Monday, April 24, 2017

Feeling all the feels

"Human emotions are a package deal. Repressing unpleasant feelings anesthetizes us, rendering us numb to joy as well as to pain. The only way out of numbness is to plow directly through the very emotional hell we hope to avoid. And if we can help one another through this process, our lives become infinitely richer in purpose, meaning, and peace."
~Martha Beck, O columnist and author 

Isn't that pretty much why we're all here? To help each other through this process? And yet, I wonder how many of us use this site as a way of distracting themselves from their emotional hell. How many of us in the midst of a full-body collapse – sobbing, heaving, kick-in-the-gut agony – lurch to our computers, punch in a Google search and find themselves here or on another site. Reading, scrolling. Obsessively. Searching for a way out.
While it's wonderful (and indeed the whole point of this site) that women recognize themselves on the screen and – hallelujah! – realize they're not alone in their pain, there is an army of soul warriors waging war on the same foe, it's not a substitute for the battle itself. In other words, you've got company but you still have to show up to the battle. And by that I mean, feel those feelings. Those horrible awful nasty feelings. That "emotional hell", as Martha Beck puts it.
It is, indeed, hell. It's dark and ugly and angry and sad. It's thoughts like I'm worthless or nobody will ever love me or there's something wrong with me. It's fears like I'll always be alone, I'll be destitute, living in a refrigerator carton or my children will like the OW more than me. Even if those thoughts aren't fully articulated, they're there. Dancing at the edge of your clouded brain. Taunting you with their cruelty. 
And so, who wouldn't want to distract themselves? To turn on the computer and read about others' pain instead of feeling your own? Post a few "chin up" comments or "I'm with you" remarks. All well and good and kind and thoughtful. Misery mitigated by company.
But it's no substitute for feeling your own feelings. For being engulfed by the pain until it gives way and you can spot joy in the distance.
I wish I had better news. I wish I could tell that if you just help enough other people, your own pain will dissipate (it helps...but isn't magic).
I wish I could point to a certain book or a certain exercise or a certain meditation as the panacea for dealing with betrayal. All those things help. They really do. Writing down your pain, walking through your pain, meditating through your pain, sharing your pain. But they help because they force you to focus on your pain. To feel all the feels, as the cool kids on social media put it. In the end, that is the key. Feeling your pain. Not going around it, or ducking under it, or numbing yourself to it. Feeling it. I know. Sucks, right?
But here's a secret: You're strong enough. You're smart enough. You're warrior enough. You can feel those horrible, awful, nasty feelings – you can withstand those thoughts so dark you can't even whisper them to another person. 
And that darkness will give way to joy. Eventually. Not today, maybe not tomorrow. But eventually. And when you do, you'll carry that secret inside: That you're strong enough. 
Smart enough. 
Warrior enough. 

Friday, April 21, 2017

How-to Apologize for Breaking Your Wife's Heart: A guide for husbands

Often I hear something like, “I told you I was sorry about the affair ten times so let’s drop it already.”  That won’t cut it. High-stakes situations calls for an apology that’s a long distance run—where we open our heart and listen to the feelings of the hurt party on more than one occasion. There’s no greater gift, or one more difficult to offer, than the gift of wholehearted listening to that kind of anger and pain when we are being accused of causing it.
~Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger and Why Won't You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts

Okay husbands, this one's for you.

