribe or blackmail him, somehow, to stop. To stop seeing this woman. To stop fucking her. To stop thinking about her. To stop telling me he loved her and didn’t want to be married to me anymore.
Not married anymore? Who did he think I was? Being married was it. We’d been married for decades. We’d known each other for even longer. Like a fairy tale.            
How could this happen to me, I thought. I am a well-educated middle-class girl, raised precisely to be smart (which I am) and nice (sometimes) and funny (yup) and to have a career (well, sort of) and to get married and have a house and kids. All achieved. Just go down the list and check off the items. Everything seemed to be so pleasingly in place. A complete story. 
I never expected to have entered suddenly, shockingly, some kind of sleazy daytime talk show, the “Laura and Her Husband Show”, occurring in regular painful installments, in which HE has an affair, HE rips her heart out, HE's not sure he wants to be married anymore. SHE wonders what the hell happened to the story.
Maybe I threw things because the fairy tale was shattered. Maybe I tried to damage things to mirror my rage. At times the rage would consume me – I thought about suicide, I pictured driving my car into a wall, I considered running away and never looking back. Once I did run away – drove to another town about an hour away – and spent the day walking, eating, and thinking. Of course I returned.
It was only much later, after I had truly begun my journey of personal recovery (and as we were rockily rebuilding our marriage, which is beside the point really) that I could begin to ask “Why did this happen?” instead of “Why did this happen to me?”. Turns out that the altered wording makes all the difference in the world.
To ponder why this happened to me simply drove the stake in deeper. It made me believe it was my fault. That I must have done something very very wrong. Changing the question served powerfully to change my entire lens on my husband’s choice. Because it was in fact his choice, born out of a variety of tangled emotional reasons and reactions deep within him, not within me. Later I began to read books and websites about the factors that cause infidelity, further proof that neither I nor the marriage was to blame.
The couple’s therapist who suggested that I reframe my question was giving me a way to stop torturing myself, to cease feeling ashamed, and to start assembling the pieces of my own recovery. Part of me wanted to keep throwing things – maybe a saucer to match the cup? – and part of me still wanted to punish my husband. Yet part of me ached to take myself and my ego out of the entire painful mess. “Why did this happen?” is a question that can make us breathe more slowly and think more clearly. Throwing things was reactive; understanding the infidelity was, eventually, reassuring. I could let go of trying to “make” my husband do anything. If I had not created the problem, then it was not my job to fix it. All I had to do was repair my own self, along with the teacup. Krazy Glue is good for that.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Getting Tired of Your Own Bullshit

Elizabeth Gilbert (author of Eat, Pray, Love and the more recent novel The Signature of All Things, as well as survivor of heartbreak if not infidelity) knows plenty about picking herself up and dusting herself off. And then, of course, moving forward. 
She had this to say yesterday on Facebook:

Dear Ones:
Yesterday I wrote on Twitter, "I've never seen any life transformation that didn't begin with the person in question finally getting tired of their own bullshit." 
(My own life transformation MOST DEFINITELY included.)
Can you think of an example of anyone who ever earnestly changed themselves without first doing an honest accounting of their own mess? Or without taking accountability for their own dysfunctional behaviors, their own self-inflicted dramas, their own role in the dreadful storyline, their own lies, their own manipulations, their own willful blindness, their own enabling, their own addiction to being the victim, their own addiction to aggression, to fear, to blame, to never being wrong, or to always being wrong?
I don't mean to say that transformation begins with sitting down and whipping yourself into a hot froth of shame for all your horrible faults. (Addiction to self-abuse is just another garbage storyline — another way of delaying your own transcendence and dragging attention and energy away from your destiny.) 
But I've never seen any sincere transformation that didn't start with somebody sitting down and being soberly, calmly, bravely honest with herself.
Don't let your ego or your damage con you into thinking that change is possible for other people, but not for you. 
Don't be seduced by your limitations. They have nothing to offer you but stagnation. 

So often women post on this site about feeling trapped. How their lives have been "ruined". I know those feelings really well. I felt trapped for months, if not years. I felt like my life had been sacrificed for my husband's happiness and that I was helpless to do anything about it. I was so, so angry. And felt so, so powerless.
And then, I smartened up. I realized that if my life was a mess, then it was up to me to clean it up. Not up to my husband (he could either stay and participate in the clean-up or he could take his mess elsewhere), or my parents, or my children. Me. I may not have made it, but I was living in it.
It's the same for all of us.
In the early days following discovery of a spouse's affair, this can seem overwhelming. And sometimes you need to just take the time to breathe
But when that moment comes when you're sick of your own bullshit (not to mention HIS!), you know what to do.


