Tuesday, May 19, 2020

How "My Heartbreak, My Rules" points us toward truth

Honesty is simply a declaration of ones own vulnerability — it is its keen, bright edge — and my own vulnerability and the vulnerability of others became, in the end, a kind of shared armour. I learned that, ultimately, our own truth and sense of self is all any of us have. We are enough, if we could only allow ourselves to be.
~musician Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files

I sometimes struggle to articulate just how deep and broad the change has been to my life since that horrible morning on December 10, 2006, when I asked my husband if he was having an affair, already knowing the answer. One might assume that much of the change has been horrible. After all, infidelity can lead to other dominoes falling – divorce, financial calamity, custody battles, substance abuse. When my mother discovered my father's affair, it ignited a decade of alcohol abuse interspersed with stays at various psychiatric hospitals. It left me motherless for ten pivotal years, from the age of nine to 19. 
And though I felt largely powerless in the hours and days and weeks following confirmation of my husband's infidelity, I can look back and see that I made one very clear choice: I would not go down the same path my mother did. I would do it differently.
It can be hard to talk about choice when responding to a partner's infidelity because we feel stripped of it. We didn't choose for him to cheat on us, we certainly didn't choose the skank(s) he cheated with, we didn't choose this pain. Indeed, our exclusion for any of his choices is exactly why we're in this mess. 
But denying that we have a choice only compounds our feeling is disempowerment. We hold enormous power in the wake of infidelity, if only we can recognize it. And use it.
Which is why I was struck by Nick Cave's newsletter response to a question about his ability to be so honest, to lay himself so bare for the public.
I had created armour over the years to protect myself from..what exactly? Rejection, certainly. Embarrassment. Humiliation. A sense of being excluded. Growing up with an alcoholic mother had left me marinated in shame. I carried it with me everywhere, fearful of other discovering the truth beneath the armour. That I was defective. That I wasn't enough. Not enough to keep my mother moored in reality. Not enough to make her choose me over booze. Not enough.
I didn't know then, of course, that my mother's choices weren't about me at all. They were about her own pain, her own fear of not being enough. Just as I didn't know, on D-Day, that my husband's choices were about his own pain, his fear of not being enough. Her addiction, his addiction had nothing to do with me at all. But I hadn't yet learned that lesson. And so I suited up, as Brené Brown puts it. If I was perfect, I wouldn't be rejected. If I was perfect, my husband wouldn't cheat. If I was perfect, I wouldn't be excluded.
My perfection did nothing to protect me. It only insulated me from genuine connection, from the actual truth – that I was enough, and so was everyone else. "We are enough, if we could only allow ourselves to be," as Nick Cave writes.
Stripped of that armour, faced with the reality that it hadn't protected me at all, I had a choice. You have a choice. Continue to operate by rules that don't work for you, or change the rules. Write your own. The tagline on this site, as I so often remind everyone (and that was coined by the brilliant Steam) is: My heartbreak, my rules.
And those four words change everything. Within those four words is your liberation. They are a battle cry.
Those words are about prioritizing your comfort over his. They are about operating as if your pain matters. Because it does. They are about rediscovering your worth and only allowing people into your life who see your worth too. They are about refusing to go along by rules that harm you, about refusing to stay small. 
It is impossible to overstate just how powerful those words are.
He wants you to stop looking at it phone? My heartbreak, my rules.
He won't stop texting a female co-worker? My heartbreak, my rules.
He wants you to get over it? My heartbreak, my rules.
He refuses to see a therapist? My heartbreak, my rules.
You cannot make him do anything he doesn't want to, of course. But you can refuse to play by his rules. Because, frankly, his rules have actively harmed you. The game has changed and he can either join you or sit this one out. 
What I struggle to articulate is just how much better my life is. And, honestly, I thought my life was pretty good prior to D-Day. I loved my husband, I had three awesome children. But I had betrayed myself long before my husband betrayed me. I routinely trusted others' perceptions over my own. I consistently silenced myself to avoid rocking the boat. I kept myself small to ensure that others have all the room they wanted.
No more. 
I will never say my husband's affair was the best thing for me just as Nick Cave will never say his son's death was good for him. What he and I are both saying is that, out of that pain, as a result of being stripped of our armour is the realization that nothing matters more than living our own truth. Knowing that I am enough changed everything. May it change everything for you too. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Anatomy of an Apology

An apology is not a bargaining tool for which I get something back, including forgiveness.
~Harriet Lerner, author of "Why Won't You Apologize", speaking with Brené Brown

