Monday, July 31, 2017

To My Betrayed Soul-Warriors

I know how exhausted you are. I know how your mind races from panic to fury to confusion. I know how you wish you could just go back to bed only to find that, when it's time to go to bed, you dread the silence and the darkness and loneliness. How, you wonder, am I going to make it til morning? And then, in the morning, how am I going to make it til bedtime?
I know because that was my life too.  
In one horrible phone call, my suspicions were confirmed. And nothing was ever going to be the same.
I had three young children. I had work deadlines. I had volunteer commitments. I had a life. A life shattered by the discovery that my husband, the guy I thought would always have my back, had been cheating behind it. Had been endangering my physical health. Had been damaging my emotional and psychological health. Had threatened the stability of our entire family.
What the hell are we supposed to do with that information, right? 
I could have kicked him out, which is what every made-for-TV drama would have told me to do. I could have looked the other way, convinced myself of something along the lines of "men will be men". What I did was fall apart, at least some of the time. I managed to pull it together for my children and their friends and teachers. I managed to put on a mask for trips to the grocery store and the occasional get-together with friends. For months, I was publicly fine while privately a mess.
My husband was the same. Though he had a messy work situation to deal with, thanks to his idiotic choice to cheat with his assistant, for the most part the mess was dealt with privately. And he had clients and meetings and something of an escape from me for eight hours a day.
I had enough work to distract me briefly but not so much that I didn't have time to simply sob or stare blankly at a computer, wondering what the hell I was going to do. 
My mother, literally, saved me. Each day, we would talk and she would remind me, as often as I needed it, that I was strong enough, brave enough. I was enough. This was his failure, not mine. 
I believed her enough. 
And then, six months after D-Day #1 when I learned of the affair came D-Day #2 when I learned of all the others. And, three weeks after that, my mother, who guarded my heart, died suddenly.
I don't know how I made it through, only that I did. I held on to every word of wisdom and strength my mother had armed me with. I surrounded myself with the very few friends who knew what I was dealing with and who were fierce in their love for me.
I smiled for the camera and the interviewers and the crowds as I promoted my latest book. I tucked a bottle of anti-anxiety pills my doctor had prescribed for me into my bag, as I was increasingly panicked at the idea of showing up and pretending to be together and successful. I rarely took them. Having them was enough. 
And I followed so many of the rules I espouse here. I was gentle with myself. I took care of myself. I learned to set boundaries to keep myself safe. I gave myself all the time I needed to figure out my next right step. When I fell apart – and I did – I picked myself up and forgave myself. I didn't know these rules on D-Day #1. I figured them out as I navigated my pain. 
And you will too, my betrayed soul-warriors. If you believe in this truth: You are enough. Have always been. This is his failure, not yours. 
And each morning that you awake to face the same demons that challenged you the night before, know this: I see how brave you are. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Is Intuition Your SuperPower?

