Friday, November 30, 2018

The Incredibly Slow Painstaking Heaviness of Healing from Infidelity

It's taking a l-o-n-g time, isn't it? You thought you'd have been over this agony months ago. Years ago.
But here you are, sobbing in the bathroom because your husband said something thoughtless over dinner. Or you're hyperventilating in the condiment aisle at the grocery store because, for a minute, you thought you'd spotted the Other Woman pushing a cart of groceries. Your heart is pounding because your husband is a half-hour late getting home.
What the hell, right? This shouldn't still bother you so much.
After all, you've done everything humanly possible to move past this:
Therapy. Check.
Establishing clear boundaries. Check.
Reading every book about infidelity ever written? Check.
Devouring web sites and blogs. Check.
Watching videos by marriage counsellors. Check.
Self-care, including the occasional massage. Check.
So why? Why can a forgotten photo bring tears to your eyes? Why does a certain song, one you haven't heard in a long time, suddenly transport you back? Why is this so goddamned hard?
I'll tell you why.
Because betrayal is an injury that calls into question everything we thought we knew about ourselves, about him, about our future. It shakes us to our core.
There's a saying about football, that it's a game of inches. Well, my secret sisters. That applies to healing from infidelity too.
We heal from it inch by barely perceptible inch.
I know, I know. We want dramatic finishes. We want healing to be like smashing through the ribbon at the finish of a marathon. Applause and accolades. The incredible high of having done it.
Yeah. Doesn't work like that.
There is no chorus of angels singing hallelujah. No miracle cure. No trophies. Not even a certificate of completion.
There is only a little by little lightening. As if you've been lugging a sack of rocks and someone is removing them, one by one, so that each day the load feels just a teensy bit lighter. There are days when you'll be convinced someone is actually putting rocks back in. Those, perhaps, are the days you check her social media account, or your husband seems evasive and you wonder if he's lying, or you can't shake the bitterness. Days when your arms and heart ache from the strain. Days when surely you're actually being pulled backwards.
That, my dear warriors, is when you rest. That is when you respond to yourself not with recrimination (What's wrong with you! Why aren't you further along by now?) but with kindness and tenderness. The way you'd respond to a friend or child. An afternoon ignoring the messy house in favor of a good movie. An early bedtime. A visit with a friend. A perfect piece of chocolate cake. A romp in the woods with a four-legged friend. Anything that reminds you that you are worthy of attention, that your pain matters. Anything that gives you permission to tend to your wound.
It isn't magic, of course. You might still feel sad. Or lost. You might feel mired in the worry that you've made the wrong choice. If it was the right choice, wouldn't it feel better than this?
Probably not.
Cause the right choice isn't always the easy choice.
And there is nothing easy about healing from infidelity, no matter what choice we make.
Inch by almost invisible inch.
But only if we continue to do the work.
Like enforcing clear boundaries that keep us safe and are rooted in self-respect. Like ensuring that we only allow those into our lives that treat us as if we have value. Like taking care of ourselves, both out outsides and our insides. By prioritizing our healing.
Just as we can't outwardly watch a wound heal, inward wounds also heal imperceptibly.
But I guarantee you that healing is happening.
Inch by barely visible inch.

Monday, November 26, 2018

On backsliding, emotional labor, resistance and pie. Plus the two questions you need to ask

