Tuesday, September 29, 2020

When the truth hurts and it's not even the truth

I think I'm easygoing. I think I'm calm, even when everything feels chaotic and loud. I think I'm the steady hand on the tiller. And yet, the other day, when I said something about how "moody" my brother is and how glad I am that I'm not "moody", my daughters exchanged a look. 
"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.
But I've also worked hard at measuring my words carefully. I have trained (thank-you meditation!) to respond rather than react. 
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. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

"A Type of Woman": Is the Other Woman Ever Worth Our Time?

What you are, Vivian, is a type of person. To be more specific, you are a type of woman. A tediously common type of a woman. Do you think I've not encountered your type before? Your sort will always be slinking around, playing your boring and vulgar little games, causing your boring and vulgar little problems. You are the type of woman who cannot be a friend to another woman, Vivian, because you will always be playing with toys that are not your own. A woman of your type often believes she is a person of significance because she can make trouble and spoil things for others. But she is neither important nor interesting.

~Elizabeth Gilbert, City of Girls

A whole lot of us ache for an interaction like the one above, in which we eviscerate the Other Woman, who is rendered speechless and humiliated. While I've heard of the occasional metaphorical murder, for the most part, few of us have either the opportunity or the verbal swordplay to dispense so beautifully with our sworn enemy. If any such evisceration occurs by us it is usually in the shower, when we're alone and entirely in our imagination.

 But maybe that's not such a bad thing. As satisfying as the above exchange seems, what would it have accomplished? To make clear that the Other Woman is of little consequence? I suspect many of them know that, on some level. To triumph over them? To demonstrate our moral superiority? Again, anyone with an iota of integrity already knows that they compromised theirs and the rest are devoid of a conscience. It won't matter a whit to them what we say. What it will do is put us in proximity to someone who has zero compunction about participating in our deception and our hurt. And the smartest thing we can do is keep those who want to actively harm us far from us and our family. 

It's tempting, I know. We think they'll have the answers we lack. We wonder if they'll apologize and, if so, if that will ease the ache in our hearts, even slightly. 

But I think it's a mistake. Not always but 97% of the time. Maybe 99%.

Cause let's look at what we know: This person knew we existed and chose to ignore that reality because it got in the way of what they wanted. This person knew we existed and couldn't empathize with the pain of being cheated on. This person knew we existed and said, simply, I don't care. (I make exception for those unwitting Other Women who genuinely didn't know we existed and if/when she found out, she broke it immediately.) 

Here's what else we know: This person is capable of delusion. Affairs are about fantasy. They are about believing that this person, who is already cheating on someone they promised not to cheat on, is honest and reliable. That the only thing standing in the way of happiness and lifelong commitment is this inconvenient wife who just won't get out of the way of true love. That this "good guy" just doesn't want to hurt his children. Just wants to wait until things settle down, until the kids are a bit older, until the wife's cancer treatments are over, until...until...until... I can almost feel sorry for them until I remember that they deserve scorn more than pity. 

And we know that, statistically, relationships that are started via infidelity have a sky-high 95% failure rate. Shocking, I know. [Insert eye-roll here.]

Of course, all this talk of the moral failings of Other Women remind us that these affairs had two people in them, and one of those people is our spouse. What of him?

Well, it underscores the need to demand total accountability, a true reckoning. It's not enough to mutter and "I'm sorry" then move on. There must be a deep excavation of how the affair happened, why it happened and how an unfaithful spouse can ensure he doesn't repeat the mistake. 

As for the Other Woman, that "type of woman"? Best to forget about her. "She is neither important nor interesting."

Monday, September 21, 2020

When We Share Our Pain, Here's What We Gain

 "...when you risk sharing what hurts the most in the presence of someone who will not invade you or abandon you, you can learn not to invade or abandon yourself."

From Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation

Something powerful happens when we arrive here and discover a community of those who are describing our own specific pain. It invites us in, it pulls us close. We no longer feel alone.

It isn't magic, necessarily. It's just as Richard Rohr says. When we open ourselves to others, when that opening is welcomed without shaming or shunning, it reminds us of our inherent value, our belonging. We learn "not to invade or abandon" ourselves.

It's easier said than done. Betrayal itself is an invasion. Someone uninvited (by us!) has come into that most private relationship. Betrayal is an abandonment. Whether or not our partner has physically left us, they have shut us out emotionally. And no number of "I never planned to leave you" or "it meant nothing" or "I never stopped loving you" changes the fact that we were alone in the marriage. We just didn't know it yet.