In hindsight, I see that I knew that something wasn't right. I had asked a friend if I should be concerned about the amount of time my husband was spending with his work assistant (with whom I later learned he was having an affair). I was uncomfortable with the dinners they had when they worked late. But, I reasoned, he told me about this stuff so he didn't seem to be hiding anything. Innocent then, right?
But the whole truth of what was going on came out six months later, on a second "D-day". And I can honestly say that I never ever had a clue that the cheating had been going on, well, since Day 1. For our entire relationship.
So, my "intuition"? Not so reliable.
But maybe my expectations for what "intuition" would tell me were unrealistic. After all, I think that any decent intuition should have told me that there were other women in his life. However, looking back, my intuition was telling me plenty – just not that. But I just wasn't listening. Or rather, I was talking myself out of trusting my intuition because it meant rocking the boat. And I was a longtime calmer of waters. Boat rocking was something I avoided.
A lot of us feel stupid in the wake of betrayal because we should have "known". What kind of idiot doesn't know her husband is cheating, right? Our culture implies that women who don't "stop" it are somehow agreeing to it, as if, rather than actually being ignorant of what's really going on, we're feigning ignorance. It's a longtime defence of plenty of Other Women, who believe that the wife is somehow complicit in the cheating. That she's okay with it as long as he doesn't leave because she doesn't want to "lose her lifestyle". Yep, OW have actually written to me to tell this drivel.
And so a lot of us wonder if our intuition is broken. How come we didn't know? What's wrong with us?
Nothing. Nothing is wrong with us and, likely, nothing is wrong with our intuition. Intuition isn't an inner psychic. It's more a warning system that something just isn't right. Problem is, so many of us have been over-riding this warning system that we barely notice when it goes off. A friend cancels on us for the billionth time? Oh well, she's busy. We might feel a twinge of resentment but we swallow it. We'll just reschedule. A family member volunteers us for something we don't want to do? Oh well, it's no biggie. We can manage. Our husband seems detached? He's just stressed about work.
It takes practice to notice that early warning system. And the warning isn't necessarily that we're being cheated on – at least not in the sense of a sexual betrayal. The warning is more that we're being cheated out of something. Cheated out of our agency. Cheated out of clear boundaries. Cheated out of respect.
Often, we're cheating ourselves out of our voice. We stay silent, swallowing our fury, our disappointment, our resentment. That niggling sense that something isn't quite right? We're just over-reacting, being silly. Those around us are often too happy to confirm this for us because, god forbid, we should begin to act in our own best interests instead of everyone else's. And so they tell us that others mean well, that we're being too sensitive.
And our intuition becomes harder to notice.
But it's not too late to start paying attention. The other night I was in the kitchen facing a sink full of dishes. The inner monologue began: Nobody ever helps me. They're watching TV while I'm in here doing all the work. Blah blah I'm a long-suffering martyr blah. It's a familiar script for me. I can recite it by heart.
This night, however, I tried to pay attention. Maybe not intuition so much as my still small voice. And it was telling me to respect myself, to notice my boundaries, to pay attention to this resentment because it was telling me something important about my relationships – that they didn't feel fair.
And in that time that I stopped and noticed, I also realized that nobody was forcing me into the kitchen. I was welcome to sit on the sofa and watch TV. The dishes wouldn't get done, at least not by me, but they didn't care.
And so I found my voice.
"I'm going to read," I said. "Would someone do these dishes before bed?"
My husband and daughter agreed easily. Sure they would.
And with that, I left the kitchen.
Intuition isn't much more than that. Paying attention to our bodies, our minds, our hearts. Noticing when something just doesn't sit right with us. And we might need lots of practice to really sit with that discomfort and figure out where it's coming from. Our intuition isn't some private investigator, able to present evidence of wrongdoing, necessarily. But, when I think back, the night came when I did somehow just "know" that my husband was cheating on me. That the dinners and the late nights and the "work" was more than a new team dedicated to building a business.
I've let myself off the hook for not "knowing" sooner. I'm not sure what difference it really would have made. But I have tried to learn from the way in which I dismissed my own concerns, the way I bought his excuses that never did quite sound convincing. The way I chose to believe what I wanted to rather than notice that the knot in my stomach never quite went away.
I notice now more than I did. I'm still working on it. Intuition might not quite be my superpower, but it is powerful. And I'm revealing its power more all the time.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Crawling towards the light

"The hardest times are when no one is watching and it doesn't really matter whether you're strong or not. The times when you think life is circling the drain, and the bedrock aloneness of it trumps everything else. That's when animal instinct kicks in and most of us start to crawl toward the light.... We like to call it courage, but the body doesn't recognize it as such. You just put your head down and keep moving."
~ Gail Caldwell, from the memoir New Life, No Instructions

Even now, I find myself sometimes thinking of those around me who know nothing of the struggle I fought after D-Day, "if you only knew..." Because while it's great that I survived and, to most, appear to be a healthy, stable, happy middle-aged woman, sometimes I want credit for what I had to do to get here. Sometimes I want people to know what a badass I am. How heroic I am. How many dragons I had to slay to arrive at healthy, stable and happy.
You all know. Because you've either slain your own dragons or are slaying them as I write this. 
You know the courage it sometimes takes to get out of bed and show up at work so you don't get fired. You know the particular brand of heroism required to nurture your children and keep their hearts safe even as your own feels shattered and abandoned. You know the white-knuckled self-discipline required to not smother your husband in his sleep, or resist firing off that brutal e-mail to the OW, or bite your tongue hard when your mother-in-law, who hasn't a clue about her son's, um, extracurriculars, comments on what a "good boy" he's always been. 
Those who've been decimated by heartbreak, by the particular brand of grief known to those of us who discovered we were, literally, sleeping with the enemy, know what Gail Caldwell means when she talks about crawling toward the light. Though there are many days when we're not really sure there is light. So many days when we just can't convince ourselves that there will ever be light again.
But that's where the others come in. That's where those of us who've gone before wave our lanterns from farther along the path, to beckon you toward us. To give you the light as a compass. To remind you, as often as you need reminding, that the light is in fact up ahead. Just a little bit farther. To assure you that, no, we didn't believe it either. We didn't believe we would ever laugh again, feel happiness again, trust again. But here we are. Mostly healthy, stable and happy.
Keep crawling, warriors. If you can't see the light, then follow the sound of our voices. 
You may not call it courage. You may barely be able to admit it's survival. But whether or not you consider it heroic, let me tell you that it is. It's heroic to reach out for help. It's heroic to tend to your wound. It's heroic to insist that you deserve respect and kindness and honesty. When the "bedrock aloneness" threatens to convince you that nobody can possible understand your pain, it's heroic to find your voice and share your story.
Crawl toward the light, my exhausted warriors. We're up ahead, waiting. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Lie of the Sisterhood

