Thursday, June 28, 2018

Let Me Help You

My first therapist, a woman who specialized in working with Adult Children of Alcoholics of which I was a card-carrying member, had a sign in her waiting room that read: 
Help is the Sunny Side of Control.
Above the words smiled a large yellow happy face.
Each week, that sign hung above my head like the sword of Damocles. 
I would wait to be called into my therapist's office and then I would unload about all the ways in which my boyfriend didn't appreciate me, all the ways in which he had intimacy issues, all the ways in which he needed fixing in order for us to be blissful together. The healthier our relationship seemed, the more likely he was to run away from it. Only when he thought he might lose me was he suddenly unable to live without me.
How the hell do you fix that?
I tried.
I tried for seven years.
It didn't work.
I also didn't work when I tried to "help" my friend who constantly moaned about her weight. I didn't work when I tried to "help" my mother get sober. Nor when I tried to "help" the drug addict I met a party by promising to go with him to a Narcotics Anonymous. Or when I tried to "help" my suicidal friend by offering to pay for therapy out of my student loan. I was so busy "helping" other people, I had little energy or motivation to help myself. But man oh man, "helping" people sure helped distract me from my own pain.
With the help of that therapist gently pointing out my fix-it ways, I came to understand that I was avoiding so much sadness in myself. My compulsive need to "help" was about control. Other people's pain triggered my own and I would immediately roll up my sleeves and dig in, "helping" them find solutions or resources or the will it would take to make things better. Thing is, even those who'd asked for my "help" didn't really want it. 
My friend miserable about her weight is exactly the same size she was three decades ago. My mother got sober but it was when she was ready, not when I was. 
And that crappy boyfriend invited me to coffee a few years ago to catch up...and then made a pass at me, despite being married himself and knowing that I was. His intimacy issues were there in full.
But old habits die hard. And knowing better doesn't always mean doing better.
Sometimes it means still trying to "help" my daughter when her friends exclude her from an event. Or "help" my son when a girlfriend dumps him. Or "help" my husband become more organized, more productive, less ADHD.
They don't want my help. They are capable, resourceful, smart people. Instead, they want to feel lonely for a day while they sort through why their friends aren't very nice. Or feel sad for a week until the sadness lifts. They don't need fixing, they need holding. They need someone to be with them in their discomfort, to trust that they can handle it. Often, they want to be left the hell alone. (Though my husband, seriously, could stand to manage his ADHD better if only to make my life less chaotic.)
My need to fix them isn't about them at all. It's about me. It's about my need to ensure that everyone around me is happy so that I can be happy myself.
That therapist taught me that I would be waiting a lifetime if the only way I could ever let my own guard down was to ensure that everyone else was a-okay. That was just never going to happen. There would always always be one more person who needed my help.
So I learned (mostly) to bite my tongue (though teens tend to trigger my fix-it instinct hard!). I learned, thanks to meditation and running, to fight the urge to fix people unless they specifically ask for my help and even then not always. I learned to get comfortable with my own discomfort and recognize it as anxiety, or sadness, or grief. To understand that the world doesn't exist on a binary of control and total chaos. That most of us, me included, exist somewhere in between. Able to control some things (me) and not others (everything else).
It's been one of the toughest lessons to learn in my life. I remain an enthusiastic fixer – everything from climate change to poverty/homelessness to refugees to a friend's difficult relationship with her sister. But I'm reminded often of another saying that resonates. It comes from Lilla Watson, an activist and artist:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Monday, June 25, 2018

