Monday, July 27, 2020

How Esther Perel offers a Master Class in Holding Cheaters Accountable

Esther Perel can be polarizing among us betrayed spouses. At least at first.
For one thing, she responds to the unfaithful partner with compassion, something we're loathe to see. We want to see the unfaithful partner drawn and quartered, strung up and humiliated. Compassion? That should be for us, not them! But yes, she has plenty of compassion for us, too.
So, if you can manage it, listen to this recent podcast episode. It features a couple in which the guy is a serial cheater. The wife knows. She is working to forgive. But the husband feels unready to cut ties with the Other Woman.
And though Perel doesn't respond with an eyeroll or a "puh-leeze" or a "JFC, are you kidding me?", she nonetheless calls this guy out. And that's her magic. She calls him out in a way that allows his eyes to open rather than his heart to close.
You see yourself as a good person but you’re not doing good things and you keep trying to close the gap.
Perel makes clear that these guys who are worried about the impact on the Other Woman, or, in the case of the man on her podcast, the impact on the woman's son (he had been the child of a single mother who saw himself in this boy), are lying to themselves, as well as to everyone else. But she doesn't call him a liar. She says, you see yourself as a good person. Yes, he does. A lot of these guys do. They're often as baffled as the rest of us how they got themselves into a situation that, to pretty much everyone else, makes them look like NOT good guys. 
...but you're not doing good things... 
We all know by now, if you've been reading this blog or Encyclopedia for the Betrayed or any number of other books or reputable blog posts, that cheaters are masterful storytellers. And the person they're mostly telling stories to is themselves. They don't always realize it. In fact, part of coming clean after infidelity is recognizing the stories they've told themselves. Stories like, "nobody appreciates me", or "I work so hard and get nothing in return" or even vague, amorphous stories about how life/work/family just isn't what they thought it would be. And so when someone shows up and pays attention to these guys, listens to their stories, it's intoxicating. They want it to continue. It can feel like a drug. Besides, they tell themselves another story, nobody needs to get hurt. ...but you're not doing good things... That's pretty much cold water on the "nobody gets hurt" story. Because people do get hurt. They are devastated. They are traumatized. Besides, Perel points out, even if nobody finds out're not doing good things. So if you consider yourself a good guy're not doing good things..., well, then,  how do you square that circle? You don't. Not until your actions are aligned with your declared values. 

And consider this too:
You may leave this marriage, you may stay in this marriage, but you still wouldn’t understand squat.
How many of us are beseeched to "let it go", "move forward", "stop dwelling in the past". As if that's the problem. As if everything would be fine if we could just overlook that teensy indiscretion (that might have gone on for years), or move past those lies that made us think we were crazy. And that's Perel's point here. Without interrogating the infidelity, without examining the stories they were telling themselves, anyone who cheated isn't going to learn a damn thing, whether they stay or go. The key, she insists, is to understand the why of the infidelity. What were they looking for that they didn't think they could get inside the marriage? What lies were they believing about what they were doing that kept them neither inside nor outside the marriage but straddling this delusional line? That's where the healing will be found. Or perhaps not the healing per se but the finger pointing towards the healing. 

And, finally, consider this:
I think you might get more from understanding the meaning than the facts.
Wow, huh? A whole lotta these guys spend their time citing the facts of theirinfidelity rather than the meaning. Why? Well, it's a whole lot easier to catalogue (honestly or otherwise) the number of times they slept with her, or the name of the restaurant they took her to, or the times they told her that they never planned on leaving their marriage. So much harder to understand the meaning behind those actions. Like Perel's comment above, infidelity tells us a whole lot about ourselves, some of it none too flattering. And looking in that metaphorical mirror can feel excruciating. Owning the ways in which we betrayed people we care about is painful. But, as Perel points out, it's necessary if we're going to move forward in a way that takes us toward a deeper, more meaningful relationship. 

