Monday, May 29, 2017

"I just want things the way they were": No, you don't. Here's why

"In the aftermath of an affair, one partner often says, “I just want to go back to the way things were.” And I say, “Really? How well was ‘the way things were’ working out for you if you ended up in my office?” I say this much more gently, of course, but I make sure that they hear the question and are able to reflect on it. And when they do, they realize that “the way things were” wasn’t sustainable after all."
~Lori Gottlieb, writer and psychotherapist, "Is My Husband Having An Affair", New York Magazine

What I wanted more than anything else in the days following D-Day was a lobotomy. I wanted to carve out the painful knowledge of my husband's cheating so that I could return to my state of blissful ignorance. I imagined those days as halcyon, a period of time in which I was joy-filled and calm. Nothing like the hell I felt like I was in after discovering the truth.
Interesting thing about those halcyon days. Halcyon days, literally, means the calm before the storm. A period of time in which things seem peaceful. But clouds are gathering. The center cannot hold.
And so my nostalgia for that pre-D-Day period of time was for a time of ignorance. My marriage wasn't good and safe. I just didn't know it wasn't.
That ignorance is a dangerous thing to want back. 
Lori Gottlieb, whose New York Magazine article I've quoted above, was responding to a woman who suspects her husband of cheating and is asking whether or not she really wants to know. She signs her letter Head Happily in Sand.
I understand her impulse. I have a vivid memory of picking up the phone to ask my husband about what I thought I knew, to get his confirmation that my intuition was correct.
And I knew, by letting this particular genie out of the bottle, that there was no going back. I knew that I just might hear something I most definitely did not want to be true. My head could not be buried in the sand. 
I've never been a head burier. I far prefer the painful truth to anxious speculation. For most of my life, whatever I was imagining was inevitably worse than what was really happening.
Until D-Day.
Learning the whole truth, rather than what I'd imagined, was excruciating. It was, in many ways, far far worse. For one thing, the cheating had gone on much longer. (It was also, in some ways, better. The affair had nothing of the romance or passion I'd imagined. Instead it was...transactional.) 
But as Gottlieb points out, my desire to return to a pre-D-Day marriage omits the reality that was my marriage wasn't what I thought it was. One of us was, clearly, not fully invested. And that, as she puts it, is not sustainable.
And it's why a big part of rebuilding a marriage is about taking a clear-eyed look at your marriage. 
It's tough. A marriage counsellor my husband and I had begun seeing before I knew about my husband's cheating had told me that I had "rose-colored glasses" about my marriage. His exact words. We were "best friends", I had told him. Which begged the question of why we were in his office. 
I took offence. How dare he? 
We stopped seeing him because I didn't like him.
Now, of course, I can see that I didn't like what he was telling me. And I didn't like it because it was the truth and it was painful and it was pointing me to something I didn't want to admit to myself. The worst kind of truth. The kind that means I have to accept something I don't want to accept or change something I don't want to change. 
It was a long time before I stopped wanting that lobotomy. A really really long time. Even years later, after I felt optimistic about my marriage, after I could see how much stronger our relationship was, how much deeper, I still kinda wished I could cut out that knowledge. I envied those soap opera characters who awake after trauma with zero recollection of who double-crossed them. 
But without that knowledge, we wouldn't have the relationship we have. I wouldn't have the compassion I have for others going through this. I wouldn't know so much about human nature, about resilience and recovery, about healing. And I wouldn't have all of you.
The problem with a head in the sand is you miss the horror but you miss a whole lot of positive things too. And it's not that the awful stuff isn't happening, you're just not seeing it. 
And that's the painful truth about marriage. If one partner is cheating, it's not because there's something wrong with you. It's completely on him.
But it does mean that the marriage isn't what you think it is. And that's not sustainable.
Instead, if we're going to stay in our marriage, we need to examine the truth of it, figure out where the foundation is shaky and shore it up in ways that make it stronger – more honest and, likely, much more uncomfortable at times because you'll be dealing with problems face on rather than ignoring them or minimizing them. 
And if we're not going to stay in our marriage, then recognizing that it wasn't what we thought it was is a key part of moving on. No more rose-colored glasses. No more head in the sand. 
Just a clear-eyed assessment of our reality. And with that truth, we can move into our future. 