M'mmmm...pie. That somebody else made. 
It's holiday season, the unofficial time when our secret sisters run themselves ragged trying to model perfection while inside the conversation goes something like this:
I thought I was further along than this.
I've completely slid backward.
I am so triggered and so mad at myself because I need to get nine pies baked.
(Seriously. Nine pies. That's a LOT of pie.)
Am I never going to get over this?
What's wrong with me?
Why can't I handle this better?
Let me tell you something. It's a full-time job just wading through the devastation wrought by infidelity. And yet, I don't know a single person who was able to just focus on working through the pain. Instead, we're also raising children (which, I might add, is also a full-time job), tending to elderly parents, working our paid jobs, volunteering at the goddamn bake sale to fundraise for Cub scouts, grocery shopping to ensure our family doesn't starve... And baking nine freaking pies for Thanksgiving dinner. 
What the hell is wrong with us that we think that's not enough? What is so toxic about our culture that no matter how many balls we have in the air, we're beating ourselves up for not being able to juggle more? Where did we learn that if we're not able to keep everything running smoothly while looking great and simultaneously dealing with the most devastating betrayal in our lives that we're failing? Oh wait...I know where we learned it. In a culture that tells us our worth is directly related to our pants size and our ability to hold onto a man. In a culture in which women's emotional labor is invisible. In a culture in which our visible pain is not to be shown in polite circles. The only correct answer to "how are you?" is "Great!" though "So busy!" is also acceptable as long as it's said with a smile. 
But here's the thing, my secret sisters. We don't have to buy into this toxic and insidious bullshit. 
Nobody can simultaneously heal from the pain of betrayal while keeping her life running smoothly without sacrificing something crucial: Yourself.
How does this sacrifice take place? Piece by excruciating piece.
Why can't I be more like her?
Why aren't I further along in my healing?
Why do I get triggered so easily?
Why can't I get over this?
Why am I so angry at everyone?
Why do I keep screwing up?
Why am I so tired?
I'll tell you why.
Cause this is exhausting difficult painful work. 
Want to know the real question you should be asking yourself when you notice that you're tired and frustrated and agitated and angry and sad and numb?
What do I need right now?
And the next question:
How can I give that to myself?
Cause there's nothing wrong with you that you're tired and frustrated and angry and agitated and sad and numb. Nothing wrong at all. That is the appropriate response to betrayal. It is the appropriate response to the recognition that your emotional labor – not just healing yourself but taking care of everyone else and making it look easy – is a rigged system.
Of course, you're angry.
Of course, you're agitated.
Of course, you're frustrated and sad and numb.
The system is rigged against you.
But you don't have to play along.
What do I need right now?
How do I give that to myself?
That isn't letting others down, it's showing them that you recognize your own worth. Which also communicates to them something amazing. That they're worthy too and that they get to value themselves.
It gives them the space to ask the same questions: What do I need right now? How do I give that to myself?
There's nothing wrong with you that you're still being triggered two years out, five years out, seven years out. There's nothing wrong with you that the holidays are really really hard. There's nothing wrong with you that you're freaking exhausted at even the thought of baking NINE pies. Or one pie, for that matter. Pies are a lot of work!
There's nothing wrong with you.
Full stop.
What do I need right now?
How can I give it to myself?
Two questions.
And the answers are so often simple. 
Harder is silencing the resistance to those answers.
I need a nap. (Oh, but resistance says you don't have time to nap. You need to tidy up, set the table, buy presents.)
I need to cry. (Oh, but resistance says crying is pathetic. Besides, you should be over this by now.)
I need a few days alone. (Oh, but resistance says how selfish of you to take time away when there are kids who need feeding, dishes that need washing. That Christmas tree isn't going to put itself up, you know.)
It's so hard to fight back against that resistance.
But that's our work.
To value ourselves. To value others enough to take care of ourselves so that we can show up for them as our best selves. To understand that we're not doing anyone any favours by dragging resentment along with us.
I'll say it again for those in the back.
There is nothing wrong with you.
Healing will take longer than you think.
Even with healing, you will have triggers. There will be times when you think you're backsliding. There will be times when you think you've made the wrong choice, no matter what that choice was. There will be days (weeks!) when you wonder if you've made a horrible mistake. 
What do I need right now?
How do I give it myself?
Life has a way of sorting itself out if we just keep showing up as best we can. With our armour put away because we don't need it. Trusting ourselves to keep ourselves safe. With our hearts open.
Not necessarily with nine pies. Or even one. 
Unless baking pie is what you need right now.
For the rest of us, that's what bakeries are for. 

