Friday, December 27, 2019

From the Vault: Lessons from Christmas – Getting Un-Stuck

by StillStanding1

I’ve been thinking a lot about expectations. With 2017 over (saints be praised), I find myself looking ahead with hope that things will be better, that I will feel better in 2018. Christmas was a bear. Nothing seemed to go quite right. After years of Currier & Ives-meets-Pottery Barn-level holiday execution at great expenditure of energy and money, I had kind of a shitty, half-assed, not at all Pinteresty holiday. 
The tree was wonky and fell over three times before I got it sorted. I almost gave up and threw the whole damn thing out. Because of this, it wasn’t even decorated until a few days before the actual holiday. This felt bad. My daughter was low-grade angry and walking around with a chip on her shoulder, particularly where her younger brother was concerned. This also felt bad. I didn’t have the energy or desire to do the full holiday decorating to the house. My brother-in-law drank too much and my niece was a bully to her future sister-in-law at our family gathering. It was supremely uncomfortable. Money was tight and getting gifts for all the people I was somehow still responsible for (how does this happen?) was really stressful. I didn’t get to see people I wanted to, some parties didn’t happen, and I couldn’t go to a volunteer event I really wanted to. And work exploded. And… and… and… Everything just kind of sucked. And I wondered why nothing was like it used to be and why I was totally lacking in that warm fuzzy Christmas feeling. Why wasn’t I doing better?
I had promised myself that when Christmas Day came, I was just going to relax and enjoy the day however it played out, knowing that the kids were going to spend part of the day with their dad at his place. That I was going to be cooking on my own. That hordes of family weren’t going to descend on me with noise and silliness and togetherness. Knowing all that, I was going to take things as they were. And, as it turns out, I had a good day.
After Christmas dinner with just me and the kids, I sat back over a glass of wine and realized no one was going to clean up the food or do the dishes or invite me to go sit down because I had worked so hard to make everything so nice. I was sulking to myself about this. I wanted it to be different. I missed “the good old days.” And it hit me. Everything wrong about my holiday was about my expectations.
I was probably expecting too much of myself to think I’d be able to charge through the holidays with my historical energy and enthusiasm just a few weeks after my divorce was finalized while simultaneously covering some of the worst of the affair history ground. Even without those two enormous factors, this was my first year with a child in college. All the normal things we would do together leading up to the big holiday were pretty much out the window because we weren’t together.  Change can be hard sometimes. Despite thinking I was giving myself a pass and generally planning on letting myself off the hook, I was still hanging on to the idea that I had to slay at Christmas in order to prove (to who? My ex? Anyone watching? Myself?) that I was doing GREAT!
I was probably expecting too much of my daughter to think that this time of year would be any easier for her than for me. She knew her dad was cheating before I did. Why should she be okay or over it when I wasn’t? And this was new for her. The same issues around not being home to get ready for Christmas had piled stress on her and now she had somehow become responsible for buying gifts for each of her parents. Something that would have happened anyway, as she transitioned to adulthood but was additionally laden with her own perfectionist tendencies to make sure we each had a “good” Christmas, post-divorce. So not fair, goddamn it.
I was probably expecting too much of all the other people in my life who have their own shit going on, to keep things exactly as they have been or to know I could use a phone call or a hug or whatever, without me telling them.
I just wasn’t in the Christmas spirit. And why should I be? I’m nice to everyone all the goddamn time. Why do I have to be even more nice now? Why was I buying in to the pressure to spend, spend, spend? I was depressed but I felt like I shouldn’t be, just because it was Christmas. I’m not allowed to be depressed at Christmas. How was all that Chrsitmassy shit going to get done?  But wow, have I been depressed. And I was searching for the elusive feeling I used to have this time of year of doing something special, the glow of lights and magic (and there was magic. I truly miss this) and snow and stories and eggnog and wassail, and fires, and homemade shortbread, of being part of something bigger, a family, of being loved. 
And there it was. I was not feeling loved. Probably because I had fallen off the self-care wagon a couple of miles back and hadn’t noticed until that moment.  And way down deep under that was my old saw. I was not being loved because I was not lovable. No one is ever going to love me. There’s always something more important or more worth choosing than me. I know it's bullshit. It still gets me when I’m not paying attention.
Every time I get stuck it comes back to that. And that stuckness is why I’m telling you my Christmas expectations story. Because I think those expectations for ourselves and for others – that we should be over it, that we should be feeling better, that we should be stronger, that we should still be able to do and think and be like we used to “before” it all went down – that they should be able to understand how we are feeling, that they should know we need help even if we don’t ask, that they should just know how to help even though they have the emotional range of a filing cabinet. I think the holidays, which are so laden with expectation, brings that conflict into relief. I find I struggle most when I resist reality as it is or when I wish for or expect people or situations to be different.  (Expectation: Christmas should be magical. Reality: I am too fucking tired to Christmas this year.)
When I look closely at my own expectations, hidden deep down is the old, old fear: I am not enough. If I make this crazy, amazing Christmas, then my family will have to see I’m lovable. They’ll have to love me. My husband can’t give me what I need emotionally because I probably don’t deserve it.  Sounds crazy when you state it out loud in a complete sentence, doesn’t it? If I prove myself in these ways, they will HAVE to love me. It's nutty, magical thinking. And I think it's in there because we first learned these things when we were little kids. If you grew up in any kind of dysfunctional family system (and if you are here, chances are you did) you learned that love was conditional upon you performing in some way or that it was unpredictable or that people you cared about didn’t ever care about you quite as much. Those stories (or agreements) stay with us. We play them out over and over until we see them for what they are. 
Turns out Christmas sucking and getting stuck is a gift. It’s a chance to look at the stories I am telling myself and the magical thinking I am laying on myself about my worth and maybe getting somewhere different with it. I get mad about it. How am I back here? How am I still fighting this? When will I finally be over this? When will I finally believe I am enough for good and all? Well. This stuff, the trauma of infidelity, the hurts from our childhood that infidelity reminds us of, the expectations of the holidays and the ways we think we’ve failed are all pointing to the soft spots, the wounds we need to tend.
Christmas isn’t the same. That’s ok. I can make new traditions. I can still remember that I have people in my life who love me and value me, even when I don’t do that so well myself. My marriage, my life isn’t the same. That’s OK. I can make a new path for myself. I can still remember that I have people in my life who love me and value me. I’m not that same.  That’s OK. In fact, I think that’s a really good thing. That goes for you too. Things are not the same. If you are rebuilding, your marriage will not be the same. You are not the same. He’s not the same. I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that this is ok. That it is, in fact, a good thing. And don’t forget that there are people in your life who love you and value you, who see you, even when you can’t do that so well yourself.