There are many ways to say you're sorry for cheating on your wife. You might have even heard some of them.
I'm sorry but I thought you didn't love me anymore.
I'm sorry but you invaded my privacy, which is unacceptable.
How many times do I have to say 'I'm sorry'?
I apologize but you need to apologize too because we were fighting all the time.
I shouldn't have done that but you cheated on me four years ago.
These apologies likely didn't make us feel better. And that's because, as Harriet Lerner would say, they aren't very good apologies.
A good apology after betrayal is as rare as a diamond in the mud. 
Even the truly sincere ones often come with strings attached. Yes, they're truly sorry for cheating but, honestly, when are you going to let this go? Yes, they recognize that what they did was wrong but you're not making this any easier by crying all the time and making them feel awful.
Which is why I was so struck, listening to Dr. Lerner on Brené Brown's incredible new podcast (seriously! Listen!!), when she noted that a good apology asks for nothing in return, not even forgiveness.
A sincere apology, she says, is about soothing the other person. The offender's feelings don't matter in the context of an apology. This isn't about them at all. It's about us. It's about the injury inflicted by them to us. We are under zero obligation to accept their apology, not right away, not ever. We are under zero obligation to make them feel better about apologizing. An apology should never come with the demand to be forgiven.
And yet...isn't that what most offenders are after? Forgiveness? Absolution?
I get it. Your spouse having to live with the acknowledgement that they have grievously harmed another person, particularly another person who loved and trusted them, is horrifically uncomfortable (unless they're a sociopath, in which case, run, don't walk, to your divorce attorney). I imagine that must feel terrible. Too bad. That's the price they pay for terrible behaviour. It sucks. We get it.
But it was a choice they made. And, if they're sincere about making amends, an apology is the perfect place to start. 
A sincere apology. 
An apology in which there isn't a "but" to be found.
An apology that doesn't expect anything.
An apology with just one purpose: To soothe the injured party.
Too often, apologies are framed as weakness. But can you imagine something that takes greater strength than facing down your own abhorrent actions and apologizing for them? (Okay, perhaps healing from infidelity takes greater strength, but you get my point...)
Unfortunately, few of have seen sincere apologies in action. Our parents might have seen apologizing as undermining their own authority. Our siblings might have seen apologies as a something one offers under duress ("Apologize to your sister!"). And spouses (and, gulp, we) might have seen an apology as a "get out of jail free" card. We apologized already. For goodness' sake, let it go.
None of which gets us where we want to go. Which is to healing. Which is to responsibility for hurtful behaviour and sincere desire to sooth the injured party.
After listening to Lerner, I tried out her advice. My eldest daughter and I have been struggling lately. She tells me how she's feeling and I immediately begin telling her how to mitigate those feelings. She feels blamed for her feelings, I get frustrated that she doesn't take my advice.
I told her that I was sorry. I named the hurtful behaviour ("for not just listening when you talk to me"), I told her I would work on it and aim to do better next time. And I meant it.
Not a perfect apology. But a darn good one.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

To our broken-hearted moms

Celebrations of any kind are tough when you're in pain. My wish for you is that, for the mothers in our midst, you can take comfort in your children, that you can find gratitude for their presence, and that, even if you're wiping up spills and tears, you remember that this is just a moment in time. Your heart will heal and you will have wisdom and compassion when your own children's hearts are broken. You will be their soft place to land. 
If your mother's day today cannot be "happy" exactly, let it be a moment of pause in your pain. 

Friday, May 8, 2020

Here's How We Set Ourselves Up. Let's Stop

Because I didn’t feel like I deserved love. Showing up and asking for love without having anything to offer in return was out of the question. I would have to be of service in order to earn love. I would have to be sexy and funny and larger than life. I would have to dance on tabletops. I would have to win and keep winning. I would not be able to rest.
~Dear Polly, The Cut

If there was one overwhelming belief I had about my husband's betrayal, it was this: I was not enough.
He cheated because I was not sexy enough.
He cheated because I was not thin enough.
He cheated because I was not beautiful enough.
Smart enough.
Fun enough.
Adventurous enough in bed.
Succesful enough.
I was, clearly, not enough.
There was plenty of evidence to the contrary but that didn't alter my belief. Not one bit.
Because my belief – that I was not enough – was something I had carried around with me since childhood. Though I was barely conscious of it, I had built my life around proving to others that I could be enough, if they would give me the chance to show them.
Every friendship felt like an audition.
Every relationship felt like probation. 
Though I tolerated no end of others' bad behaviour, I didn't allow myself a single mistake. I made mistakes, of course. We all do. And then I would sink into shame so deep, I could hardly breathe. That's the problem with perfection being the only acceptable bar. It's impossible. And when we brush up against that impossibility, it makes us so incredibly angry that we're ready to just burn it all down. The system is rigged. 
Yes, it is.
But we're the ones doing the rigging.
We're the ones demanding perfection of ourselves.
We're the ones choosing the wrong people. And then blaming ourselves when it all falls apart.
And so when my husband admitted that, yes, he was having an affair, somewhere deep down inside was a voice that said of course, he was. Because you are not enough.
We talk a lot about our deep knowing here, on this site. It can be hard to discern which is our deep knowing and which is the voice of the critic. But let me tell you this: Your deep knowing will never tell you you're not enough. Your deep knowing is a voice of love. It is a voice of acceptance. It is, if you're religious or spiritual, a voice of divine love. It is, if you're not religious or spiritual, a voice that speaks the truth of every person's value. 
Your deep knowing will never tell you you're not enough. 
Your critic most certainly will. 
We've all had critics in our lives and, far too often, their voices take root in our bodies and chastise us decades after the actual speaker is gone. It might have been a parent, a sibling, your fifth-grade teacher who laughed at your dream. It might have been a boss, a friend, a bully.
But you have thrown the door open to that critic to move in with you, to offer nothing but reminders that you are a profound disappointment.
Critics are absolutely not the voice of truth. They speak nothing but lies
My critic insisted for years that I was not enough. Not matter how fast I danced, it was never fast enough. No matter what I achieved, the critic would move the finish line further ahead. 
The system was rigged.
But it was us doing the rigging.
Let's unrig the system.
If there is a silver lining to my husband's infidelity, it was that, with a whole lot of work and some new truth-telling glasses, I could finally see the flaw in the system. I could see that I was setting myself up. 
What I wish for all of you is that same revelation. 
He didn't cheat because you are not enough.
He cheated for any number of reasons that – and this is the truth – have nothing to do with you.
He cheated because he believes he's not enough. He cheated because someone paid attention to him and it felt good. He cheated because it made him feel young. He cheated because his moral compass is broken. He cheated because it distracted him from money woes, an empty nest, a special needs child, a sick wife, a dying parent.
He cheated, as Esther Perel reminds us, because he was looking for another version of himself.
Your work, in the wake of his infidelity, is to unrig the system that you've rigged against yourself. To refuse the system that our culture has rigged against us. The one that says we're not allowed to age, to soften, to choose for ourselves.
The good news is that we have everything we need for the challenge ahead. We have ourselves. And that is enough.

