Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Here's why it's okay to change, well, everything

As you heal (read: apply compassion to your pain; forgive some people; turn anxiety into insight), what you’re attracted to is going to change.
~Danielle LaPorte

In the wake of D-Day, those blurry days in which our world feels turned around and we can barely remember our names, we also frequently assume another burden: whether to stay in our marriage or leave.

It's an understandable impulse, of course. We are furious. And sad. And shocked. And, sometimes, paralyzed. But the idea of standing still, of pausing, seems insane. Surely, we think, we need to do something. To kick him out. To throw his clothes on the front lawn, douse them in gasoline and light them on fire. To call up a divorce lawyer and immediately file. Or to shout his crime from the rooftops.
Some of us do all of those things.
I thought of every single one.
But, ultimately, I did none of them. (Though I did try and get the Catholic Church to grant me an annulment, which they pretty much laughed up, not exactly endearing themselves to me.)
And though I frequently remind all of you that there is no "right" way to respond to infidelity (though a "wrong" way is anything that will land you a criminal record or the inability to see your children again), there's also this further point: You will change.
As you heal, you will change.
As you apply compassion to your pain, you will change.
As you forgive some people, you will change.
As you transform anxiety and fear into insight, you will change.
And your choices are allowed to change too.
In other words, what you decide to do today – stay, go, or rest before choosing – is not carved in stone. You are allowed to change your mind as you change. You are allowed to change your mind as he changes, or doesn't change.
Because you don't know what's next. As much as it pains us – and as much as most of us spend our lifetimes denying this inescapable truth – we cannot predict tomorrow.
He will change. I hope it's for the better. I hope he uses this pain he's caused as mental clay to create a better man.
But if he doesn't, if he's one of those who doesn't "believe" in therapy, or who minimizes, or who refuses to hold himself accountable for making such a bad choice, then his change will be for the worse. He will have taken the mask off and you will see exactly who you're married to.
And you will be free to choose.
No matter who he is, you are free to choose. And as you heal yourself, as you transform, who you are attracted to will change.
You will no longer tolerate crumbs. You will no longer accept cruelty.
No matter what you choose today, you will be free to choose differently tomorrow.
Never did I understand that more clearly than in the first few years following D-Day.
I had no idea whether my marriage was going to survive this or not. I had no idea whether I would survive this.
So I made a choice each day: Today, I choose to stay.
I have made that same choice every day since. Thirteen years of days.
But my choice to stay is by no means intractable.
Today, I choose to stay.
My husband knows that can change.
And I know, entirely too well, that his choice to remain faithful might change. Only when my life was ripped open was I able to get a clear look into just how tenuous those promises we make to each other are.
But one of the great paradoxes of healing from betrayal is that, though I know those promises are tenuous, they hold incredible weight. Like the threads of a spider web.
Today, I choose to stay.
Today, he is faithful to me.
Promises we make daily.
To ourselves and each other.
The threat of leaving isn't something I dangle over his head, like the sword of Damocles.
Rather we earn each other's presence in our lives by being honest, respectful, loving and kind.
We can change our minds. We both know that.
But today, we choose to stay.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

How has betrayal changed you?

Despite the passage of time, and the counselling, healing, and forgiveness, I have emotional scar tissue. Mostly, it doesn’t bother me. Sometimes, I’m grateful for it, because of how the experience changed me. Other times, the scar tissue gets irritated and I get a pain flare. So when people see us talking together and then tell me it makes them so happy, I smile and nod, but it scrapes at the scar tissue. When my family invites him to events that I’m not going to be at, and don’t tell me about it until later, it feels like the wound is re-exposed. And when I obliquely lash out and someone else is hurt, I feel guilty for dribbling blood on them.
~Natalie Hart, Writer Unboxed

Those betrayal wounds go deep, don't they? 