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

From the Vault: Finally! The recovering perfectionist's all-you-need guide to surviving the holidays

by StillStanding1

The holidays can be tough, what with families and history and people in our lives expecting unrealistic things of us and our own selves expecting unrealistic things of us. Add in post-trauma from betrayal and you have got a seriously heavy load to carry.
I am a recovering perfectionist. Being a perfectionist sucks. You think no one will love you unless you do everything absolutely right. This always comes back to my “enough-ness”, that softest of all my soft spots. You destroy yourself through over achieving, you hustle for worthiness, trying to make everything just right for everyone else and losing yourself in the process. 
At this time of year, it takes on an even deeper level of intensity. Christmas (that’s the holiday I do. Feel free to insert your holiday loaded with expectations and desperation here) must look like the love child of Currier & Ives and Pottery Barn. Everything must sparkle and glow (decorate every room in the house and do the outside lights by myself). Mince pies perfectly dusted with powdered sugar (stay up till midnight baking because everyone will be disappointed if you bring something store-bought). All presents on list purchased and wrapped (everyone must have piles of things to open. Everything for the kids must be fair and equal. I must make sure I get presents for my friends and my kids' friends despite my dwindling budget). All parties attended and dressed in appropriately festive attire and everyone well brushed and behaved (crap, my son needs a haircut. Does he have clean pants that aren’t athletic?! WTF am I going to wear?). Fake that smile as if my life depended on it (even as I’m triggered watching other people’s husbands over-indulge in alcohol and breathe the fumes on me). Visit out-of-town relatives for parties I dislike and sleep in uncomfortable rooms or on slowly deflating air mattresses (but don’t dare suggest we say “no” because someone might be disappointed. Gasp). A frenzy of shopping and shipping and wrapping and cooking and visiting and trying so hard to make sure all the people in my life have all their needs met. Even needs they didn’t know they had. Wow. I’m exhausted just writing that.
With the discovery that I don’t have to be perfect to be loveable and these amazing things called boundaries (what is and is not okay with me), the holidays get just a little bit easier.
1.      Give yourself a break. You don’t have to do it all. You don’t have to sit through movies or music or anything that upsets you or just makes you feel lousy. You don’t have to be strong for others. You don’t have to be strong at all. You don’t have to be super mom or Mrs. Claus.
2.     Say no.  To invitations that don’t fit your schedule.  To doing things for other people that you don’t want to do. To anything that feels like a bad idea. To your husband wanting to go out for drinks with his pals, if that doesn’t suit you just now. To anything your gut tells you is not good for you right now. There’s so much pressure to be nice and do all these things we don’t want to do. You can say no and still be nice. They are not mutually exclusive. Resist the urge to explain or justify your no. “Thanks for thinking of me, but no thank you.” Repeat as necessary.
3.     Let go of expectations. For yourself, that you get everything done, that all the boxes are checked off, that you feel a certain way.  Don’t expect that you should feel happy or joyful or forgiving just because some arbitrary holiday season says you should be feeling those things. Let go of expectations for others; that they do more or be more capable of something or different than they are. When you can start seeing and accepting people where they are, you don’t get disappointed. And those people can tell when there is a new room for them to show up in.  Let go of the idea that things need to go a certain way or look a certain way or be a certain way.
4.     Say yes to self-care. Sleep, eat to take care of yourself, exercise, meditate, read, make time for you. See #2 above. Get your nails done. Visit with friends. Call your mom/sister/other reliable support person.
5.     Whenever possible don’t engage with toxic relatives. Don’t take the bait when one tries to get a rise out of you. Let the complainer’s complaints roll off you. They are about her, not you. Don’t bite when individuals question your life choices. Don’t sit next to people who set you off or are emotionally risky for you. Have an escape plan. You are allowed to leave early.
6.     Boundaries. Boundaries. Boundaries.  A well-meaning relative may pressure you to eat more because they have made something “especially for you.” You can say thank you and then go ahead and eat or not eat what you had intended. Your husband wants to go to a work holiday party after hours. Does that make you uncomfortable? Does he get to go but needs to check in? Or do you go with him? You decide what works for you. That’s your boundary.
7.     Drop the judgement. You are not a bad person for not wanting to spend more time with relatives or in-laws. You are, rather, putting yourself first and that makes a lot of us (and others) supremely uncomfortable. You are not a failure because you did not make 800 lbs of shortbread cookies. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself.
8.     Remind yourself that you are doing an awesome fucking job. At showing up. At breathing. At getting through each day. Maybe you made your bed. Win! Maybe you had tea with a friend. Win! Maybe you decided the laundry could wait another day. More winning!
9.     Ask. For. Help. Really. You don’t have to do it all yourself. Refer to #1. Delegate decorating to kids or ask your partner to help you this year. Maybe you go to the grocery store to get the dinner fixings together. Maybe your husband can be in charge of buying the gifts for his side of the family if that usually falls to you. Make a list. Assign to your team. Kick back with your tea and watch people actually rise to the occassion. 
10.  Resist the urge to swoop in and make sure they do it your way. Reference #3. I think the reason so many of us go in to fix it mode after betrayal is because it was our go-to coping strategy to begin with. When in doubt, take over, be busy, don’t think, don’t feel.  And also make sure everything is just so because perfection makes everything better (#sarcasm). Once you’ve delegated a task, trust that the person doing the task will get it done. It may not be your way but there is more than one “right” way. Let go.
11.  Be grateful. For whatever you can muster gratitude for. Your health. Your kids. The roof over your head. Your dog. For friends and family that love and support you. For sunshine. For the smell of snow. For a chance to live another day. Whatever you can feel gratitude for, keep your eyes on that. Its hard, in the wake of betrayal to feel grateful for anything. But over time, remembering what you have, the good stuff, helps you get past or let go of what no longer serves you or what you feel you’ve lost.
12.  Be sad. If you need to. The overarching glory of the holidays tends to silence or erase our sad feelings.  And like so much of our experience as betrayed wives, we just need room to feel our stuff all the way through. We see others being happy, normal, living lives not marred by this weight and we think why not me? We think of what’s missing and it takes our breath away. Ideally, share your sadness with someone who understands and can love you through your sadness. But even on your own, sadness won’t kill you. I promise. Let yourself have it, if that’s what you need right now. 
13.  You have permission to change your mind. You can feel like you want to go to a party when you get the invitation but when the time comes, you may just have had a bad day. You may be too tired and sad. You are allowed to stay home and take care of yourself.
14.  Be happy. Give yourself permission for this too. There’s a lot going on right now. If you find yourself surprised in the moment by some happiness, wrap your arms around that shit and enjoy it. Post-betrayal, some of us feel like good feelings are not permitted. That if we feel happy, even for split second, we are letting him off the hook. Our happiness is just that. Ours. Let yourself have it.
Holidays can be tough for so many reasons. Remember that you are not alone. We are all standing here with you. And if you feel overwhelmed, stuck in depression or like you just can’t take another day please call 1-800-273-8255It’s for everyone, open 24/7 and free.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

