Monday, February 27, 2017

Is your fantasy future getting in the way?

"...there is a difference between feeling the pain of things breaking, ending, or drifting apart, and the sharper pain that comes from measuring the inevitable events of life against some ideal of  how we imagined things are supposed to be."
~Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

I don't know about you but this was not supposed to be my life. My life, after a crappy childhood with parents who did crappy things, was going to be sane and predictable and interesting. There would be no dark secrets.
And so I set about creating that life. I told my husband on our third date that I came from a long line of addicts and if he wanted to flee, then there's the door. He stayed.
Married and being urged by him to start a family, I told him that if we were to have children then I needed his promise that we would do everything to keep our marriage strong. I would not, I told him, bring children into a relationship that didn't have two parents who were all in. Sure, he agreed.
Ten years and three children later, I felt resentful and frustrated by my husband's lack of engagement with our family. He worked too much, I thought. He shared too little, I thought. And so, when I found myself enjoying the company of a male friend a bit too much, I told my husband that we needed counselling. To my surprise, the guy who had long insisted that he was fine – that I was the one with the problems (pointing to my third-date admission as evidence) – agreed.
A few months later, I had my first D-Day. Six months after that, I had my second.
And the future I had imagined – which might not have held the glossy promise of bliss it did on my wedding day but still felt like more than I deserved – vanished altogether.
Replaced by a conviction that my future was apocalyptic.
And the pain was excruciating.
It's no coincidence that so many of us who first post on this site seem as though we're reading from the same script. "This isn't the person I married," we write. "This can't be my life," we write. "My life is ruined forever," we write.
And though those of us on the far shore try and wave the newbies in – "you'll get through this," we promise, "you will be fine," we promise – but I wonder how convincing we are. Life was always going to be a series of peaks and valleys. And though we're in a helluva valley, we won't always be. But it can be hard to see the other side when we're blinded by the idea of how it was "supposed" to be.
I wasn't supposed to wind up with a sex-addicted husband. I was so busy making sure that I didn't marry an alcoholic because I would be damned if my future was going to resemble my past.
Yet here I am.
And from this far shore I can tell you this. Maybe I was supposed to go through this. Maybe there are lessons within this experience that I still needed to learn.
Or maybe, like everybody else, it's a matter of having my share of ups and downs.
However you look at it, letting go of this idealized future is key to letting go of some of the pain.
When you find yourself imagining this new post-betrayal future in apocalyptic terms – "ruined", "destroyed", "miserable" – take note of it and then remind yourself that you're telling yourself a story.
Our future is a fiction until we live it into truth.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

The snake oil that is "closure"

"It think closure is a perfectly good word for business deals and real estate...but closure is a terrible word in human relationships."
~Pauline Boss on NPR's On Being with Krista Tippett

