Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Beware the stories we tell ourselves

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past thirteen years, it’s this: Just because someone isn’t willing or able to love us, it doesn’t mean that we are unlovable.~Brené Brown, "Rising Strong"

I was not an athlete. Though I tried many sports, I excelled at none. I was cut from every team, eventually giving up entirely and accepting that I simply wasn't an athlete.
In my late twenties, however, I decided to run a marathon. I trained, starting with short races and moving up to longer ones. I was never first over the finish line. But I wasn't last.
The day of the marathon, I had a lot of time to think (roughly four hours of time, mostly spent hoping I wasn't going to die). And during that time, it dawned on me that I couldn't be doing what I was doing if I wasn't an "athlete". I realized how much of my life I had spent on the sidelines because I'd accepted that role – the non-athlete role – that was bestowed on me when I was a child.
Maybe you were told that you were the "pretty sister" or the "bad student". That you were "irresponsible" or "flighty". Or that you were "too serious". Maybe you heard that you "weren't an athlete".
We wear those stories like a cloak. Even when that cloak has long stopped fitting us (if it ever did), we continue to support the narrative around it.
And we cloak the people in our lives with similar stories.
"She thinks she's so smart," we say inside our heads about our impatient boss. "He thinks he's better than everybody else," we tell ourselves about our brother-in-law.
Really? Does she really think she's so smart or does she simply lack interpersonal skills? Does he really think he's better than everybody else is quite the opposite true: that he's deeply insecure?
Stories are just that: Stories. Parts might be true...but much is likely conjecture. Most of us are barely aware of our own motivations and behaviour, let alone able to know what's going on in someone else's internal world.

Our culture supports a narrative around betrayal: If we have been cheated on, it must be because we are: lousy in bed, getting old, not thin enough, etc. If he cheated, it must be because: he couldn't resist a sexy Other Woman, he's a total dog who cares for no-one but himself, his wife is a nag. Etcetera.
At first, we buy into the stories. He cheated because we got fat. He cheated because we stopped wanting sex 24/7. He cheated because we got old.
Or, the story that brings most of us to our knees: He cheated because we're not worth being faithful to. We are not worth loving.
Given that our number one question post-betrayal is "why", subscribing to these stories gives us an answer. It hardly matters that it's rarely the right answer. It's the cloak that fits. At least right now.
But, if our spouse is able to be insightful about his choice to cheat, if we're able to peel back the layers and really examine what was happening, we often discover that the cultural narrative (and the one we've often supported ourselves) doesn't fit our situation.
He didn't cheat because we got fat. In fact, he loves our body.
He didn't cheat because we got old. In fact, he's grateful for the chance to grow older with us.
He didn't cheat because we nag. In fact, the OW was a far greater nag than we've ever been.
But as long as we hold onto the long-held stories without challenging them, we don't delve deeper into what's really going on in our marriage – and outside of it. 
A few posts ago, I suggested walking our way out of the trauma of betrayal. I hope you're still doing that (I am...and I feel fantastic!). Now I'm going to suggest that anytime you find yourself agreeing with a long-held (or a newly constructed) story about your marriage, about yourself, about your pause and challenge it.
Does he really "always" dismiss your views? Are you really "never" interested in sex? Do your parents "constantly" interfere?
Who we are is constantly changing. It's one of the great things about us that we can adapt and evolve. When we know better, we can do better.
But it starts with challenging the stories we believe.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Ashley Madison Hack: Let's Think of the Wives