Friday, November 23, 2018

May I Have Your Attention

Feline family feast
"Attention is the most basic form of love." ~Zen koan

Before my mother became an addict, she was a really great mom. And one of the things she insisted upon was family dinner. No television, no radio. Just four people sitting around a table eating and sharing our day. My brother and I, of course, did everything we could to make my mother abandon her commitment to family dinner. Farting noises, outlandish stories, complaints about what was on our plates. She was steadfast. Family dinner proceeded and my brother and I eventually gave up our protests.
And – whattaya know – it's something I insisted upon when I had children of my own. For years, when my husband was cheating on me and I hadn't a clue (I believed him when he said he was "working" and, some nights, he actually was), I would sit down with my three young children. I enjoyed the ritual. The setting of the table, the preparing of food (sometime enlisting small hands to help me), the sharing of our day.
Not long before D-Day, my husband asked me if the kids missed him at dinner. "No," I told him. "Their memory of you will be an empty chair at the dinner table." After D-Day, I demanded that my he start joining us for dinner. He did and has continued to for 12 years. 
My eldest, now 20, is back at home again after returning to university in our city, and routinely tells me how grateful she is for our family dinners. 
The only thing that our family dinner is serving that's truly of value is attention. For roughly an hour each day, we pay attention to each other. (And it's not every day. There are things that get in the way – night school classes, hockey practices, volunteering – but most nights we are gathered around our table.) 
I'm grateful to my mom for setting that standard. Because many of kids friends who've joined us for our meals tell us they never sit down with their families for dinner. What my brother and I considered punitive, these kids relish. 
It's not easy to find time in a day to pay attention to each other. For a whole lot of us, unless there's a crisis (hello infidelity!) or drama (hello teenagers!), many of us remain focussed on just getting through. It's enough to put food on the table, or pay the bills, or, at the end of our day, to relax in front of the television. We check in with each other – "how was your day?" to which we hope to hear "fine". Job done, we can turn on Netflix or crack open a novel. 
Our 24/7 world is constantly pulling our attention somewhere. Fires in California! Another election! Parent-teacher night! Black Friday sales! Book club! Yoga class! Weekend conference for work! The list, as we all know, is endless.
And, trust me, I'm as guilty as the next mom for just wanting some quiet a lot of the time. What's more, plenty of our dinner conversations lately (god help me, teenagers!!!) are about sex vs gender, drugs, misogyny, the economy... Gone are the days when we talked about something funny that happened on a school trip, or shared facts about sharks or dinosaurs. The stakes are high right now.
But, I absolutely know that the single best thing I can be doing right now is paying attention. Listening. (I'm working hard at learning to listen more and talk less. Not easy!)
What I'm even guiltier of lately is ignoring my husband. When he retreats to our basement to watch his favorite shows, I never follow him. I tell him it's because the basement is freezing (it is!) or that I have to bake cookies for a cookie exchange (I do!). But it's also because I'm often exhausted by that point. I have little attention left.
Which is dangerous. 
He invited me to lunch the other day. I had mentioned that I was craving a particular meal from a particular take-out place that's a block from where he works. I hadn't made a big deal about it, just noted in passing that I had a craving.
The next day he called me to suggest we meet for lunch at this place.
And the most amazing part of that wasn't the meal itself.
It was that he had noticed. He'd been paying attention. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

The Thorny Nature of Forgiveness

" is that wounded, branded, un-forgetting part of us that eventually makes forgiveness an act of compassion rather than one of simple forgetting. To forgive is to assume a larger identity than the person who was first hurt, to mature and bring to fruition an identity that can put its arm, not only around the afflicted one within but also around the memories seared within us by the original blow and through a kind of psychological virtuosity, extend our understanding to one who first delivered it. Forgiveness is a skill, a way of preserving clarity, sanity and generosity in an individual life, a beautiful way of shaping the mind to a future we want for ourselves; an admittance that if forgiveness comes through understanding, and if understanding is just a matter of time and application then we might as well begin forgiving right at the beginning of any drama rather than put ourselves through the full cycle of festering, incapacitation, reluctant healing and eventual blessing.
To forgive is to put oneself in a larger gravitational field of experience than the one that first seemed to hurt us. We reimagine ourselves in the light of our maturity and we reimagine the past in the light of our new identity, we allow ourselves to be gifted by a story larger than the story that first hurt us and left us bereft." ~David Whyte, from Brainpickings