Time and Punishment

Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.
~Mahatma Ghandi

Okay, so it's a bit unfair to ask us all to model ourselves on Ghandi. After all, I spent much of the first year post-D-Day imagining all sorts of torture and humiliation for both my husband and the OW. The fact that I didn't act on any of my dark fantasies speaks more to my lack of energy at that time than a lack of intent.
It's hard to believe when you're simmering in your red-hot rage that you will ever feel anything other than fury and a desire for vengeance. And yet, most of us discover that it does abate. That we eventually do come to a place where anger doesn't consume us, that we aren't drowning in our pain. We come to a place where we can see that our marriage is growing stronger, that our husbands have changed.
But still...sometimes months or even years later, we have a sense that we didn't punish our husbands sufficiently for their crimes. That we let them off too easily. They our partners didn't pay. 
One of our secret sisters posted recently that her marriage has become wonderful, that her husband is remorseful and grateful. And yet, she's dogged by a regret that she let him come back home too soon. That he wasn't sufficiently punished for the pain he caused.
What's up with that?
Wanting to punish people is a human impulse. Punishment, we believe, is a deterrent (though it usually just encourages people to become better at not getting caught). But punishment doesn't always show up the way we think it does. Punishment comes from outside. On the other hand, suffering comes from an internal reckoning with our choices.
I could have kicked my husband out after discovering his betrayal. It would have punished him by no longer giving him the particular pleasure of a life with me. Thing is, I didn't want a life without him, at least not without trying to rebuild our marriage. So, while he would have been punished, so would I. And so would our children.
Punishment in and of itself shouldn't be the goal. Rather, it's the natural consequence. If you choose to kick him out because you cannot live with what he did and who he is, then even though you're punishing him, that's not your motivation. Your motivation is to get him out of your life so you can move on. It's about setting boundaries and taking care of yourself. Punishing him is a consequence not the motivation. 
Punishment wouldn't have come close to what my husband was doing to himself, which was suffering. He loathed himself for what he'd done. He could barely look at himself in the mirror. He could barely look at me because, as he said, he caused the pain he saw in my eyes. By kicking him out, he didn't have to look in my eyes. Kicking him out also let him off the hook for day to day childcare and home maintenance. I'd be the one 100% stuck with soothing distraught children, wiping up spills and cleaning the litter box. He was the sinner...but I'd feel pretty damn punished.
Punishment also feels bottomless. How much is enough? Do you cast him out for a week? A month? Until you see clear repentance (I don't disagree with this last point, though, again, I see it less as punishment than self-respect and self-care). Should he lose his job? His friends? Do you offer up a daily harangue about the ways in which he's a jerk who doesn't deserve you? (Confession: I did, frequently, do exactly that. With time, however, I realized that though I might be hurting him, I was hurting myself more. I hated who I had become.)
Ask yourself this too: Is punishment about looking strong to those around you (the same ones who might offer up their "I would NEVER put up with that" editorializing)? Or is it about making him hurt the way you're hurting? Because neither reason is really about you living your own truth. It's about appearances. It's about an eye for an eye. He can't hurt like you're hurting because it's different. Being cheated on is not the same as cheating (frankly, I'll take being cheated on). 
Justice is different. Justice is about not protecting people from the consequences of their actions. Justice, as Ghandi reminds us, is motivated by love (including self-love). It's driven by clear boundaries. Justice doesn't encourage us to make somebody hurt but does reminds us not to step in and protect someone from consequences. 
Operating from a justice model means that your husband might have to give up friends who participated in covering up the affair, not to punish him but to provide emotional safety for you. Justice means that he might have to abandon any notion of privacy on his electronic devices. Or give up overnight business trips. All negotiated on the basis of what makes you feel safe and supported, not what makes him feel punished.
Any decent guy will suffer for what he did because he will not let himself off the hook. He has to live with having hurt the one person he promised not to hurt. He has to know that he let down his family, that he revealed himself to be less of a man than his partner believed.
That's got to hurt.
And if it doesn't...then no amount of punishment you mete out will make any difference. 

Saturday, June 23, 2018

From the Vault: When You Just Can't Get Over It

I pulled this post from the vault because it has been getting a lot of traffic lately, which tells me a whole lotta you are having trouble right now. I hope this helps even more of you. ~Elle