I'm a long way out from D-Day. More than thirteen years, to be exact. 
For the most part, I'm healed. I can read about infidelity, hear about infidelity, watch films about infidelity without the hyperventilating, the shaking hands, the tunnel vision that used to afflict me any time I was reminded of my own pain. 
I struggle some days to write here because the pain can feel so remote. Almost like it happened to someone else.
And maybe it did. Happen to someone else, that is. Not a different person entirely but a different me. I'm not her any more. And that's okay. Change is inevitable. We grow. We evolve. Something like betrayal is a shock to our system. It can stunt growth. It can paralyze us. It can lock us into victimhood.
Or it can generate accelerated growth.
Or, most likely, it can do both.
There was a period of time when I felt paralyzed. Absolutely cemented into victimhood. I was the patron saint of betrayal, long-suffering and self-sacrificing. I was, undoubtedly, insufferable. Holier than thou (and certainly holier than he).
Eventually, even I grew tired of my victimhood. It's not much fun. And there was, of course, at least a bit of evidence that I wasn't perfect. That I wasn't entirely self-sacrificing. That I had options. 
Even in that paralysis, I can see now, there was growth. Healing is often invisible, happening deep down, in the dark. 
That paralysis may have felt like nothing but emptiness and darkness but somehow, within that, I found the strength to move forward. To shed my martyr's cloak and envision something different. A marriage of equals, though, admittedly, one of those equals had some reparations to make. 
Still, there was pain. It is stubborn. Like our writer in the quote above notes. Other wounds make the deeper wound sting. Our deep wound can sometimes spur us to hurt others.
Which is why I feel so strongly that we heal ourselves, whether or not our marriage survives. 
Somewhere in that paralysis, my strength was reawakened. And I decided to fight. Not for my marriage, not at first anyway, but for me. I was NOT going to sacrifice myself for my family. I was going to protect my children, absolutely. But I was not going to remain in a miserable marriage for them. 
And so I agreed to rebuild a marriage. 
If I was going to stay, it was going to be in a different marriage, with a different man.
And yes, with a different me.
Like it or  not, I was a different person.
The surprising part was that, I can see now, I like it. Her. I like her. Me. I like me. 
I'm not the pleaser I used to be (though I remain a work-in-progress). 
My boundaries are clear and, let me tell you, you haven't known freedom until you've said "no" without any compulsion to explain further. "'No' is a complete sentence," my therapist taught me. 
I live a curated life. Life doesn't so much happen to me anymore, as I make choices about what to include in it. For the most part. None of us chooses illness or wayward children or job loss, of course. But I'm pickier about what and who I invite into my life. I feel far less regret about releasing those things that don't make my life better. 
I now understand that it's not my job to fix other people, a recognition for which I think those in my life are eternally grateful. The emotionally healthy ones never wanted my help and the emotionally unhealthy ones were never going to take my help anyway. Help, I am reminded, is the sunny side of control.
These changes might have come my way via some other experience. I've dealt with severe mental health issues with two of my children, which has taught me a lot. I've buried my wonderful, wise mother, which taught me a lot. But, though I would never have chosen betrayal (and, frankly, wouldn't wish it on my worse enemy, if I had a worse enemy), it has taught me plenty. It has changed me.
And though it wasn't always clear to me, that change is a good thing. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Transforming pain? Or transmitting it?

I have elevated "do as I say, not as I do" to an art form. I preach Dalai Lama but I practice Taylor Swift. Which is all a way of saying that although I want to float above the fray, to go high when others go low, sometimes I find myself in the mud, slinging away with the others.
"Those who don't transform their pain transmit it," says Father Richard Rohr, a Jesuit priest, speaking words that transcend any religious doctrine.
And when I'm in pain is, of course, when I go low.
When I'm scared is when I go low.
When I'm angry is when I go low.
For instance, I recently read about a well-known misogynist who's suffering health issues. My first thought, "wow. He's in real trouble." My second? I'm ashamed to say it was to mentally give karma a high-five.
I catch myself. I don't want to be a horrible person. I want to be serene and generous of spirit and empathetic, even to awful people who make life harder for other people. And I often succeed. Or, at least I succeed when I can connect with that awful person's vulnerability. When I can see that awful person's pain.
I was finally able to release myself from the festering hatred of the OW when I could recognize her pain. The second I was able to extend even the tiniest bit of empathy toward her, a miracle occurred. She no longer occupied my thoughts. She no longer poisoned my soul.
But what about those times when I just can't? When their pain isn't visible, when I can't conjure up empathy? When their cruelty seems so gleeful, when they seem to be benefiting from it? Well, then, I generally offer up a hearty "fuck you". Maybe not overtly. But my heart has a helluva middle finger.
The math goes like this:
My pain + the ability to see another's pain = compassion/transformation.
My pain + inability to see another person's pain = transmission
The problem with transmitting our pain is that it isn't like something I can pass to someone else, leaving me pain-free. Rather, it's like a virus. I still have my pain but I've also infected another through cruelty or just a lack of compassion.
Anne Lamott puts it this way: "Some days the only thing that can cheer me up is something bad happening to someone I hate."
Yep. Exactly.
Except the times in my life when I've spewed that bile, when I've wished horrible things on horrible people, when I've celebrated another's misfortune, I've been the one who feels horrible. My pain, transmitted, re-infects me.
When what I want is transformation.
What I want is mercy. We all do. Or, as Lamott says, "I am starving to death for it, and my world is, too.
I've been on the receiving end of mercy and it's transformative. I've been given the benefit of the doubt when I probably didn't deserve it. I've been given a second chance when I messed up the first one.
Which is why I want so badly to extend that mercy in a way that transforms. To rid myself of the desire to see others hurt, even if they really really deserve it.
Cause that's another tricky thing about mercy. Most of us don't deserve it.
Our husbands don't deserve it.
They messed up their first chance and probably their second.
Feeling empathy for them isn't exonerating them. It doesn't mean that what they did to us was okay. It isn't about giving them permission to do it again.
Rather, it's about refusing to infect another with our pain and refusing to allow them to infect us with theirs.
Not easy. Especially when we're festering in our hatred. When our pain feels radioactive.
But the alternative to mercy – to instead keep transmitting our pain – does little for our own healing.
Only when we can take responsibility for the only thing that truly IS our responsibility – our own actions – can we begin to feel free of our pain. And of theirs.
As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it: "Option 1 feels like poison. And Option 2 feels like freedom."
And doesn't freedom sound lovely?