Ashley Madison, as I've said before, was created by a smug idiot delighted to profit off other's pain. Adultery did quite well on its own, of course, long before Noel Biderman created a site with the tagline: Life's short. Have an affair. (If life's so damn short, how hard is it to stay faithful to your spouse?) But to encourage and facilitate cheating takes garden-variety infidelity to a new low.
So it was with a certain glee that I heard about the hack of Ashley Madison and the threat by a group calling itself the Impact Team to expose the 37 million male subscribers (female subscribers don't have to pay so they're largely exempt from exposure, at least for now).
I couldn't resist a few tweets about the irony of guys who paid to join a cheating Web site expressing outrage that the site that had promised them anonymity and security had betrayed them. Or wonder aloud if life probably mightn't seem so "short" now that there's the possibility of spending years of it without your wife and kids by your side.
My glee, however, was short-lived. Because for every jerk who gets outed by this hack, there's a wife whose life is blowing up. And don't we all know her pain and the long journey ahead?
However this plays out, I hope that even the threat of exposure has made more than a few AM subscribers reconsider just what the hell they're doing. To ask themselves why they're risking their marriage for a not-necessarily-discreet encounter. To examine why they're going outside of their marriage rather than spend some time and/or money to fix what's wrong inside their marriage. Or, if they're really miserable and hopeless, spend some time and/or money to work toward an amicable divorce.
Cause that's the thing with cheating: you can't un-cheat. Once you've crossed that line, whatever the line is (texting dirty photos, confiding in a "secret" friend, or sex in a hotel room), you've betrayed your partner.
Maybe "cheating dirtbags who deserve no discretion" is a bit much. I doubt all of them are dirtbags. I imagine some are guys who are lonely and at a loss for how to reconnect with their partner. Some of them likely believe their partner has lost all interest in them, which may or may not be true.
Some might be struggling with their sexual identity. They might have bought into the promises of porn – quick easy sex that makes them feel like a stud.
Most have convinced themselves that what they're doing is a victimless crime. Nobody has to know, after all. So nobody gets hurt, right?
Until, of course, they do.
And then, if they have even a shred of integrity, all their excuses sound ridiculous. In the face of a loyal wife's bewilderment and pain and outrage, none of it really seems worth it. Not the thrill. Or the excitement. Or the novelty. Or the ease.
And certainly not the $19 fee that promised to protect your identity but did nothing of the sort.
So yeah...maybe these guys have it coming. They made the choice to cheat.
But not their wives. They don't deserve to discover that their husbands have betrayed them by reading about it on the front page of a tabloid. They don't need the additional pain of having to explain to their children just what Daddy has done and why the kids at school will be whispering. Or to face the embarrassed silence of their colleagues at work.
I wish these Ashley Madison subscribers would think about that when they're fuelling their self-righteous fury about their security being compromised. I hope it hits them like a slap in the face that the terror they feel right now about being exposed is nothing to the terror of realizing that trusting your husband was a mistake. Or the humiliation of sitting in a doctor's office to be tested for STDs when you've been married to the same man for two decades. Or the paranoia of wondering how many people have known and for how long and why did nobody say a thing.
So while the Impact Team is ostensibly threatening to take down a company on the basis of some high-handed moralizing – to embarrass the corporation and anyone who trusted in it – I'll be thinking of the millions of women about to join our ranks. Because they are the only truly blameless ones in this whole mess.

Friday, July 24, 2015

What does healing look like?

"I had that feeling you get—there is no word for this feeling—when you are simultaneously happy and sad and angry and grateful and accepting and appalled and every other possible emotion, all smashed together and amplified. 
Why is there no word for this feeling?
Perhaps because the word is healing and we don’t want to believe that. We want to believe healing is purer and more perfect, like a baby on its birthday. Like we’re holding it in our hands. Like we’ll be better people than we’d been before. Like we have to be.
It is on that feeling that I have survived. And it will be your salvation too, my dear. When you reach the place that you recognize entirely that you will thrive not in spite of your losses and sorrows, but because of them. That you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them. That you have the two empty bowls eternally in your hands, but you also have the capacity to fill them." ~comment from Betrayed Wives Club member