Just as I think there must be a playbook for cheaters, I sometimes think there must also be one for husbands who stay in the marriage. It probably contains such lines as "You'll never let me live this down, will you!" Or "if you're going to bring this up every time you're mad at me, we'll never get past this." Or "I can't spend the rest of my life saying 'sorry'".
Sound familiar?
One of the hurdles betrayed wives often have to clear is their husband's admonishments to get over it. It can be overt or, more often, subtle. But no matter, it's harmful either way. The thing is, we're trying to get over it. We want nothing more than to get over it. But, ultimately, we figure out that there really is no getting over it. We can get through it and get past it...but rarely do we get over it. 
It's not just a matter of semantics. To get through it, we need to process our emotions, to acknowledge the pain we're in, take steps to address the residual damage from betrayal. To get past it, we find that we've arrived at a place where we can accept what's happened and while few of us are glad for the experience, we can recognize that some good came out of it. Getting "over" it, implies leaping past all that damage to a new stage where our husbands are magically forgiven and their act of betrayal is never spoken of again. We get "over" the flu. We get "through" betrayal. 
A crucial part of getting through is exploring just how this has impacted us. We desperately need someone who can acknowledge our pain, who understands that each of us walks a different path, a different timeline. Someone who understands that betrayal changes who we are, and that we need to figure out who this new us is. It's one of the reasons I created this site. To give betrayed wives a safe place to process everything they're going through, with the benefit of the experience of those further along the path to healing. 
therapist can be a lifesaver. Someone to help you examine the role you played in the breakdown of the marriage, without ever holding you to blame for your spouse's choice to cheat. My own therapist kept my head above water. But I've heard stories of therapists who, clearly, don't have a clue about betrayal. 
But there's another tool in your arsenal. It was a desire for a wise someone with whom she could talk – someone ideally who understood intimately the experience of betrayal having been through it herself – that prompted Laura S., a betrayed wife in California, to create the Infidelity Counselling Network, a free phone counselling service for betrayed spouses. Laura and I discovered each other on social media. Since then, we've talked personally and shared our stories. We've grown to appreciate and support each other's work, knowing how important it is to have that sense of community in the wake of betrayal. Her Infidelity Counselling Network has been busy training peer counsellors (who've been through betrayal themselves) to provide wisdom and support to callers. If you crave someone anonymous  with whom to share your experience, check out:

Monday, June 18, 2018

Guest Post: Mothering Ourselves

by StillStanding1

Mother’s Day and Father’s Day has come and gone. But I have been thinking a lot about what it means to be a mother (stay with me everyone – I’m not talking about simple biology).
I’m going to argue that motherhood is about so much more than a biological event. We don’t have to have born children out of our bodies to be a mother to ourselves or others. Motherhood is a complex state of being. It is a role with many aspects. In my mind, it is defined by compassion, by a nurturing spirit, tenderness, loyalty, by becoming the calm center for others in the storm, by firm but gentle teaching. Mothers smooth the rough edges for those they love. They nurture and they, themselves, never stop growing.
Some of us grew up with this person in our lives in the form of a biological parent, or perhaps an adoptive parent, or kind and nurturing grandparent, aunt, teacher. You see where I am going with this. Each of us has the power to be a mother for those in our lives who need us. Some of us did not grow up with a firm, reliable mother figure. My mother, a chronic, high-functioning alcoholic, was not available emotionally. She was unreliable and though I can remember moments where she shined (sick with measles, high fever, she sat with me, put cool washcloths on my head and read to me to distract me from the itchiness), generally her best left me feeling like I was asking too much to have my needs met.
When we experience something traumatic, like betrayal by a loved one, we take stock. How are we treating ourselves? Are we being as patient, kind or compassionate with ourselves as we would be with another in this situation? This was a major reckoning for me. I knew, somehow, that the best way out of the pain, for me, was to become the mother to myself that I had always needed. 
It’s okay. You showed up. That was good enough for today. 
You will not always feel this way. 
You are worthy of love and belonging. 
You are enough.
 Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow can be better. 
It’s okay to ask for help. 
You don’t have to fix everything. 
You need to take care of yourself first. 
I know you regret that choice. You can do differently next time.
You are doing the best you can, and it is enough. 
You are loved.

These are things I had to learn to say to myself and mean them, to believe them in my heart. I came to it in two ways. One was becoming mindful of my self-talk. Was I judging myself or was I being compassionate with myself? How often I had to interrupt the negative spiral of self-blame. I'm still a work in progress but so much kinder to myself. I completely believe that I am worthy of love and belonging. The other path to healing was through helping others. So many of use here have reached out to someone who has just washed up on the beach, disoriented, lost and hurting. We’ve told them they will be okay, that we’ve got them, that is sucks and they are entitled to their pain, that they are allowed to determine their own path forward. And as we write those words to another, are we not writing them to ourselves? Each of us heals a part of our own soul, when we allow ourselves to step into our innate motherhood and hold someone who needs it. When we tend to others, we tend to and nourish ourselves. 
I encourage all of us to continue to be the mother we need, in the present and in the distant future. When all this is a memory, how much richer will our days be if we can treat ourselves with love and compassion? I imagine myself moving through the world softly, showing up gently for the people I love and being relentlessly kind to my own perfectly flawed self.