Forgiveness remains a thorn in my side, though one that I'm scarcely aware of until someone asks me outright if I've forgiven my husband. My answer usually is something like "it's complicated."
But though I've never said to my husband the words "I forgive you" (I suspect I'd choke on them), reading David Whyte's description of forgiveness, I think perhaps I have.
Whyte's description of forgiveness is beautiful, isn't it? I love the notion of a more mature me, a "larger" me, putting an arm around the injured me and my painful memories and, in essence, saying "it's okay. You will get past this." And then this larger me also figuratively saying to my husband, the betrayer, "I will get past this. You hurt me but my capacity for healing is greater than the injury."
And that's the truth. My capacity for healing, which I couldn't imagine when betrayal first body-slammed me, is bigger than the injury. I can see that now, looking back from this distant shore. Yours is too. 
"Forgiveness is a skill," Whyte reminds us. Forgiveness, he's saying, doesn't just happen. It requires our participation, our attention. It requires that we want more for ourselves than to sit in our bitterness, that we are willing to "shape our mind to a future we want for ourselves."
Shape our mind to a future.
Easier said than done, isn't it?
The future can feel terrifying when we're in the muck of betrayal. It hurts to think about because we no longer trust it.
Thing is, we're putting our trust in the wrong place. It isn't the future we're trusting, it's ourselves. It isn't the betrayer we're trusting, it's ourselves. And it's trust in our ability to shape our future into one that includes forgiveness for ourselves. We "reimagine ourselves," as Whyte says. It's such a beautiful promise, it holds such possibility. To reimagine ourselves not as the weeping, aching, pitiful mess in a heap on the bathroom floor that we are right now but as someone who knows the larger story. The larger story includes our resurrection. It includes transcending the pain. Not denying it or forgetting it but incorporating it into a bigger story that includes healing from that pain. To be gifted by a story larger than the story that hurt us. 
I say it all the time, don't I? Our stories can heal us. Or they can hurt us
Forgiveness, even accidental forgiveness like I seem to have stumbled on, gives us the larger story. I can see now that I have extended that comforting arm around myself, the weeping agonizing injured me who can't possibly imagine that she will arrive at the place I am now. I have extended that comforting arm around my husband who couldn't imagine that he could forgive himself, nor that I might forgive him. 
I have incorporated that first story into larger one that includes – wow! – forgiveness. 

Monday, November 19, 2018

Betrayal Trauma: When Infidelity Damn Near Destroys You

It's becoming increasingly clear that refreshing Twitter every five minutes and logging on to the New York Times home page to read the latest assault on good sense, decency and human rights is not good for my health, emotional or physical. I'm agitated. I'm unproductive. I'm miserable. 
Which is why a weekend spent in my reading chair, phone and iPad tucked in their charging station, slowly reading through the pile of magazines that has accumulated, was just what the (metaphorical) doctor ordered.
I was reading September's issue of O, The Oprah Magazine when I came across a story about post-traumatic stress disorder related to infidelity.
There's a term, though it's not in wide usage: Post-Infidelity Stress Disorder, which sounds almost too quaint for what actually happens. "Stress" barely scratches the surface.
Because the key for understanding just why we're so shattered by infidelity is in the word trauma. Betrayal is trauma.
Trauma, according to Oxford Dictionary (which, incidentally, declared "toxic" its official word of 2018, edging out gaslighting and thereby giving official status to betrayed wives everywhere), means "emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may lead to long-term neurosis."
Shock. Injury. Neurosis.
That's more like it.
It took me a long time to come across any reference to what I was experiencing as trauma. It may have been my therapist who first mentioned it, though I too often discount what she says because I think she's too easy on me. After all, I hadn't been dodging IEDs in Afghanistan. I hadn't experienced a brutal rape. 
But when I read about betrayal trauma, when I saw the words written across a page, the idea came with an authority that didn't allow me to dismiss it. Because I had been dismissing my pain. I was sure that other women going through infidelity weren't as shattered as I was. They were out in skinny jeans and stiletto heels slashing his tires, or gathering around a bottle of chardonnay with other betrayeds and plotting comical revenge, or at a spa transforming themselves into a woman so desirable, he would experience such profound regret for what he'd done and lost.
Cause that's the thing with infidelity. The only role models I really had were my mother, who'd descending into a decade of alcoholism and prescription pill addiction (not a path I wanted to take) and the women I saw in movies or country music songs or books. Those women didn't seem traumatized, they seemed motivated
Which is why it was such a relief to have a word for how I was feeling. 
Shock. Injury. Neurosis.
"We see symptoms of shock, negativity, and emotional arousal – as you might see in somebody coming home from war – manifesting in committed relationships," says Kevin Skinner, a licensed marriage and family therapist who's quoted in the story. 
I spent my days fighting off panic attacks.
I routinely considered veering my bike into traffic
I felt like a caged animal, trapped by circumstance.
The mind movies made me crazy. 
I couldn't stand being away from my husband. I couldn't stand him close.
I spent countless hours poring over VISA bills and receipts, rifling through his drawers, looking for...what exactly? I already knew he cheated. I knew with whom. But trauma drives us to neurosis. To hyper-vigilance
If you're not reacting your news of your partner's infidelity the way women in movies or songs or books are – if, instead, you're reacting the way I did, with tears, with vacant eyes, with panic and terror – you're experiencing trauma and you need support.
There is nothing wrong with you. It is not a sign of weakness. Rather it is a sign that you are  human and that you have experienced a shock that has completely destabilized you.
Betrayal is trauma. There it is. In print.
The truth. 