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Power of Betrayed Wives Club

"We can never protect people from anything but we can give them a safe place to heal. We can build joy in the middle of madness."
~Eve Ensler, playwright, performer, activist and founder of City of Joy

Joy in the middle of madness.
If there is anything I wish for every single woman who finds herself here, it is that: joy in the middle of madness.
Maybe that joy comes from recognition. From reading so many stories that sound like your own. From recognizing the pain that, no matter how different the circumstances of our betrayal, feels like our own. There's so much power in that recognition. In that "me too" response. We are not alone. Not at all. And if these other women can go through this pain and heal, then so we can every single one of us.
It has been a long time since I felt that sense of defeat, that conviction that nobody had ever felt so stupid, so humiliated, so powerless to stop the hurt. But I know now that the community here is more powerful than the fear that we will never ever be okay again. The community here reminds us that we will heal. We will be okay again. We will be better than okay. We will feel joy. And this community, hopefully, even gives a little taste of that joy. In the middle of madness.
Maybe the joy comes from hope. From reading others' stories in which they share that they aren't where they were any more. That they don't cry so often. That the numbness has given way to a different pain, one that they can endure because feeling something is better than feeling nothing. That they laughed the other day at something their child said. That they met with a divorce lawyer and realized they were going to be okay. That the worst was the fear, not the reality.
Maybe the joy comes from time. From realizing that, contrary to all expectations, we're surviving this. Day after day. That we're healing incrementally.
Maybe the joy comes from the liberation of finally dealing with the truth instead of so many lies. That even if it has hurt like hell to know the truth, it's still better than that am-I-crazy feeling of living with deceit.
Maybe the joy comes from a partner who is able to support us through this pain. From being able to pull closer to each other and see each other's wounds and tend to our own in a way that's gentle and compassionate.
Maybe the joy comes from finally seeing that it's time to leave and that within that painful decision, there is an opening for so much more hope and joy down the road.
Maybe the joy comes helping others. From knowing that within our own healing is a blueprint for others. That we can share what we've learned and leave it to others to take from our story what works for them and leave what doesn't.
I know not all of you can see the joy on this site, especially when you first arrive, shattered and frightened.
But I promise you it's there. I see it every day. I see it in the compassionate voices that chime in to acknowledge each others' pain. I see it in the way we hold each others' stories as sacred. I see it in the way we can laugh at Stupid S#*t Cheaters Say. In the way we cheer each other on, whether their choice in responding to betrayal is like ours or not. In the ingenious ways we help others like us, such as the woman who purchased a gift card for running shoes for her therapist to give to a betrayed client who needed help finding her feet.
We all learn through this that we cannot protect people from what happens to them. We learn we couldn't even protect ourselves. But we can give others and ourselves a safe place to heal. And we can find joy there.

Friday, May 19, 2017

How to Be Hurt and Still Show Up

I wrote this almost a year ago. I didn't publish it because, at the time, it felt too raw. I felt so vulnerable. It felt a bit like failure, too. That so many years after the bomb dropped, we were still struggling at times. Now, however, I can see it as another of those crossroads: A choice to grow and learn together or grow and leave. We opted for the former. Again. 