How many of us are convinced we'll never move on from emotional struggles because, as we put it, we never received "closure"? Closure, in our culture, generally means something like this: The person who inflicted the wound recognizes the error of his ways, apologizes for it, we accept that apology, and, like magic, all bad feelings vanish.
Closure, we believe, will loosen that knot in our stomach. It will unclench our hearts. Closure is the vocabulary of soap operas and texting teens but it's a powerful enough idea that it seeps into the mindset of even those of us who know better. It is the snake oil we buy that will cure us of heartache.
Closure is dangerous.
Dangerous because it hands over all control over our healing to someone else, or to some set of circumstances that we, on our own, can't possibly create.
We imagine "closure" if only the OW would apologize to us for the pain she's caused. Or "closure" might come if our husband admitted that she meant nothing. Perhaps closure is about seeing her fired or divorced.
It might be about flying to Peru or Cincinnati, Ohio, to revisit every site he visited with her.
What closure promises us, what makes it so alluring, is a door slamming shut on our pain. Closure, we believe, is about facing forward instead of backward.
But life and loss are not that tidy.
The desire for closure is powerful. It's what makes the "dump him" narrative so appealing and so entrenched in our culture. To stay with the person who hurt us doesn't give us or those who love us "closure". Here we are, sleeping with the enemy. There's an ambiguity to our pain, as Pauline Boss would put it, that makes it profoundly uncomfortable. The person we love is still here. But, at the same time, he's not, replaced by this "new" person who's capable of inflicting such pain. How often do we say to ourselves in the wake of betrayal, "I'm married to a stranger." Who is this person who did this to me?
Those of us who stay married might, eventually, come to a place where the "old" him and the "new" him converge and we're able to see that he was this person all along: Someone capable of loving us but also capable of hurting us.
Those who, on the surface, have less ambiguity because the marriage dissolves, are nonetheless left with this idea that the person they loved and who loved them was never that person. That we were duped. Conned.
Closure, we imagine, puts everything back in its rightful place. An apology from him. An admission of total responsibility. The chance to reassemble our lives in a way that makes sense.
I don't believe any of it.
Whether we stay or go, we are left with heartache. And the clearer we become about what we can control and what we can't, the more quickly we begin to heal.
This means abandoning the notion of closure and replacing it with an understanding that healing is incremental, that there will be no magic moment in which the door slams on our pain and we move into sunlight.
By refusing to wait for someone else to deliver us the liberation from pain that we need, we can control our own narrative. By giving ourselves the validation we need, we free ourselves from relying on another to provide it. By taking steps to care for our own broken heart, we not only treat ourselves as worthy of time and attention, we make it clear that another's time and attention is simply icing, not the cake itself.
As the saying goes, if you're waiting for an apology, then give yourself one.
Take a blank page and a pen. Or look at yourself in a mirror:
I'm sorry you're in pain.
I'm sorry others don't always see your worth.
I'm sorry you didn't trust your own wisdom.
As for closure?
I'm sorry but I'm not waiting for you to follow this script I've written in which you magically deliver the words or actions I think I need in order to be freed from my pain. Instead, I will sit with my grief, trusting that I am strong enough to feel it and knowing it that I will move through it. With or without you. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

When he "doesn't believe in therapy"