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Books That Saved My Life

I have a stack of books on my bedside table that threatens to fall over and trap me. At the top of the pile is First We Make the Beast Beautiful (which is a reference to a line from Kay Redfield Jamison's brilliant An Unquiet Mind, about living with bipolar disorder), which I'm reading to try and understand my daughters' anxiety. I've put it aside, however, because I have Educated by Tara Westover out of my local library, which means I have only three weeks to read it and it's incredible. And I also just picked up Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, which I had on hold and which just came in and which I also have only three weeks to read (and which is about an affair so don't go there until you're ready). My book club is reading the incredible Famous Last Words, which I read a zillion years ago but that I should probably refresh my memory. And I just ordered the always ALWAYS amazing Anne Lamott's new book to keep all the others of hers I have on my shelf company.
But it's no exaggeration to say that reading has changed my life. From the first book about growing up with an alcoholic that I tentatively pulled from the shelf of a bookstore near my office when I was in my mid-20s, to Melody Beattie's Co-Dependent No More, which got me out of a toxic relationship, to Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life by Amy Krouse Rosenthal, which finally FINALLY gave me the blueprint I was searching for to write my own book about healing from betrayal...

So, in that books-can-change-your-life spirit, let me share the rest of my bedside table (and please, share your own in the comments). These aren't necessarily books about healing from betrayal. You can find more of those here. But they are about living life with hope and humor and humility and an open heart:

Each Day a New Beginning: My mother gave me this, which was her own bible in AA recovery. It has become my own. I don't struggle with addiction but the meditations in here work for anyone just trying to get through life.

The Impossible Will Take a Little While by Paul Rogat Loeb: This is a collection of essays about "perseverance and hope in troubled times". It features such writers as Maya Angelou, Marian Wright Edelman, Tony Kushner, Mary Pipher, Alice Walker and the amazing list goes on. Dive in and feel restored.

Leaving My Father's House by Marion Woodman: This revered feminist and Jungian will change how you view your place in this world, both historically and now. I also love the companion book of meditations.

Rising Strong by Brené Brown: Is there another writer who has done more to help me understand boundaries, vulnerability, shame? I think not.

The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron: I don't know a single creator who hasn't read this book and been inspired by it. But it's not just for those of us who make a living creating but for anyone. It's a meditation not only on art but on the art of living.

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline: I was lucky enough to hear this brilliant Indigenous woman speak recently and I wished I could sit at her feet and soak in her wisdom. She has a way of threading together historic wrongs with hope. She's also an incredible writer and this book is Exhibit A.

Get Out of My Life, but first could you drive me and Cheryl to the mall? by Anthony E. Wolf: I have teenagers. This is the best book out there to keep me sane.

This is just the beginning, kids. More to come...

