Tuesday, October 27, 2020

When Is His Reckoning? Why he needs to address his shit head on

 Aspects of this process keep getting referred to as a “reckoning” because it’s a lot easier to say reckoning than it is to say “having all your biases laid out on a table and correctly picked over because it’s time we addressed this shit head-on.”

~Rebecca Traistor, Wide Awake

He'll do just about anything to avoid that, won't he? Addressing this shit head on? He'll minimize. She meant nothing to me. He'll deflect. Our marriage was really bad. You know that. He'll blame-shift. You said yourself that you weren't happy. He'll reassure. I never stopped loving you. He'll defend. I was never going to leave you. Why won't you believe me?

He'll do just about anything except the one thing that he absolutely must do. Address his shit head on. Traistor, in the quote above, is referring to the reckoning taking place politically in the US. And I am, of course, referring to a more personal reckoning in the wake of infidelity. But the two aren't necessarily as separate as we might think. Even our cultural understanding of infidelity is through the lens of misogyny, entitlement, patriarchy. "Addressing this shit head on" is about examining what made cheating okay for him. "Addressing this shit head on" means turning the light on the stories he told himself, long-held beliefs, a value system that was malleable enough to make space for cheating (or that never excluded cheating as unacceptable in the first place). Because if he's asking you for a second chance, what exactly is he offering to make that second chance seem like a fair bet?

It will be painful. For him but likely for you too. It's hard to look deeply at our shadow selves, behind our polished exteriors. And it's something that will likely require a professional, not only to open the path toward a deeper understanding but to offer support when what's discovered is hard to look at. When it feels easier to turn away, to say that's enough, to figure that not cheating is as good as understanding why he cheated in the first place.

It's not. It never will be. 

Addressing this shit head on is the admission price of a second chance. What? He thought there wouldn't be a price? He thought he could make promises and plead for mercy and wipe the slate clean? He thought the price was paid by being a witness to your tears, your pain, your shattering? Absolutely not. Observing the pain he created is never to be confused with reckoning with his own. 

Besides, we're likely having our own reckoning. Addressing this shit head on. Because although we are never to blame for another's choice to cheat, there are often ways in which we betrayed ourselves. By ignoring our anger. By silencing our wants. By denying our needs. By allowing him to abandon us in ways we barely recognized but nonetheless felt deeply. We felt alone, didn't we? We were alone.

Infidelity is a nuclear bomb. And pretending it's not only reduces the likelihood that the necessary rebuilding will take place in its wake. If he can pretend that it wasn't so bad, that it was a small aberration, that the damage was contained then he can avoid his reckoning. But only if we go along with it. Only if we don't demand he commit to his reckoning.

Let's not. Let's make absolutely sure that he addresses this shit head on. Let's insist that the price of his second chance is his commitment to doing everything he can so that he never needs to ask for a third chance. 

I'm convinced it's the only way to rebuild a marriage in a way that creates emotional safety. Only when we have seen his reckoning, only when he has examined his actions through the lens of how he got there, what he told himself, what he lied about – to us and to himself – can we begin to let down our guard. Only when he will make himself vulnerable can we begin to trust him with our own vulnerability. Only then.

Monday, October 26, 2020

How to Tell the Difference Between Good Anger and Bad


Anger gets a bad rap. Women, particularly, are socialized to stifle our anger. It's unladylike, it's off-putting, it's hysterical. My husband used to shut me down with "you're acting crazy." Which only made me angrier. "Crazier."

But anger is an important emotion. It's an inner guardian warning us when our boundaries are being violated. When we're being dismissed. Or ignored. Or treated like we have no value. Anger is the logical response. It isn't anger that's bad. It is, however, what we sometimes do with that anger that causes problems.

Anger, when tapped to keep us safe or stand our ground or carve out space for ourselves, is potent. As I wrote here, "Anger can feel like power. It can be empowering. If anger is channelled to give you the strength to create boundaries for yourself, to refuse to be disrespected, to wake you up just how deeply you've lost yourself in a desire to be loved or secure, then that's a good thing.... Just don't confuse it with moving on."

I see a lot of anger in the infidelity world. And I get how satisfying it can be. There is something intoxicating in hating someone who deserves it. And I think anger can provide a valuable role in helping us break the spell, as the mother of an ex-boyfriend put it. "You should hate him for a little bit," she advised me, as I moaned about how much I loved him after he broke up with me.

She was right. Rather than focus on what I missed about him, I began focussing on what I didn't miss. The emotional distance, the unpredictability, the cheating. Hating him helped me see him as who he really was, not who I wanted him to be. The thing with anger is we can't let ourselves stay there. It's an emotion not a way of life. We need to feel it, respond to what it's trying to show us, then move on. Hating my ex-boyfriend released me from him. It broke the spell. But I didn't continue to hate him. I didn't need to. He had no power over me. As I wrote in 2016, "Just don't confuse it with moving on."

