Friday, March 27, 2020

When Life is a Ghost Ship: Finding your power after betrayal

In time we will be given the opportunity to either contract around the old version of ourselves and our world — insular, self-interested and tribalistic — or understand the connectedness and commonality of all humans, everywhere. In isolation, we will be presented with our essence — of what we are personally and what we are as a society. We will be asked to decide what we want to preserve about our world and ourselves, and what we want to discard. ~Nick Cave, musician and creator of Red Hand Files

"We will be asked to decide what we want to preserve about our world and ourselves, and what we want to discard," says Bad Seeds lead singer Nick Cave, who also happens to be a voice of sanity and kindness on the internet.
He's speaking of the pandemic that's sweeping our world right now. He's speaking of the wholesale inventory that so many of us are undertaking as we huddle in our homes, anxious and isolated from so much of what gives shape to our lives.
He's not speaking about the impact of infidelity but he might as well be.
Because that's exactly what happens to so many of us in the wake of the tsunami of betrayal. We look around and what seemed familiar just hours before is no longer. Our partner is a stranger. Our home feels too small, too suffocating. Our minds can't be trusted. Our hearts are shattered
A "ghost ship" is what Cave's friend called our world right now. A ghost ship, still afloat but emblematic of death and loss. Direction-less. 
It has been years since my own D-Day. And I have many many days when I hardly think about it. Yes, I continue to post on this site and yes, I moderate comments. But it has become something that happened so long ago. A part of my history the way that certain furniture in my current home was part of my childhood. The way I recognize an old song. It no longer stings.
Except for the occasional time when someone posts something and it resonates so deeply in my heart's memory that, under my breath, I emit a "yes". Or the occasional time when I stumble on a phrase and I recognize it as a secret message for me.
Ghost ship.
That was what betrayal felt like for me. A ghost ship. Afloat but barely. Alone. Lost.
I drifted that way for a year. Two.
But somewhere in there, I did what Nick Cave says we all must do. Somewhere in there, I paid attention to my essence, to who I was personally and who I wanted to be. I recognized my own agency, my own ability to create the marriage I wanted (or leave), to be the person I wanted to be, and to insist that, if he wanted to remain married to me, he become the best version of himself
I determined what I wanted to preserve and what I wanted to discard.
There's so much power in that
It's power we all have, even when we don't yet recognize it. So many letters from all of you come from a place of powerlessness. You don't – I didn't – recognize the power that we have.
To decide what we want to preserve and what we want to discard.
I get it. In those early days, it's a challenge to wash our face, to get out the door, to stumble through our days. 
There are days, weeks, months when the best we can do is rest. Shore up our strength. Prepare for the reckoning.
But when that reckoning comes, when we have outgrown the cocoon, please know that you are strong enough for that moment. That you have the power necessarily to make those choices. You may have to put some things in place: Save some money. Meet with a lawyer. Work outside the home. Create an Exit Plan. Insist on therapy. 
But you decide: What to preserve and what to discard.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

From the Vault: Receive the Shattering

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

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

Sunday, March 22, 2020

From the Vault: That In-Between Place

As we all self-isolate and quarantine and do our best to NOT hoard toilet paper and hand sanitizer (please!!), I'm conscious of just how uncomfortable this state is, this state of in-between-ness. It's like we're all holding our breath, waiting to see what comes next. We have no blueprint for this, nothing we can compare it to, though we try. It's like 9/11, except it's not. It's like wartime. Except it's not.
And so we all...wait. We wait for news, we wait for leadership, we wait for something that makes the ground beneath us feel solid again, instead of this constant shifting. 
Waiting can be an important stage. Growing somewhat comfortable with discomfort is an important skill to learn. But it's not an easy one.
And so, as we all wait in this in-between place, I'm reposting this in the hope that it reminds us all that to feel uncertain is human. But so is it human to need to feel part of a community. We remain here, your invisible sisterhood (with a few brothers too!):