It was late June and my sister-in-law was visiting us from Chicago en route to her cottage further north. She had invited our family months earlier to join her and her family. I had never been to her cottage, each summer choosing instead to use the two or three days alone to get caught up on work or just exhale without kids. My husband's family and I have had a fraught relationship over the years. Choosing to spend less time with them has been one of the healthier choices I've made post D-Day. This summer, however, I understood that it would just be her family and mine.
But while my sister-in-law was here, she mentioned that her brother, the one I pledged to avoid, would also be there.
Pause for re-evaluation #1.
A few days later, I visited my 87-year-old father and was shocked to find him wearing filthy clothes and eating stale food. I spent the weekend preparing meals and doing laundry for him and promising both of us I'd see him again soon.
Pause for re-evaluation #2.
Then two assignments landed on my desk with tight deadlines. And did I mention my summer included a houseful of teenagers and their friends?
So I did what my gut was telling me to do. Wish my husband and three children a very happy weekend and use the time they would be at my sister-in-laws cottage to visit my father and get a jump-start on my work.
A tough decision from an incurable people pleaser (I'm working on it!) but one that felt right.Yay me, right?
My husband didn't share our enthusiasm. Instead, my choice ushered in weeks of confusion. He avoided looking at me. He was civil but barely. I know him. And no amount of him telling me that everything was "fine" convinced me that they were.
"I'm fucking furious," was what he finally admitted to me.
Why? I had rejected his family yet again. I was being selfish. I was the source of all his anxiety and stress. Everything wrong in his life was my fault.
But we'd been doing so well prior to this. Life was good.
Not according to my husband who dropped this bomb on me.
He wanted a separation.
This used to be his go-to threat. We spent the first decade of our marriage in this crazy dance of getting close and pushing off from each other. Any disagreement inevitably ended with one of us (usually him) suggesting we separate. Unable to stomach any conflict, he could only look for the closest exit.
So much had changed.
But here we were again.
This time, however, I knew something I didn't know back then.
I understood that he didn't want out. He just still didn't know how to be hurt and stay. How to be hurt and remain open. And, I confess, I had kinda forgotten too. Which is why, when he said he wanted to separate, I simply agreed.
He put an emergency call into our marriage counsellor who saw him immediately. And then, two days later, she saw me. And then a week after that, she saw us together.
In that time, my husband and I, a bit shocked by talk of separation, had to be brutally honest with ourselves about what we wanted. And, not surprisingly, each of us wanted the same thing: true commitment, honesty, intimacy. With each other.
We had to remind ourselves how to be hurt and still show up. How to be hurt but not reach for the nuclear codes.
I had to listen to his pain, which included feeling dismissed by me when he didn't agree with my opinions. I had to create compassion for him around his sadness that things with his family have never been easy for him either. I'm not the only one they've hurt over the years.
I thought of my ability to listen to my friends. To listen as I do my job as a journalist. To remain curious about what others are thinking, about their life view. With my husband, I had developed a bad habit of viewing any difference between us as evidence that we were mis-matched. A benign comment from him about something I felt strongly about could take me from "he's my wonderful best friend" to "I have to spend the rest of my life with this asshole" in eight seconds.
So I had to understand that my own reaction was rooted in fear. Fear that I was wrong. Fear that I had stayed with him when I shouldn't have. Fear that disagreement was the same as disapproval.
Here's what I've realized: My husband is a kind, compassionate, progressive, smart person who has plenty of strong opinions (uh, me too!) and who sometimes disagrees with me. So while we share a value system, we don't always express those values in the same way. And instead of responding to him as an enemy, I can be curious.
As for his family? He has work to do around them that our therapist told me she doesn't think he's going to do any time soon. There's so much pain there, she said. And, for now at least, there's resistance to dig any deeper.
But what he can do is respect my choice not to go there. What he can do is extend compassion to me around my needs, to learn anew to see my self-care as healthy for our marriage, to stop expecting me to behave in ways that mean he won't face his family's disapproval or disappointment. It's something he's willing to do. Or at least try to do.
Marriage is tough. Even long after I think we should be "fixed", we're still coming up against things that threaten to destabilize us. And it's when we're feeling scared and hurt that we revert to those old behaviours that often make matters worse.
I hope I can remember that within that vulnerability is where we find our common ground.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

When People Aren't Perfect. Not Even Close.