Monday, May 5, 2014

Excuses, Forgiveness and Cynicism

A BWC member recently posted this:
It seems so simple to label the affair as fantasy and the cheating spouse as addicted; in a fog and damaged people who looked outside of the marriage for fulfillment. That all makes it almost palatable. It allows us to stay in the mariage to understand and excuse and forgive. Right? When I look at the person he was or was capable of being,I question all of those excuses and explanations we use to help us get by and through; to try to forgive. There is something inside of me that just cannot accept the way he treated me. The deliberate abandonement and manipulation and deceipt. It was'nt a made for tv movie discovery-one day I find out and the affair ends or maybe it doesnt end right away but eventually without all of the carnage. I allowed myself to hold on to save the marriage, to save this poor, addicted, needy person from making the biggest mistake of his life. Ha! In the meantime, I laid down and sacraficed so much of myself under the guise that I was gonig to save my marriage. He did eventually come around-out of the fog. He promises to make it up to me-whatever that means. How do you make up for murdering someones soul? Where do we go from here? How do we reconcile all of the damage?
How do we reconcile all the damage Where do we go from here? Haven't we all asked ourselves those questions? Haven't many of us wondered if, by extending forgiveness, we're giving our spouse an easy out? A way to avoid the consequences of their actions? That we're the ones paying the price for their crime?
We're left with a hole where our heart used to be, while our husbands got to have this exciting affair. That we were dragged through the mud, while they come back to an intact family. That they don't have to pay for their mistake the way we do.
Which, I suppose, is kinda true. And if we're approaching our post-betrayal lives as accountants, then it never will be even. The ledger will never really balance.
So what do we do?
We can rage and wail and scream that it's not fair, which is something many (I am, of course, referring to myself) do. We can kick him out and file for divorce, which seems reasonable under the circumstances. 
Or we can, as our writer says, come with up excuses or explanations for our spouse's behaviour and try to piece together what's left of our marriage in the hope that it can withstand the storm.
The choice is always ours. What we don't get to choose is that it happened at all. 
We have been betrayed. And that will never be "fair".
We can choose to feed our sense of injustice. We can become cynical and tell ourselves that we've created "excuses" to help us get by. 
But there is a cost to approaching it that way. 
I believe that examining the reasons behind my husband's cheating gave me a deeper understanding of and compassion for him. I could look at it as creating palatable excuses that allowed me to stay in the marriage. It might be technically true. 
But it isn't helpful. 
Even if I wasn't going to stay in the marriage, looking at his behaviour as simply the actions of a deplorable human being doesn't take me where I want to go, to a deeper understanding of human nature. To a place of compassion for my children's father. 
Nor does it take me to a place of deeper compassion for myself. By recognizing that my husband's behaviour was the result a deep wound inside himself, I was able to extend that compassion to myself. I was able, for the first time in my life, to recognize that I didn't have to be perfect to be worthy of love. Aspiring for perfection didn't protect me. It kept people at arm's length. In other words, I allowed myself to heal. 
You ask how we "reconcile the damage." I don't think we do. I don't think we ever get where we want to go by cataloguing the damage and figuring out which column it goes in. 
If we do any "reconciling", I think we take a long hard dispassionate look at what our spouse is doing to make up for what he did. Not what he did then but what he's doing now. 
If he truly deserves a second chance (and not all guys do...not by a long shot), then you get to decide if you're the one who gives it to him. You don't have to. You're completely within your rights to say, "nope" and move on. 
But if you do decide to give him a second chance, then really give it to him. Set up your boundaries around what you need to move forward and then give him the chance to show you that he can become that better person. You may be disappointed again. Life, unfortunately, doesn't offer guarantees. 
But the alternative is to be disappointed again no matter what he does. To live your life in a state of disappointment because of what already happened.
I write this as much to remind myself as anyone else. My one big lesson, that I seem to need to learn over and over, is that people can disappoint me...and still be worth loving. That they can disappoint me and still love me as well as they can. And that I can disappoint myself...and still be worth loving. 
I know it feels like he "murdered your soul." I know how deep and dark that pain is. But let your soul light the way out. It knows the way.


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