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. 

Friday, November 22, 2019

Your Rights in the Wake of His Wrongs

I have the right to ask for what I want and then choose how I will respond if you can’t or won’t give it to me.
~ Iyanla Vanzant

My baby girl is nursing a broken heart. Like a whole lot of 16-year-olds dealing with her first heartbreak, she's trying to figure out what went wrong. And what she's figured is this: By setting boundaries and by asking for what she wanted (she asked for more regular contact when she and her beloved were apart instead of the 48-hour silences), she was accused of being "emotionally manipulative."
"Am I, Mom?" she asked. 
No. She's not. 
She's wiser than her years and though this was her first romantic relationship, she's always had a strong sense of herself and her boundaries. (I've learned a lot from her, incidentally, about setting and keeping boundaries.)
But we know this about boundaries, don't we? That when we ask for what we want/need, others, who don't want to give us what we want/need, will try and convince us that what we're in the wrong. That we're asking for too much. That we're too sensitive. That we're manipulative. In other words, they will respond with counter-moves in order to get us to back down, to make ourselves small, to keep the peace.
To which I say, hell no.
And to which I said to my sobbing daughter, hell no. Your job is not to make yourself small to make others happy, to prioritize others' comfort over your own.
That said, her ex was completely within her rights to say 'no' to more contact. She's allowed to have her own needs/wants. But what was unkind and wrong was the accusation of emotional manipulation. 
And far too many of us accept fault when all we're doing is stating our needs.
As Iyanla puts it, clearly and succinctly, "I have the right to ask for what I want and then choose how I will respond if you can't or won't give it to me."
Which means,  you get to ask him to stop going out for a beer with his friends if it makes you uncomfortable in the wake of cheating.
He gets to say 'yes' or 'no' but his choice makes his values clear and you get to decide what to do with that information.
You get to ask him to move jobs if his affair partner works with him. You get to ask him to seek help for his addiction(s). You get to ask him to give you any/all passwords to any/all electronics.
See the pattern?
You get to ask him.
He gets to respond.
And then you get to choose what to do with that information.
Here's what you don't want to do:
Ask him for what you want/need.
He refuses.
You ask him again. You beg. You plead. You explain.
You sulk. 
You are a grown-ass woman who is entitled to ask for what she needs. And then determine what to do with his response.
It's when we expect him to read our minds that things go off the rails. It's when we're afraid to set boundaries that we get into trouble. It's when we don't prioritize our own wants/needs that resentment takes root.
It's not easy, especially if you've spent a lifetime staying small to keep others comfortable.
But this is the time to say 'no more.' 
I have the right to ask for what I want and then choose how I will respond if you can't or won't give it to me.
It's that simple. And that hard.
And that necessary.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

From the Vault: The Story of Your Pain

There have been a lot of comments lately on sites from women frustrated that their healing is taking so long. They feel as though their pain is a burden to their friends and family, they wonder if they're not doing it right. I felt that too, at one point in my life.  Which is why I was so struck by the comment that inspired this older post. I'm re-posting it again in the hopes that inspires all of you to be patient and gentle with yourselves. Read on, beloved warriors:

"Blessed are they who just aren't ready to be 'over it yet'," Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke from the pulpit. The stand-up comic-turned-pastor and author was offering up her list of blessings, which also included "blessed is the teenage girl who wonders how, again, she's going to cover the new cuts on her arms" and "blessed are the addicts", from the front of a dazzling Episcopal church in Michigan.
Her blessing stopped me.
"Blessed are they who just aren't ready to be 'over it yet'."
What a difference, huh?
What a difference from our usual response. The exasperation. The eye-rolling. The gritted teeth, fist-clenched frustration with those – including, especially, ourselves – who just 'aren't over it yet'.
Pain makes us horribly uncomfortable. So we try to make it go away by finding the right words. Reading the right book. Hitting on the right response. Discovering the magical solution that makes the pain dissolve.
And so we read. And we run. And we downward dog. And we write. And we treat ourselves to pedicures and new shoes. And we pour ourselves another glass of wine.
And it works.
And then it doesn't.
The pain is still there.
We're not 'over it yet'.
So we chastise ourselves. Or we believe others when they chastise us. "It's been six months," we/they say. "It's been three years."
Aren't you over it yet? 
What's wrong with you?
"Blessed are they who just aren't ready to be 'over it yet'."
Nothing. There is nothing 'wrong' with you.
You're not 'over it yet' because you're not over it yet.
Bolz-Weber isn't speaking about an unwillingness to be 'over it.' She's speaking to an unreadiness. The wound is deep. Healing will happen in layers. Layers over layers over layers of mercy. 
Your pain isn't a tumour to be removed. It is a message written on our hearts. It tells a story. And right now, that story is still unfolding. Right now, you're not 'over it yet'.
I'm not 'over it yet'. I don't ever anticipate being 'over it'.
I am past it. The worst of it, anyway.
But the story of my pain is still visible on my heart. It's visible when I learn about another one of us cast into this club we never wanted to be a part of. It's audible when I speak the words "me too" into another ear. It's visceral when I pull someone into a hug, when I look into her eyes and see the story of pain on her heart.
It's different now, my pain. The story on my heart is still written there but the edges aren't so sharp. It reads more like poetry now.
And it tells about a woman who was shattered by betrayal. A woman who, guided and supported by other women, found the strength to get back on her feet. A woman who refused to 'get over it' on anyone's schedule but her own. Who trusted her own heart, over time, to lead the way.
It's a story of you too. And it's not over.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Are You Willing to Learn?

If you are not willing to learn, nothing can help you.
If you are willing to learn, nothing can stop you.

These are the words that Samuel, who works with Overcoming Infidelity, posted on his Twitter feed. It was one of those things that underscored an earlier conversation I'd had with a friend. You know how once you notice something, suddenly it's unavoidable?
My friend and I had been talking about her husband's refusal to better learn how to speak with their teenager, instead descending routinely into anger and blame, which, not surprisingly, was shutting down conversation altogether. My friend was frustrated. She wanted her husband to have a better relationship with their son, a good kid who was doing little more than following his own values, not just his father's. And his own values included a piercing. Her husband, this boy's father, simply couldn't – or rather wouldn't – acknowledge that yelling at a kid wasn't going to change anything other than further damage the father-son relationship. It certainly wasn't going to un-pierce his ears. 
I get it.
For years, I couldn't – I wouldn't – stop going to my family cottage even though I knew the weekend would consist of too much drinking, total chaos, and, occasionally, some violence. I had a therapist who, increasingly exasperated, would ask me why I kept putting myself in a situation that I knew was harmful to me. My answer sounded weak even to my ears. Translated into plain English, it amounted to this: I didn't know what else to do. And so I did what I'd always done. Even in the fact of evidence that what I'd always done wasn't working for me.
You too perhaps?
Perhaps, despite a partner who has lied to you, who has betrayed you, and who refuses to take steps to remedy the damage he's caused, you're unable to take steps to protect yourself. Perhaps you've been told to seek therapy, or to set boundaries, or to file for separation.
But you don't. Your reasons sound weak even to your own ears. Thing is, you're doing what you've always done because you don't really know what else to do. It requires skills that we don't yet have. Skills we'd need to learn.
I eventually learned those skills and you know what? It wasn't as hard as I'd always thought. There was no secret code I needed to crack. There was discomfort. Horrible discomfort. I felt like I was going to crawl out of my skin. If I wasn't at my family cottage to prevent catastrophe, then...anything could happen. And that felt terrifying to me. But me being there hadn't prevented chaos. It hadn't curbed the drinking. It had only made me witness too and sometimes victim of it. It had only harmed me.
So...I sat with the discomfort. I distracted myself from the discomfort. I did what I could to ignore the discomfort.
I learned to do things differently.
The sky didn't fall. Catastrophe might have occurred but I wasn't there for it. I discovered it wasn't my job to protect other adults from the consequences of their choices. It was my job to protect myself from the consequences of their choices. My only job.
Yours is to protect yourself from the consequences of your husband's choices. To learn better.
If you refuse to learn, nothing can help you through this.
If you are willing to learn, nothing can stop you.
It's not easy to unlearn old ways of doing things. Those habits have worn deep treads in your brain. But my guess is those old ways of doing things aren't exactly making life great. My guess is those old ways of doing things long ago stopped working for you and now, possibly, are actively hurting you.
If your husband wants you to consider giving him a second chance, he's going to need to learn new ways of doing things. That's his job.
Yours is to do the same. To set boundaries. To demand transparency and respect and kindness. To take steps to only allow people into your life with whom you are emotionally and physically safe. To sit the horrible discomfort of making these changes, knowing that discomfort is just part of the process.
If you do that, nothing can stop you. I promise. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