Just last week, my 88-year-old father laid out his theory: If my mother had stuck to pills or booze rather than pills and booze, he theorized, she would have been "just fine."
Oh, dad. Seriously?
I've always kinda wished my dad was a little more like Pa Ingalls and a little less like, well, Homer Simpson. I wanted him to be wise. To be selfless. To get things, without me having to explain them.
But while my dad has many wonderful qualities, he's more than a wee bit self-absorbed. He leans on others (read: me) even when it's ill-advised or inappropriate rather than deal with things himself. In short, he's not perfect. Not even close.
Not too long ago, I expressed my disappointment to my husband about something my father had said that hit an old and painful sore spot.
"I think my job as an adult is to learn to forgive him for being who he is," I said.
It's not so hard to forgive my dad for being who he is. He's a dreamer, a gentle man with simple needs. Kind and open-minded. A guy who believes, absolutely, that he's the luckiest man in the world. That his parents were the best. That his wife was the best. His kids are the best. His grandkids are better than best. I've never known a person so content with his life. So content with himself.
In the decade since my mother died, he has created something of a shrine to her, something she, with her "everything in its place" mindset, would hate.
"She was a true friend," he tells me often.
She was. I don't know a more loyal person than my mom.
My dad? Well...
There was that little issue with a secret friend back in the 70s that devastated my mother, a secret friend my father refused to give up, even when it was clear that my mom, who'd dedicated her adult life to creating the stable home she'd craved as a child, was falling apart.
He just couldn't understand what the problem was. It wasn't a sexual relationship, he insisted. They were just...friends. Friends who did things without my mother. Friends who met behind their spouses backs. Friends. What's so bad about that?
That my father still can't understand the problem speaks to his lack of empathy, his inability to imagine how painful this was to my mother. Or maybe it speaks more to his selfishness. He liked this secret friendship and so why should he have to give it up? It wasn't his fault my mother couldn't handle it.
And yet, he will regale anyone who will listen to stories of my mom. How beautiful she was. How smart. How loyal.
My mom asked for my forgiveness for her. My dad's not-so-secret friendship sent her spiralling into addiction (though, given her family history, it was likely a matter of time before something tripped that particular wire) and she drank/drugged herself into a psychiatric hospital for most of my teens.
She found sobriety through AA. She spent two and a half decades being the mom I'd always wanted before she died.
My job, as an adult, is to forgive my parents for who they are.
It's easier, of course, when the behaviour is no longer happening. When I'm no longer reliant on these people for my survival.
Easier, too, when each has requested, one way or another, my forgiveness. Or at least my understanding.
But even if they hadn't (and my dad has never apologized), it's still my job as an adult to forgive them for who they are. Which is not even close to saying that what they did was okay. Or that, as far as I was concerned, they could continue doing it. That's not forgiveness. That's enabling. That's co-dependence. That's self-harm.
No, it's a matter of forgiving them for being who they are – for having made awful choices that caused me a lot of pain but knowing that none of us can go back and un-do those choices. They are who they are. Or who they were.
They weren't perfect. Not even close.
The beauty of forgiving others for being imperfect is that it kicked the stool out from underneath my own martyr complex. I'm imperfect too. And I can forgive myself for that.
When I commented to my husband about my father – that my job was to forgive him for being who he was – my husband responded with this: "I think it's our job as adults to forgive everyone for who they are."
Including him, this man who broke my heart with his choices. This imperfect man who has tried every day since to be better. To never hurt me like that again.
Including me.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Your Worst-Case Scenario Handbook to Surviving Infidelity

If I had a mantra in the early days post D-Day when my world imploded, it was this: I have three healthy children. 
No matter how bad things seemed – as lie piled upon lie, as each new bit of info shredded my heart into ever smaller bits – I would remind myself that, no matter how awful this was, my children were alive and well. 
Turns out, I was on to something.
As Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg reported in an episode of On Being, considering how things could be worse is a key survival strategy. It's akin, said Sandberg, to the stereotypical hand wringer  always considering new potential disasters but there's wisdom in it. Look on the bright side can feel impossible when you're going through hell. Most of the time, it seems as if there is no bright side. The trick, as psychologist Adam Grant explained, is that because it can be hard to replace bad with good, we fool ourselves by replacing existing awful with potentially worse, which actually helps us in that moment find gratitude. So, while my marriage felt as though it was an utter sham and my best friend had betrayed me in the worst possible way, I had three healthy children
My existing awful was discovering my husband's infidelity. My potential worse would be losing any one of my children. Consequently, the fact that my three kids were alive and well became something to be celebrated because I could imagine that not being the case. 
I also reminded myself that my husband's partners had been consenting adults. He hadn't engaged in anything illegal. Things could have been worse. Relatively speaking, infidelity seemed...survivable. 
Your potential awful might be: I could be dealing with cancer (which was the case for a woman I know.
It might be: What if my parents were dead? What if we lost our home? What if I contracted AIDS? And on and on. You can always ALWAYS, as long as you're still breathing, find a worse-case scenario.
And that worse-case scenario can keep you rooted in perspective.
This is not to diminish your current pain. In Sandberg's situation, her beloved husband was still dead. No amount of worse-case scenarios was going to change her brutal and painful reality. And, at first, she resisted. Grant's recommendation that she try to imagine a worse scenario – What could be worse? she asked – was met with her scorn. Grant's response? Your husband could have been driving your children when he had his heart attack. 
As much as some of is wish we were dead after D-Day, we don't really want our life to end. We want the pain to end. And as long as we're alive, there's the possibility – indeed the probability – that things will get better. 
Those of us further down the path of healing are proof of that. 
My kids are still alive and well. We have our challenges, of course. But they are manageable.
My marriage is good. I consider my husband my closest friend and our relationship is stronger for the storms it has weathered. 
There has and will be more pain. I lost my mother a decade ago in the midst of this maelstrom, and my father celebrates his 88th birthday today. Like everyone else, I grow older daily.