Monday, November 12, 2018

You Are Not A Rehabilitation Centre for a Damaged Man

Women are not rehabilitation centres for damaged men. Dear woman reading this, do not ever expend your emotional/physical/mental energy on redirecting the man from the path he has chosen to walk. He has nothing to lose. You, you will lose everything about yourself. ~ tweeted by @DoreenGLM

It's such a familiar trope. Fairy tales about it, songs about it, movies about it, family lore about it. How the love and loyalty of a good woman saved a not-so-good man. 
And we buy it, don't we? Intoxicated by the potential power we have to see something redeemable in someone behaving irredeemably, we buy it hook, line and sinker. After all, we've been marinating in this for a lifetime. My grandfather, the wealthy playboy tamed by my grandmother. Well, until, drunk one of many many nights, he smacked his head on concrete and died. 
My father, another playboy (in a clear case of 'what you see is what you get', my dad had a boat that he literally named Playboy. It was painted on the stern), tamed by my mother until, well, until he cheated and it turned out he wasn't tamed so much as discreet. 
Women are not rehabilitation centres for damaged men, writes our wise Twitter woman. And yet, that's exactly what we are, isn't it? Far too often.
Why is that? I mean, of course we're socialized to think of ourselves as rescuers, of tamers. But why, after it's abundantly clear that we not only haven't rescued anyone but that we're in danger of going under too...why do we stay? Why do we keep expending our emotional/physical/mental energy on redirecting someone from the path he has chosen to walk? Chosen! Nobody has a gun to his head. 
Why did I stay with a man who chose to cheat on me, repeatedly, over years?
Well, I've written often about just how bloody exhausted I was, how wrung out. How I could barely function, let alone leave with three young children.
But that's not the whole story. It never is.
Part of it was that I believed, somewhere deep inside, that leaving would be a failure. He was sorry. He didn't want to have cheated. He wanted to be a better man. And so, on some level, I felt that I owed him the chance to prove it. That I was the rehabilitation centre for this damaged man. 
My own history, watching my alcoholic mother get sober, primed me for the conviction that I knew damaged people could change.
But what I so often forgot in the story of my childhood was that my begging didn't get my mother sober. Nor did my rage or my being "perfect". She got sober when the cost of staying drunk became more than she was willing to pay. She got sober when she made the choice.
I was not her rehabilitation centre even though I tried hard to be. Even though everyone else wanted me to be.
Women often traffic in hope
"Women marry men hoping they'll change," goes the jokey adage. "Men marry women hoping they won't."
Joking aside, I think there's a whole lot of truth in that. 
Especially those of us who think we can heal damaged people.
We can't. It's a lie.
We are not rehabilitation centres for damaged men. Or women. They have nothing to lose.
But us? We have everything to lose, including ourselves.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Where Did Kindness Find You?

In a panic, a few days after D-Day, I reached out to a friend for help indexing the book I was working on and that was due a couple of week's later. I gave her only the sketchiest of details of D-Day and asked if she'd help me. I could barely think, let alone index a 200-page non-fiction book. She stepped up without hesitation.
A few weeks after that, I was at a restaurant meeting a friend for a bite and a drink. I hadn't planned on telling her what I was going through but she kept insisting that something was wrong so I caved. Her eyes filled with tears. And then, with a voice steely with resolve, she told me that, since she worked in the same office as my husband and the OW, she would be my eyes and ears. "I've got your back," she promised.
There were plenty of moments like those. When the people around me stepped up to help me when I needed it most. We sometimes miss them, focussed instead on the wrong done to us, the petty annoyances on top of our pain that make us wonder if the world is conspiring against us.
My eldest, who has an anxiety disorder, attended her orientation a few months ago as a transfer student. New to the school, she was determined to get out and make friends. But despite a big smile and a "hey, I'm S", student after student looked pained and turned away.
She sat down on a bench and fought tears. And then another student, this one part of the school's orientation team, sat down with her and introduced himself. "Why don't you join us?" he said. 
My daughter told me this story last night, two months later. The moment has stayed with her.
And that's what unexpected kindness does. 
I think so often of the secret sister on this site who provided her therapist with a gift card to a running store to be given to a betrayed wife who might benefit from running through her pain. I'm delighted at the upcoming plan of our own huge-hearted LilyLove, to create a support group for betrayed wives in her town, based on the kindness she sees here on this site. 
I smile frequently at the support I see daily on Twitter, where #SickNotWeak followers shore each other up. I make it a habit to "like" the post by the stranger who reminds her followers at the end of each day that it was another 24 hours of sobriety for her. 
Kindness is in the dingy church basement where I work on language skills with newcomers who fled war and oppression and who brought food last week (so much food!) to celebrate the successful surgery of one of our ESL teachers. 
It's there, even in the midst of your darkness.
Look for kindness. Extend kindness. Notice kindness.