Sadly, betrayal carries such shame in our culture. Shame in being left. Shame in being abandoned. As if we are defective. Discarded. It's why we find such comfort in "sharing what hurts the most". Because others who know our pain can give us the space to feel it while also reminding us not to invite more pain by believing those lies about our worth, by accepting the shame when it belongs to those who caused pain.

I know the stomach-churning fear that comes with writing our your pain and clicking "publish". My entire body flooded when I first posted on the Surviving Infidelity site. I felt exposed. My heart laid bare. I was sure someone would figure out who I was and my shame (that I didn't yet realize did not belong to me) would be made clear to all who knew me. 

But please know that you will not be shamed here. You will not be shunned. Your pain is our pain. We know it. We felt it. By learning how to not invade or abandon ourselves, we are able to help you not invade or abandon yourselves. It is my absolute favorite thing about this little space we're created here on the giant web: That we show up for each other. That we hold each other up. The kindness. The compassion. 

Thank-you to all who provide this here, now and over the many years past. Thank-you to those of you brave enough to share your stories. Thank-you to those who are still silent in the shadows, waiting. You are brave too. And we are ready when you are.

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

"How can I ever trust him again?" The bad news, you can't. The good news? You don't need to

 It's one of the questions I'm asked most often, along with, "when will I stop feeling so much pain" and "should I stay or go?". 

How, so many of you ask, can I ever trust him again.

Usually, this question is asked within the context of a marriage that has remains somewhat intact. He says he'll change, he says it's over, he says he wishes it had never happened. 

But we're aware that it didn't just "happen". He made it happen. He chose it.

And that not only hurts like hell, it makes it very very hard to believe that it won't happen again. As Dr Phil has famously said, the greatest predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.

I wish I could tell you that there was some formula for success. That if he did this thing or that thing, then you could be sure he'd never cheat again. But there isn't. I know of people who cheated once, their spouse didn't know, and they never cheated again. I know of people who said they couldn't promise they'd never cheat again but who (so far!) have never cheated again. And consider this: I have this site where I've spent more than a decade talking to all of you about healing from infidelity and I have no idea if my husband will cheat on me again. It's impossible to predict what anyone will do. Consider also this: How many of you came here with the words, "I never imagined that my husband could do this." Yep, me too. Never in a million years.

And yet, here I am. Here we are. 

There are things we can pay attention to if we're considering rebuilding a marriage with someone who betrayed us. For a start, I wouldn't consider (nor would I encourage you to consider) giving a second chance to someone who's refusing to do the work of digging through his own shit: If he always minimized what he did, if he refused to break it off and insist on No Contact, if he refused to talk about it, if he refused to let me see his e-mails/texts/apps on his phone... Those, to me, are huge waving red flags that are telling me that he might not be packing his bags but I should be. 

Which brings me to the point of this post and, I believe, the most important thing we can do in the wake of D-Day: Learn to trust ourselves. 

I know how vague that sounds. And I know how confusing it feels. What difference does it make if I trust myself if I can't trust him? He's the cheater.

Yes. And trusting yourself is not the same as ensuring that you will never be hurt again. Nobody can promise that. 

But trusting yourself is about taking care of yourself. It is about ensuring that you are not tolerating anything in your life that makes you uncomfortable or compromises your value system. That's part of the collateral damage of infidelity. So many of us can look back and see that we knew something wasn't right. Maybe we didn't know he was cheating, but we knew there were times we couldn't reach him. Or we knew he'd suddenly detached from our family, or we felt unseen or unheard. We told ourselves that all marriages go through rough patches, that maybe he was stressed, that we needed to be patient. We made do with a situation that didn't feel enough for us.

Trusting ourselves is about never doing that again. Trusting ourselves is about never saying "it's okay" when it's not. It's about insisting on what we need to stay in the marriage. It's about refusing to trade our voice for his presence. Trusting ourselves is knowing that we are worth fighting for, and that fighting for ourselves is an inside job.

I was hard for me to understand what trusting myself meant until I felt it. And yet, I knew women who trusted themselves, though I might not have put it that way. Women who moved through the world with a certainty of their worth. Not arrogance at all. Assurance. 

And that's what trusting ourselves provides. Not a guarantee that he will never cheat again. But an assurance that, no matter what others do, we will not lose sight of our own North Star. That no matter how hard the winds blow, we will not topple.

