"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.
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.