I've been spending a lot of time lately looking forward to when this is over. "This" refers to my father's recent fall, subsequent hospitalization, and return home with the support of what seems like a staff of 20. My world has been upended and my days are spent dealing with catheters, organizing nurses, planning meals and fretting – constant fretting – about the future. At 88, my dad isn't likely to bounce back. If we're lucky, where he is now – able to walk with a walker, decent long-term memory but shaky short-term – will hold. If we're lucky, he'll be able to continue to live in his home on the lake, his piece of paradise.
If we're lucky, "this" will be over soon and we'll settle back into normal.
This is that horrible in-between place. When the future is shadowy. When the present isn't quite a crisis but it isn't our normal.
The thing will living in that in-between place is that we're loathe to accept it. Not surprisingly, intolerance of uncertainty is linked to anxiety and depression. I squirm with discomfort. This is unacceptable. I want to know what's next. This in-between place is full of uncertainty. And I, like most humans, will take certain misery over uncertainty any day of the week.
It's this loathing of the in-between place that drives so many of us to make decisions before we're ready, to force our partners into decisions before they're ready. Just go, we demand, in the face their reticence to commit. I'm outta here, we declare, in the face of our own pain.
Thing is, we're taking that pain along with us. It doesn't vanish – poof! – just because we walk away from the discomfort.
I'm reminded of the time I told my now-husband that I was ready to get married. I was so convinced that he adored me, that he was just holding his breath for me to declare my readiness, that I was stunned when his response was lukewarm. So hurt was I that I announced that, clearly, this relationship wasn't what I thought it was and I was calling it quits. I went from "I'm ready to marry you" to "I'm breaking up with you" in about five minutes flat.
He asked me to give him time. He asked me to spend some time in that in-between place while he decided what he wanted. "You've clearly been thinking about this," he said. "I haven't. I love you and I love being with you but I haven't been thinking about getting married. Please let me have that time now."
I agreed, mostly because of his dog, who I couldn't imagine breaking up with.
And then, because I know myself, I decided to run a marathon. I knew that sitting in that in-between place, where I had no control over how things were going to play out, where I had to just live with uncertainty, would feel excruciating. And so I ran. Each day, I ran. Hours. And hours.
I got stronger physically. And I got stronger mentally. As I ran, I thought. About what I could control and what I couldn't control. (Incidentally, there's research that shows reading novels helps us get uncomfortable with uncertainty because we don't know how they'll end. I could have saved myself a whole lot of blisters and chafing if I'd just held a reading marathon instead.)
When I crossed that finish line, four gruelling hours and six excruciating minutes after starting, my then-boyfriend and his dog were there. I was thrilled to see them. But I realized that I didn't need his answer. Not right then. I'd become okay in that in-between place. It hadn't been as scary as I thought because I could control me. I was going to be okay no matter what he decided.
We spend a lot of time in that in-between place after betrayal. And, of course, it's complicated by the pain. But leaning into that in-between place – and yes, perhaps alleviating some of the discomfort with an activity that reminds us of our strength and our determination – can change everything. It can prevent us from making compulsive choices. It can shift our focus to what really matters.
As I cope daily with this in-between place – listening carefully each morning when I call my dad to signs of pain, or of confusion – I'm increasingly aware that in-between is where we spend much of our lives. And if all we're doing is holding our breath until it's over, we're missing out on the lessons it holds. To trust ourselves. To take care of ourselves. To be patient with ourselves and others.
My dad is also in that in-between place. But if I'm so focussed on my own discomfort, I can't see his fear. And so I try to make space for each of us and our enormous feelings. The in-between place is big enough for all of it.

Friday, March 20, 2020

The Unstoppable Spring and What It Reminds Us About Resilience

We live stitch by stitch, when we’re lucky. If you fixate on the big picture, the whole shebang, the overview, you miss the stitching. And maybe the stitching is crude, or it is unraveling, but if it were precise, we’d pretend that life was just fine and running like a Swiss watch. This is not helpful if on the inside our understanding is that life is more often a cuckoo clock with rusty gears.
In the aftermath of loss, we do what we’ve always done, although we are changed, maybe more afraid. We do what we can, as well as we can.