Let's start with this: Therapy isn't something one "believes" in, like Bigfoot or fairies or alien abductions. We have data that therapy exists. So when someone says they don't "believe" in therapy, what he's really saying is he doesn't believe that talking with an objective person about his life and his problems is going to help him.
To which I say, "really? Tell me more about how therapy won't help you."
Therapy is, of course, a broad term for a whole lot of approaches to helping people move through problems that are getting in the way of leading a productive, healthy life. Not "believing" in therapy is a cop out. Far more truthful to say, "I don't want to go."
To admit that he doesn't want to go, however, opens your husband up to your disappointment or your anger and your frustration. He'd prefer to hide behind the fiction that therapy won't work for him so why not save time and money by not bothering with it at all. After all, he'll tell you, it's bogus. Or he doesn't like to talk. He'll refer to therapy as "woo-woo" head shrinking stuff for crazy people. Surely not for someone as sane and feet-on-the-ground as a guy like him whose only problem is that he violated his marriage vows, lied to his partner and risked losing a marriage that he now claims he never wanted to lose.
That avoidance of discomfort is exactly the kind of behaviour that got him into this situation. By not being forthright and honest, he created this shitstorm that he now wishes would just go away without him having to do anything that he doesn't want to do. Or rather, that he doesn't "believe" in.
I came to therapy reluctantly. I grew up in what my therapist calls a "distressed home" with plenty of addiction, depression, anxiety, suicide attempts and strife. When my mother got sober, I was 20 and launching into my life. She wanted me to go into therapy because she, correctly, saw that I held a lot of anger about my earlier years. I refused, insisting that I was "fine" and that I didn't need some stranger telling me how to feel.
A few years later, however, as I struggled within a highly toxic relationship with a man I couldn't imagine living without, I relented.
I thought she could help me figure out how to make this guy love me enough to stay. Instead, she helped me find the self-respect and strength to leave.
Which could be a big piece of why your husband doesn't "believe" in therapy. There's huge fear for many people in discovering just what's lurking in their own hearts, and that of their partners. For those people, pretending that everything is fine is preferable to knowing it isn't. They might even have convinced themselves that, all evidence aside, everything is fine. If only you could just stop talking about their mistakes, about the destruction they've caused. After all, they won't do it again.
Until they do.
Until they come up against something in their lives that they simply don't have the tool in their emotional toolbox to handle. All of us lack certain tools. I don't know a single human being whose parents were able to provide them exactly the number and type of tools they would need to handle whatever life throws their way. Some of us can develop our own healthy tools, but far more of us either rely on crappy rusty tools to cope – we drink, we shop, we ignore, we rage, we cheat – or we fall apart completely.
Somewhere in there, the smart ones among us say one thing: Help.
We realize that if we were so awesome at solving our own problems, we wouldn't be in this mess. We acknowledge that our way of coping has created some highly unpleasant side-effects, like a wife whose eyes hold a world of pain that we caused.
And then, the smart and courageous ones allow themselves to consider that maybe, just maybe, this therapy thing is worth a try.
It might not work with the first therapist. It might require a few tries. But my guess is that these same guys would continue to find a good mechanic for their car if the first one didn't seem to great rather than decide that they don't "believe" in mechanics.
It will undoubtedly require a lot of ego-checking and patience as everyone finds their footing and begins to establish an atmosphere of trust. After all, you should all be there for the same reason. To create a healthy relationship based on honesty and respect and compassion. 
Because that, whether or not these guys will admit it, is what everyone is after. And, too bad for them, part of that process is going to require that this guy who doesn't "believe" in therapists, has to dig deep into his psyche and figure out why he risked everything that mattered for something that didn't. Or at least didn't matter as much.
He should want this. He should be willing to do whatever it takes to begin to heal this damage he created. He should be willing to make himself uncomfortable in order to help you feel safe again.
If he won't? If he continues to hide behind this fiction that therapy requires "belief" rather than hard work, then he's telling you that this marriage isn't worth the effort required of him.
This is painful but crucial information for you to have. Because it makes your choice – whether to stay in the marriage with full awareness of how much effort he's willing to put into rebuilding it, or whether to leave with that same awareness – a lot more clear.
I'm not insisting that no marriage can be saved without therapy. I am saying that I don't know of any. Sure, I know of marriages that survived infidelity without therapy. But I don't know of solid happy marriages that have. The solid happy marriages I know of that have survived infidelity have done so with a team of support, from friends to, yes, therapists. Personal therapists, marriage therapists, family therapists. Cognitive behavioural therapy, EMDR, couples counselling.
So while it's possible that a marriage can be rebuilt without the help of counsellors to guide couples toward healing, I don't "believe" it's helpful to anyone to ignore the valuable assistance of an objective, experienced therapist.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Acknowledging His Pain Too

"Being half anywhere is the true definition of loneliness."
~Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening

It's tough to stomach when you're sitting in a therapist's office, your guts spilling out onto the floor, your heart shattered, your life in ruins, and your husband suggests that he's hurting too.
HE'S hurting? Well, cry me a goddamned river. He's the one who lobbed this grenade into your life. He's the one who lied and cheated and stomped all over your heart. You wouldn't be in this bloody mess if it wasn't for him.
He hurts too? Well, too damn bad. He's not going to get any sympathy from you. No way. Never. 
Never came sooner than I thought it would.
Never came when I had triaged my own wounds enough to be able to look around and notice that he was bleeding too. At first, there was some satisfaction in this. I kinda enjoyed knowing he was in pain. In fact, I thought I could use that pain to keep him in check. As long as I kept reminding him of what he'd done to me – to us, including our children – I could assure myself that he'd be less likely to do it again. I wanted that pain to feel fresh, to sting. To act as a check on any impulses he might have to cheat again.
That was a mistake. 
My husband didn't cheat because he wasn't hurting enough, he cheated because he was hurting too much and didn't know how to deal with it. He cheated because the only way he knew how to manage the constant ache of loneliness he felt was to distract himself from it.  Sort of like how we dig our fingernails into our palm to distract from dental work. 
It took time before I could listen to his pain without trying to trump it with my own. In the early days post D-Day, I couldn't. I was drowning in my own pain and didn't much care if the water was rising for him too. And that's fair. At first, it's all we can do to keep our heads above the waves. We absolutely must tend to our own wounds first
But the time comes, especially if you want to rebuild your marriage but even if you don't, when it matters that you notice his pain too. It matters because it's in that compassion that your healing accelerates. By realizing that others hurt too, our own pain becomes less isolating. It becomes part of the human condition. Others' pain doesn't eclipse our own, it makes our own a bit more bearable. But only when we're each able to hold the others' pain as well. Minimizing, dismissing or playing the pain olympics just keeps us locked in our own silos. 
And remember this. His pain isn't an excuse for cheating. It doesn't, for even a micro-second, mean that what he did was okay. But it does point us toward understanding. And it further makes clear that his cheating wasn't about us. My husband was lonely. An existential loneliness that defined much of his time. It was a loneliness he'd felt much of his life, courtesy of a cold demanding mother. But his loneliness wasn't my fault nor was it my responsibility to fix, even if I'd known he was feeling it.
When our marriage hit a rough patch – young kids, stressful career, competing ambitions – he responded the way he'd learned as a kid. Focus on something else. Get involved in risky behaviour. Seek out sex to self-medicate. 
By understanding that he was in pain too I'm able to empathize. We were both hurting. I responded differently – not by cheating but by stewing in my resentment and treating him like an annoying child. But I came into our marriage with a different set of coping skills, with a different history. The day I was able to accept that if I was him, I might have chosen a similar path, was the day that my own heart began to feel whole again. And, incidentally, when we're able to have compassion for others, it's so much easier to have it for ourselves.
There's no rule that you ever have to acknowledge your husband's pain too. And lots of guys make it even harder by dragging us through further humiliation and pain, by continuing to lie and call our own sanity into question. Without genuine remorse and sincere determination to come clean and figure out how to move forward with honesty and integrity, lots of these guys don't deserve a second chance. But whether or not you make the choice to rebuild a marriage with someone who does deserve that second chance or move on without him, recognizing that hurt people hurt people can light your way forward. 
It can soften your heart enough to realize that compassion is not a finite resource. The more we offer, the more that's available to us. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Your 3-step guide to D-Day, discovering your spouse's affair

I noticed something one day when my kids were young. The days when I had a long ambitious list of goals (dishes, laundry, groceries, exercise, planting a vegetable garden, painting the get the idea), I became resentful of my children for getting in the way. I would snap at them for not napping long enough, I would inwardly groan at a request for another story, I felt brittle with frustration.
Other days, however, when I had no expectations of accomplishing anything, I thoroughly enjoyed my kids. If we felt like going outside to the swing set, that's what we did. If we chose to bake cookies, that's what we did. We napped when tired, woke when rested, played when the urge struck. In short, we had a good day.
I'm reminded of this because I recently watched a short video on self-compassion in which this advice was offered: Reduce expectations to zero.
And it struck me that this is not only excellent advice for moms at home with young children but also for those of us who are dealing with the discovery of a partner's affair.
My expectations during that horrible time were ridiculous. I not only expected myself to know how to respond to this unprecedented marital crisis, I expected myself to be able to function the same as I had the day before the bomb hit. To prepare dinner, to help children with homework, to meet my work deadlines.
Reduce expectations to zero.
What this means is immediate triage for your soul. Focus on three things only:
1. Eat enough food that you don't die. More, if possible.
2. Sleep, even if it requires the help of sleep-aids, such as melatonin, Gravol or something your doctor prescribed to help you. (Avoid alcohol or illegal drugs. The idea isn't to make things worse.)
3. Breathe. In and out. In and out. Deeply if possible. If the idea of breathing is more than you can bear, please reach out for help. A suicide hotline. A trusted friend. A doctor.