But things can (almost) always be worse. 

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Trusting your version of events

But willingness comes from the pain, and when I got to the point of believing I had really lost my mind, another voice inside me stepped in, grown-up and gentle. This one said, "Well? Who knows. Maybe not..."
It was lovely and amazing. I was marshalling a parent who I hadn't had consistently as a child, who assured me that we would figure it out, together. The person believed what I reported, and felt that my perceptions could be trusted or were at least worthy of investigation.
~Anne Lamott, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace

I recently visited with my 88-year-old father who dropped this little nugget of his wisdom on me: You know, he said. If your mother had just stuck with either pills or booze and hadn't combined the two, she would have been just fine.
There should be some sort of Razzie for a guy who can live almost to 90 and still be so clueless about his wife of more than 50 years. It takes some serious effort to have absorbed literally nothing from her 25-plus years of hard-won sobriety. To be able to convince himself that, sure there were months spent in locked psychiatric wards, years lost, hopes dashed, and – oh yeah – a daughter who essentially raised herself because her parents were fighting over who was more horrible than the other, but that's because she mixed her poison. Seriously.
What's more, my father has kept up his defence of an emotional affair with a woman he worked with as "harmless" for half a century. The problem wasn't his secret friendship with this woman, it was my mother's response to it, by descending into years of addiction to numb her pain.
Clearly, denial still runs deep in my father's bones.
So it's not surprising that I've spent a significant part of adulthood wondering where the truth lies. Was I being "dramatic", the often-lobbed challenge to my version of events in childhood? Did the two drunk adults somehow have a tighter grasp on reality than I did? That was certainly what I was told. That everything was fine. That I was the one rocking the boat. That if my mom just drank herself into a stupor rather than mixed in pills, she would have been great. Mother of the year. Pillar of her community.
It has taken me a lot of years and a lot of therapy to be able to say this: That is total and absolute bullshit.

Fast forward from my fiction-is-truth childhood to months before D-Day. I was pretty sure something wasn't right but my husband assured me I was mistaken. He promised me that everything was fine. Ignore that knot in your stomach, he might have said. Dismiss that nagging doubt in your brain. Don't believe what's right under your nose. Instead trust me. If I'd had any sense (and hadn't had years of grooming to doubt my own reality), I would have said this: That is total and absolute bullshit.

It's one of the great casualties with infidelity: Our version of reality becomes shaky. Even for those of you who didn't come from a long line of bullshitters, it can be hard to hold tight to what you know when what you know seems so contrary to what you want to believe. Or to what you thought you knew.
But, as Lamott reminds us, if we can listen to still small voice, the one that whispers rather than shouts, we'll often hear the truth. It's a voice that suggests we've always known who to trust (spoiler: ourselves). It's a voice that urges us to ignore that other version of reality when it doesn't sound...right. When it doesn't sound true, no matter how badly we wish it was.
At the very least, that voice will encourage us to investigate our version of reality, to give it the dignity of consideration.
As for my dad, he's 88. And while it seems he hardly learned a thing from those crazy years, I was lucky enough to have my mom until she passed away almost a decade ago. And she learned tons. She would never EVER have pretended that her problem was a consequence of what she mixed, rather than how she coped. She would have howled with laughter at my dad's version of events. Because the most important lesson she learned through sobriety was to trust herself and her reality. To stand firm in her convictions and make no excuses for anyone, least of all herself.
I miss her. I thought, as I drove home from my visit with my dad, how we would have laughed at what he said. She would have shaken her head with exasperation and said to me what she often did when I brought to her some other version of a story that I was trying to figure out: "Oh sweetie. You know exactly what's true."
In other words, if my mother ever swore (which she didn't), she would have said, "Hey, the other guy's story? Total and absolute bullshit."