That, ultimately, is Perel's goal. Not (never!) to let people off the hook for bad behaviour but to guide them toward a deeper understanding of themselves. To show them that they can be a good person who does a bad thing but they need to acknowledge that bad thing and  stop doing it. That in order to choose to be in a marriage or out of it, they need to respond rather than react. They need to make a conscious choice rooted in respect for their partner and themselves. Shame doesn't get us there. Hard work tempered by compassion does. That work is theirs, of course. It is not our job to fix them or point them toward understanding. It is our job to set clear boundaries, do what we can to keep ourselves physically and emotionally safe and learn how to trust ourselves. And that, too, must come from compassion. There's enough to go around.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Guest Post: What two years have taught me

by Chinook

Two years ago today, I found a series of text messages on my husband’s phone that changed me forever. When the one-year “anti-versary” came around, I marked the occasion with a summary of what the year had taught me, which Elle kindly published for all of you to read. It’s been two years and I thought I’d send an update. I remember how desperate I was in those early days to hear from women who were further along the post-betrayal road than me.
My story is this: Two years and ten weeks ago, my husband started testing the waters of leaving me. He was middle aged and unhappy. Marriage was tough and parenting was exhausting, but rather than talk about it and work towards positive change, he decided to pin his feelings of frustration and unhappiness on me. He began secretly searching for apartments and, to ease his fear of abandonment (ironic, I know), started dating a much, much younger woman from his gym. All this after I had spent years killing myself to single-handedly keep our marriage on track with everything from special anniversary gifts to kid-free weekends away.
My gut knew something was wrong from (I now know) the first day he took the other woman’s number. It was screaming “emergency!” but my husband shut down every attempt I made to talk about it. I even asked my husband point blank if he was having an affair, which, of course, he told me was “crazy”. And then eventually I checked his phone.
Here’s what I’ve learned in the year since I last wrote.

1. Calling it PTSD is accurate and necessary.
Discovering the affair was horrific, but the most profoundly traumatizing part was the seven weeks of non-stop lying that came after. After I packed a bag and walked out on him and the kids, without telling him where I was going, who I was seeing or when I’d be back (I went to a girlfriend’s house for the weekend), my husband suddenly realized the staggering size of his stupidity, and swung into desperate damage control. Any trust I had left was obliterated as he swore up and down, including swearing on the lives of our children, that he had told me everything, only for me to discover, in my sleuthing, lie after lie, each one of which he fessed up to immediately but then swore it was the last.
I had been too shell-shocked to make any kind of decision when I first found the texts on his phone but after those seven weeks of lying, which were the seven most traumatizing weeks of my life, I had to kick him out for my own emotional safety. I was a wreck—a shell of my former self. I had real, horrific PTSD symptoms (panic attacks, hypervigilance, intrusive thoughts) and required medication to get through the day, then other medication to get through the night. Calling it “PTSD” felt a bit dramatic at first. After all, I hadn’t been to war or anything. But it was accurate; I really was traumatized. It was necessary to call it PTSD in order for other people to understand what I was experiencing and in order for me to have compassion for myself.
This is something that all the Dear Sugar podcasts and Esther Perel lectures either don’t say or don’t emphasize properly: betrayal is traumatizing. The best source I’ve found for information about betrayal trauma is Michelle D. Mays and I encourage everyone here to read her blog.

