I recently wrote about how betrayal can trigger past trauma. And many of you rushed to your keyboards with a "yes, yes, that's me!" response.
For one thing, let me tell you how much I LOVE knowing that I'm able to give words to so much of the confusion we feel post-betrayal.
And let me also say, I've yet to meet the person who doesn't have some pain in their past around abandonment, shame, neglect. We are most decidedly not alone.
But I've also noticed that to those of us whose stories include words like abuse and addiction and jail and so on – those of us who survived situations in which we felt powerless over the pain inflicted on us by the people who were supposed to be safeguarding our hearts – anything that sounds remotely like blame for our spouses' cheating makes our blood boil.
Which is why it can feel like another betrayal when so many of the "how to heal from an affair" books/sites imply that we're somehow responsible, even just a teensy bit, for our spouse's affair.
When you're seeking support for the incredible pain you're in and someone – anyone! – even suggests that you're the reason he cheated in the first place, it lands like a sucker punch.
And it's even more infuriating when it's our spouse. Some guy who's just ripped out our heart explains that he cheated because he felt neglected by us when we were nursing our cancer-stricken mother, or tending to our disabled child, or working to pay for our kids' tutor, or going to the gym to lose weight to get our diabetes under control or maybe just checked out because we were fed up from giving and getting so little in return. Or maybe it was his emotionally absent mother, his abusive father, his drug-addled older brother.
Well...it's at those moments when we should ensure we don't have access to firearms because Holy Bad Timing.
Thing is...he just might have a point, though, admittedly, his timing is a bit off.
I couldn't hear it at first. I didn't want a whiff of "excuse" from him. I wanted – and frankly deserved – total accountability from him. Nothing less than "I am so sorry and I will spend the rest of my life trying to be the husband you deserved all along."
But a big part of my inability to hear any explanation for his betrayal of me was my dedication to my own sad-sack story as somehow more deserving of sympathy than his.
I honestly believed that if there was a painlympics – a contest in which the suffering I'd endured was measured against his – that I would go home with the Gold. He'd be lucky to make the podium.
What's more, I felt I deserved a medal for having conquered those demons. Sure my childhood sucked, but I'd spent much of my adulthood trying to learn the right stuff and shake off the wrong stuff.
Besides, I figured I'd had my quota of pain. The universe owed me an easy time of it. I'd made peace with my addict mother. I'd dumped (or been dumped by) the bad boyfriends and married the nice guy. I was healed. Cue the hallelujahs.
Turns out, not so much healed as healing.
It also turns out that the universe isn't really keeping score.
But when we engage in the painlympics – measuring our own pain against others' in order to determine who's more entitled to victimhood – nobody wins.
I've learned this the hard way.
Case in point: A few years ago my daughter was disappointed that she didn't get the part she wanted in a play. She really wanted it. She worked hard for it. "It's not fair," she wailed. "I never get picked," she cried.
I was empathetic, at least at first. I understood her disappointment. I'd felt her disappointment. But then I got a bit tired of it. I tried not to sigh too loudly. I refrained my rolling my eyes. I didn't, however, manage to keep my mouth shut. There are children who don't have clean water, I pointed out delicately (not for the first time). There are children sold into bonded slavery. My point was clear: Your suffering isn't as bad as someone else's so get over yourself.
Fortunately, I was gifted with a daughter who'll have none of that. With the steely authority of a prosecutor, she admitted that, yes, she knows other children have it worse. But, she said, right now she didn't want to hear about them. Right now, it was about her. Right now, her pain mattered.
She was right.
Her pain, no matter how small it might measure on some universal scale of suffering, mattered.
So does yours.
So does mine.
It all matters.
Even the pain of the offending spouse.
There is, however, a deeper lesson there. I came to realize that I dismissed my daughter's suffering as somehow less than deserving of my empathy because it made me uncomfortable. I had wanted my daughter to succeed in ways I hadn't. I had wanted to spare her the pain of, well, living in this world. So when it became clear that I was powerless to protect her, I didn't want to hear it. My reaction was akin to covering my ears and insisting that she tell me a better story in which she felt loved and grateful for all her blessings.
But she was wiser than that. Not only did she make it clear that her suffering mattered, she also made it clear that she was strong enough to handle it. More than once in her so-far short life, she's told me, when I play my "children that don't have clean water" card, that she needs to just be left alone to cry and feel sorry for herself...and that she'll come out of her room when she's feeling better.
And that's exactly what she does.
I've noticed that she's equally capable of being with others in their suffering – no matter how "small" – without fearing becoming lost in it. She sees it for what it is. An open wound that needs love and compassion to heal.
Suffering doesn't frighten her, it pulls her in.
All suffering matters.
I know this is radical. And I know it pisses off those of us who hold firm to some deep belief in fairness.
People like me, for example. People who inwardly scoff at those whose suffering, in the grand scheme of things, seems pretty silly.
Like a husband who claims that he cheated on us because his mother didn't hug him enough.
It took me a few months before I could handle listening to my husband finally purging decades of pain that he'd adeptly buried. But once I did – once I could acknowledge his suffering as no less valid than my own – something shifted. He stopped being the enemy and started being a fellow human being, doing his best (which, frankly, sometimes sucked) to get through.
And that changed everything.