I will not say that my husband's affair was a good thing. The cost of his betrayal was too high. My ability to meet my children's needs was undoubtedly compromised when I could barely get out of bed. My career suffered when discovery of his betrayal coincided with the publication of my book, along with a number of related opportunities that I simply didn't have the energy or confidence to pursue. And I continue to wonder about the impact all that stress had on my physical health.
However, I recognize and acknowledge (such as here, here and here) that through healing from my husband's betrayal, I've learned and grown in wonderful ways.
Put simply, I'm not the person I was. And though I wouldn't have admitted it at the time, that is a good thing.
But when you're still in the weeds, it helps to see someone standing on the shore waving you in. So I've put together a half dozen things that you need to know about being cheated on, plus a bonus one.
1. Affairs are about escape, not "trading up".
The stereotypical Other Woman is a sultry siren, dressed in a short skirt, and with long flowing hair and perfect teeth. So we're often shocked to discover that the Other Woman is, well, ordinary. Or younger but crazier. Or skinnier but nastier. Or chubbier and a raging alcoholic (as in my case). But his affair was never about so-called trading up. It was about escape. Consider this from New York magazine: "It might be reassuring to know that most people have affairs not because they’ve found somebody better or hotter or more perfect (perfect people don’t tend to have sex with other people’s spouses) but because affairs make us feel alive and seen; they counteract feelings of numbness or flatness or disconnection that seem like they might kill us, if we don’t kill ourselves first. And since we aren’t up for suicide, we find a work-around."
In other words, the affair offers a distraction from those awful feelings he wants to avoid. They're the coward's way of dealing with problems. And his affair isn't about you at all. You're just collateral damage.
2. Happiness really is a warm puppy or fill-in-blank-here.
I discovered, by accident, that the way out of my pain was noticing those fleeting moments of contentment and holding on for dear life. In my case, I took great comfort in my giant white dog whose love for me felt solid and certain. I would walk him in the morning, which not only got me out of the house and into the world, it reminded me that the world can still hold beauty even when I'm in pain. I would marvel at the sunlight scattering on the fresh snow. I would notice the birdsong. I would delight in my dog's ability to be entirely in the moment – not miserable about yesterday or terrified of tomorrow.
So, for me, happiness was my warm puppy. For you, it might be your newborn daughter, or your grandchild, or your blank canvas, or Mozart, or the weight room at the gym, or your garden, or...,or...or.... Whatever it is, be grateful for it. Prioritize it. It will save you.
3. People love us the best they can. And sometimes their best sucks.
I owe this lesson to my mother, who pointed it out to me when I was in the "why would he do this to me?" stage of mourning my marriage. A graduate of the 12-step school, my mom had plenty of lessons to impart. And she died weeks after D-Day #2 (when I learned the full extent of my husband's betrayal). For the six months, however, between D-Day #1 and #2, my crisis provided the opening for me to really start paying attention to my mom's wisdom. To be so grateful for the rock she provided me when I felt like I was drifting. She was speaking about my husband at the time. But this particular lesson was true for her too. The worst of her alcoholism came during my teen years, when I desperately needed a mother. She loved me then the best she could. I know that now. And when she was better, she could love me better.
4. Judgement masks fear.
Ohhhh boy. I shake my head when I remember how certain I was that my marriage was safe from infidelity. And when I heard rumours of infidelity in other marriages, I would comfort myself with the certainty that I wasn't like those wives – who nagged, who "let themselves go", who weren't much fun. Gulp.
In the days following my own D-Day, I admitted just how judgemental I'd been. And I realized that I hadn't a clue what was going on in those other marriages. Just like nobody had a clue what was going on in mine. What's more, it became acutely clear that feeling invisible in a marriage does things to a woman. She just might nag. She might "let herself go". She's not much fun. None of which make it okay to cheat (or continue to cheat) on her.