Mrs Whatsit urges Meg to acknowledge her anger because it has something valuable to show her. It is fuel for Meg to right wrongs. 

That's good anger. To right wrongs. To stand our ground. Anger as our inner guardian.

But anger turns bad when we're harming ourselves. When it's making us cynical or bitter over time. When our anger is keeping us tethered to the person who hurt us. When we engage in behaviour that is unethical, illegal, dangerous. At that point, our anger has become the poison that we're drinking. 

Let your anger be fuel not poison. Let it motivate you to demand respect, honesty, decency. Let it fuel you to walk away from anyone or anything that doesn't allow you to be your full self and express your full emotional range. Which includes anger.

Monday, October 19, 2020

When We Let Others Decide for Us

 Never take criticism from someone you wouldn't ask for advice.

~Matt Haig

I went for a run this weekend with a couple I've known a long time. Many years ago, she discovered he was cheating. He was a military vet, returned from a couple of tours in Afghanistan. She was so glad he was home safe. Until...

Until she found the e-mails. Until he told her about the Other Woman. Until she began to wonder just how this stranger was that looked like her husband but certainly wasn't acting like him. She reached out to me. 

To see this couple now, you would never imagine the hell they went through. The sexual addiction counselling, the couples counselling, the fights, the tears, the separation. They laugh together more than anyone I know. They adore each other. She has seen his darkness and loved him anyway. He has faced that darkness and brought light. They both know they are stronger for what they've endured.

I walk a fine line on this site. Though I make it clear that marriages can survive infidelity, I don't tell anyone that they should remain a marriage they don't want to be in. I make it clear that we often don't make our best decisions in the early days following discovery of a partner's infidelity but I don't tell anyone that they must stay, or they must go. There is the occasional exception. When I sense abuse, I call it out. 

Occasionally, I get called an affair apologist. I am not. Remaining in a marriage with a partner who cheated should never, in any way, be confused with condoning infidelity, or somehow accepting it. We can accept his remorse while never agreeing to stay should it happen again.

Once or twice, someone has returned to this site and suggested that they stayed because I told them to and they now regret that decision. But I don't tell people to stay and I don't tell them to leave. I tell them to make their own choices. I have pointed out, in my response, that I never told them what I thought they should do. I reminded them that this is their life, not mine. That I got to make my own decision based on what was right for me and they get to do the same thing. 

It's hard. I know. The voices in our head are loud. Voices that insist we should stay for the kids. Voices that insist we should leave for our self-respect. Voices that whisper that he'll cheat again. Voices that scream that without us, he'll fall apart. The challenge is always to separate those voices from your own deeper voice, our deeper knowing, as Glennon Doyle calls it. 

It's damn near impossible in those early days. I sleepwalked through my days and was afraid to close my eyes at night. Up felt down, black felt white. My entire world was shattered. But deep down, I knew that I wanted my family whole, which included my husband. I didn't know if he deserved that. But I knew I did.

And so, despite what seemed like every online resource I found telling me I was an idiot for staying, I stayed nonetheless. 

Because that's the thing. The people insisting that there was just one acceptable response to infidelity – kick him out – weren't people I would seek out for advice. Not that "kick him out" is wrong. Just that it was wrong for me. At that moment. I don't seek out people who refuse shades of grey when I want advice. I want considered advice, not kneejerk. I want people who make space for what I want, what's important to me. What's more, I want advice from those who understand that I can change my mind. That what I decide today may not be what feels right a month from now. A year. A decade.

I had a friend respond to my request for her advice by telling me, simply, "I couldn't stay." It was true. But it wasn't helpful. I wasn't asking her what she wanted, I was asking her to help me figure out what I wanted.

And that's what I hope we do here. Help you figure out what you want. Without magical thinking. I hope we help you create what you want within the very real albeit inconvenient understranding that others – such as our unfaithful partners – might not cooperate. That's okay. Let's ask for what we want anyway. 

But we can only do that when we learn to listen to ourselves first. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Go As Far As You Can See