2. There can be no healing without truth—and the truth must come from him
Discovering you’ve been cheated on is like being shot at close range—your body is instantly ripped apart in hundreds of places and you are riddled with shot. The only instrument that could dig the shot out of me and leave my ripped-open body a fighting chance at healing was the truth.
Some people don’t want to know the truth but as far as I’m concerned, there can be no real healing without it. As Elle has pointed out, the truth doesn’t have to mean all the details—it doesn’t matter if her dress was red or blue, if they ate Greek food or Indian—but it does matter why he had an affair (“I wasn’t thinking” is not an acceptable answer), how he justified it to himself (“I didn’t think you’d find out” is not an acceptable answer), how long it went on, and what lines he crossed.
My husband actually chose to start individual counselling around the time he started his affair. This might seem odd—after all, why participate in something that can help make you healthy while you’re simultaneously doing something that will destroy your entire life? I think of it like someone going to Alcoholics Anonymous while simultaneously getting black-out drunk every night—they know they have a problem but they aren’t ready to do the hard work needed to change.
My husband went to therapy but kept the affair hidden from his therapist. He kept it hidden from everyone, including his best friend. Until I caught him. How was he able to compartmentalize so effectively? A traumatizing childhood of neglect, abuse and abandonment that he had never dealt with. As Elle says: hurt people hurt people.
After I found the text messages on his phone, as he lied and I caught him and he lied more and I caught him again, and every time I became more broken, more emaciated, more desperate, he finally came to accept, with his therapist’s help, that he had to come clean about absolutely everything for the sake of my mental health, even if it meant that I would loathe him forever, turn his children against him, and divorce him in the most unequitable and brutal way possible.
So, he told me everything.
I hit him. I screamed. I threw him out. My trust for him was levelled, right down to the scorched earth. But that day, when he came to me with information instead of me sleuthing around to find it and making myself sick in the process, was a turning point. That was the day my cheating, lying, compartmentalizing husband ceased to exist and a different man started to become.

3. It’s really, really, seriously not about you. At all. 
This is something I’ve written about in the past (and so has Elle) but it warrants repeating now: The affair had nothing to do with you. So, if you’re blaming yourself in any way, you can stop. The affair was 100% about your partner wanting to escape his problems instead of doing the hard work of facing them head-on.
It took some time for this to sink in, but the affair also had nothing to do with the Other Woman. Men who cheat aren’t looking for someone better than their partners, they’re looking for someone who will make them feel good about the fact that they are traumatizing another person by cheating on them. In other words, they’re looking for someone who is awful. The Other Woman’s number one most attractive feature to your cheating partner is that she was there, and she was so lacking in self-respect that she was willing to engage in something illicit with someone else’s partner. That’s a level of rot that cannot be salvaged by all the flat stomachs and perky tits in the world.

4. Separation was awesome.
We were separated (as in, living in separate places) for nine months, and I’m so glad we were. It was expensive to have two households but it was necessary. That separation gave me the chance to feel safe again, to grow stronger, and to evaluate whether I was making choices out of fear. It showed my husband that I was damned serious about leaving him. And it gave him the opportunity to prove he would do anything to earn a second chance.
He seized that opportunity and showed me how life would be different if I took him back. After nine months of complete and utter devotion to his individual therapy and to the kids and to me, I let him move into the guest room where he continued his devotion to self-transformation and to us. His devotion continues but now, we’re back in the same room together.

5. The loss is permanent
I no longer wear my wedding ring. I took it off two days after catching him in his affair, once the initial shock faded, and I have never put it back on. I can’t imagine that I ever will. I have also permanently taken down all the wedding photos that used to be on display in our home. When I see a friend posting about their wedding anniversary on Facebook or Insta (“seventeen years with the love of my life!”) I feel intensely sad because I don’t want to ever celebrate another wedding anniversary again. It would feel like a celebration of the day he took vows that he didn’t even try to keep.
There’s so much loss after a betrayal. The loss of trusting him unconditionally. The loss of never wondering, in some corner of my mind, if he’s lying. The loss of feeling lucky to be with him. I mourn those losses every day. As Elle consoled me recently, and wrote about in this brilliant post, so much of the first few years is just working through the grief.

6. The gains are also permanent
I am not the same woman I was two years ago today and thank God for that.
She was an incredibly hard-working person, that former Chinook. She had been forced to single-handedly carry the weight of her marriage for over four years, and she was doing it. She was also terribly self-sacrificing and exhausted and seething with resentment.
My priorities are completely different now. My top priority (after the kids, though sometimes even before them) is me. Not my marriage. Not my husband. Me. It took my husband having an affair to do it (which is messed up), but I now feel completely justified in saying what I want, in taking what I need, and in refusing to accept something that is not good enough for me. And if any of those actions result in the loss of other people, including my husband, I accept that trade-off.
Two years and one day ago, I was always scared of rocking the boat in my marriage (for good reason—my husband used anger and disapproval as a countermove whenever I wanted us or him to work on something). I was always overextending myself to help others. I was always besieged by the feeling that it was selfish to put myself first.
Shedding that feeling, which I have had for my entire life, even in childhood, has been the single best thing to come out of this whole mess, and I really don’t think I could have done it without a seismic shift in my life.