When we judge others, it's like a neon sign toward our own fears. We judge others to feel superior. To feel safe. I have a friend who, whenever she's being judgey about someone else, does this: On a sheet of paper, she writes down that person's name and underlines it. Then beneath that name, she lists everything about that person that drives her crazy. And then, when she's finished her list, she goes back to the top of the page and crosses out that other person's name and writes her own. Looking over the list, she says, she always ALWAYS finds a list of things she doesn't like about herself. And that gives her the clarity she needs to recognize that her judgement about others is really fear of judgement about herself.
Fear is often behind our worst behaviours. Judgement is no exception.
5. Perfection is the enemy of joy.
Speaking of fear, I often hid behind a pursuit of perfection, certain that if I could just be perfect, then everyone would love me and I would never be abandoned or alone. Great theory right? Uh...no. All it did was leave me resentful and exhausted because perfection is always just out of reach. I was never quite skinny enough, or quite pretty enough, or quite a good enough cook, or quite intelligent enough, or quite successful enough, or quite sexy enough, or...or...or...
D-Day forced me to admit that my life wasn't perfect. I wasn't perfect. I hadn't been able to protect myself from emotional abandonment. In fact, focusing so much on being pleasing to others left me empty. I hadn't bothered to take care of myself. I kept many people at arm's length, lest they see behind the mask.
After D-Day, it was all I could do to remain upright. The idea of perfection was laughable, if I'd been capable of laughter. Instead, I learned something my wise mom had been trying to tell me for years. That all I ever had to do in life was "show up". Showing up was all I could do (and even that felt impossible some days). But I discovered that showing up was enough. Showing up -- really showing up, in all my imperfect authentic glory -- allowed me to have deeper friendships, it created work opportunities I couldn't have imagined. I didn't have to do the ol' jazz hands to make me notice me. I just had to show up.
Perfection keeps us forever on the path of not enough. It keeps joy out of reach. Joy, on the contrary, embraces us exactly where we are. As exactly who we are. Joy is laughter. It's a deep appreciation for our imperfect selves and all other imperfect selves.
6. It's possible to be happier after heartbreak.
Raise your hand if you said, in the hours/days/weeks following discovery of your partner's betrayal, something along the lines of "I will never ever be happy again." I read it here all the time. Women who, in their agony, embrace hyperbole to insist their husband "murdered" any hope of happiness ever again, or "destroyed" their souls, or "shattered" their hearts and hopes.
I know if feels like that. Lord, do I know! But let me tell you something I've learned on this path out of hell (there I go!): you will not – I promise! – feel like this forever. Emotions are transient. This too shall pass, the wise 12-steps folks try and tell us. And they're right. That doesn't mean it doesn't feel like your heart is in pieces. I know it does. But feelings are not facts, as my brilliant therapist reminded me over and over and over.
And if you do the hard work of healing from betrayal, by learning how to be gentle with yourself, by learning to love and respect yourself, by letting go of any expectation of perfection in yourself and in others, you will come to a place where you not only feel happiness again, but you feel a greater happiness. It's a different kind. As one of my favourite poets, William Blake, tells us in Songs of Innocence and Experience, we gain a sort of understanding of pain having gone through this that will forever alter our understanding of the world. Our broken hearts are now capable of holding both dark and light. As Leonard Cohen puts it, the cracks are how the light gets in.
Bonus Lesson: You do not need to be able to read your future in a crystal ball. You only need to ever know your next right step. Too often we think we need to respond RIGHT NOW to discovery of our husband's betrayal. And so we react – angrily, impulsively, thoughtlessly. We might file for divorce. We might light his clothes on fire. We might call his boss or his mother and give them an earful. We might run into the arms of another man. And frankly, any of those things might be a perfectly acceptable action. The key is to determine what you're going to do based on what is really the right thing for you. Not ready to kick him out? Then don't. (Just make sure some clear boundaries are in place.) Can't live with him in the house right now? Then don't. But before you make a difficult-to-undo choice, make sure it IS a choice. And not simply lashing out in pain. You don't want to compound your heartbreak.
Your next right step. That might be an appointment with a therapist. It might be a facial. It might be changing the locks. But putting pressure on yourself to somehow know the absolute best way through this is setting yourself up for more heartbreak. Just focus on the now. And the next now.