Two weeks before we were told to "self-isolate", my 21-year-old daughter, young, healthy, active, woke up unable to walk and in excruciating pain. A few hours later, from our local emergency room, an on-call surgeon was summoned. She had sepsis in her hip and the surgeon needed to remove the infection. Immediately. 21 was hospitalized for five days, during which physiotherapists helped her walk and she had the steady drip, drip, drip of antibiotics delivered to her system. 
It was a frightening time, though her prognosis was good. The infection seemed to come out of nowhere and reminded all of us that life is fragile, that our lives can be upended at any moment.
As if those of us who've survived infidelity can ever forget that.
And now, here we all are, confined to our homes, urged to avoid others. Heading out for groceries feels worthy of a war medal. Our heroes, more than ever, are those who show up to work at hospitals and clinics and, yes, grocery stores and pharmacies. 
All this uncertainty can dislodge old fears, long thought put to rest. It can conjure up old ghosts, around grief and loss, around chaos and foreboding, about scarcity. 
More than ever, we must interrogate our fears: Is this real? Is this old stuff? How can I respond?
The "big picture", as Lamott puts it, feels threatening. And yet, the stitches – the tiny actions taken by each of us, paints a different picture. So many stories of coming together, of helping each other, of reaching out.
Life is not fine right now and it's certainly less fine for some than others. While many of us fear getting sick, the virus will take a bigger toll on those who are older, immuno-compromised or otherwise vulnerable. While lots of us have to make room for 24/7 family togetherness, others are more isolated than usual, lacking any opportunity to venture out.
And I know we've all been reminded that in times of crisis, we can become our best selves, that can be hard when we are feeling more frightened than usual, more vulnerable than usual. Our best selves can get lost when we panic. When we forget that we're all in this together. 
Factor in a fractured relationship in the form of betrayal and it feels as though we can't trust a thing, not even our formerly functioning society.
But though it might feel that way, the truth is that the sun came up this morning, didn't it? Just like it did yesterday.
I look outside my window and spring refuses to self-isolate, refuses to pause. I have sprouts pushing their way through recently thawed dirt. The birds are singing their hearts out, in defiance of a quarantine. In defiance of despair.
And in that unstoppable spring, I find hope. I find comfort. 
Life isn't fine, right now. Not for all of us.
We are changed. We will be changed further. What that change looks like, whether it contributes to our integrity or strips it from us, is a choice that remains our own. 
We must do what Lamott says: ..." what we can, as well as we can."

Monday, March 16, 2020

Infidelity in the Time of Cholera: Your Survival Guide to Betrayal During a Pandemic

The first friend I confided in, I did so over a glass of wine in a restaurant. It was just past Christmas and her face reflected the gentle glow of white twinkle lights. I hadn't planned on telling her. But she, who worked with my husband, was peppering me with questions about my husband and his assistant. Why they fought so much. How demanding she was. How weird their work relationship was. And so I finally told her. They had been having an affair. 
I watched the shock in her face be quickly replaced by a shattering. She looked as devastated as I felt. She reached across the table and took my hand as tears quietly rolled down her cheeks. I am so sorry, she said. Please. Tell me what I can do to help. 
Her response, her compassion, was balm for my aching soul. And it felt good to finally tell someone. Well, as good as I was capable of feeling at the time. 
Fast-forward 13 years and anyone discovering or dealing with infidelity is also dealing with a global pandemic that has many of us self-isolating in our homes to avoid spreading the virus. Loneliness is lousy at any time but it felt lethal when I was dealing with infidelity. Of course, it wasn't just an absence of people that was the problem, it was a sense of isolation in my pain. I felt. So. Alone.
What does this mean for those of you dealing with infidelity while also dealing with a global pandemic that has so many of us on edge?
It means what it's always meant. "My heartbreak, my rules", right?
It means laying down clear rules if he even wants you to consider reconciling:
•Absolutely no contact with the Other Woman. None. Nada. No "I need to tell her in person." No "I have to return something to her". No "she just wants to see me one last time." Nope. Absolutely not.
•Total transparency from him. Access for you to any and all phones, computers, devices. Passcodes. Secret e-mails. However they communicated now includes you. This isn't foolproof, of course. People can buy burner phones or they can create new e-mails. But an unwillingness to offer total transparency is an acknowledgement that he doesn't quite get it. He doesn't quite realize just what he's done to you and he doesn't quite get that everything has now changed, thanks to him. If he's unwilling to make himself uncomfortable in order to make you more comfortable, then he's revealing himself to be a bad bet for a second chance. 
•Support for you. If you don't already have a therapist, please find one. Right now, with so much up in the air re. public contact, it might be worth finding someone who will do online sessions or by phone. 
•More support for you. Do you have a trusted friend you can call when you need to talk? Do you have practices in place that help you feel sane – meditation, yoga, exercise, journalling, dog walking, hiking. Anything that gives you a little space to breathe, to remind yourself that you will get through this, that you're in the midst of a storm but the sun always ALWAYS comes out again.
Patience for yourself. If your kids are out of school right now, like mine are, this can be a particularly stressful time, even without infidelity. As best you can, confine arguments/crying to times/places where your kids can't hear. That can be near impossible, of course, but do your best to at least reduce the conflict they're part of. Go for a solitary drive, if necessary, and scream into the void. With the glee of missing school, we can misunderstand just how anxiety-provoking this is for kids, especially special needs kids who often require habits and routine. Do your best. And forgive yourself when your best falls short. These are desperate times. 
Do not hurt yourself. Physically or emotionally. If you are prone to self-harm, this is the time to ramp up your self-care and rely more heavily on support. But we can often engage in pain shopping behaviours, like stalking her social media, driving past her house, or behaviours that exacerbate chaos, like drinking too much, over-shopping, etc. None of that will make you feel better. It might distract you briefly but then you'll have the additional pain of an overdrawn bank account or a brutal hangover (and remember, alcohol is a depressant). 
Rest. You do not need to make any decisions right now. In fact, I would discourage you from that unless your health is at risk (speaking of which, if there's any hysterical bonding, always ALWAYS use protection until both of you have tested negative for STIs). 
We are in a challenging time. Never in my lifetime, and probably yours, have we dealt with a global crisis of this magnitude. It will change many of the things we've held to be unchangeable but there can be a silver lining in that. Like a marriage that had invisible cracks, like a partner who held secrets, the crisis is now out in the open where it can be dealt with, where healing can take root, where treatment can be offered.
Wherever you are right now, your life matters. Take care of yourself. Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself and others. You are not alone. Not in the pain of betrayal or in your anxiety around this health crisis. We will get through this because we are stronger than we yet know. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