"If we do not transform our pain, we will always transmit it – to our partner, our spouse, our children, our friends, our coworkers, our "enemies." Usually we project it outward and blame someone else for causing our pain."
Fr. Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Some call it the "law of the sisterhood". Others refer to it as "girl code". What it stipulates is that we don't go after each other's husbands or boyfriends. What it stipulates is essentially a sort of moral high ground, in which we respect each other's relationships, no matter how cute we think their significant other is, or how much he flirts with us.
But sometimes this sisterhood feels like we're the only ones in it. I sometimes think it's the lie of the sisterhood.
My 19-year-old discovered that this week when she learned that a close friend had hooked up with an ex-boyfriend. Now the rules get a bit fuzzy with exes, at least for some people. And I've gently reminded my daughter that she was well and truly done with this guy. That, she tells me, is not the point. What hurts her more than the two of them hooking up, she insists, is that her friend did it behind her back.
And so, my dejected daughter insists, she's wiping her hands of this friend.
And I'm (mostly) keeping my mouth shut.
But here's the thing: While I don't condone her friend's behaviour (if we're being sneaky about something, that's generally our first clue that we know it's hurtful to someone and we don't want to deal with the consequences), I can empathize. This girl has had a miserable childhood with a truly appalling mother and her series of equally appalling boyfriends. This girl gets into relationships with guys who treat her badly. She craves attention, no matter where it comes from. And so, with this ex of my daughter's, she was willing to gamble her friendship for the short-term thrill of his attention.
Does that make it okay? No. And she's lost (at least for the time being) my daughter's friendship. As my heavy-hearted child noted, once someone has broken your trust, you never quite look at the them the same way again.
Tell me about it, I want to say. But I bite my tongue.
Hurt people hurt people, we often say on this site.
Father Richard Rohr says that if we don't transform our pain, we will transmit it. Those of us here were the collateral damage of that transmission.
But when we can recognize that, it helps us shake off any responsibility we might feel for how people treat us. It helps us realize that their pain is for them to deal with, that we cannot and should not be blamed, including by ourselves.
My daughter's black-and-white view of the world might soften as she ages – my own certainly did (though I remain an adherent to the law of the sisterhood). But she has reminded me what it looks like when we hold hurt people accountable for the pain they transmit. It looks like self-respect.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Why You Should Tell. And Who