From the Vault: Reiminaging the Holidays

You can color in your holidays however you choose. 
D-Day blows up our world as we know it. Even if others don't see the damage, we do and it impacts every part of our lives, from whether we continue to display wedding photos on a bedside table to whether we start driving a different route to work to whether we put our house up for sale. Changes big and small become our new normal.
And though change can be tough, especially change that we didn't invite into our lives, it can also create renewal. It can spur growth. It can remind us to look around with fresh eyes and examine our lives, to do some metaphorical decluttering.
It's with that intention that I'll be writing some blog posts under the headline: Reimagining...
There's much we can reimagine following a partner's betrayal. Within the darkness, we can shine a light selectively on those parts of our lives that we want to change, whether wholesale reinventions or smaller tweaks that lead us back to our authentic selves.
Let's start with a time of year that's often the source of stress at the best of times, but that also tends to be rooted in deep traditions: The Holidays.

My D-Day was December 10, 1996 so you can probably imagine that Christmas. Merry, it was not. My parents, who were incredibly supportive of me in my agony, nonetheless bore the brunt of my pain. I screamed at my mother for her alcoholism in my childhood, casting my current pain as an extension of the pain I'd felt much of my life and for which I blamed others without self-control. Like her.
My kids, unaware of what was really going on, were on the receiving end of some of my wrath too. Early Boxing Day morning, as I tried to sleep, my year-old son began a fight with his little sister. I stomped downstairs, told him to stop and when did it again, I picked up a discarded box and bonked him on the head with it. He wailed with outrage more than any pain. And to this day, despite sincere apologies by me for losing my temper and "using my hands instead of my words", he reminds me of the "child abuse" he suffered early that morning.
I don't remember much else of that Christmas season beyond misery and anger and a profound disappointment that one of my favorite times of years was "ruined".
I hear that word a lot on this site, especially about the holidays. Birthdays are "ruined", Thanksgiving "ruined", Christmas or Hanukkah "ruined".
And yes, in the short term, there's so much pain and so much disappointment that a holiday pressuring us to put on a happy face and "celebrate" is inevitably going to feel "ruined."
But what if we gave ourselves permission to do things differently? What if, under the circumstances, we gave up this idea that things always had to look a certain way, or include a certain tradition, or involve certain people? Does that seem frightening? At a time when so much feels uncertain, we might want to cling even more tightly to rituals we can trust. But if those rituals are creating more pain, maybe it's time to reinvent them. To remind ourselves that human survival does not depend on whether the turkey includes homemade stuffing, or if our passive-aggressive mother-in-law is at the table, or if we celebrate on a certain calendar day or the day after.
You are in crisis mode. And when you're in crisis mode, old norms don't hold. When you're in crisis mode, you get to make the rules. You get to decide just how much you can handle and how your energy is best expended. Maybe, just maybe, it's more important for you to build in time for a long hike in the woods on Thanksgiving than it is to host your annual gathering of extended family. Maybe, if a separation is part of your post-D-Day world, you can sit down with your kids and redesign this year's holiday, holding on to what brings joy and tossing out what doesn't. If you're going to be alone, maybe this year's holiday includes a volunteer stint at a soup kitchen (don't underestimate the power of realizing that there are many kinds of pain and many opportunities to experience compassion) or maybe what the doctor ordered is a day of watching movies and crying into a bowl of Doritos.
Let me tell you, as someone who reinvented my own holidays in the years since D-Day, the sky is not going to fall. Trust me on this. The laws of nature will hold. One day will follow another. Nothing is worth hurting yourself further when you've already been so hurt.
But there are some rules I'll ask you to adhere to:
Be honest. Start with yourself and figure out what you honestly want given your situation. This isn't about wishful thinking and falling into an abyss of how you shouldn't even have to be dealing with this. You're right. You shouldn't. But you aredealing with it and you can deal with it from a place of honesty with yourself.
Then extend that honesty to everyone around you who will be affected by any changes. Be prepared for backlash because people are freaking crazy about tradition. Be prepared for tears. Be prepared for blame. Be prepared for passive-aggression, for all the countermoves we talk about on this site. Because you're likely doing something you don't often do, which is put yourself first. It's high time people discovered that you are entitled to your feelings too. And if it matters so much to them that the Thanksgiving dinner include your secret gravy, then tell them you'll happily pass that tradition along and that you'll be delighted to savor their version.
If all this seems daunting, then tweak it in ways that serve you. Carve out some alone time with a friend who knows what you're going through. Take that walk with the dog and let everyone else clean up. Or do whatever you can to create a tiny space of peace for you. Changes, big and small.
Check your motives. Don't wreak havoc as a way of expressing your pain. Don't throw out things that genuinely matter to you just to make someone else hurt.
Check your expectations. This year will be different. There's no way around that. Expecting it to feel like "good" years is destined to leave you deflated and disheartened.
Watch for moments of grace: Make it your task to mentally catalogue at least five moments of grace. Maybe it's someone squeezing your hand because they know how hard this is for you. Maybe it's your child or grandchild climbing into your lap and giving you a hug. Maybe it's an overcooked turkey that everyone eats anyway because what's on the plate doesn't matter so much after all and you all realize, more than ever, that hearts are fragile and we need to be gentle with each other. Maybe it's gratitude that you're not in jail for killing your husband. If you're watching for moments of grace, it will be easier to overlook the moments of disappointment, which will be there too.
At the risk of being a silver-linings thinker (though I'm guilty as charged!), the incredible pain of betrayal can also be an opening into another life, one in which we learn to be gentle with ourselves, to hold our hearts in high regard and to create space in our lives only for those who show us they deserve to be there, by treating us with honesty and dignity and respect.
And we can start reimagining that future today.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