Saturday, June 16, 2018

Listen To It Sing

If you feel lesser-than today,
as if you should be different
so that you can be loved—
If you are wrestling yourself into
a shape to make yourself more pleasing
to others—
hold your heart close. Listen to it sing.
Take a deep breath.

Eyes up. Let's go.
~Esmé Weijun Wang (@esmewang on Twitter)

Friday, June 15, 2018

How Others Turn Away from Our Pain

My dad has a catheter. We're hoping it's a temporary thing but, in the meantime, he carts around a bag of urine wherever he goes. And though some people in his community know he was in the hospital, know he's home but is still dealing with a catheter, they're...busy. Though they might have found time to visit him a few months ago, these days, they tell me, they'd prefer to wait until he's "better".
My mother-in-law wouldn't visit friends in the hospital. Hospitals, she said, made her uncomfortable. They reminded her of her husband's long illness.
Many of us know those types of people, don't we? The ones who don't want to get too close to suffering or broken-ness. The ones who turn away from pain.
The ones who don't see strength but frailty.
It hurts to be marginalized, especially when we already feel isolated by infidelity.
Maybe you discovered your husband's affair, confided in a close friend, only to have her seem less available to you. Already vulnerable, you lack the energy or the strength to pursue her and ask for answers. Already wounded, you retreat.
Suffering makes people uncomfortable.
But we, in our sadness, take their distance as further evidence that we are unwanted. Unworthy. Unlovable.
I recently read a Twitter thread on suffering. When we come across suffering, this Tweeter said, our response mustn't be to lament the abstract evil in the world ("men are cads!"), it must be to first reach out a hand. "How can I help?" must be the immediate response.
Instead, going as far back as the days of the biblical Job, our response is frequently to ask what this person did to invite suffering. After all, we're absolved from helping the sufferer if he/she somehow deserved it. And so the betrayed wife gets cast as "frigid" or "nagging". She let herself get old. She let herself get fat. She let herself be human. How dare she? And how are we to protect ourselves from such suffering? Well...for plenty, it's by avoiding it in others.
It's by waiting until the catheter is gone before visiting. It's by averting our eyes when someone confides their pain. It's by refusing to sit with someone in their vulnerability. It's by lamenting an abstract evil rather than reaching for another's hand and asking "How can I help you?"
My own experience in the days and weeks following D-Day reminded me, again, that those who can sit with us in our pain are rare and as valuable as gems. Surprisingly, it wasn't the friend who'd been betrayed herself who could be with me in my pain. Rather it was the friend who hadn't. The friend who I didn't even know that well but who had suspected something going on at my husband's work and who refused to turn a blind eye.
The friend who did nothing more than tell me she had my back. Whose own eyes welled up when I told her what had happened in my marriage. Who sat with me as I cried and who, because of that, has the pleasure of my friendship now that I'm laughing again.
Suffering frightens people. But don't let it frighten you. Feel your own suffering. Don't back away from it. You're strong enough to bear it. And you're strong enough to sit with others as they bear their own.
It happens every day on this site. Someone brings their pain to our shores and you gather around her. You tell her your own story. You make room for her to share her own. You help her realize her own strength. You do not avert your eyes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Using Our Anger for Good, Not Evil

True power lies in our willingness to question the beliefs we swallowed along with allowing ourselves to feel the rage ... while staying present and not acting on the desire for revenge. It's possible to feel the full range of our feelings, even hatred; we can see where they are lodged in our chests or throats or faces and we can allow them to get so big that we are towering with them and breathing fire. If then we keep sensing, feeling, allowing the effects of the past to unfold in us now, we can take ourselves back.
~from This Messy Magnificent Life by Geneen Roth