Healing. We talk so much about it on this site. Those of us further along on this journey leave our popcorn trail for those coming behind us to guide them to healing. We assure them that, even on days when they feel utterly hopeless, healing is somehow magically taking place within. That as long as they're not actively holding on to pain, healing will occur. That time will work its magic, though they can hasten it by taking care of themselves, by establishing clear boundaries, by finding support and compassion.
When you're mired in pain, however, healing can seem about as real as Oz. Believing in it can feel like being asked to drink the Kool-Aid. Like many who first arrive here, hearts shattered, I couldn't imagine a day when I wouldn't be in agony, when the mention of a certain name, the make of a certain car wouldn't leave me fighting tears. Healing, I thought, didn't apply to betrayal. It didn't apply to me.
Which is why I loved the comment (above) left on this site. It perfectly describes healing. Not some place of bliss and beauty ("like a baby on its birthday") but instead emotions laid bare, feelings raw but with our hearts still open.
That's what healing has meant for me. Like an alcoholic who will never refer to herself as recovered but always as recovering, I am healing from infidelity.
I would never have chosen this, nor would I wish it on anyone. But it has been my particular fate to have experienced it and it has changed me, I believe, for the better. Like my Betrayed Wives Club sister has so beautifully articulated, I realize that it is not in spite of but because of my sorrows that my life is richer. That I love more deeply. That I am able to stop sometimes and smile at the beauty I have in my life, all the more precious because, for a while, I lost sight of it.
Your healing might look different than mine. But all healing shares one thing in common: Gratitude. When we can feel thankful not for the pain necessarily but for the wisdom and compassion it engendered, we can recognize the healing within ourselves.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Carving the Path Forward, Inch by Inch

But that blessed saint could also be yourself—the person who, in this moment, makes a decision that can make a bold path into the years to come and whom your future happiness will always remember. What could you do now for yourself or others that your future self would look back on and congratulate you for—something it could view with real thankfulness because the decision you made opened up the life for which it is now eternally grateful?  ~David Whyte
I was pretty much always in control. Thanks to a chaotic childhood, I'd become uber-capable, one of those people you could always count on in a crisis. I could think quickly, weighing possible solutions and deciding on what made the most sense. I cast aside my own needs/wants in the moment and ensured that everybody else was supported, that they were safe, that they had what they needed.
In the hours that followed my husband's admission that yes, he had cheated on me, I followed that familiar script. I told him exactly where I stood on this, exactly what he needed to do if he wanted to prevent me from packing up my three kids that very minute and walking out the door.
And then...I fell apart.
In the days that followed, I realized that control had been a total illusion. I didn't control him. I'd been completely ineffective at keeping him faithful. Despite believing that I'd marred someone so principled, he couldn't cheat. Despite a conversation we'd had when I we first considered having kids in which we promised each other we'd always talk to each other first, if ever we were tempted, that we'd seek help before we'd make a choice that could destroy everything.
I felt impotent. Out of control. Terrified.
And yet, it's within that emotional space – where light is dark and nobody seems who we thought they were and we wonder whether we're betraying ourselves further by reaching for comfort from the very person who has broken our heart – that we're expected to make a decision: stay or go. Forgive or move on.
If we've dared to share our pain with others around us, there's no shortage of opinions. We're told by some that monogamy is unnatural so of course he cheated. We're told by others that they sure as hell wouldn't tolerate someone cheating on them and if we had a backbone we would pack our bags and make the bastard pay. Some suggest that leopards don't change their stripes so staying with a cheater means more pain. And, occasionally, someone confides that an affair is what broke up their marriage. Less often we might hear that an affair is what woke up their marriage.
But against all this noise, whether from actual people in our lives or the culture in which we live, we're expected to make a decision. Stay? Or go?
Is it any wonder we feel like we're losing our minds? How in the world can we be expected to make a choice that will impact us years if not decades down the road – that will alter the course of our children's lives as well – in the days following one of the biggest emotional shocks of our lives?
We're a reactionary world. For every action, we are expected to respond with an equal and righteous reaction. You cheated on me? How dare you. You. Will. Pay.
And yet...
Some of us measure payment in different currency. It's not a pound of flesh we're after (though, come to think of it...). It's a genuine acknowledge of the cost – to us – of their choice. It's a commitment to doing whatever we need to help mitigate that cost. To help us heal.
But in the absence of our spouse's immediate remorse and a commitment to rebuild a marriage, what choice do we have?
We can leave.
Or we can do what David Whyte suggests. We can make small decisions that put us on a path that our future selves will look back and be grateful for.
Perhaps that small decision is to seek professional support, even when money is tight. Perhaps that small decision is to begin saying 'no' to the things that everybody expects from us but that we have, for years, grit our teeth and done anyway.
Perhaps it's seeing a lawyer to get a clear picture of what our financial future might be should we leave, to get an understanding of how we can protect ourselves in the meantime.
Maybe it's refusing to remain silent to protect our husband from facing the disappointment of his family or ours.
Maybe it's putting our needs first, for a change. Joining a gym, quitting a soul-sucking job, getting childcare for a blissful evening a week to spend in the company of friends.
Or maybe it's refusing to tolerate the same old marriage that he was so quick to risk...and instead making some new rules. My heartbreak, my rules, as Steam has put it.
Making the decision in the days following D-Day can feel unimaginable. Overwhelming. Terrifying. But making a decision – one that honours ourselves – is not only manageable, it's empowering.
Figure out what you can do to make your future open up, even just a crack.
Then do it.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Word Hug