After the Cheating Comes Reconstruction

I screamed horrible things at my mother after my husband's betrayal. Despite the fact that she was the first person I called, despite the fact that she was my absolute rock, I nonetheless said horrible things. The latent pain that my husband's betrayal awakened was there because of my mother's addiction when I was a kid. 
I couldn't separate the pain of my husband's betrayal with the old pain of my mother's. Both betrayals told me that I wasn't lovable, that I didn't matter, that I wasn't worth fighting for, that I was expendable. 
And so I screamed at my mother that she was the reason I married someone who would do this, that I never felt worth being loyal to, that she had taught me to settle for crumbs.
She listened to it all. And then, as she had so many times before, she held me while I cried and reminded me how sorry she was, how desperately she wished she could go back and do those days over, do them differently.
It's hard for me to disentangle the pain of my husband's infidelity with the earlier pain of my mother's addiction. Complicating things further, my mother died six months after my first D-Day and weeks after my second. Her loss left me bereft. Long sober, she was the person I spoke with daily, who knew my story. She was my cheerleader, my champion. She was fierce in her love for me but equally fierce in her belief in forgiveness, in the human capacity for change, in earning redemption. She had lived it herself.
And so I've taken particular interest in Richard Rohr's recent look at addiction and sobriety. Rohr is a priest of the Franciscan order and though I'm not Catholic, his progressive views about life (not just religion) give me lots to consider. 
Such as this, from Alcoholics Anonymous:
There is a long period of reconstruction ahead. We must take the lead. A remorseful mumbling that we are sorry won’t fit the bill at all. We ought to sit down with the family and frankly analyze the past as we now see it, being very careful not to criticize them. Their defects may be glaring, but the chances are that our own actions are partly responsible. So we clean house with the family, asking each morning in meditation that our Higher Power show us the way of patience, tolerance, kindliness, and love.
The spiritual life is not a theory. We have to finally live it.

This is what so many cheaters resist, even those who genuinely want to move past this, who swear they'll never cheat again. They resist the period of reconstruction. They imagine they can put this behind them without really doing the work of reparations. They want us to "stop living in the past", to "focus on the future". But without the work, without the reconstruction, the past is our present, and will be our future. Because we're still living it. Every single day.
Imagine the difference if a remorseful cheater sat down with us and listened to our experience without getting defensive. Just listened and tried to understand what it feels like to discover that our reality wasn't reality at all. How crazy-making that is. How terrifying that is. How humiliating that feels. 
Imagine if a repentant cheater was willing to do more than mumble "I'm sorry", if he was truly willing to "clean house", to take an inventory of the ways in which he's harmed other people, to take steps to make amends, where appropriate.
Thanks to my mother's sobriety via 12-step meetings, I've long believed it's a powerful way of living, whether or not addiction plays a role. It centres personal responsibility, accountability. It includes plenty of mercy. But ultimately, it's about showing up in our vulnerability, heart and eyes wide open.
While healing from my husband's betrayal, I was able to also heal a lot of old wounds from my mother's betrayal. And those 12-steps, at which I'd rolled my eyes when my mom was newly sober, were a valuable guide. 
Both my mom and my husband were able to make reparations, to listen to my pain and take full accountability for their role in causing it. It's impossible to overstate how healing that is. To feel heard. To feel seen. To feel valued. 
Those unwilling to do that get in the way of our healing. Telling us to "stop living in the past" is not only useless, it's harmful. 
Instead, we need to enter a period of reconstruction, which includes a sober look at what got us here. 

Monday, December 16, 2019

Spinning stories out of S*@t

I was asked recently why people cheat. We had been having a conversation about how cheating is fantasy, how affairs are a distraction from uncomfortable feelings, such as grief, or loneliness, or anxiety, or depression. The common denominator, I had said, based on so many of the stories I read on this site, was that the affair had far less to do with the actual affair partner than with what she represented: the opportunity to be someone else, even briefly. To exit the real world into a fantasy and become someone who wasn't saddled with a mortgage, a special needs child, an ailing parent, a dead-end job, a beer belly. The change to be who we always thought we'd be – exciting, interesting, successful, sexy. That's what we're chasing when we're cheating, the fantasy of our other self.
Yes, was the reply, but we all have those feelings. Lots of us have suffered disappointments, lots of us have stressors in our lives. But why do some cheat and others don't?