It might seem like I'm beating the same drum lately with all my focus on releasing anger, receiving the shattering and getting ourselves unstuck. But clearly I have something to learn about this because every time I open my computer, or stumble onto a book, or have a conversation with a friend, the theme is the same: Unfelt anger is a boulder that holds us in place. We might feel magnanimous for our ability to hold in our rage but it becomes toxic to us. Only by recognizing it and allowing ourselves to feel it are we liberated. 
If we feel rather than repress or act out our rage or hatred, says Roth, the feelings dissolve like a night-monster when you turn on the light. The self-righteous – and righteously felt – fury fuels us toward action. Healthy, positive action that comes from a place of worthiness rather than fear. Action that comes from a place of self-respect and a determination to minimize the damage done to ourselves rather than a desire to inflict damage on others. 
I often reminded my children, when they were younger, of Barbara Coloroso's explanation of the difference between "telling" and "tattling". Telling, she says, is about keeping someone out of trouble (though you might get them into trouble in order to do so. An example is a friend who has begun to use drugs, for instance). Tattling, on the other hand, is about trying to get someone in trouble.
I'm reminded of that as I struggle to outline the difference between anger expressed to keep ourselves safe and anger expressed to make someone else unsafe. It can be hard to care if we jeopardize someone else when that someone has been party to so much pain inflicted on us. And yet... If our sole motivation is to inflict harm on someone else, then our anger becomes a weapon rather than a spark igniting our own power. Weapons can be used against us. 
And that has been my experience with anger. What starts out directed at others ended up consuming me. I would find myself having constant arguments in my head with my imagined foes, I would wake up furious in the middle of the night, I felt brittle.
Freeing myself from that creates so much space in my head, in my heart, in my life. Letting go was like removing a millstone from around my neck. 
It's not like I don't get angry now (just ask my children!). But I am far better at directing my anger at the specific situation responsible and expressing it calmly. Anger, I've learned, is usually my first clue that I'm betraying myself by not enforcing my boundaries. That I'm not keeping myself emotionally safe. It's an important emotion that carries with it valuable information. But it becomes toxic when we simmer in it rather than processing it.
Geneen Roth advises us to pay attention to where the rage shows up in our body. By noticing it, feeling it and then sorting through what to do with it, it makes its way through us, rather than creates a poisonous home in us.
And that's how we take ourselves back.  

Friday, June 8, 2018

Don't listen to the lies of the shadows

Well, this has been a helluva week, hasn't it? First Kate Spade and now Anthony Bourdain. For those of us going through our own personal hell, news of another's pain and their no-takebacks response to that pain can feel particularly tough. If they can't handle pain – these beautiful glittery people with their money and their fame and their success – then how the hell can we?
But here's the thing. Depression lies. Whether it's a depression that dogs us for years or it's the result of the acute pain of betrayal, depression wraps us in its dark cold arms and whispers lies in our ears. It tells us that we will always feel this agony. It tells us that we don't matter, that we are worthless. It speaks those lies in our own voice.
"How do you battle an enemy that wears armour made of your own skin and scent?" asks Bunmi Laditan (aka @HonestToddler on Twitter). "One that knows your secrets and has a map of your unhealed wounds?"
I'll tell you how we battle that sneaky cruel bastard. We reach out for help. We tell our story to those who can hear it, who can remind us that this is depression talking. To tell us, as often as we need to hear it, that depression lies. And that beyond the despair is possibility and that we can get there. Medication can work. Meditation can work. A walk in the woods can work. All of the above can work. For today. And that's all we need to think about. No "next week" or "I will never" or "I will always..." Today. Find what works today. Find it in a doctor's office, on a therapist's sofa, in a friend's arms, on a website. It's out there, proof that you will leave a hole in someone's life if you exit.
My mother attempted suicide three times and I'm eternally grateful that she reached out for help each time while she could still be saved. She battled addiction and was sober 25 years before she died at the age of 71 from COPD. There is not a single day she would have sacrificed. There is not a single day with her that I would give up.
After discovering my husband's betrayal, I too wondered if the world needed me. It was only the pain I'd experienced from my mom's suicide attempts that stopped me from doing the same thing to my own children. I didn't believe I mattered. But I knew they did. And so I asked for help. I took anti-depressant medication. It felt like a heavy blanket lifting off my heart. It didn't make things great but it made my pain manageable. It gave me the opening I needed to let the slightest sliver of light into the darkness. And if I could see a sliver, I knew, I could slowly open the door to more light.
"You guys," tweets @HonestToddler, "when you're too tired to fight, lay down. Rest.... Fuck those shades who lie to you and tell you to keep their twisted secrets. Call 911 on this bitch ass lying shadows the way you would on an intruder in your home. We want you to stay."
Please. Stay. Let's watch the sun rise again tomorrow together. That's all we ever have. This moment. Together. Let's remind each other that we are stronger than the pain. That we each matter. That this, too, shall pass. Fight if you can. Rest if you must. Trust that there's a sliver of light waiting to show you what's possible.