My Father's Legacy

Although I couldn't quite say how at the time, my father's affair explained things to me, provided some central piece of the quiet puzzle that was our home. Sitting with him on the patio that evening, I thought: that's what the silence was about; that's where the veils of sadness and tension came from; that's why I never saw my parents hug, or explode with passion or emotion or rage: all the energy went into hiding things, keeping the lid on feelings. I found the story of my father's affair utterly surprising and utterly validating at the same time, and I remember sipping my drink on the patio and saying, simple, "Oh."
~Caroline Knapp, Drinking: A Love Story 

Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have read a tweet a month of so ago in which I confessed I was reeling from something my father had told me the day before. Apropos of nothing, he made reference to his "mistress". Your...wha? I responded. "Well, I guess you'd call her that," he said. "We were having sex."
Now, it might be important to know that my father is 90 years old, if we're choosing to be charitable about his frame of mind. But he lives on his own. His short-term memory is a bit touch-and-go but he's lucid and sane and (mostly) reasonable.
So...his mistress.
You can probably imagine how I responded because it was the same, on a dramatically smaller scale, to D-Day.
Shock. You're...wha?
This isn't the "mistress" we all knew about, the one who blew up my parent's marriage, the one who, he swears, was "just a friend". Nope, this is another one that preceded the secret friend. This one, he admits, was a physical affair. An actual mistress. A woman he worked with.
"Did Mom know?" I asked him.
No. No, she did not.
And therein lies my rage.
Because she deserved to know. She deserved to know exactly who she was married to. And, if she'd found out when I was old enough, I deserved to have the pleasure of helping her pack HIS bags and then taking her to the lawyer who, I would hope, would take HIM to the cleaners. 
So yes, fury. 
And disgust.
It was more than a month ago. Two weeks of not speaking to him at all, though prior to that I had called him daily and visited frequently.
And then, a phone call from my brother who "didn't want to know what this was about but wanted to remind you that dad is 90 so I don't want you to do something you'll regret." 
The men in my life are the fucking KINGS of asking me to put aside my feelings in order to not make them uncomfortable. But always under the auspices of looking out for me. Of ensuring I don't "regret" my actions.
As if I hadn't thought of that.
So here I am.

He hasn't apologized for the pain he's caused.
He hasn't acknowledged that what he did was cruel and dishonest, though he did agree when I told him, to his face, that my mom deserved so much better than him. 
And I doubt he will. 
At 90, it's unlikely that he'll undergo any great reckoning. And yes, it happened decades ago. More than five decades ago, to be precise.
But, for me, it happened a month ago. Because a month ago, I realized, again, that my father is a coward. That he's kinda pathetic. That he never really learned a damn thing from the total hell he created when my mother discovered his secret friendship. That my mother deserved so much better than him.
Yes, he stopped cheating. He never cheated again, to hear him tell it.
And yes, my parents considered their marriage good, once they put it back together (absent my mother's knowledge of the previous sexual affair). 
But, on behalf of my mother and myself, I don't have to be the dutiful daughter. I can set the terms for my relationship with my father based exclusively on what works for me. I feel relieved of any sense of responsibility. I will have a relationship with him because I want my children to have a relationship with him. But I will not hide his poor choices. I will not pretend that my father is anything but a self-centered man, though I've spent so many years ignoring that inconvenient truth. 
I may soften over the next months. He is my father though this latest revelation has forced me to acknowledge that I have muted his faults over the years, that I have blurred his flaws.
A few years ago, I said to my husband, after being disappointed at my father's response to a request. "I guess my job is to forgive him for being who he is," I said. 
"Our job is to forgive everyone for being who they are," he responded.
"I found the story of my father's affair utterly surprising and utterly validating at the same time, and I remember sipping my drink on the patio and saying, simple, "Oh.""