Monday, May 1, 2017

Control is an illusion: The key is surrender

"The world is a terrifying place. We manage it by believing we can control it. And when it hasn’t been controlled—when it doesn’t bend to our wills—we either look for something to blame, or we surrender."
from the essay SuperBabies Don't Cry, by Heather Kirn Lanier

My daughter had a favorite children's book we read often. Piggie Pie was a hilarious retelling of fairy tales and nursery rhymes. One particular riff on Wizard of Oz had a wicked witch broom-writing above Old MacDonald's farm: Surrender Piggies!
No way were those piggies going to surrender. Not to Gritch the Witch. In fact, they were already disguised. They were undoubtedly going to outsmart the wicked Gritch.
Surrender. It feels a whole lot like failure, doesn't it? Like weakness. Giving up.
Especially in our amped-up fight-like-hell culture.
Indeed, dictionary definitions of surrender focus on defeat. Except for this one: "to yield oneself".
To yield. To make way for something else. To take your foot off the gas pedal and wait. 
In the wake of betrayal, we expect ourselves to act. Faced with our partner's choice, made without our input, beyond our control, we often compel ourselves to take control. And yet, for many of us, never has control felt so elusive.
Not only can't we control whether he continues his affair or not, whether he continues to lie to us or not, whether he stays and fights for us or not, we realize that the control we thought we had all along was an illusion. 
The world is a terrifying place. Ask anyone who's experienced a sudden tragic accident, a life-changing diagnosis, death, assault... And so many of us adopt the illusion of control because the alternative – accepting the randomness, the casual cruelty, the lottery luck of life – is too frightening. 
I did it. 
I believed that, after a chaotic childhood in which I controlled nothing, least of all my parents' addictions and consequent behaviour, I could control my adult life. And, of course, there were things I could control. Where I worked, for instance. Where I lived. Who I spent my time with.
But I bought the fantasy that there was a power that could prevent rejection or loss or failure or betrayal. I convinced myself that if I could unlock the secret formula that created a blissful life, it would be mine too. Perfection, I became certain, was the key.
And perfection was something I could control. It simply meant always looking good, always pleasing, always performing, always improving. It meant ensuring that everyone around me understood their importance, their value. It meant being available to them. It meant being whoever they needed me to be.
It meant sacrificing myself for some fantastical guarantee that they would never abandon me. 
And when it all blew up in my face (it blew up more than once. I'm a slow learner) with my husband's betrayal, I had one more choice to make. Was I going to look around and find someone to blame for what happened? Or was I going to surrender?
I chose blame for a year at least. I blamed my parents at first. My husband's betrayal unearthed some long-buried trauma that I enthusiastically excavated and flung in the faces of my parents who, to their credit, loved me through it. 
I moved onto the Other Woman. This was her fault. Her fault and the fault of every Other Woman who takes what isn't hers.
It was my husband's fault. Him with his missing moral compass. Him with his lies.
And persuasive arguments could be made that the blame for my situation lay at the feet of all of these people. Add in popular culture, add in social media with its click-to-get-laid technology, add in my husband's parents, the list goes on.
Ultimately though where did blame get me?
Absolutely nowhere.
Surrender though? Now we're talking.
Surrender wasn't failure at all. And it certainly wasn't weakness.
Surrender was yielding. Surrender was an acceptance that this was my situation and no amount of mud-slinging was going to change a damn thing. 
In a novel I've been reading, one of the characters gets in a physical fight and remembers something he learned in a martial arts class. Rather than continue to kick and flail when your opponent has you up against a wall, you go limp. You surrender. And in that act, you throw your opponent off. You become dead weight. Your opponent relaxes his grip.
When we surrender to our new reality, we're no longer expending our energy kicking and flailing at the universe, at our fate. When we're not railing against the injustice that this shouldn't have happened to us (and why not? awful things happen to good people all the time), we can focus on our injury. We can begin to heal ourself. 


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