Let me present this caveat: I am not an expert. I don't have years of schooling to help me understand human behaviour. What I do have is more than a decade curating your stories on this site.
And here's what I've learned:
People who cheat are those who've created a narrative that somehow makes cheating okay. Or understandable. To put it in the vernacular: They believe their own bullshit. 

Bullshit story #1: "My wife doesn't love me." 
So cliché, right? It's the story of every pathetic guy on a barstool hitting on the 20-something woman beside him. And he's probably convinced himself it's true. No matter that this wife is likely sitting at home while he's out getting sauced at his corner pub, no matter that she has at least as much incentive to cheat as he does, this is the tale he tells. He's unloved. Unappreciated. Unwanted. Disrespected. And so...who could blame him, right? After all, his wife probably wouldn't even care. She'd probably be glad to be off the hook, to not be saddled with his sorry self. 
These are the guys who are utterly bewildered when D-Day arrives, the proverbial cat is out of the bag and their wife is devastated. This is where the story they've been telling themselves falls completely apart. When it's revealed as a fiction.
Because this bullshit story is about entitlement. When you're the unappreciated husband of a total shrew, you deserve a woman who appreciates you, don't you? What red-blooded man wouldn't cheat under those circumstances? 
Guys who believe him are so busy feeling sorry for themselves that they can't fathom the role they play in their lives. They're just good guys and life has let them down. They wallow in the self-pity of their fabricated narrative. 

Bullshit story #2: "We couldn't help it"
Ah yes, the "we just fell into bed and never intended to hurt anyone" story. This was the story offered by my husband's OW. "We never meant to hurt you," she told me, in all sincerity. To which I cried, "bullshit. You knew exactly what you were doing. And, since your husband had already done this to you, you knew exactly how much it hurt."
Nobody "falls into bed" without having to cross a whole lot of red lines before you get there. Whether those lines took minutes or months to cross doesn't matter. 
But here's another consideration: Did she know how much it hurt? Was she so divorced from her own emotions that doing to another woman what had been done to her might have tasted like vindication more than betrayal. This was a woman who spent most of her free time on her way to the bottom of a vodka bottle. She wasn't someone who closely examined her motives or considered the repercussions. And, frankly, neither did my husband. Affairs were distractions, self-medicating, a way to avoid thinking. Because to think might have revealed that what they were telling themselves was total bullshit. 

Bullshit story #3: "It's harmless"
A friend confided in me a few years ago that she had met someone interesting on the plane who held an important position for our city. Flying high above their day-to-day lives and released from routine responsibility, the two laughed and shared stories. My friend felt invigorated by the exchange. This man was attractive. He made her feel interesting. He suggested they meet for drinks. My friend told me that she was considering it.
"But you're married," I responded. "And so is he."
"It's would be harmless," she said. "We're just friends. He wants to help my career."
Those of us who've been down this road likely have alarm bells sounding at that exchange, huh? There's so much wrong with this. She found him attractive. She was at a vulnerable point in her marriage with her husband travelling frequently for work. She was intoxicated by his interest in her.
Harmless? Nope. Bullshit? Yep. 

Affairs are like little bubbles of alternate reality into which you've invited someone who is not your wife. It might be shared confidences, it might be an after-work drink, it might be a lingering look, it might be a genuine physical attraction (it's not wrong to feel attracted to another person, it's wrong to act on it in any way that your marriage partner wouldn't thumbs up). 
No matter where it starts, an affair has required both partners to step over lines that should be signalling a clear boundary violation. It has required the construction of a narrative that makes cheating not only somehow okay but inevitable. It requires a belief that we are not agents of our own behaviour but someone helpless against forces stronger than ourselves. When we have successfully absolved ourselves of responsibility, cheating becomes something that happens to us rather than a choice we make. And with the bullshit belief that cheating happens passively comes an inevitability and the chance to throw up our hands and feign shock that we're eyeball deep in an affair that, frankly, is starting to get a bit tiresome. 

Cheaters traffic in bullshit even when they're unconscious of it, especially when they're unconscious of it. They've lied to their marriage partners, they've lied to their affair partners, and, frankly, they've mostly lied to themselves
Which is why the antidote to a cheater's toxic thinking is to pull it into harsh glare of daylight.
Your wife doesn't love you? Where's the evidence of that?
It just happened? Then why hasn't it "just happened" for the rest of us?
It's harmless? Then why is your wife falling to pieces, your kids aren't speaking to you, you're at risk of losing your job and the lunatic OW is making wedding plans on Facebook?
Part of a cheater's responsibility in the wake of D-Day, if he's truly committed to understand how he allowed himself to cheat when it violates his own value system, is to look at the bullshit stories he told himself, to begin to understand how those narratives gave him subconscious permission to cheat, and to become aware when he begins spinning those stories again. 
Only when he can smell his own bullshit can those of us married to these guys begin to feel safe enough to trust them again.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