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Here's What Will Happen When She Finds Out You Cheated

If you've thought at all about how your cheating is affecting her, you likely imagine just how angry she'll be.
And yes, she probably will be angry. She might throw you out of the house. She might empty your closets and toss your clothes on the front yard. She might call up your mother and let her know just what a scumbag she raised. That's probably what you're picturing, right? If you're picturing anything at all. If you've considered that you might get caught.
But you know what's also possible? What's likely? 
That her face will register utter bewilderment that the person she trusted with her heart has broken it. You might not be there to see it. She might discover your betrayal by stumbling over a message or a photo on your phone. Or she might get a phone call from someone who starts the conversation with "I don't know how to tell you this but there's something you should know..."
But then she'll ask you. Is this true? And if you man up and tell her the truth, you'll see it: bewilderment. Shock. And then a shattering
But that's just the beginning. This isn't a storm cloud that blocks the sun for a day, or two, or three. This is an entire climate shift, a new reality, that will change everything for weeks and months and, yes, even years. 
In the days following her discovery of your betrayal, she will cry a million tears. Just when you – and she – think there couldn't possibly be any more tears, they will fall.
They will fall when you try and hug her. They will fall if you refuse to hug her. She will fight them when she's tucking your kids into bed but they will come later. When she's still awake at 3 a.m., they will roll down the sides of her face and soak into the pillow. She will be wondering how she could have missed this, how you could have lied to her face. She will be rethinking every choice she made related to you, starting at the very first meeting. She will wish she'd never met you, never said 'yes', never said 'I do.'
She will be imagining what you did with the Other Woman. It won't matter that it wasn't like that at all. You've told her that. It was nothing, you've told her. It didn't mean anything. But she will still picture you two, like porn stars, doing things she can barely imagine. She will imagine you two laughing at her, taking delight in her cluelessness. She won't yet understand that you didn't think about her at all. And if you did, it was only to imagine how angry she'd be. To consider how you'd better be careful so she didn't find out. 
The tears will eventually stop, replaced by...what exactly? This isn't your wife. Your wife is warm and loving. This new wife, this zombie, will frighten you. Is she thinking about leaving you? Why doesn't she want to be touched? Why is she so...volatile? Or numb?
Her pain is there buried beneath a numbness that allows her to function without feeling. It's survival. Nobody can sustain that level of pain. We need a break from it. Our bodies and minds numb us. You didn't expect that, did you? If you thought about it at all.
But you didn't, did you? You didn't think about it. Except to justify it to yourself. To tell yourself that "nobody" was getting hurt. That "nobody" is barely recognizable to you now, isn't she? She's not the woman she was. She's distant and moody. She's thin.
Yes, she's very thin. 
She hardly eats because food tastes like the ashes of her burned-down life. You lit the match for that. She knows that. 
Which is why it's so confusing to recognize that she still loves you. That she wants to believe you when you tell her that it's over, that it was nothing. That she is who you love.
She wants to believe but how can she? You're a liar. Yes, I know you balk at that word. Just like you spark with anger when she calls you cheater. But you are those things, aren't you? A liar and a cheater. You hadn't thought about it those stark terms, had you? If you'd thought about it at all.
But you didn't. Think about it, that is. You really didn't think about it.
And even now you don't want to think about it. Which is why you're so damn tired of her wanting to talk about it. Of her wanting to know more. Always more. Where did you go with her? she asks. What did you talk about? Did you tell her you loved her?
How to make her understand that none of that mattered? That it meant nothing, even if you told the OW you loved her. You didn't mean it. It was a way to keep the fish on the line, so to speak. To keep the supply coming. You hadn't thought you were hurting anyone. You hadn't thought.
That's the truth, isn't it?
You hadn't thought about it at all.


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