Most of you likely didn't respond to your wife's pain around your betrayal the way renowned relationship expert Harriet Lerner suggests, above. If you're like most guys, you said you were sorry, promised it would never happen again, it meant nothing for chrissakes, can we drop it already? And then you really really hoped that she would forgive you, you'd have makeup sex and then move forward into the rest of your lives. She might even be a little bit more appreciative of you now that she knew you had other options, right?
If you were a bit more realistic than that, you figured you'd go to a marriage counsellor a half-dozen times, let her cry, bow your head with genuine remorse and even endure the insults she'd throw at you. And then, thank god, move forward into the rest of your lives.
It likely hasn't worked out like that. 
But here's the thing: It hasn't worked out like we hoped it would either. Never did we imagine how excruciating betrayal was. Never did we think we'd come as unhinged as we did. We figured we'd be mad. We might execute some funny but biting revenge, like in the movies. We might meet our girlfriends and sob into a martini. But we didn't imagine there would be days we couldn't get out of bed. We didn't anticipate the confusion, the mental fog, the dull dread that took root in our stomachs or the stabbing pain in which, we swear, we could feel our hearts actually breaking. 
We didn't think that, even months later, a song on the radio could reduce us to a sobbing ball on the floor. Or that a chance encounter with your affair partner could unleash in us a fury that threatened to swallow us (and you!) whole. 
I've been there. So has my (still) husband. Ten years later, we know a thing or two about getting through this.
You? My guess is you're in uncharted water. Well, so is your wife. So, in the interest in helping you help her through these treacherous days, weeks, months, here's your guide to apologizing for breaking her heart:
1. Apologize. Sounds simple, right? It's not. Do everything you can to imagine her pain. Look directly into her eyes and don't look away. See just how deep that agony goes. And then tell her how sorry you are that you weren't the husband you should have been. That she did nothing to deserve this betrayal. Repeat, as often as necessary.
2. Be transparent. Here's the thing about asking us to "trust me again because I've learned my lesson": Ain't gonna happen. She's sad, not stupid. You've shown her you aren't to be trusted. That's the problem with lying and cheating. It's easy to squander trust. It's really hard to earn it back. And that's what you're doing now. Earning it back. Bit by bit. By showing her, not telling her but showing her, that you are where you say you are, that you're with who you say you're with. I know you feel like a child. I know it's humiliating to have no privacy. Do this right and you won't live like this forever. But for now, you need to prove that you're worth taking another gamble on. And you prove that by being willing to sacrifice your privacy. If she's not worth it to you, then do yourselves a favor and leave. 
3. Work really hard to understand why you did what you did. Face your demons. You wouldn't have done such harm if you weren't struggling with your own self-worth. Go to a therapist. Doesn't matter if you don't "believe" in therapy. There's a reason you risked everything that mattered to you for someone who didn't. Figure out what it is with someone who's been trained to help you. You're no good to us until you've worked out your own shame around what you've done. Until then, you're going to try and deflect, you're going to minimize, you're going to defend. None of which moves us toward healing. All of which compounds our own pain and isolation. Fix yourself first. Oh, and by the way, don't ever cheat on her again. Ever. 
4. When she tells you what she needs, give it to her. If she wants you to read a certain book, then read it. If she wants you to call home if you're going to be late, do it. If she needs space, give it to her. If she needs closeness, give it to her. Understand that you're asking her to do the hardest thing she's ever had to do: Forgive her best friend for lying to her, for jeopardizing her physical and mental health, for subjecting her to humiliation and gossip, for betrayed the promise you made to her. What is she asking you to do? Bring her flowers. Make a bit more effort to select a Mother's Day card. Compliment her. Make yourself uncomfortable by talking about your shame. Doesn't seem like too much after all, does it?
5. Help her carry the pain. You do this by understanding it. You do this by really listening to her, over and over and over. Yes, it gets exhausting (it is for us, too). It doesn't mean you have to endure abuse, emotional or physical. Its just means that, by listening to us, by answering our questions even if we've asked the same ones repeatedly (you'd be amazed at how fuzzy our brains are), you're helping us process our pain. You're shouldering a bit of the burden for us. You're showing us that our hearts can be safe with you again. We're grateful for that, though it might be a few months before we can show it. 
6. Be patient. Healing takes a long time. Three to five years, by many experts' calculus. That doesn't mean you'll both be miserable for that long. But it does mean that there will be setbacks. There will be triggers, large and small, that reduce her to a sobbing mess, that feel as though you're back where you started. You aren't. It's a setback. And it can even be a chance for you two to remember you're on the same team, that you're working together to rebuild your marriage. Double down on the genuine remorse for creating this pain. Remind her again that you're working hard to make sure she never goes through that pain. And then, for good measure, tell her that you're the luckiest guy in the world and that you're going to spend the rest of your life earning the second chance she gave you. And that she'll never have to give you a third.

None of this is easy. But it is worth it. If rebuilding your marriage is what you want, I guarantee that following these steps will get you a whole lot closer to that goal. I can't guarantee that your wife will be able to move past the pain. I can't promise that she will forgive you. I have no idea whether she'll respond with a revenge affair, or file for divorce anyway, or just make your life miserable for eternity. But I do know that you will have done what you could to begin to make reparations for the damage you caused. And I also know that, no matter what happens, you will have begun to live your life with integrity. Which means that, whatever happens next, you're going to be a better man for it. 

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The cost of staying silent

"Silence is the ocean of the unsaid, the unspeakable, the repressed, the erased, the unheard."
~Rebecca Solnit, The Mother of All Questions

I had the pleasure, on Saturday morning, of speaking with Christina Ferguson, a betrayed wife and creator of an event to help betrayed wives heal. And one of the things we both lamented was the silencing of our stories. 