The first person I told was my mother. Though she and I had a rocky relationship when I was a teen (less to do with my hormones than her addictions), as adults we were the closest of friends. I could, and often did, tell her anything.
Her support was invaluable. While I was trying to hold it together and parent three young children and reeling from the news that my husband had been cheating on me with his assistant, she was my rock.
I then reached out to an old friend whose husband had cheated on her a few years earlier. She was no longer married and, I knew, it still hurt. Her response chilled me. "I couldn't stay married to him," she said of my husband, and made it clear that was pretty much all she had to say on the topic. She even defended the Other Woman, my husband's assistant as being completely entitled to a generous severance. While it might have been technically true, I hardly wanted to hear it.
Not long after, I confessed to a friend who worked in my husband's office. I told her mostly because of her relentless questioning about what the hell was going on between my husband his assistant but there was such relief in the telling and in her response: Her eyes opened wide with shock, then filled with tears. (A few years later, she discovered the same about her own husband and I was able to return the favor of unrelenting support.)
Over time, I told other friends. It wasn't so much intentional as natural. A friend concerned over my weight loss. A friend whose own marriage was dissolving at the same time but who I didn't tell until she was on more solid ground herself.
With that one early exception, those I told responded with concern, with compassion, with incredible kindness. And not just to me. With some time having passed, they could see my husband's shift. He had changed. And now they understood why.
The one exception was painful for me. I had reached out to her almost immediately. She was an old friend but our friendship had been rocky for a time when her boyfriend-turned-husband decided I was bad news. He later cheated on her and she reached out to me again. Now it was my turn. And her response hurt me deeply. I hadn't asked her for advice. I really just wanted someone to commiserate with. To tell me I'd get through this. Instead, I got judgement over how I was handling the worst pain of my life.
Lesson learned. Again.
Betrayal doesn't just change our marriage, it changes us. And it changes relationships around us. I became acutely aware of what role each friend played in my life. The people I spent the most time with – moms on committees at school, running group – weren't the people to whom I turned. I carefully parsed who could be trusted with my pain. My friend going through divorce herself at the time remains a close friend but she's never been good in a crisis. So scratch her off the list, at least right away. My friend who worked in my husband's office wasn't a close friend at the time. But her support and her loyalty to me during such hell meant so much to me. To this day, I know she has my back.
All of this is to say that I don't think I could have made it through this without having people in my life who could help me carry my pain. My therapist was a saint. I'm brought to tears by the memory of her "just happening" to drive my house one morning (she was friends with my neighbor) and stopping her car as I was loading kids in my van for the trip to school. She looked me in the eye, asked how I was doing, and assured me that I was going to be okay. She said it with such conviction that I had no choice but to believe her.
We need those people. The ones who see the pain in our eyes and don't look away. The ones who hold our stories as sacred, who don't turn our agony into gossip, who withhold judgement or advice. The ones who are whole enough to put aside their own feelings about infidelity to make space for our experience.
These people are rare. But sometimes they don't exist so much as they are created by us. Our courage in telling them our story gives them the chance, if they take it, to step up. To be brave themselves. To open their own hearts.
Infidelity triggers a lot of feelings in people. Awful feelings. Fear. Anxiety. Shame. The most judgemental people are usually the most frightened.
Know that.
Know that their fear often comes out as anger or disgust or a need to tell you, exactly, how you should respond.
But know also that there are people who've been through this themselves and learned the hard way about the pain of betrayal. And you might just be surprised at who in your life has learned this lesson.
Take stock of the people in your life. If there isn't a single person you think you can trust with your story, then part of your healing needs to include finding someone. Or a few someones.
None of us should go through this alone. And though this community always always amazes me with the way you reach out to each other, to the way in which you wrap your virtual arms around the most wounded, real-life support is crucial too.
Telling people is an act of self-respect. It is an act of courage. It is a way of insisting that your pain matters. That remains true whether or not people have enough courage to hear it.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

When you feel forced to get back to "normal"

My husband would watch me like a hawk. Every twitch. Every smile. Every remark. He was seeking evidence that we were "okay". That things were "back to normal". He was seeking evidence that the crisis was over and that our marriage had survived.
And I was loathe to give him evidence because, whether or not I was having a good day, the crisis was not over. Our marriage might have survived but only for the moment. And I reserved the right the end it tomorrow should I so choose.
What's more, I'd be damned if I'd give him a moment's comfort, a second's reprieve from feeling like a louse. He deserved to be on tenterhooks for the pain he'd caused me.
Or so I thought.
A lot of us find ourselves there, don't we? Afraid to actually exhale and experience the slightest joy or relaxation or relief. Determined to make it clear that things are not "okay" and, perhaps, never will be again. That our marriage is being held together only by our inability to get it together and call a divorce lawyer. That he had better not make a single misstep or we're outta here.
Our message, loud and clear: Things are not "back to normal" so don't you even dare to think I'm "over this."
Beneath this message is a fear. A fear that "normal" means releasing him from responsibility for what he did to us. That "normal" is acting as if none of this ever happened. That "normal" means we never have to speak of this again. That by bringing it up, we're somehow ruining a good thing. A fear that he believes that everything would be fine IF WE COULD JUST GO BACK TO NORMAL.
I've got news for him. If by "normal" he wants you to go back to being the you who you were before he betrayed you, then "normal" is a fantasy. That you is gone. That you is forever changed by his betrayal. That you is replaced by a you that can absolutely get past this. A you that will laugh again and feel joy. A you that perhaps even feels joy more deeply for the gratitude it now holds. But a you that has also experienced a pain that you didn't anticipate, a wound that can heal but will leave scars.
And that's something that every guy who's ever cheated on a woman and then wants things to go back to "normal" needs to understand. "Normal" isn't an option. Not any more.
To those outside of my marriage, things look "normal". We have fun together. We are great at co-pareting our kids. We share a value system (which, now, includes the value of monogamy to each other).
But we know better. We know that our "normal" includes incorporating the painful lessons we both learned, it includes a gratitude for each other that's directly related to the recognition that we're only where we are because we worked our asses off to get here. Our "normal" recognizes that our marriage isn't perfect. That it's a process. That some days we make our marriage stronger – by listening to each other, by respecting each other's needs and wants, by making it clear to each other that we're glad to be together. Other days, well, we don't do such a great job. Which, come to think of it, is pretty normal.
But know this: You don't have to hold on to pain to make it clear that what he did was not okay. You don't have to resist any slivers of joy or contentment out of fear that he'll think things are back to "normal". You are not only allowed to talk to him about your pain, you are encouraged to do so. His ability to listen to you, to hold your pain even in the face of his own shame and disappointment, will make you stronger, will make your marriage stronger.
Don't let fear of "normal" control you. Your new normal will be a creation of your own. It might involve divorce lawyers. It will likely involve therapists. It might include new vows.
What it won't include? Amnesia. Pretence. Faking it.
But let your new normal include any bit of happiness you can. That doesn't negate what happened to you. It simply reminds you that you are healing. And healing is perfectly normal.