Want your marriage to change? You go first...

As human beings, our greatness lies 
not so much in being able to remake the world...
as in being able to remake ourselves.

I would have spit on anyone who'd said such a thing to me in the wake of D-Day. At that point, I didn't much care if my marriage survived. I spent sleepless nights fantasizing about smothering my husband with a pillow. I spent restless days imagining my husband dying of a heart attack. Oh, to be free of him. To not have that perennial question hanging over my head – stay or go. To be able to show up at his funeral, the tragic widow. To release myself of having to figure out whether he was worth giving a second chance. To...release myself.
Because, make no mistake, I felt trapped. There were no good options. Only bad and worse. I could stay with a man who had been lying to me, in one form or another, our entire relationship. That seemed a wholly stupid thing to do.
Or to leave and hold myself responsible for fracturing my children's home, even though, in hindsight, the fracture had been his decision, made entirely without my knowledge or consent.
Or to remain in the space between both of those options – neither here nor there. Holding my breath. Waiting for...what exactly? A push? A pull?
It felt like walking a tightrope. It felt like dancing on the head of a pin. One wrong move and something awful would happen. I hadn't a clue what "awful" was but I was terrified of it.
I remained in that state of suspended fear for more than a year. Maybe two.
But – thank god for amazing therapists – my therapist kept working on me. Gently. Slowly. Reminding me that I could not control him. That, yes, he might cheat again. But insisting, again and again, that there was something I could control. Myself.
At first, that truth offered little comfort. So what if I could control myself. That didn't help me feel safe in a marriage with someone who seemed unable to control HIM self. Or unwilling.
But she wouldn't relent. Any belief that we can change others is an illusion, she would tell me. Any belief that we could control others was a fantasy. It had always been. Always.
I hadn't been able to control my mother's addiction. I hadn't been able to control my father's response to her addiction and his own reliance on booze. I hadn't been able to control my brother's anger, his drug use, his violence.
That hadn't stopped me from trying. That hadn't prevented me from showing up, over and over. I was certain that, without me there, my family would descend into chaos, into madness. The idea of not showing up filled me with terror.
But, re-examining that old script, I realized that showing up hadn't stopped the chaos. It had only made me a witness to it. Made me a victim of it. It had traumatized me.
What if, I began to consider, I did it differently this time? What if I accepted that I couldn't change my husband. Even if I couldn't quite accept that was true (old habits die hard), what if I behaved as if it was. What if, instead of focusing on him and what he was doing, I shifted focus to me.
What if I lifted myself off the floor, off the head of that pin, and remade myself?
It felt perilous but it also felt, almost immediately, liberating? To be able to think about me was a luxury I had rarely given myself. To be able to live my life free of expectations felt glorious. Mostly. It also felt highly uncomfortable. I had to consistently remind myself (again, with my therapist's help) that I could live with the discomfort. That I was learning something new. There was still a sense that, at any moment, the other shoe would drop. I still had the words of my alcoholic mother ringing in my ear: "You are selfish. You are self-centred. You think of nobody but yourself."
Those words were intended to keep me small. To keep me quiet. To keep me from asking for anything from anybody.
And they worked. I lived a lifetime of not asking for things. Of waiting for people to notice me. Of denying my needs.
And that's what I was doing in the wake of D-Day. For those two years, I was waiting for my husband to change while refusing to do so myself.
My change wasn't about making myself more worthy of his love and loyalty, it was about making myself more worthy of my own. It was about carving out a life of honesty and integrity. Of asking for what I wanted instead of hoping he'd notice. Of treating myself with respect and refusing to accept disrespect. Of valuing myself and my time and my energy and refusing to waste it on anyone or anything that didn't make my life more meaningful.
I know hearing that you can "change" yourself feels fraught in the wake of D-Day. It can sound like you're being blamed for his cheating. You are not. At least, not by me. As I say again and again, he didn't cheat because there's something wrong with you, he cheated because there's something wrong with him.
Change isn't about making yourself more desirable, or more lovable, or more anything. You are enough.
Rather, change is about taking stock of where you in your life, including your marriage, and realizing that you hold the power to remake the life you want. It may not look the way you thought it would. It may not have certain people in it who have shown themselves unworthy of your love.
But if you can let go of this imagined future in which everyone behaves the way you think they should, you can shape a present in which their behaviour is their business and you determine whether it's part of your life. Once you remake yourself, others will respond to this changed you. They will show you who they are. It might be painful. I lost friends. I released others.
Those that remained are there because they have shown me I am safe with them.
Including my husband. I wasn't the one who changed him. He did that himself when he realized that was the price of admission to my life.
He might not have. He might have chosen to remain unchanged. And all the wishing and waiting and hoping wouldn't have changed that.
And within that realization was change itself.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