It's a big part of why she created this upcoming event and, of course, a big part of why I created this site. I absolutely am convinced that by telling our stories, we begin to heal. By claiming our experience as real, as important, as ours to tell, it begins a powershift, in which our story no longer controls us but rather, the other way around. 
The world does not make it easy. There are plenty of barriers in the way. Whether it's our own desire to protect our partner from others' judgement, our own fear of judgement, a determination to protect our children or simply a lifetime of believing that we shouldn't air our dirty laundry, staying silent often becomes our default response.
 But what Rebecca Solnit reminds us with her quote is that there's a price we pay for our silence. Indeed, silence IS the price. Silence is repression, it is an eraser of our experience (though it magnifies our pain), it is the cry that goes unheard and therefore, unresponded to. Making our cry audible says that we exist, that we matter. It insists on a response.
And that, too, can be troublesome. By making our cry audible and calling out for a response, we risk blame, judgment, rejection.
And yet, can anything the world says to us be worse than what we're saying to ourselves? As my brilliant therapist used to remind me, it isn't what others are saying that's the problem, it's that I'm agreeing with them, it's what I'm saying.
What's more, despite our fears, if we choose whom to trust with our stories, we're far more likely to be greeted with compassion, warmth, and a genuine appreciation for being trusted with our pain. As I am lucky enough to see every single day on this site, sharing our stories creates community. It lets us lay down our pain, even just for a few minutes while others pick it up and carry it for us. "Me too," they say. Or "I've  been thinking about you and hoping you're okay." 
And in that moment, with our story trusted to those who know better than anyone just how badly we're hurting, we exhale. The vise around our hearts loosens just a bit. And, for a moment, we sense the power of our stories to help us heal, and to help others heal too.

If you want to share your story, there's no "right" way to do it. Post it in the comments, or find one of the threads that suits and post there. I read every single story and hold it in my heart, even if I don't have time to respond to every one. And the others will pull you close. You are welcome here. You have found a safe space. You are among friends.

Monday, April 10, 2017

I'm certain about uncertainty

We have, says the brilliant Rebecca Solnit, “a desire to make certain what is uncertain, to know what is unknowable, to turn the flight across the sky into the roast upon the plate, to classify and contain.” 
She's referring to art and culture but her observation, of course, applies to life. 
Humans hate uncertainty.
And we betrayed wives especially hate uncertainty. It dogs us as we try to move through the pain.
"But what if I stay and he cheats again?" 
"What if I regret staying?" 
"What if I leave and then regret it?" 
"What if I leave and he ends up with her?"
Oh, for a crystal ball that will make our choice clear.

We're not alone, of course. My 18-year-old, finishing up her first year at university, is desperate for certainty. She wants to know that her major will lead to a good job. She wants to know that the guy she likes likes her back. She wants to know that she'll succeed at the summer job she's landed. She, like all of us, just wants to know. Certainty.
For her, of course, the stakes feel impossibly high. "This is the rest of my life!" she points out to me in frustration, in response to my "take it one step at a time" urging. 
Thing is, it's not the rest of her life. It's right now.
Five years from now, her life might look very different. One year from now, her like might look very different. Opportunities will have come her way that she can't imagine. Doors might have shut that seemed like sure things. Friends will have come and gone. Dreams will have been shaped.
And the same holds true for you.
Betrayal exposes something we had cleverly hidden from ourselves: Life is uncertain. People are unpredictable. Promises can be broken.
And while betrayal's impact extends far beyond garden-variety disappointment, it's an impact that many many of us experience. There are, literally, millions of us going through the same pain. 
There's comfort in that, whether we see it or not. The millions surviving this are proceeding to live despite the realization of how uncertain any of our futures are. 
For me, learning to proceed in the face of such uncertainty, meant getting comfortable with it. It meant understanding that I'd really been living with it all along. That this idea I had –that a marriage vow was intractable – was an illusion. Had always been. We can never ever be certain about anyone, even when that person is standing in front of us promising fidelity and honesty and 'til death do us part.' 
Sounds harsh, I know. But it's become a form of liberation for me. Understanding that being with my husband is a choice, every single day, makes me more grateful for his presence. Knowing that I could leave tomorrow, and so could he, makes our time more precious. 
And that understanding has held for so many of life's uncertainties. My 88-year-old father is on borrowed time, despite his health. But I have him today.
Journalism, my chosen career, is a shaky field at the moment. But I have work today. 
I only need to know where I want to be today. I only need to know what I want today. And then to set about living that choice. 
Nobody can promise you anything further because people are complicated. We're unpredictable. Life is complicated and unpredictable. And certainty is an illusion no matter how real we thought it was. 

Friday, April 7, 2017

Do you need to be "reasonable" after betrayal?

There was a conversation on this site in one of the threads about what's "reasonable" for us to expect of our partners after discovering his affair(s). It was phrased something along the lines of "what's reasonable for me to be able to ask him to do."
I responded with something like this: when someone is asking for your forgiveness, then you get to set the terms of that.
But what I think I should have written was:
"He's asking you to forgive a choice he made, in which you weren't consulted, and that was a direct threat to you, your marriage, your family and your health. It's "reasonable" to expect you not to kill him. Anything else is on the table."
Or, as Steam puts it,

"My heartbreak, my rules."

