"What!" I demanded.
"Well..." they said.
Turns out, they don't see me as calm and steady and not moody. They see me as sometimes volatile, mercurial, prone to flare up.
How was it possible that my sense of self was so different than their perception of me?
Because, as Walt Whitman so perfectly put it, "I am large, I contain multitudes."
At first, I felt like I'd been slapped. How could these kids be so wrong about me? I wasn't moody, my brother was. I was the opposite of moody. I was calm and reasonable and....
Was I? Always?
Of course not.
I used to know that I was mercurial. My mother described me as a "tornado" when I was a kid. My most serious boyfriend before meeting my husband repeatedly told me I was "too emotional", which meant that I had moods he wasn't particularly interested in experiencing.
But one of the things that changed in my marriage was me. Long before I discovered my husband's betrayal, I'd given up fighting with him. It never got me anywhere. I used to say it was like arguing with a brick wall. He couldn't/wouldn't/didn't see my point of view. Ever. Instead, my anger (I saw it as "passion") shut him down. As we learned later in therapy, anger paralyzed him. So what I saw as passion, someone vehemently arguing their position, he perceived as a threat. Suddenly, he was a kid again with a domineering abusive father, an emotionally manipulative mother. He wasn't hearing me anymore, he was hearing his parents.
I wasn't domineering or abusive. And yes, others could easily have seen my behaviour as passionate. Many did. But not him. He saw it as angry. And he couldn't deal with it.
So when my kids informed me that my self-perception was perhaps a bit skewed, I thought about it. I'm not moody. Really. But I'm also not always the steady hand on the tiller. Sometimes, I freak out because I've asked 8,000 times for the kids to put their shoes away and I just can't stand it one more time that they ignore me. Sometimes, I'm furious because some pint-sized misogynist at my daughter's school calls girls "dishwashers" (yes, this is a thing. A way of demeaning young women) and I make my fury clear and I urge my girls to feel that same fury and use it. Sometimes, I'm tired and overwhelmed and it shows.
And here's the other thing. My kids have grown up in a far more stable, loving home than either my husband or me did. So when I compare my children's homelife to my own, it's night and day. I feel proud of what we've created and I can't believe my kids can't see the difference. But of course they can't. All they've ever known is a sober mother (which I did not have). All they've known is a house that goes quiet at 11 p.m. rather than the sound of breaking dishes and sobs (which is what I had). They've never felt the sting of a hand on their cheek (like my husband did).
A woman commented recently that she was stunned in a therapy session to hear herself described as a bully. Here she was, the injured party in this, and she was the one being criticized. We're already so wounded that any criticism or judgement can feel devastating and we hear it as an indictment, as evidence that we deserved to be cheated on, or at least a justification for his cheating.
But if we are to heal our marriage, we have to be able to speak honestly. It can be really really hard at the beginning because we feel so brittle and fragile. And perhaps this husband needs to learn to better choose his words, to use "I" sentences instead of "you" sentences. Communication clearly isn't his strong suit.
And just because he says she's a bully (something she vehemently denies), doesn't mean she is. It means that's how he perceives her behaviour. (It could also mean he's rewriting history to make himself look less like an asshole!) Maybe, like my husband did, this guy perceives a strong woman as threatening (also attractive but definitely threatening). Maybe this guy doesn't like to have his authority challenged. There are many many reasons he called her a bully that don't mean she's a bully. But maybe, just maybe, sometimes her behaviour comes across as bullying. And, given that she doesn't want to be a bully, that's important information to have. It means we can self-correct. We can take a good look at our own behaviour and determine whether the problem is ours or not.
None of this, of course, makes cheating okay. If she was truly a bully and he was deeply unhappy, he had many tools available to address that. He chose to cheat. Which, we all know, is a coward's response. So maybe the problem isn't so much that she's a bully but that he's a coward. He can take that in and determine if that's true. And if so, what he's going to do about it. Or maybe it's a bit of both.
It certainly was in my case. I had to learn how to communicate with my husband in a way that didn't shut him down. And he had to learn to remain open, even when he wanted to shut down. Neither of us had particularly healthy communication styles and we've worked hard to remedy that.
It's the only way our marriage could have been rebuilt in a way that's healthy. I will not ever take responsibility for my husband's infidelity. That's on him. But I will acknowledge my part in a marriage that felt increasingly empty and lonely.
It can be really hard to get there. We already feel so unloveable, so abandoned, so alone. It feel excruciating to have to take a hard look at ourselves. Which is why our immediate self-care is so important. To remind ourselves that we are lovable and worthy. That we did not deserve this. Nobody is saying that you aren't worth being faithful to. What I'm saying is none of us is perfect. Which is very good news. Perfect people are insufferable.