Monday, February 3, 2020

What (Single) Affair Partners Don't Get About Marriage

I just finished reading Sally Rooney's Conversations with Friends, a book about a 21-year-old navigating friendships and an affair with a 33-year-old man married to an acquaintance. I'm long past the days of feeling triggered by reading about affairs and firmly in the days of shaking my head at just how poorly our culture, generally speaking, depicts infidelity. Conversations with Friends is an exception in that the protagonist, Frances, comes to (sorta kinda) realize that her partner's marriage is a whole lot more than she thought. After seeing a video of the couple on Facebook goofing around, Frances says:
Anyone could see from the video how much they loved each other. If I had seen them like this before, I thought, maybe nothing would have happened. Maybe I would have known.
What Frances might have "known" was that marriage holds multitudes, to steal from Walt Whitman. Those cheating with married men often think that marriage is about sex. If the sex is good, the man doesn't cheat. If it's not good, well, surely that's why he's in another's bed.
And so, they figure, if I offer good sex, he'll leave his wife. If I'm available to him, he'll leave his wife. 
And then, so so often, he doesn't leave his wife and they're utterly perplexed. Like Frances was until she had something of an epiphany. Until she came to understand that marriage, from the outside, is baffling to those not in it. That marriage is about so much more than sex. 
I was guilty of that simplification too, before I was married. I hadn't yet come to understand the day-in/day-out of marriage. That a marriage one year in will bear little resemblance to a marriage ten years in. Then twenty. The person I was when I said "I do" can sometimes feel like an entirely different person than I am now. My husband bears little resemblance to the guy he was then (thank god!). 
We are shaped by so many experiences that don't happen between the sheets. Together, my husband and I have buried two parents, we have lost friends to illness and geography, we have sat up late with sick children, we have worried together.
We have celebrated the large and the small. We have championed each other's dreams and comforted each other in disappointment.
And yes, we have navigated infidelity. We have found our way back to each other.
But even if we hadn't, even if we had opted to separate and divorce, that marriage we'd had, even with its undisclosed secrets, contained multitudes. 
My husband's fear at an alarming prenatal test was real, even though he was cheating on me at the time. 
My husband's happiness for me when my first book was published was real, even though he was cheating on me at the time.
And that's the thing that affair partners miss. They think a person remains whole during an affair. They imagine they are taking that whole person leaving what exactly?
When the truth is that the cheater becomes fractured. Which is why he can be at dinner, laughing with his children over something that happened that day. He can be present at a holiday, an event, in bed.
And then be present with his affair partner.
I once asked my husband what he thought about me when he was with her. "I didn't," he said. He didn't think about me. Thinking about me got in the way of what he was doing.
I was able, even then, to appreciate his honesty. It helped me understand that the affair was never about me. 
It sounds cold, doesn't it? And yet...it comforted me. It taught me something that I didn't understand before I was married. Something that Frances figured out. Marriages contain multitudes that those not in them can scarcely understand. It's why marriages can survive infidelity (with a whole lot of work). It's why people can love their spouse and still cheat. It's why our culture continues to poorly depict affairs because they assume that they're entirely about sex, when the sex is frequently a stand-in for escape, for something that felt lost, for an idea about ourselves that we seek. 
Which is also why relationships that begin as affairs have such a high failure rate. We can't outrun ourselves. We can't reinvent ourselves because, eventually, we have to decide who's going to clean the grout in the shower, who didn't pick up milk on the way home, who should be getting up with the baby. The escape becomes the mundane. And unless you've got a whole lot more than sex going for you, you've just given misery a new address. 


Related Posts with Thumbnails