When Rah-Rah Isn't Reality

A woman responded to a post today with words that made my heart ache. She'd been reading all the stories of healing and moving past and rah-rah cheer and even though she was doing everything she could to try and grab on to a piece of that positivity for herself, she just couldn't. It just wasn't her reality.
Not right now.
And that's okay.
If there's anything worse than feeling like you're in the darkest place of your life, it's feeling like you're in the darkest place of your life and you should be able to fix it.
And yet, you haven't a clue what you can do. And even if you had a clue, you aren't sure you even want to fix it. 
You're tired.
You're defeated.
You're paralyzed.
What do you do when none of the so-called solutions fit right now?
What do you do when others' stories don't match yours? When your husband isn't following the script? When you're exhausted from sleepless nights? When none of his promises mean anything? When none of this feels like it could ever turn out to be even remotely okay? When none of your so-called choices are good ones? When you're left with bad and worse? 
What do you do?
Doing nothing can feel radical. It can feel dangerous. We're a culture that rewards action. That rewards badasses who scream like hell about injustice, who take no prisoners.
Where's the glory in pulling the sheets over your head? Where's the power in curling up on the floor with the dog and sobbing into his neck?
But, even though it might feel counter-intuitive, even though it might feel scary, like if you loosen your grip for even a second any forward momentum you might have achieved will vanish like smoke, even though...
Well, not exactly nothing.
Doing nothing is doing something. It's letting yourself rest. It's letting your poor overworked brain stop trying to brainstorm your way out of this. It's trusting that you can loosen your grip and regain some strength. 
Glennon Doyle puts it this way: First the pain. Then the waiting. Then the rising. 
Waiting can feel like hell. But it's a crucial part of this. 
So, my dear wounded sister, everything in your response tells me that you're in the waiting period. The fallow period. When seeds are being planted but you don't yet see what's growing because it's deep in the ground.
Trust that you are healing. And that when the time is ready, you will feel stronger and clearer. None of this is easy. Hard news but the truth. But when it feels impossible, that's your cue To wait.
And then, when you're ready, to rise again

Monday, December 9, 2019

Kicking Fear Out of the Driver's Seat

For a species that does a whole lot of talking, we seem to have a terrible time actually communicating with each other. 
Case in point: One of my Twitter tribe tweeted that, after almost two years of reconciliation, her husband thought it was best that he leave despite both wanting to rebuild their marriage. Why? Well, according to him, "I can't seem to  stop hurting you so it's best that I leave and then you can be happy." 
I confess I heard that a few times from my own husband in the wake of D-Day. I recall having suggested it more than once.
But unspoken was this: "I am so scared. I don't know how to do this. I have made such a mess of things and I hate being reminded of it every single day. When you cry. When you have that faraway look in your eyes and I can't reach you. If I wasn't here, you wouldn't be reminded of what a shit I am. And I wouldn't be reminded of what a shit I am."
My code-breaking is due, in large part, to my own pre-married life. I didn't know how to have a healthy relationship. All I'd seen was unhealthy ones. I knew screaming and sulking. I knew the bad kind of silence.
It wasn't until my mom got sober in church basements and began incorporating those 12 steps into her life and into her relationship with me that the code was cracked.
She was scared and so she drank.
I was scared and so I ran away.
Fear drives so many of our actions, whether we're conscious of it or not.
You're scrolling through the OW's social media again? It's not because you desperately want to see her vacation pics, it's because you're scared. And knowing what she's doing gives you the illusion that you have more control than you actually do.
Avoiding that pre-holiday conversation with your dad about his drinking? Of course, you are. You're scared. That he'll gaslight you. That he'll tell you to stay home. That he'll blame you or shame you or otherwise make this your problem, not his.
The thing is that we're all scared. Pretty much all the time. We're scared our kids will take drugs. We're scared our husbands will cheat again. We're scared our friends would pity us or shun us if they knew the truth of our marriage. We're scared our parents will get sick. We're scared we'll outlive our children. We're scared we'll outlive our money. We're scared we'll outlive our planet's resources (well, at least I am).
The list, sadly, goes on.
But the thing about fear is that, as Mark Nepo puts it, "Fear gets its power from our not looking, at either the fear or what we're afraid of."
Facing it strips it of its power. Not immediately, of course. But with time. With practice.
Facing our fear, really noticing when our actions are rooted in it, helps us live our life, the one we want. Not just the one that happens when we're running away.
My daughter woke up sick the other day. She had a shift at work and yet could hardly stand. But her manager tries to control her staff through a twisted mix of passive-aggression, gaslighting and silence. My daughter, a people-pleaser (she's working on it!!), was terrified to call in sick. "She'll get mad at me," she wailed. "She won't believe me," she moaned. "She'll take me off the schedule and I won't get any shifts," she cried.
To which I responded, "you can either call in legitimately sick and treat yourself with respect or you can let someone else's emotional toxicity control you."
Your choice. Your call.
With shaking hands, she made the call. 
The sky didn't fall. The world didn't tilt off its axis. Instead, my daughter prioritized self-respect and honesty over letting fear dictate her actions. 
I've learned the hard way that letting fear drive the car will take you over the cliff. Or at least close enough to the edge that you're constantly anxious.
The only way to live the life you want is to wrestle back the wheel. Fear will still be there. It will sit in the passenger seat and bark orders and sulk and catalogue all the ways in which you need to listen to it or hellfire will rain down on you. 
It's wrong. Mostly.
Sometimes bad things will happen. But they will happen anyway because that's how life works. Anticipating bad things just robs today of sunshine because tomorrow it might rain.
Next time you find yourself looking for the exit door, ask yourself if you're running from fear. Fear isn't the enemy. It can tell us important information. "You're not safe in this relationship." Or, "you have some work to do around your relationship with your mother." Or, "day drinking just might not be a good long-term solution to your pain." Or "keep your gas tank full in case of an alien invasion."
But if you're willing to face it down, to examine the information it's offering in the cold light of day to determine what's legit and what's not, it can become just one of the tools in our belt rather than the only one.
And living a life not governed by fear is authentically yours. 