"If this isn't nice...": How to find happy in the midst of hell

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 VonnegutA Man Without a Country

I'm a longtime Vonnegut fan. I discovered his books, thanks to an ex-boyfriend, in university and I devoured them, including when I was abroad for a semester but found one in an English-Language bookstore. 
There was something about Vonnegut's grizzled optimism, his resigned hope that saw the world clearly but never descended to cynicism. In spite of all evidence, he still seemed to believe that humans were redeemable. Not all of us but a good many.
He also believed absolutely in humour as a balm, a way of navigating so much darkness.
Vonnegut's words got me through a lot of young adult angst and they continue to guide me. So I wasn't surprised to stumble across the words above on a blog about artists and the importance of steering clear of cynicism.
Let me make clear that I know it's not easy. 
When so many of us have repeatedly been let down by those we trusted with our hearts, cynicism can feel like armour. If we expect the worst, well, we won't be disappointed when that's exactly what we get. If we think we can't trust anybody, then we won't be surprised when people reveal themselves untrustworthy. 
But I think we're fooling ourselves if we think that anticipating bad things will somehow diminish the pain when they happen. Hurt is hurt. All we've really done is rob ourselves of any pleasure we might have had before the pain.
I concluded in my late teens that good things weren't for me. My mother's addiction, my father's neediness, my friends' cruelty, my boyfriends' betrayals. I wore cynicism like a shield, thinking myself worldly and tough.
I was neither. I was wounded. Cynicism didn't protect me from a damn thing, it only prevented me from seeking better. If we anticipate disloyalty, we won't demand more. If we anticipate unkindness or thoughtlessness or cruelty, we won't walk away from it.
Cynicism is little more than resignation in disguise.
And none of us should ever resign ourselves to less than we deserve.
The antidote to cynicism? Vonnegut gives it to us. Pay attention to kindness in our lives. Notice thoughtfulness. Seek out moments of pleasure. Any longtime readers of this site know my love of simple delights -- a walk in the woods. A romp with a dog. A purring cat on your lap. A good book with a warm tea. A laugh with a friend. 
I've said it before...those slivers of joy lit my way forward. Until I could allow myself to anticipate better, I felt stuck in pain. 
Seek out those moments of "better" and share them here. Whether or not you say out loud, "If this isn't nice, I don't know what is", I hope you'll think it. And tell us about it. Your spark just might ignite another's. 


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