7. Feed the right wolf. Over and over and over.
You know the old fable: There are two wolves fighting. Which one will win? Whichever one you feed.
The past makes me sad. The present makes me happy. The gains make me happy. The losses make me sad. If I think about what he did then, I get livid. If I think about what he’s doing now, I feel grateful.
There is nothing to be gained from letting thoughts about what he did take up residence in my mind. Those thoughts cannot protect me. Best to actively chase them away. There is no point in chastising him for what he did. He hates himself for it. And it can’t be changed. Best to let him know when I feel pain, let him know how I need to be comforted, and let him.
Keeping my mind and heart at peace means feeding the right wolf.
And that’s something I have to do every day.

8. I am slowly making my peace with it all.
I’m friends with a married couple in which one person financially betrayed the other by secretly spending a lot of their retirement savings on frivolous things. That was a few years ago now, and they’re genuinely over it. When I asked the betrayed partner how she did it—how she forgave—she just shrugged and said that she’s a forgiving person.
I am not a forgiving person, and this whole experience has forced me to consider whether that is doing me any good in life. Forgiving someone doesn’t mean that you’re okay with what happened, it means that you accept that it did happen, which leads to peace. And although I cannot say that I forgive him, I am slowly making my peace with what happened.

9. Trust isn’t an all or nothing thing.
I wrote above that my husband told me everything.
But did he?
The truth is that I’ll never know. He confessed to things I would never have found out on my own and which I consider unforgivable—like sending the other woman photos of our kids and even taking our youngest to meet her. He also maintains that the affair did not pass second base (he had the opportunity, many times, but couldn’t bring himself to do it because he was still on the fence about leaving me), which I find unlikely but which he has no reason to lie about, given that I consider my children’s involvement far worse.
I spent much of the first year post-D-day verifying everything he told me, trying to catch him in a lie. Did he love this constant mistrust? Of course not. But he understood it and was completely transparent, giving me all his passwords and always leaving his phone our where I could see it and check it. Slowly, as he proved himself day after day, trust started to come back. It was extremely slow and it came in tiny increments (think of an hourglass through which only a single grain of sand passes per day). But 730 days later, I’d say my trust is back up somewhere around 80%.

10. There is, eventually, a shift from present to past
A few months ago, I felt a strange and very welcome shift. In talking about the affair with my therapist, I heard myself say “but that was a long time ago”.
I’ve heard women on this site, Elle chief among them, say that as they drove along towards their happier future on the road of self-compassion and self-worth that they built themselves, they discovered at one point that the affair was no longer all around them, it was in the rearview mirror.
I get that now. My new present tense is that he is a kind and respectful and open and equal partner. (He’s actually a far kinder and more respectful equal partner than many of my friends’ husbands who didn’t and probably wouldn’t cheat.)
The affair and lying and pain? I can still see them. But for the most part, they’re contained within the small rectangle of the rearview mirror.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