Friday, December 6, 2019

How To Grow Your Own Heart

Would you erase your memories if you could? Not all memories, of course, but painful ones?
There was a time when I would have signed up for that without hesitation. I longed for some sort of lobotomy that kept me functional but stripped of trauma. Or a fall that would render me amnesiac, like a soap opera character. 
However, with technology on the horizon that promises (threatens?) to do exactly that, I find myself far more ambivalent. 
Do I really want to forget everything associated with my husband's infidelity?
I'm far enough out from D-Day (closing in on the 13th anti-versary) that the sting is long gone. I sometimes have trouble remembering the OW's name, a name I thought was seared into my brain. 
Sometimes, when one of you amazing warriors shares your story, there are details that make my own heart quicken, my stomach sink and my eyes well. I'm right there with you and, oh man, it hurts like  hell.
But mostly, I'm left with the life I've built since that horrible day, the lessons I've learned, the appreciation I've gained. 
And I wonder, was the pain the price I had to pay to get where I am? 
I hope I don't sound cavalier. Because I know just how acute that pain is. I have some sort of muscle memory that takes me back to the hyperventilating, the bizarre sense of falling without a net, the abject terror of another day in which, it seemed, anything could happen but it would probably be bad. 
But I've got the long view now. It's a view I never imagined. So intense was the pain of betrayal that I couldn't conceive of it ever receding. Dulling perhaps but persisting. Like an arthritic knee on a rainy day.
It isn't like that, at least not for me. It's more the memory of pain than pain itself. Like a diary in which you know you felt that way – after all, it's right there in your handwriting – but it feels like someone else.
How did I get here?
Good question. Because I certainly didn't have a plan, nor a map, which is what I wanted. And which is why I wrote Encyclopedia for the Betrayed because if there's a shortcut, a blueprint for getting the hell out of the darkness even a tiny bit faster, then bring it on, right?
But it began, honestly, with growing my own heart large enough to include myself.
Simple, huh? 
Not for me. So deep was my own shame that learning to make space in my heart for myself felt Herculean. It felt selfish. I didn't deserve it, I was certain. My lack of caring for myself left me particularly vulnerable to the pain of betrayal because somewhere, deep deep down, was the belief that my husband's infidelity was almost inevitable. I was fundamentally unlovable.
I had covered it well for a lot of years. 
But betrayal stripped me of my armour and laid my heart bare. And it held no room for me.
"When we feed and support our own happiness, we are nourishing our ability to love. That's why to love means to learn the art of nourishing our happiness. Understanding someone's suffering is the best gift you can give to another person. Understanding is love's other name. If you don't understand, you can't love."
Those are the words of Thich Nhat Hanh
"To love without knowing how to love wounds the person we love," he says.
Sound familiar? It's a paraphrase of something else we say often on this site: Hurt people hurt people. 
And though it usually refers to the betrayer rather than the betrayed, I've come to understand the ways in which I hurt myself because I was hurt, the ways in which I shrank myself to accommodate others, was quiet when I should have been loud, accepted crumbs because that's what I'd been taught to accept
All of which is a long way of saying, I'll keep my memories. Yes, they were excruciating. But within them is the memory of a me who deserved my compassion but received my scorn. A me that I can retroactively nourish and a heart that I can continue to grow to make room not only my own flawed self but the flaws of those I continue to love, suffering I can much better understand. 

Monday, December 2, 2019

Healing from His Affair: Myth-Buster Version

"Those who can, do; those who can't, teach."
I heard that recently, offered up by someone who feared that taking a teaching job implied that her career was stagnant, that she was past her "best before" date.
And it dawned on me that, despite the ubiquity of the saying, it's patently untrue. I've had the good fortune of fabulous teachers who are also highly successful in their careers, including one who is at the top of her game, with a bestselling novel and celebrated career at the New York Times.
But what's particularly dangerous about bromides like that is that, like many, they hold enough truth to make them seductive. They're impossible to dismiss entirely because we can point to one, maybe two, examples where they've held true. Or at least true-ish. Truth adjacent. Not a total lie.
And so they slither into our brains and lodge there, feeding on our insecurities.
You have only to log onto Twitter to find plenty more examples of these pithy sayings passed off as wisdom but which are myths – one part truth to nine parts bullshit.
But – gah – they're hard to shake loose once they set up residence in our psyches.
Far too often, they don't aid or accelerate our healing but actively get in the way of it. They undermine healthy thoughts, they sabotage efforts to move forward. Sometimes they do just enough damage to make us feel badly about our choices. Other times, they completely destroy progress, pulling us back down into the cesspool of self-loathing, fury and hopelessness.
So let's examine and challenge these simplistic sayings:

Myth: Once a cheater, always a cheater
Long-time readers know this one particularly gets under my skin. "Once a cheater..." gets pedalled by a particular tribe of heartbroken women. And yes, serial cheaters most definitely exist. But this tribe (sometimes more like a mob) insists that it's true for everyone. The rest of us are disregarded as fools, and remorseful transformed cheaters as "unicorns".
But "once a cheater, always a cheater" is a myth. We need look no further to many women on this site, including me, who have rebuilt marriages in which our formerly adulterous spouses have not cheated again. I have far more friends married to guys who transformed themselves into husbands who deserved their second chance than friends whose partners either continued to cheat on them or cheat on subsequent partners. It's not even close. Stats back me up.
So why is this one so hold to release? Well, in part because we didn't know our husbands were cheating in the first place. So the "once a cheater" slogan plants doubt. And doubt is our Kryptonite. "Once a cheater..." keeps us constantly doubting, constantly suspicious, constantly shame-filled for even considering giving a partner a second chance because who the hell is that stupid, right?
This one just won't die. Because those who've left feel armed with this "wisdom" that they've just saved themselves from further heartbreak because it was only a matter of time before their partner cheated again. Except most don't.
The worst part of this myth is that it's so cynical. It rejects, totally, the possibility that people can change, that they can learn from their mistakes, that they are forever after to be defined by the worst thing they did. That, having cheated, they are branded a cheater until their dying breath.
Let's reframe this one: "Once a cheater, sometimes still a cheater but more likely someone who learned a very painful lesson".  Not nearly as pithy but far more true.