I leave you with this excerpt from her poem Kindness by poet Naomi Shihab Nye:

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. 
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Monday, November 5, 2018

"If This Isn't Nice...": How to be happy again

“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.’” ~ Kurt Vonnegut

After months, often years, of longing to feel happy again, we notice that we're laughing a bit more. That our chest doesn't feel quite so tight. That we can go hours, sometimes half a day without remembering the betrayal, without a trigger, without that ache.
What is this? we wonder. How can I possibly be happy right now. My husband cheated on me. In fact, he might still be cheating on me. Where is he right now? I better check his e-mail account. 
And our pulse quickens and our heart pounds and we're right back in that dark storm of fear and anxiety.
Which confirms for us that we'll never feel happy again.
And which is simply not true.
In the wake of betrayal, we speak in absolutes. I will never be happy again. I will always hurt. I will never trust him again. People always let me down. I will never be the same. 
It's important, of course, to parse out the truth in those statements. So let's examine them more closely:
I will never be the same: On its surface, that's true. You never will be the same but who among remains the same person? But I know the fear hidden in that statement: That you're fundamentally changed in ways that you don't want to be. You don't laugh so much. You're anxious a lot. You don't feel as safe in your marriage as you did.
I felt all that. And I was convinced that I was somehow destined to remain this shell of my former self, this damaged person. 
I was wrong.
With time and whole lot of healing, I have changed. My eyes are a bit more open to others' treatment of me. I no longer shake off bad behaviour instead calling people on it. My boundaries are so much more clear and strong than they ever were. 
I treat myself better. I try and catch myself when I shift into martyr mode – when I tell myself that my family would shrivel up and die without me there to cook, to clean, to organize, to comfort. Stoking my resentment is unhealthy for all of us. Far better to teach them to cook, to clean, to organize, to comfort. 
I will always hurt: My dear wounded sisters, this hurts like a sonofabitch. I know that. It hurts in a way that you can't ever imagine it not hurting again. And it will continue to hurt for a while. Months. Maybe a year or two. The dull ache will last even longer.
You will not always hurt. Not if you do the work of healing yourself from not only his infidelity but all that old stuff that the infidelity dredges from the muck of your soul. The critical mother's words. The schoolyard bully's words. The nasty sister's words. The belief, somehow lodged in your psyche that you just don't quite measure up. Pull all that stuff up, along with the bullshit beliefs around why he cheated and spread it out, metaphorically, in front of you. And then examine each belief. Challenge it. Is it true? Probably not. Is it helpful? Doubt it. Keep examining the belief behind that default message that plays in your head ("Elle isn't available right now because she's lazy/ugly/stupid/unlucky/pathetic/whatever"). Challenge it each time. Where's the evidence that this is true? REAL evidence. Not your out-of-whack beliefs. Actual empirical evidence. If change is necessary, then change what you want to change. But notice too all the ways in which you're pretty great. Remind yourself of those qualities often. 
What will happen is that hurt will slowly heal. Whether or not your marriage survives, YOU will. And you will grow stronger because you're nurturing yourself. You will grow healthier because you're treating yourself like you matter. We bloom under a benevolent sun not a storm cloud.
I will never trust him again: H'mmm. Probably not if by trust you mean this absolute conviction that he would never EVER cheat on your. That genie is out of the bottle. We know what he's capable of doing so we can't ever convince ourselves that he's not capable of it. 
Even when HE thinks he's no longer capable of it. He is. 
But we're all capable of it. And those of us who think we're not are kinda lying to ourselves. 
This is where his work comes in. When he can honestly look at the various lines he crossed to cheat and recognize what they look like and what he was telling himself, then he's far less likely to do it again.
I knew my husband was worthy of a second chance the day he told me that, whether I stayed or left, he was focussed on becoming a better man. He did not want to be "that guy" again. Twelve years later, he remembers well the profound disappointment he had in himself. I have no guarantees that he won't cheat again. But neither do any of us, whether our husbands have cheated or not. Husbands are completely trustworthy. Until they're not.
Trusting him again really comes down to trusting yourself to be in your marriage in a way that's rooted in self-respect. 
People always let me down: This was my go-to conviction. I had a long list of people who had let me down. My parents. My grandmother. Friends. Boyfriends. Thing is, once I really pulled this bullshit belief into the light of day, I was faced with a deeper truth. I had let myself down. I had let myself down by staying in friendships that were one-sided. I had let myself down by going back to a boyfriend who was careless with my heart. I had let myself down by not expecting more of myself when I knew what I was capable of. 
The difference is though I can't control  how others treat me, I can absolutely control what I allow. And that's all the difference that matters. 
Once I stopped letting myself down, it mattered far less whether others did. It still stings, of course, when someone I considered a friend does something unkind. But once you value yourself, you're far more likely to tell them how their actions hurt. To expect accountability. To not take responsibility for others' bad behaviour but also to take full responsibility for your own. 
I will never be happy again: I promise you that you will. But it requires, as my beloved Kurt Vonnegut reminds us, to notice those moments. Tiny slivers at first. A smile at your child's antics. A beautiful harvest moon. A moment of grace from a friend. A doctor's appointment that delivers good news. A gorgeous pair of shoes, or just the right shade of lipstick. A mighty tree in the woods that has withstood a century or more of Mother Nature's blows. Pay attention, my secret sisters. Pay attention. Happiness returns to those who create a home for it. "And if that isn't nice..."