I came to Live Out Loud, Yes, Even During a Pandemic

I have a quote pinned to the bulletin board in my office.
If you ask me what I came into this world to do,
I will tell you;
I came to live out loud.
I chose this quote for the cover of the program at my mom's funeral. If ever there was a woman who lived out loud, it was her.
But me? I tended toward quiet. I tended toward meek. I feared attention because attention invited judgement. And I couldn't bear another's judgement.
Which makes it doubly ironic just how judgemental I've become lately. 
I judge people who don't wear masks. I judge people who don't give me six feet of space in the grocery store. I judge people on Twitter, caught in viral videos screaming at store clerks. I judge people who post #AllLivesMatter.
I judge.
And fear being judged.
What I've forgotten though is that judgement – always needing to be right – is the thief of joy. And I am not feeling much joy lately.
Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it this way: 
Yet joy can so often be the thing I give up when being right seems more important. When the grief of what I have lost feels bigger than the hope of what might come.
Of course, my judgement has something to do with living through a pandemic. It has a whole lot to do with suddenly being subject to a lot of rules about where I can go and when, who I can see and how, what I can wear and why.
The world is undergoing a collective trauma, I keep telling myself. We are all scared out of our wits, even those of us who pretend they're not (which, some days, is me). 
But I can remind myself, I've been through this before. Not a pandemic, per se, but a trauma. A total transformation of what I thought I could trust. A massive shift in my world. This is just on a larger scale. This involves all of you, too. But yes, I've been here before, where, as Bolz-Weber says, "the grief of what I have lost feels greater than the hope of what might come."
Finding our way back to that hope is where we'll find joy. Yes, even in the midst of a pandemic. Even in the midst of betrayal. 
We will not find it in judging others, not even that bastard who broke our hearts. Let him judge himself. And we most certainly will not find that joy, not even a sliver of it, in judging ourselves. Not in "how could I have been so stupid". Not in "what does she have that I don't." Not in "I will never trust anybody again." "Not in "I should have known he would do this". Not in any of that.
We will find it in hope. Not blind hope that he'll change. Not ignorant hope that magical forgiveness will make this a bad memory. We will find it in hope that requires us to roll up our sleeves and shape it. In hope that reminds us how strong we are. Hope that's rooted in self-respect and dignity and refuses entry to anyone who won't treat us with either. Hope that's greater than the grief we feel for what we've lost.
We have all lost so much through this. Jobs. The ability to hug our aging parents. Faith in those entrusted with our public safety. Lives. We have lost so very many lives.
But let's remember that joy is found not when we judge each other or ourselves but in compassion. In a recognition that this is hard work, that this is traumatic. I speak of both pandemics and infidelity. 
Let us remind ourselves that we have navigated grief before. Hope can be our guide through grief. They are not mutually exclusive but rather companions. Let us hold each by the hand. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

How to Save Your Own Life

It was stunning, in hindsight, how quickly I went from euphoria to devastation. I had just wrapped up a wildly successful fundraiser that I was incredibly proud of when I finally had time to take a breath, look around...and realize that my husband was having an affair.
By the time the shock wore off a few months later, I fell into total despair. Plenty of old demons that I thought I'd banished were back taunting me.
The pain was so excruciating, I wished I was dead.
It's hard to write that though I know it's the truth. It feels pathetic. Humiliating. What sort of woman is so reliant on a man's validation that she wishes herself dead if he cheats on her?
Well...this sort of woman.
I'm able to see now how my husband's infidelity reopened those old childhood wounds, and confirmed for me the belief that I was unlovable. At the time, however, I just knew the pain felt bigger than my ability to handle it. I felt so unworthy of love that I thought everyone would be better off without me.
My own mother attempted suicide more than once and so I had that stroke against me too. Statistically speaking, I was more inclined.
I didn't kill myself, obviously. Instead, I doubled down on therapy. Found someone who did EMDR to help me with post-trauma. I ran. I journaled. I meditated. I read volumes of books written to help people like me find their way back. I offered myself affirmations, even though it felt ridiculous and I hardly believed them.
I saved my own life.
And whether or not you want to actually die or, like me, are unable to imagine ever again not feeling this crippling pain, you can save your life too.
Let me tell you:

1. Save yourself first
Think of this way: You're are drowning. And before you worry about whether your husband on shore is going to throw you a rope or whether he's flirting with another woman on the beach, start swimming toward shore. Keep your head above water. Which is a metaphor for reaching for everything that can keep you afloat. Find a therapist who understands infidelity. Read books by reputable authors about infidelity. Once you shift focus from your unfaithful spouse, you will begin to understand that infidelity is rarely about the person being cheated on. He didn't cheat because there's something wrong with you, he cheated because there's something wrong with him. And fixing it is an inside job for him. Your job is to swim like hell for the shore, with the guidance of a therapist, non-judgemental friend(s), and honest, straightforward support, such as this site, books, podcasts.
As part of this first step, you should set down some non-negotiables, among them: He must end the affair and have zero contact with his affair partner, he must give you any/all access to his modes of communication and he must seek therapy/12-step group or whatever you deem appropriate. Failure to commit to "My heartbreak, my rules" is a loud, clear message that his comfort/privacy is more important than your healing. That's valuable information for you to have as you grapple with whether your want your marriage.

