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. 


  1. That is just beautiful thank you Elle, it actually brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for that really truly thank you.

  2. Sometimes I feel like you read my mind Elle. 6 months on and I’m just so angry about the fact that one person could destroy my entire life. Brought me to my knees, whimpering, sad, depressed and full of fear. How did I give him so much power and how dare he abuse it this way. There is anger, disgust and pity about the infidelity, but for allowing myself to become this version that’s dependent on someone and their love - it makes me livid! Thank you for these words. They couldn’t be more timely :)

  3. 2 years 4 months in, I'm finally here in my journey, self care begins here, these words are invaluable, thank you.

  4. Yes. Thank you. Your words, your voice, your wisdom is so needed and so hopeful. Thank you, Elle!!!

    1. ❤️๐Ÿงก๐Ÿ’›๐Ÿ’š๐Ÿ’™๐Ÿ’œ

  5. How do you stop thinking about the affair and every little detail about it? To stop thinking about my husband having sex with the other woman? I found out about it only 3 months ago but I’m driving myself crazy. Surely it gets better with time, right?? Someone please tell me it gets better. I cannot live the rest of our lives constantly thinking about the other woman.

    1. There are some behaviour modification techniques you can use -- an elastic band around your wrist that you snap when you start imagining, a stop sign taped to your mirror or wherever... But, mostly, time. Yes, it gets better. Much much better. There was nothing special about her or their affair. It was pathetically mundane. She was just willing and available. That's all. As someone said recently on Twitter, they don't cheat with someone better than you but with someone worse than themselves.

    2. I’m right there with you. Just remember you live in the present, not the past. When you walk forward you walk with your head held high looking the direction you want to go. Don’t let yourself walk forward looking back.
      I’m trying to realize that the affair was simply a symptom of my marriage beginning to fall apart. It wasn’t the big picture. Remind yourself “it’s not your fault”. Nothing could have changed this. I do this constantly. I’m still struggling myself. It’s only been three months since I found out. I’m getting exhausted by this bringing me down. At times I realize I only have to suffer if I want to. Sometimes easier said than done. But I will rise up. At this point we want to save our marriage. I’m going to continue to take things day my day. I can’t see the future but I know it’s there.

  6. Wow, you never cease to amaze me with your words and insight.

  7. "They don't cheat with someone better than you but with someone worse than themselves." WOW! That's one of the most powerful things I have yet to read. Thank you for that perfect insight.

  8. Thankful I came across this site. We want to save our marriage. I was feeling ashamed of myself for even trying. The young ,non married woman of myself 19 years ago would have left and taken everything. Society tells you the norm is to leave and that you are a “bad” representation of a woman if you stay.

    1. Me as well, Those cultural messages are powerful. And they're also completely lacking in nuance. Statistically speaking, most people stay, though you'd never know that. We are given two options: Stay and be miserable, or leave and be happy. The truth is that it's quite possible to stay and be happy or leave and be miserable. We are the ones who determine the outcome for ourselves.

  9. The pain was so excruciating, I wished I were dead. Its helpful beyond words that someone understands this depth of pain. Thank you. I'm 68 years old, 42 years and four kids with my husband, and three months in since discovering his latest emotional affair. (My husband has untreated erectile dysfunction, he cannot consummate an affair). I've had therapy for the first time in my life. The therapist advises there is no chance that my husband will change, therefore unless I'm willing to accept his secretive, serial flirtations, I should divorce him now. He is kind, generous and polite to me, I am in a major comfort zone, and he is begging me to stay, making the same promises hes made after every affair. I am numb with pain. I hardly have the energy to get out of bed, let alone restart life as a divorced woman.

    1. I am so sorry for the pain you're in. I know it well. We all do.
      If you are exhausted, then rest. You are not obliged to make a choice right here, right now. Rest. But while you rest, keep your mind open that you have options. You are not required, no matter how much "comfort" you enjoy, to continue in a relationship in which your wants and needs are disrespected. We teach people how to treat us. And at 68, you likely have a lot of living left to do. The idea of being a "divorced woman" is more than likely an exhausting one. And yet, a divorced woman is simply you without him and his affairs. You without these periodic bombs going off in your life. Honestly...that sounds pretty nice to me.
      That said, our m.o. on this site is to always always let each other determine what feels right for us. I don't know what's right for you. You do. So give yourself time to consider it. And, to keep your choices open, maybe speak with a lawyer about what your life might look like to be a divorced woman. What would it mean financially? What would it mean logistically? Getting clear on it might make it seem less like a frightening fuzzy future and more like a perfectly reasonable option.
      Whatever choice you make, you are a person worthy of love and kindness and respect. Sometime when we haven't been treated with that, we forget it. Please always remember.

  10. Thank you Elle, your understanding is like a light in a long dark tunnel.



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