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Here's the difference between acceptance and tolerance

So you've decided to stay. At least for now.
Not much has changed. Maybe he doesn't believe in therapy, at least not for him. Maybe he's grumbling about violation of his privacy when you ask to see his text messages. Maybe things seem a bit better. He's home on time. He doesn't go out with his friends. He's drinking less.
And so you tell yourself that this is good. You're willing to let him stay. At least as long as he's not seeing her anymore.
Your kids don't know. Your co-workers know something was up but they've moved on to other gossip.
And you feel proud of yourself for accepting this new reality.
But have you? Really?
Or are you simply tolerating it?
What's the difference? you ask
Your heart knows the difference.
Accepting feels light, like a weight has lifted. Accepting might still hold sadness and grief. But it has let go of anger, it has let go of revenge fantasies. It has released you from blame. Acceptance knows that this is on him, not you. That it was his choice to cheat and nothing you might have done or not done isn't to blame for his decision.
Acceptance is rooted in self-love, in self-care, in self-respect.
Tolerating? Well, tolerating feels like a clenched fist and gritted teeth. It feels like resignation. And fear.
Tolerating is about counting the weeks, the days, the seconds. 
Tolerating is low-level despair.
Tolerating is the where we experience the plain of lethal flatness. Exhaustion. Numbness.
Tolerating can have its role. It can keep us from fleeing when we're not entirely sure we want to flee. It can keep us upright and functional when we're suddenly single parents, especially when that's something we never wanted to be.
It can be a step.
But it's not a way to live.
And it can keep us dangerously in place when we should be fleeing. 
Fleeing words like land like gut punches. About your looks, your age, your intelligence, your family, your parenting. Fleeing fists and feet. Fleeing control – emotional, financial, physical. 
Tolerating any of that is the opposite of self-love. It's tacit agreement that you don't deserve more.
And that is an absolute lie.
You deserve love. 
You deserve kindness.
You deserve respect.
And especially after betrayal, when you haven't kicked his cheating ass out, you deserve deep deep gratitude and support. 
We know it doesn't always play out that way, at least at first. 
Sometimes there's a period where he hasn't yet figured out just how idiotic he's being, when he's deep in the fog of his delusional choice and he's convinced he can somehow emerge perhaps not a hero but at least not a villain, when he thinks he can push this away and simply insert himself back into his marriage with barely a ripple...well, that's a period of time when we might just be gritting our teeth and clenching our fists and...tolerating his lunacy.
But for only a very short period. Like days or weeks, not months and certainly not years.
Because if he comes to believe that you will tolerate any level of betrayal or abuse or lack of respect or kindness or love, then he hasn't fully accepted the cost of his affair.
Let him know. 

(If you are in an abusive relationship – any kind of abuse, whether emotional, verbal, physical, financial – please reach out for help. There are people out there who understand your situation and can guide you through: The National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-7233.)


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