Monday, July 3, 2017

When counselling becomes performance art

A friend of mine is in couples counselling with her husband (after a few years of me nagging her to stop complaining about her marriage and either do something about it or get out). The change, she says, has been remarkable. Her husband is helping more around the house. He's turning off the television and listening to her. They're laughing more. Sharing more. Planning the rest of their lives.
They're also running into something that most of us hit in therapy. Or rather two things. The first is that a genuine desire for help becomes a desire to enlist an ally. Once the worst of the crisis is over and the counselling becomes about negotiating the smaller things, it can too easily slip into trying to use the therapist as backup,  sort of "see, she thinks you're being ridiculous too". After all, you think, you're clearly right and your husband is clearly wrong. And surely the therapist agrees.
But a counsellor is not there to gang up on the "wrong" partner. She is there to help you find that place where you can begin to mend some damage, to help each of you see that your point of view isn't so much as a matter of "right" vs "wrong" but to help each of you try to see the others' point of view.
A good counsellor sees his job as teaching a couple to negotiate. A good counsellor should clear the way for you and your spouse to talk to each other and listen to each other. To communicate without someone in the middle. That takes practice for most of us who never learned how to have a healthy respectful conversation in which we listened without agenda, without assumption, without bias.
Infidelity, however, does complicate things.
While it's not the job of the counsellor to pile on the cheater and harp on the pain he's caused, it is reasonable to expect your counsellor to agree with you that what he did was not okay. And counsellors who refuse to condemn the action of cheating, even while supporting the cheater, can do a lot of damage to the betrayed who feels, again, betrayed.
But note that I said it's important that the counsellor condemn the cheating. Not the cheater.
It can feel excruciating to we betrayed wives, however, to have a counsellor who won't beat up our spouse. He deserves it, after all. And especially if we're feeling unheard by our spouse, we want to be sure that he hears LOUD AND CLEAR that what he did means that he's a no-good snake and should worship the ground we walk on because we're giving him a second chance.
If you can both agree that the cheating has caused a lot of damage in the relationship and hurt you deeply, then it's probably time to move onto what you both plan to do about it, how you plan to rebuild. And that's where more typical couples counselling comes into play: How to speak with each other, how to carve out time for each other, how to respond to each other with kindness and respect. Not how to enlist an ally to help you catalogue every dumb hurtful thing your partner has ever done.
This can also morph into a second issue that can arise in couples counselling: using the counsellor as a referee instead of dealing with issues as they arise. (And, uh, guilty as charged.) Those of us who hate conflict can often put things off until we're in an environment where our partner is less likely to respond with anger, or with snark, or any other way that means we retreat into our pain rather than hold our ground. Our counsellor becomes something of shield we use.
Which is fine in the short term. Fine as we learn to use our voice to lay claim to our needs, to insist upon our value in the relationship.
But again, a good counsellor will help you gain the skills needed to tackle issues as they arise. To learn how to bring up a difficult conversation, to recognize counter moves, to know when to walk away if the conversation turns disrespectful.
In fact, the best couples counsellors put themselves in a position where you no longer need them.
It's important to take stock of what we want from our therapist. The best ones are coaches not referees.


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