Here's what you should not focus on right now. Remember, reduce expectations to zero.
Will my marriage survive? Who knows. Not you right now so don't expect to know. Give yourself time to absorb the shock right now. Clarity will come with time.
Is he lying to me? Probably. You likely don't have all the information right now. But that's okay. You'll come to realize there are things you don't need to know. What you do know – that he cheated on you – is enough right now.
Will my life ever be the same? Nope. But that's not the same as saying it won't be great. I promise you will get through this. You will not feel this pain forever. You will laugh again. You will feel joy again. I don't know what your life will look like and neither do you. Even if he hadn't cheated, none of us knows what the future holds. We never did.

Reduce expectations to zero: Eat, sleep, breathe.

There will, undoubtedly, be other demands. You might have children that required parenting. You might have work that requires doing. There are some things we just can't avoid. But reduce expectations to zero. Just getting out of bed is a Herculean feat so give yourself a huge hug for doing so.

The day will come for figuring things out. The day will come for choices. The day will come for achievement. But right now, the day has come for self-compassion and self-care, for triage of your soul.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Lessons from La La Land

I spent Saturday tucked inside the darkness of a movie theatre watching La La Land with my two daughters. I'm a sucker for a musical and I've been humming ever since.
My youngest daughter, however, was annoyed at the movie. (If you haven't yet seen the movie and don't want the ending spoiled, stop reading now.)
My daughter's annoyance stemmed from her belief in happily-ever-after endings. Neat and tidy and where everything turns out the way it's supposed to. 
She's 13 and still thinks this is a perfectly reasonable expectation. I'm 52 and I don't disagree. 
While I shared some of her disappointment (even after everything I know about life and love and marriage, those happily-ever-after fantasies die hard), I realized something.
We can all have more than one happy ending.
And I got thinking about so many women who come to this site with the same sense of loss that I felt after D-Day: This wasn't the way my life was supposed to go. This wasn't my happily ever after.
And when everything feels ruined, when our dreams lie in splinters, we can lose sight of another possibility. As the saying goes, we can stare so hard at the closed door in front of us that we miss the window beside it. 
That conviction, that our life was supposed to turn out a certain way, holds us back. It limits our imagination. We can climb through that window if we only notice it and give up the idea that the damn door is supposed to be open. 
We come to our expectations honestly, of course. We stand in front of family and friends and exchange vows, promising each other fidelity and friendship. And our future stretches out before us, a bit hazy in some ways but crystal clear in others. We will grow old together. We will weather storms but not storms of our own making. We will live happily ever after.
D-Day smashes that fantasy to bits. Even if we survive, which we highly doubt, our happily ever after is over. We can't imagine smiling or laughing. We can't fathom how we'll ever believe in love again.
But the heart is resilient. Even a broken heart has the capacity to love. Perhaps especially a broken heart. 
But it's different.
Gone is the certainty that everything will turn out fine. We know too well that love can be messy. That people we trust can betray us. That the marriage we thought was solid had cracks.
But here's the thing. Happily ever after didn't die with the betrayal, it was always a fantasy. We stake our hearts on a storybook fiction. Nobody lives happily ever after because it's not possible. Everyone will have pain. Every marriage will have cracks.
Knowing that doesn't strip marriage of its power, it gives marriage its power. Because it forces us to realize that a promise isn't a guarantee. It's an intention and it's up to us to live up to that intention. To make choices that are true to that intention in ways big and small. 
Our husbands failed to do that. And we get to decide whether we're willing to let them try again. 
But no matter what we choose – to rebuild our lives with him or without him – happiness is still within our power to achieve.
There will be more pain, in some form or another. There will be joy, in some form or another. There will be no happily ever after.
That was never your ending. It's no-one's ending. But that doesn't mean, when you reflect back on your life, you won't smile. Indeed, if you follow the path that feels the most right for you, if you live your own life with intention and integrity, the sum of your life will always skew toward happy. Not a whitewashed happily ever after but another ending all the richer for the many many colors it holds. 


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