2. Rediscover your worth
We are born worthy of love and acceptance and belonging. Those of us with unhealthy families of origin often forget that. We take the blame for our parents' problems, we assume failure. What I'm proposing sounds deceptively simple. I want you to love yourself back to wholeness. I want you to stop cataloguing your faults (an elastic band around your wrist can serve as an "ouch" reminder to stop. Give it a snap when you criticize yourself for anything from burning dinner to not having a supermodel figure to getting frustrated with your toddler. You are doing your best and our best gets better in an environment of self-compassion. And instead of criticism, I want you to make a concerted effort to offer yourself compliments. Stick with me here, I know it sounds dumb. But science tells us affirmations work. I learned this from my youngest daughter, who was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder when she was 11. She began posting notes around her room to remind her that she didn't have to be perfect (and that, in fact, trying to be perfect exacerbated her OCD): "It's okay to make mistakes", she wrote. "You are an imperfect human just like everyone else", she wrote. I asked her to write some for me, which I posted on my bathroom mirror and read them daily. "You are beautiful, talented and brave," she wrote for me. Just think about it: Every single day started out with me reminding myself that I am beautiful, talented and brave. Don't you think my day is going to go better than if I started out with those words instead of, as I used to, chastising myself for having thick thighs, or crow's feet? You bet! Try it and stick with it for four weeks, minimum.

3. Give yourself compassion
The most surprising thing about infidelity for me was just how crippling it was. Nothing prepared me for the emotional devastation. Most of us imagine anger. We imagine revenge. We don't imagine just how hard it will be to function. To get out of bed. To parent children. To show up to work. To get through a day without completely falling apart.
What's worse is that we blame ourselves for our difficulty managing this. Infidelity is trauma. Of course, we can barely function, we're traumatized. When we accept that, it becomes much easier to extend compassion to ourselves. To stop expecting ourselves to deal with this easily and instead accept the grief that comes with betrayal. To feel our feelings. And to discover that we are stronger than we thought possible.

4. Trust yourself
It can feel impossible that you will ever trust yourself again. Look how wrong you were about this guy! And yet, so many of you look back and recognize that there were signs. Not that he was cheating, necessarily, but that something was wrong. Sometimes it's just a sense of unease. Often, it's that you weren't happy. 
But we get lost, don't we? We get lost in ensuring that those around us are happy. Our own happiness, or satisfaction, or sense that we matter, takes a backseat to children, to aging parents, to bosses, to the seemingly incessant demands on women that we look like a model, cook like Julia Childs, stay fit and well-read. The truth is that nobody has it all. Nobody. Somethings always gotta give and far too often we make it ourselves. 
That has got to change and there is not better time than now. 
And it begins with paying attention to ourselves. It begins with learning how to listen to that deep voice that knows what's best for us. Glennon Doyle calls it The Knowing. We all have it. I promise you it's there even if you've spent a lifetime thinking it's not. So many of us had that deep voice silence so long ago that we fear it's silent forever. It is not. It is waiting for us to wake it back up, to start paying attention to it. How to know if we're hearing it? It will sound like compassion. It will never ask you to do anything that's contrary to your value system. 
Doyle puts it this way:
Moment of uncertainty arises
Breathe, turn inward, sink.
Feel around for the Knowing.
Do the next thing it nudges you toward.
Let is stand. (Don’t explain.)
Repeat forever.
(For the rest of your life: Continue to shorten the gap between the Knowing and the doing.)