If you are struggling, reach out. There is never shame is asking for help. There is no weakness in feeling pain. Those who fight for their own lives are the strongest bravest people I know. I'm proud to be among them.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Receive the Shattering

"I had always thought I would get to a point where I was "over" the trauma. Turns out, I was wrong. Cultivating resilience is unrelated to the clichéd notion of time healing all wounds; overcoming is not the end goal. Instead of moving on, it's about living with what has happened. A resilient person is emotionally and psychologically flexible enough to allow the effects of a traumatic episode into her life, to "receive the shattering,"... and use those effects for healing."
~from "How to Recover from Grief", Oprah magazine, May 2016

"Receive the shattering." I wasn't feeling particularly receptive on December 10, 2006, when my shattering arrived. I didn't so much receive it as get run over by it. And in the weeks that ensued, I fought like hell to give it back. 
It was months, a year if not more before I was anywhere close to receiving the shattering.
But at some point – time feels fuzzy when I look back and I have a hard time remembering exactly how long I was suspended in that state of shock and denial and profound grief – I recognized that the only way I was going to get unstuck, out of this lethal plain of flatness where I'd set up camp, was to accept what had happened to me. To receive the shattering.
In fairness, I didn't so much recognize it as my therapist pointed that out to me and I, finally, decided to agree with her. What she told me was this: You are numb, she said, because you refuse to allow the pain in. But by denying negative feelings, you prevent positive feelings too. It's like putting a seal on a bottle. Sure you keep the poison bottled up but you keep the thirst-quenching water bottled up too. 
She'd said similar things before. She's not a big fan of my approach to emotional pain, which basically amounts to numbing myself and carrying on, and then complaining about it. 
Just barely concealing her exasperation, she told me that happiness would come only when I opened the door to pain. You can't have one without the other. 
Which, frankly, is a glitch in the system, if you ask me. But which was the inconvenient truth for me. 
And, judging from how many of you post here about being stuck, seems to be the truth for you too.
We imagine a day, don't we?, when the pain is over and everything goes back to "normal". When we're "over" this. God knows, our husbands want that. "Aren't you over this yet?" they ask us, making it incredibly difficult to not murder them with our bare hands. 
Thing is, "over" isn't an option. We'll never be "over" this. My D-Day was almost twelve years ago and though I go days, sometimes weeks, without thinking about it (except for this site but, honestly, I think about what you guys are going through not so much what I did), I still wouldn't say I'm "over" it.
But I have learned to live with what happened. It has become a part of my history, something I went through. I have received the shattering and it has become a part of me.
And that, my fellow avoiders of pain, is how you get unstuck
I wish I could give you a shortcut. I wish I could provide some sort of infidelity hack that allowed you to jump right over the pain and the suffering and return you to joy.
But my exasperated therapist is right. Honestly, I tried it the other way. I tried to just open my heart enough to let the good stuff in and then quickly shut it again to the pain.
Didn't work. I felt...flat. Numb. 
No pain, no joy.
And so you must receive the shattering. Parcel it out, if necessary. Take a few minutes each day to journal the pain, or run the pain, or paint the pain, or share the pain here. And then, if necessary, put the barricades back up around your heart. But make sure that you're moving toward totally dismantling them. Make sure that you don't get so comfortable with numb that you forget to feel. 
Receive the shattering, live with the truth of it and then use it to help you heal, to remind yourself that you are strong enough to withstand it.
Because you are. 


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