Should you feel an ache in the chest, a pressure in the rib cage, as if the heart would break, that is all right. Your heart is not an object that can break... But if it were, they say the heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing...
~Joanna Macy

Friday, July 10, 2015

Five Ways Betrayed Wives are Silenced

Few of us were prepared for the onslaught of emotions brought on by the discovery of our husband's cheating. Most of us expected we'd be angry. Most of us knew we'd be hurt. But far fewer of us anticipated the brought-to-our-knees agony we've experienced, the I-can-barely-breathe collapse of our world.
Over and over, I've read stories from women who never predicted how devastated they'd be. Who couldn't have imagined how emotionally crippled they'd feel for weeks, months, even years.
A big part of the problem is that we rarely see the impact of infidelity on the betrayed wife. Pop culture shows us angry women (cue "Before He Cheats" by Carrie Underwood). It gives us the vapid fluff of The Other Woman. But rarely do we see the empty-eyes, the rapid weight loss, the isolation of the betrayed wife.
We don't anticipate the shock of finding out we've been deceived. According to a recent Psychology Today story, "Those who have been lied to 'castigate themselves about why they didn’t suspect what was going on... The emotions they feel, while seemingly more benign than those of the perpetrator, may in the long run be more corrosive: humiliation, embarrassment, a sense of having been naïve or blind, alienation from those who knew the truth all along and, worst of all, bitterness.”
As the Psychology Today story puts it, "Friends often unconsciously blame the victim, asking whether the betrayed person really ‘knew at some level’ what was going on and had just been ‘in denial’ about it.”  
One psychotherapist in the article who works with those who've been duped points out that our situation makes other people uncomfortable. We should have seen the signs. We were, in a sense, asking for it.
We're just as hard on ourselves. How could we be so stupid? How did we not see the signs? Ironically it's often those who are convinced that they would absolutely know if their husband was cheating (I thought my husband was incapable of lying to me) who are most susceptible. If there are signs, we are adept at ignoring them because they don't fit our narrative about ourselves and our spouses.
Also, what's happened to us makes people uncomfortable. Nobody wants to acknowledge their own vulnerability. Nobody can imagine that, if it did happen to them, they would be so devastated. Pull yourself together, they seem to think. 
All of which contributes to silencing us. Whether we're silencing ourselves, being silenced by the perceived judgement of our social circle, or by our culture at large, the end result is that we're left to deal with our pain in a vacuum. 
Consider some of these messages:
"Anyone who stays with a cheater is pretty much asking for more of the same": Ah yes, the ol' "once a cheater, always a cheater" cliché. It puts so many of us in a bind. If we stay, we're pretty much shamed for doing so because only a doormat would put up with that, right? And yet, studies show that plenty women choose to stay, more than half. Why then this pervasive myth that the only smart way to respond to infidelity is to kick him to the curb?
Our culture supports this narrative. Revenge is so much more satisfying than working it out. So much cleaner. Wipe your hands of the jerk and move into a blissful future.
At least that's the fantasy. The reality is that sometimes it takes a horrible mistake to move us to a place where we recognize what needs to change. Sometimes we want to give second chances. Sometimes those second chances lead to happiness. Unfortunately those are the stories relegated to the shadows. And even if we know of them, we rarely know the details of just how a couple was able to recover. And so, when we choose to stay (or choose to wait and figure out what we want before reacting), we remain silent.