Myth: "I have to divorce"/Only doormats stay in a marriage with a cheater
Who here thought that before they discovered their partner's affair? And maybe believes it still? Yeah, count me among the former. I was definitely in the "kick him to the curb" club. And then it happened to me and, like so many others, I realized that black-and-white thinking did not serve me well. I am. More than 12 years post-D-Day. Happily married. Healed. And with a nuanced understanding of why good people sometimes make really horrible choices. An understanding that taught me how to set clear boundaries to keep myself safe while allowing my husband the time and space he needed to understand how he could have let himself down so profoundly. I made the choice to stay with my husband if he was willing to seek help for himself and to recommit to a honest, transparent marriage.
I would not have stayed in a marriage if he continued to cheat, refused to seek help or otherwise expected me to continue with the status quo. I wanted a second marriage with my first husband. Or I was out. We got it, but only by working hard together.
But here's the thing: I'm talking about my marriage. You get to decide what happens with your marriage. None of us knows what it's really like inside another's marriage so none of us is qualified to tell you how to respond. We each get to walk our own path and that can also change with time. You can stay now and leave later. You can leave now and reconcile later. You can leave and not look back.  My heartbreak, my healing.

Myth: "If he loved me, he couldn't have cheated"
More black-and-white thinking. Another myth that persists.
I was as confused as anyone to finally understand that my husband loved me. All the time he cheated – years and with many others – he loved me. WTF?
Yep, it's confusing.
But no more confusing than finally understanding that my mother continued to drink and love me simultaneously.
Hurt people hurt people. Another adage but this one is the absolute truth. When we have unexamined wounds, we often hurt others. We often, also, hurt ourselves. That pain is going to show up.
In my husband's case, it showed up as sex addiction. In my mother's case, it showed up as alcohol/substance abuse.
Your husband, assuming he wants to rebuild your marriage, likely loves you very much. It's himself he hates.

Myth: Affairs are about sex
Affairs are about escape. They are about trying on different parts of our personality. They're about the reflection in the affair partner's eyes, a reflection that we're sexy, or interesting, or youthful, or exciting.
So, in some ways, yes, affairs are about sex but it's more accurate to say they're about what the sex represents. A chance to step outside day-to-day lives and be someone else. A different version. One who doesn't have a mortgage or children or a horrible boss or a dying father or...or...or...

Myth: He cheated because there's something wrong with me.
100% untrue. He cheated because there's something wrong with him. If he was unhappy, there are many many ways he could have shared that information with out that did not involve blowing up your lives.
Or as @Masharky put it on Twitter: "He wasn't looking for someone better than you, he was looking for someone worse than himself."

Myth: Emotional affairs aren't as bad as physical affairs
I've heard it so many times. It wasn't the sex so much as the lying. That's what hurts so much. Of course, knowing our partner was physically intimate with another person is devastating. And the mind movies can be killer.
But it's the gaslighting, the deception that can really mess us up. Cheating hurts, no matter what form it comes in.

Truth: I will never be the same
I hear this one all the time and it's usually said wistfully, or with deep deep sadness. And it's true. You will never be the same. The profound would of infidelity changes us. For a long time, I was convinced that it had broken me in some way that would never be fully healed.
What I didn't know then but what I can promise you now is this: You will never be the same and that's okay. Healing from infidelity helped me reshape myself into someone I liked far more than my old self. It helped me recognize how strong I was, how deserving I was of love and belonging, how worthy I was of taking up space in this world. Healing from infidelity helped me heal a lot of old trauma. Healing from infidelity brought this blog into the world and all the incredible women I've met here. Healing from infidelity changed me. And I wouldn't change that for anything.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Planting What's Possible

It’s easy to fixate on everything that goes to ground as time goes by: the disintegration of a relationship, the disappearance of good work well-done, the diminishment of a sense of purpose and meaning. But, as I’ve come to understand that life ‘composts’ and ‘seeds’ us as autumn does the earth, I’ve seen how possibility gets planted in us even in the most difficult of times. 

When my children were young and I was a new homeowner with a big backyard, one of my favorite things to do was to purchase wildflower seeds. My children and I would rake the soil, then scatter the seeds. I was not a particularly adept gardener. I left Mother Nature in charge. But I could picture it in my mind – an English garden, filled with pinks and yellows and whites and blues. 
Each spring, I would see what popped up. It rarely looked like my imaginings. But it was nonetheless lovely. Sparser than I'd hoped. Some flowers looked a bit like weeds. (Which, as Winnie the Pooh famously said, "are flowers too, once you get to know them.") From what popped up, I could fill in some holes, I could cut back what grew too enthusiastically. I could patiently create what I wanted. 
I'm not, of course, suggesting that infidelity is like a flower garden. More like a dark alley strewn with used condoms and infected needles and vomit. 
But look closer. Is that a flower pushing through that crack in the pavement?
When your life seems as though it's lying shattered at your feet, it can feel impossible to believe that, within these ruins, are seeds that will grow into something new. Indeed, one of the laments of those who arrive at the doors of this club none of us wanted to join, is "I want my old life back. I want my old me back."
It's a feeling I know well. I felt it too. I wailed as well for my life in ruins. I couldn't have conceived that anything at all positive could grow from shards.
So I don't really expect you to believe me when I tell you that it is. It will. That even as you read this, your head shaking in denial, your heart broken permanently you're certain, something positive might be taking root.
But there's a catch. You need to plant that something positive. It might be a new-found commitment to learning to value yourself. It might be learning to set clearer boundaries. It might be the removal of toxic people in your life, a refusal to tolerate cruelty. It might be that you seek out therapy and excavate some of that old pain and trauma.
And it might not – in fact, I can almost guarantee it will not – be easy.
Mother Nature can't entirely take care of this one. 
But you can.
You can prune and weed your life. You can sow and plant. You can seek out loveliness, making sure to spread it yourself. 
Being betrayed brought me to my knees. And while I was there, I realized something. My pain wasn't special. It wasn't anything that millions of others weren't also experiencing, for any number of reasons. And it made me realize something else. I could choose cynicism or I could choose courage.
You have that same choice. And it is a choice. We can't change what happened to us but we can absolutely choose how we respond to it, what seeds we plant in the ruins, what possibility takes root.
You and I both know which one will bloom more beautifully. 


Related Posts with Thumbnails