Despite how you're feeling right now, regardless of how miserable you feel, let me remind you that you have not toppled. We have survived this. And since the greatest predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, that's a pretty good indication that we would survive if it happened again. We think we wouldn't. But let's not confuse feeling deep deep pain with being annihilated. We can feel that pain and move forward anyway. And that's all we need to know.

My husband might cheat on me next week (though this pandemic means he's pretty much around 24/7 so he'd have to work  hard at it!). I cannot control what he does. I never could. But I know now that I can trust myself to respond in a way that is rooted in self-honor and respect. 

And, as it turns out, that is enough. It had always been enough. 

Monday, September 14, 2020

I will not abandon myself. Not again

I will not stay – not ever again – in a room or conversation or relationship or institution that requires me to abandon myself.
~Glennon Doyle, Untamed
“To abandon myself.” I’ve been thinking a lot about those three words. And I’ve been thinking about the myriad ways, over many years, that I abandoned myself. Or, as I sometimes put it on this site, that I betrayed myself. And it is that betrayal, of myself, that was even more painful than my husband’s betrayal of me.
Not all of you have betrayed – abandoned – yourself. Among our mighty tribe are those who held their ground, who knew themselves, who never tolerated disrespect or silencing, who, when they found out, fought like hell for themselves and never doubted their worth.
And then there are the rest of us.
The pleasers. The silenced. The don’t-rock-the-boaters.
Even now, almost 14 years after D-Day, I struggle with not betraying myself. Those old lessons, carved into my cranium in childhood, are hard to unlearn.
I have to challenge myself constantly, in matters big and small. If someone is upset, I always ALWAYS try to fix things. I didn’t know this about myself. Not at first. It’s like that comic of the two fish swimming around when one fish says, “The water is nice.” To which the other fish replies, “What’s water?” I didn’t see myself pleasing because I didn’t realize there was another way to be.
Fixing things was the water I swam in.
Pleasing was the oxygen I breathed. And it was killing me.
But though, when I read words like those of Doyle’s, I respond with a raised fist and a “hell yes!”, when I try to imagine living those words, things get a bit fuzzy. Like…what exactly does it look like to never again stay in a room or conversation or relationship or institution. I’m all for not abandoning myself, but…how?
In a word, boundaries. Boundaries, I have learned, are the single best way to ensure we don’t abandon ourselves. Boundaries are a superpower. And yet, most of us have grown up in a culture and a society in which boundaries were often confused with being selfish.
Consider this conversation I had with my father when I was visiting him. My 22-year-old daughter called, stressed about an event she was holding at our house. I had been out of town visiting my dad and the house was “messy”, she told me. And where was the bucket for ice? And…and…and… I could feel my own stress rise. I wished I was there to help her and lower her stress. It’s a familiar dynamic between my daughter and me. When she stresses, I over-function, which leads to her underfunctioning. Her anxiety pulled me in, like a fishing line hauls in a fish. So though I kept telling myself, “this is not my problem. This is not my problem”, I nonetheless felt that THIS IS MY PROBLEM. I told my dad about the conversation with my daughter. “It’s because you care,” he said. No. Wrong answer. But that’s what I’ve always been taught. That we over-involve ourselves because we care. That we take on problems because we care. But I now know that’s just not true. I take on my daughter’s problems because I lack boundaries around her. I want to fix things for her because her anxiety triggers my anxiety. It’s not about caring, it's about reducing anxiety. I can care and be empathetic without trying to fix things. In fact, I now know that it’s more caring (and healthy!) to trust that she can handle things herself. Which, incidentally, she did, given that I wasn’t able to step in and fix things. As the old saying goes, constantly holding our child’s hand leaves them one less hand to use.
But, wow, is it hard! We women have been told for so long that “caring” is the same as “fixing”, that loving is about pleasing. And so, in all our fixing and pleasing, we abandon ourselves. By the time we read something like what Glennon Doyle says, we sense its truth. But often we’re so far gone we don’t recognize ourselves. We’re no longer sure where we end and other people begin. So when we’re asked not to abandon ourselves, we might think, “hell yeah” but when it comes down to it, we aren't even sure who "ourselves" is anymore. 
That was me. Maybe it’s you too.
But I’m here to assure you, it’s not a lost cause. YOU are not a lost cause.
You have abandoned yourself. But you are worth rescuing.
It’s going to be a steep learning curve. You are going to have to flex some atrophied muscles. You are going to have to retrace your steps sometimes to figure out exactly where you veered off the path. You are going to have to learn that “no” is a complete sentence. You absolutely must prioritize your own needs, within reason. Agreeing to something you disagree with is a surefire way to mix resentment into your relationship. You are going to have to disentangle the idea of a wishbone and a backbone. You can’t wish someone into caring about you. You must insist on it as the price of admission into your life.