"I suppose you're perfect, right? Never make a mistake, right? Must be nice to be so perfect." Anger is a really effective way to silence someone. It's called a countermove and if we don't recognize it, we quickly find ourselves assuring our spouse that, no, we don't think we're perfect and falling all over ourselves to not seem all judgey and morally superior. Thing is, he cheated. And while it's a shame that discussing it reminds him that he's a cheater, it doesn't change the fact that he cheated. And we didn't. And we're devastated by it. We need to talk about that if we're going to actually rebuild a marriage based on honesty and transparency.
Talking about what he did is a cheating spouse's least favorite thing to do in the world. Far better he thinks, would be to just chalk it up to something he's sorry for and move on. Except that we know that doesn't work. It leaves us resentful and silenced and unable to fully heal. And it leaves him without any genuine insight into why he cheated and therefore likely to make the same mistake, even when he swears he won't.
No, we're not perfect. But we didn't cheat. And that's what we're talking about here. Not perfection. But cheating. And why it happened. So stop changing the subject.

"Listen to you. You're hysterical. I can't take it anymore." Ooooh boy. How many of us have been called "hysterical"? Or "crazy". Or "out of control". I was called those things, which wasn't surprising because I was all those things. The truly crazy thing is that our spouses didn't expect that. They didn't expect hysterical or crazy or out of control. They might have expected anger. They undoubtedly expected they'd be tossed out (which is why they went to such great lengths to hide what they were doing or to minimize it or to mete out the details so that they could pretend it wouldn't be as bad). But they likely didn't expect the full-on craziness that is life post D-Day. Well...neither did we.
And since calling a woman "crazy" is such a stereotypical way of shutting a woman up, men tend to use it. They are frightened by our level of insanity post D-Day. So are we. But calling us crazy or hysterical is like pouring gasoline on a fire. Instead, what would be so much more helpful and conducive to actually having a productive discussion around this is for our cheating spouse to acknowledge that hysteria is actually a pretty valid way to respond to emotional devastation. That of course we feel crazy. That of course the world feels terrifying. Don't silence our craziness, call it into the room to explain itself.

"You're making me feel horrible. I've said I'm sorry. Do I have to pay for it the rest of my life?" Like anger, self-pity tends to silence us as well. Its aim is to evoke our sympathy. To make us wonder if we're making too big a deal about it. He said he was sorry, after all. Shouldn't that be enough? Puh-leeze. There aren't enough "sorry"s in the world to make up for cheating. In fact, nothing will really "make up" for it. But many of us are willing to give cheaters a chance to respond with integrity, to become better men. We (eventually) accept that we'll likely never feel as though we're "even" but that becomes less important than simply rebuilding a solid, wonderful marriage based on respect and love and commitment. We come to a place where we're able to look forward instead of keeping an accounting of who's done whom more wrong. But we get to that place a whole lot faster (and a whole lot more likely to have our spouse by our side) when he's able to put aside his self-pity and listen to us. To stop making this about him and his feelings and instead focus on us and our feelings. He chose this. We didn't.

"I'd cheat if I was married to her too": Consider the kneejerk response to news of any public person's infidelity. One of the first things anyone wants to know is what the betrayed wife looked like or how old she was. If she was middle aged (or older) and looked it, well then, of course he cheated. If she was gorgeous, we figure she must have been a nag or frigid. We might acknowledge that the guy was a scumbag but even then it's typical to look for some indication that she kinda had it coming, even if it's simply that she should have known he was a cheat and left him long ago.

It's up to us to recognize the ways in which we're silenced – or silence ourselves – and challenge that. It doesn't mean we have to shout our pain from the rooftops. But it does mean we have to recognize that our pain is valid. That's it's normal. That it deserves to be seen and heard, at least by those closest to us. We have to know that there might be pushback. There are many people who are threatened by or at the very least uncomfortable with our pain. 
But this is our story. Nobody else's. And so we get to tell it.


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