Monday, May 4, 2020

He Cheated, I Stayed. Now What?

He cheated on you. Maybe you found out via an errant text message. Maybe you got a phone call from his recently dumped OW. Maybe that nagging fear finally coaxed you to check his e-mails or his texts and – whoa! – guess what you found. Or maybe, like me, you asked. And he answered.

I was in a state of shock when I finally confronted my husband and got the answer I sorta kinda expected but was desperately hoping I wouldn't get. 

And in my state of shock was one looming question: Now what?
What was I supposed to do with the knowledge that my husband had cheated on me? What was I supposed to tell my children, if anything? Where was I supposed to go? 
There is no playbook for betrayed wives (though Encyclopedia for the Betrayed is my best attempt to give you 182 pages of playbook). On soap operas and in bad movies and in country songs, the cheated wife responds with fury. She dumps his belongings in to a pile onto which she pours gasoline and tosses a lit match. Or she slashes his tires. Or she confronts the Other Woman, leaving her with no question about who truly rules.
It all seems so satisfying. 
And then, we imagine, the betrayed wife walks into her future on kickass stiletto heels. Often there's a handsome new guy waiting for her. Insert eyeroll here, amirite? 
We're rarely offered the image of a woman shattered, in a ratty bathrobe and staring into space. Awake a 3 a.m., eyes red from crying, wondering, again, 'why?'. Desperate to leave but paralyzed. Desperate to stay but for what?

I couldn't sit still. I walked my house like a ghost, heavy with chains of dread. And through it all – the weeks of fury, the months of sadness – hung a question: Now what?
What did I want?
What did I need?
How could I be sure?
What if it happens again?
How did I miss it?
And, of course, that perennial Why? Why me? Why him? Why her? Why?
I can't answer your questions. Only you can. And, likely, only with time.
But I can tell you how I found my own answer to Now what?
It began when I finally quieted that voice in my head that screamed like my mother on a bender and rediscovered what Glennon Doyle calls "the Knowing". That deep voice that put me on solid ground, the one that said "you are not what happened to you", the one that promised me I had a well of strength to get through this. But perhaps the most important thing that deep voice told me was that "now what?" wasn't permanent. That it was okay to not know what was next, that I could take my time to process this pain before reacting to it. And, in fact, if I took that time, I wouldn't so much react as respond. I could plan. I could choose.
We forget that, don't we? That we have a choice. We're often so humiliated and crippled by betrayal that we feel stripped of any power we might have. But, as I was reminded on Twitter the other day, when our husbands are asking us for a second chance – whether explicitly or by assumption – we have the most power. Not to change them. That's always on them. But to insist upon what we want. That is not, of course, to say that we will get exactly what we want. They might choose the OW. They might choose to leave. But by treating ourselves with respect, by demanding to be treated by them with respect, we can't lose. We might lose them, sure. But is it really a loss to no longer have a cheater who doesn't respect you in your life? You might not see it now, but that sounds like a win to me. 
Doyle puts it this way: "I can't imagine a greater tragedy than remaining forever unknown to myself. That would be the ultimate self-abandonment. So I have become unafraid of my own feelings."
Your feelings are your guide. They are prophets, pointing the way forward. Sit with them. You will not drown. Pay attention to them. Learn to discern your deep-down voice from the noise of the critics. You know the ones – that tell you what you "should" do, how you "should" feel. There is no "should", there is only you and what you want in service of your self-respect. 
You have been betrayed by the person you must trusted. But perhaps that was our first mistake. The first person we should always trust is ourself. Don't betray her again. 


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