I sometimes think that all our discussion on this site (damn, we're mature!) around boundaries, around acknowledging his pain, around learning to listen to each other, being curious rather than judgemental can eclipse this basic rule of rebuilding a marriage after betrayal: You get to set the terms of reconciliation. He's asking you to forgive something that is a brutal violation of the promise you made to each other. Why shouldn't you get to decide what you need in order to do that.
Do you need to read every single text that comes in? Do you need him to let you know where he is throughout the day? Do you need a GPS on his phone that you can monitor? Do you need proof that he's established No Contact with the OW? This isn't about setting up a police state, it IS about creating an atmosphere in which you begin to feel safe and in which you begin to rebuild trust.
Let's say it again: He's asking you to forgive him for lying to you, for being deceptive, for jeopardizing everything that matters to you and for jeopardizing your health.
If the price he has to pay is to feel like an errant 8-year-old for a few months, strikes me that he's getting off pretty easy.
Infidelity remains one of the most misunderstood issues in our culture. Nobody thinks it will affect them as profoundly as it does. It kicks us hard and leaves us for dead. And while the world blithely goes on with "well, if my husband ever cheated on me blah blah blah" or "maybe they just have an open marriage" or "I think she's a real nag to him", the rest of us are dealing with the real-life consequences of discovering that the one person in the world you thought would always have your back was, in fact, stabbing you in it.
Reasonable? Let's say it again, it's reasonable to expect you not to kill him. Everything else is on the table.
Your heartbreak, your rules. 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Be Curious: Part 2 of "How to have a tough conversation"

Curiosity might kill the cat. But it won't kill you. 
My husband and I often walk our dogs at night, after the dinner dishes have been cleared away and kids are busy with homework. Sometimes we talk about our day. My eyes glaze over as he talks about the economic indicators in China or some such. I suspect his do the same as I express my outrage with 45's latest attack on climate science or women's reproductive rights or basic human decency.
Other times we broach tougher topics and then he says something...stupid. Wrong. Woefully uninformed. Or at least that's my assessment of it. My heart beats faster. My voice goes up a pitch. I wonder, briefly, what I'm doing with this idiot.
It might have been about how to manage our daughter's struggles at school. It might have been about a bathroom renovation we're planning. It might have been about something on this site that I mentioned in order to get his input.
Whatever it was, he gave me a stupid answer.
Or was it?
When others present me with information that differs from my own views of things, I become curious instead of angry. In fact, I make my living as a journalist and I'm often confronted with people who hold different opinions than I. I don't immediately write them off as losers. Instead, I ask questions. "Why do you think that?" I might ask. "How did you reach that conclusion?" I might ask. "Where do you get your information?" I might probe. "That's interesting," I might say. "Tell me more."
I began to wonder if that approach might work with my husband. I wanted to be able to talk with him about things – all things – without the immediate impulse to call a divorce lawyer.
It was hard at first. I had to bite my tongue. Hard.
But the more I learned about his thinking, the more I realized that those "stupid" opinions he had weren't so stupid because I understood how he'd reached them. His "dumb" response to problems wasn't so dumb when I discovered that he was struggling too, that he didn't have all the answers and he was just searching in the dark like the rest of us.
And when I was able to just be curious with him, I gave him the freedom to not have all the answers, which has always been his own issue. He has trouble saying "I don't know" so he rarely does. With my probing, he sometimes had to own up to the truth that he didn't know. That he couldn't know because he didn't have all the information he needed. We began to collaborate more on solutions. I gave him the benefit of the doubt when he said something "stupid" and gave him the opportunity to explain his point of view.
And...whattaya know? Turns out he's a decent, smart, open-minded guy with some great ideas, something I had sometimes forgotten about him.
Whether you're staying together or moving on separately after betrayal, chances are there are going to be some tough conversations in your future. It can feel like a minefield. You lay your heart on the line and he says something "stupid". You share your pain and he shuts you down. Our knee jerk response is to withdraw. Or to lash out. Or to put a divorce lawyer on speed dial.
But what if you tried curiosity? Do your best to detach and not take it so personally (I know, I know. It takes a lot of practice!)  "Why do you say that?" you might say. "What makes you think that?" you might say. "Why is it hard for you to hear that?" you might ask. "What is you need from me right now?" Even "can we set a time to talk about this later? I think it's important."
He might not have the answers. But you've opened the door to them.
And if his responses reveal a decent guy who's confused, then that's good to know. Even if they reveal a not-so-decent guy who isn't the least bit interested in learning more, that's good information to have. Get the lawyer on speed dial.
But no matter how it turns out, you'll have more information than you started with. And you can use that information to help you navigate your path through this pain.


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