You will mess this up. That's a given. But our job is not to know, it is to learn. And be willing to self-correct. 

Let's do this together. No more abandoning ourselves. No more pretending we're fine when we're not.  No more taking one for the team. No more sacrificing our own wants and needs to ensure that every else gets theirs. 

No more.

Who's in?


Monday, September 7, 2020

When You Feel Stupid


"How do you stop feeling so stupid?" was the question asked by one of our club members below this post. 

It's a question that made my heart ache. Because I know that question. I lived that question. I flogged myself with that question. 

I replied to the commenter. But I also promised to offer up an expanded response in the form of a post. Because if we can respond to that question, we can begin to heal. But as long as we're still asking that question, healing with elude us.

Cause here's the nut of it: Asking that question is taking the finger that should be pointed directly at the cheater and turning it around until it's pointing at us. How do we stop feeling so stupid? is a question that holds ourselves to blame. Maybe not for his cheating but for not knowing about his cheating. Maybe not for the cheating but for the staying. Maybe not for the cheating but for our pain around his cheating.

And that, my secret sisters, is part of our toxic culture of infidelity. That anyone who doesn't toss him out, that anyone who didn't know is a chump, an idiot, stupid. It runs so deeply in our culture that it doesn't even matter if other people are actually saying it to us, we're saying it to ourselves. We've internalized this idea that only stupid people get cheated on, that only stupid people stay, that only stupid people continue to love someone who's been unfaithful and it not only compounds the pain of being betrayed, it's a betrayal of ourselves. It's self-harm. 

And it's everywhere. We're loathe to accept that bad things can happen to blameless people and so we look for reasons – for everything from why someone got cancer ("was she a smoker?") to why someone got cheated on ("I heard she was a nag"). Never seems to dawn on people that IF she was a nag, maybe it was because her husband was never fucking home to help with the kids because he was cheating on her. Ahem. Sorry. I have strong feelings.

So my dear betrayeds, let us reframe that question. Let us transform "How do you stop feeling so stupid?" into the more appropriate question, "How do I accept that I was not emotionally safe?" 

I was doing the best I could when D-Day hit. Probably you were too. Even when our best, in hindsight, kinda looks like it sucks. We are a product of everything that's happened to us. In my case, having grown up in a dysfunctional home with addiction and a mother who attempted suicide many times, I had absorbed the lesson that I wasn't worth sticking around for. And yeah, I'd had lots of therapy and had intellectually understood that my mother's pain wasn't about my worth but her belief in her own (or lack of), none of that mattered when I learned of my husband's cheating. That old belief woke up from wherever it had been sleeping and said, "Oh, yes! He cheated because you are not worth sticking around for." And so I fell to my knees and struggled for months and months before I rediscovered my self-worth and made my own healing a priority.

But stupid? Nah. I'm not stupid. Neither are you. Loving is not stupid, it's courageous. Trusting is not stupid, it's the bedrock of any committed relationship. Our job is not to always get it right but to work to get it right. When we know better, we do better. 

We must remind ourselves, over and over until we don't have a single doubt in it's truth that we are worthy of love, worthy of respect, worthy of belonging in this world. Someone else's bad behaviour is always their responsibility. 

But yeah, I missed some signs. Yeah, I ignored a little voice in my head that was sending out an alarm. Yeah, I believed friends who, when I asked if THEY thought I should worry absolutely scoffed. "With her?" they laughed. "No way."

Well...we were all wrong. But anyone who would mock me for that, for trusting my husband, for believing that he was better than he was, is an ass. Anyone who would laugh at someone's trust, who would take delight in contributing to another's pain isn't even worth the effort it takes to hate them. 

I refuse to see myself as stupid as much as I forgive myself for not knowing better at the time. Seeing yourself as stupid is a choice. Consider yourself conned, duped, lied to. But stupid? Nope. Not me. I am loyal, I am loving, I am forgiving, I am trusting. One thing I absolutely am not is stupid. Neither are you. 

Push back against that cultural narrative that holds women responsible for men's bad behaviour. The only stupid thing is making life choices based on what others think of you rather than on what you want for yourself. 


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