You are so worth fighting for, my secret sisters. Your life is worth saving. No matter what pain you're in right now, it will pass. You will rise from this. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Why Shame is the Wrong Tool to Deal with Infidelity

Here are some of the things I said to my husband after D-Day:
You're a liar.
You disgust me.
You are nothing but a cheater and a liar.
Why would I ever believe you because you are incapable of telling the truth.

The list goes on but my memory has grown fuzzy.
Pretty horrible, huh?
I'm not saying he didn't deserve my wrath. He did. He most definitely did.
What I am saying is that that those words not only did nothing to create the possibility for healing, they also weren't true (well, except for the disgust bit. I was pretty disgusted at that point).
But they hurt him. And that was really my intention. I wasn't capable of thinking more long-term than the next five-minutes. I was in the midst of survival mode – fight, flight or freeze. And I was fighting like hell. I wanted to hurt him like he'd hurt me. I wanted him to know that I would never forgive him for what he'd done. Which also, as fate would have it, turned out to be untrue.
But more to the point, if I'd been able to stop and think, to determine what my goal was, I might have realized that what I was doing – shaming my husband – wasn't going to help me achieve it.
Which is the great misunderstanding of shame.
We think shame makes people change their behaviour. But famed shame researcher Brené Brown gives us the bad news. It doesn’t. If anything, shame makes people double down on their bad behaviour (we’re seeing this shame-and-name culture online right now and it’s ugly).
What happens, Brown explains, is that shame hijacks our limbic system – we go into survival mode. That’s our primitive brain, our reptile brain. Shame, she says, “corrodes that part of us that believes we can ever be different.”
Sadly, a lot of us grew up being shamed. More than likely, our partners did too. It’s a frequently used tool by those in authority. But shame drives a lot of bad behaviour. Shame doesn’t urge us be better, it tells us we never will be.
You’re never going to be anything but a loser, we might have heard.
Why can’t you do anything right?
Or, my husband’s father’s favorite: You’re nothing but a quitter.
And here I was, post D-Day, shaming my husband, albeit unintentionally. I was doing to him exactly what had been done to him as a child. And what he’d done to himself ever since.
Shame drives bad behaviour, Brown reminds us again.
So much of my husband’s acting out was rooted in his childhood shame. Shame kills intimacy. Shame kills empathy. Brown puts it this way: “It’s much more likely to be the cause of harmful and destructive behaviours than the cure.”
I’ve been thinking about this in the context of infidelity lately. I’ve long thought that our culture, while it loves a redemption story, loves a consistent narrative more. While we hold the possibility that people can change, we’re suspicious of it. That “once a cheater, always a cheater” mentality leaves no room for redemption, for reinvention.
Why do we make it so hard for people to redeem themselves? Why do we insist on labelling people rather than labelling their behaviour? It might seem like semantics but it’s rooted in shaming. That’s not, of course, to say that bad behaviour shouldn’t be called out. It absolutely should, especially cheating, which causes so much damage and pain to partners and kids. But there is a world of difference between expecting someone who cheated to figure out why he did and how to ensure he never does it again, and labelling them a cheater. The first allows for change. The second…does not.
I’ve long believed that my willingness to give my husband the chance to change stemmed from having grown up with an alcoholic who got sober. I had seen someone, who everyone else had given up on, choose a better path. And I had watched her not only get sober but get wise about it. I knew people could change because I’d seen it. Might my perspective have been different if she’d never stopped drinking? Probably.
It must be a careful dance, between wanting to believe our partners can change and being realistic about whether they will. Change is not a straight trajectory. It zigs and it zags but someone truly intent on becoming better will self-correct.
As Brown reminds us, when you see someone making amends, apologizing, doing better, that’s about guilt not shame.
But if they do not make amends, if it becomes clear that their words are not backed up by actions – if they refuse counselling, if they resist giving you passwords, if they push back against boundaries you’ve set in order to feel emotionally safe with someone capable of cheating, then that’s important information. And all the shaming in the world isn’t going to create that change if it isn’t coming from a reckoning within.

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Thursday's Thought

Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving 
to be your best. Perfectionism is the belief 
that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, 
we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, 
judgement, and shame. It's a shield.
~Brené Brown


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