We want to know how this is going to end, don't we? We want to know if he's ever going to cheat again. We want to know if we'll regret staying. We want to know if we'll regret leaving. We want to know if the Other Woman will try and contact him. If she's still contacting him. If she'll marry and move away. 
We. Want. To. Know.
We thought we did know. We thought, when we said our vows, we knew how this story was going to end. A long and happy life.
But that's now how it worked out, is it? And I don't just mean the infidelity, though that's certainly a big surprise.
I also mean the stroke your dad had in his 50s. The depression your daughter suffered in her teens. The friend who turned on you for reasons that you still don't entirely understand. Or maybe you anticipated some of those things. Maybe, unlike me, you didn't think that life was going to be all smooth sailing after such a turbulent childhood.
But you didn't anticipate the cheating, did you? You might have acknowledged it was possible. After all, it's surprisingly, disgustingly common. But he wouldn't, would he? Of course not.
Except he did.
And now you want to know what happens next.
Does he still think about her?
Does he wish he was with her? 
Will he get over her?
And what about you? What about your kids? 
Accepting uncertainty is one of life's big challenges, isn't it? Humans hate uncertainty. We would rather know bad news than anticipate it. We would rather have answers, even if they're the answers we didn't want to hear than have to listen to "I don't know."
"I don't know what I want."
"I don't know what I was thinking."
"I don't know why I did that."
It all sounds so wishy-washy. How can he not know? What is wrong with him?
What is wrong with him is for him to figure out. And it's a perfectly reasonable, indeed entirely necessary thing to ask him to do: Find out why you risked your marriage and family. Find out why you lied to us instead of just leaving. Or being honest.
And here's the thing: You don't have to know either. In fact, the more quickly you can accept that you can't know how this is going to turn out, the better you'll feel. The faster you'll heal.
Because none of us knows. And that's the sad, frustrating truth about life. None of us knows how it's going to end. None of us knows. 
We can sometimes see what's just up ahead. But further down and around the corner? Nope. That's going to be a surprise. Whether a pleasant one or not remains to be seen. 
I sometimes think back to my 25-year-old self and wonder what she'd think of where I am now. Could she believe she's published 15 books when, at that point, she could scarcely image publishing one? Could she imagine being mom to three awesome kids, even as  two of those kids continue to struggle with mental health issues? Could she imagine staying in a marriage with a man who cheated on her for much of their marriage? Could she believe that she would lose her mother and the world would continue to carry on? That she could feel the grief without losing herself in it? Did she have any idea just how strong she would be?
We're bad predictors of our future selves, an expert once told me. We think we'll always feel the way we do today. We think we'll always want what we want today. 
And yet, the only constant is change. All of us. We change.
And that's good. What's also good news is that we have control over our own change. Not what happens to us but how we respond to what happens to us. As trite as it sounds, we can let it make us better or we can let it make us bitter. Our choice.
But it starts with accepting what we know today and releasing any expectation of tomorrow or the day after that.
It starts with working with what we can see. And then, seeing what we can when we're further ahead.
As the saying goes, life is like driving in the dark. We can only see as far as our headlights but we can make the whole trip that way.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Graying of Principles: What Daisy Jones & The Six Teaches Us About Cheaters

You have all these lines you won't cross. But then you cross them. And suddenly you possess the very dangerous information that you can break the rule and the world won't instantly come to an end.
    You've taken a big, black, bold line and you've made it a little bit gray. And now every time you cross it again, it just gets grayer and grayer until one day you look around and you think, There was a line here once, I think.
~Billy Dunne from Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Billy Dunne is a cheater. But he's an insightful cheater. In the passage above, from Taylor Jenkins Reid's bestselling Daisy Jones & The Six, Billy is considering how he's allowed himself to cheat on the woman he loves. And, make no mistake, he loves her. She is his North Star. But Billy is a rock star and, well, opportunity and drugs and booze and distance coalesce to make that black line grow gray. Also interesting is that Billy's father was a scumbag who'd left the family when Billy was six or seven. Billy was never going to be like his father, even as he somehow accepted it as fate that he was absolutely going to be like his father.
It's a universal story I read all the time on this site. A guy who loves his wife and despises cheaters becomes a cheater. And he's often as confused as the rest of us how it happened.
But his father cheated and he hated his father!
How could he love me and cheat?
But those are all questions that imply a certain degree of logical thinking. And affairs are illogical. They are not about weighing consequences, except in a sort of magical thinking "nobody will know" kinda way. (And, let's be honest, some affairs are never found out.) Cheating is usually not about considering moral ramifications. People who cheat know its wrong. Or they at least know that other people think it's wrong. They have just managed to convince themselves that it's not that wrong. That if nobody finds out, it's not as wrong as, say, murdering someone. Or they tell themselves that "everybody" does it (which can sometimes seem true, though it's not). They have convinced themselves that they somehow deserve it. I work hard and nobody appreciates me. I need sex more than my wife does. She doesn't listen to me. Blah blah bullshit blah.
The truth is, as Billy so kindly explains it to us, there was once a line and they crossed it and not much happened and so that line has grown blurry. They have come to believe their own justifications. They have convinced themselves that "nobody is getting hurt".
In Billy's case, his wife finds out. His bandmates loathe him for putting them in the position of covering for him. 
And that's where we get a masterclass in boundaries. While I don't entirely agree with his wife's approach, she gives him a deadline. Clean up your act by the end of the tour or don't come home. 
It is, of course, fiction. 
And I'm only half-way through and I have a bad feelings that Billy is going to cheat again. Why? Because he's already making excuses for himself. He's already blaming his father for his own bad choices. He's already abdicating responsibility, as if forces greater than himself are leading him astray.
Which also sound pretty true to life.
Cheaters aren't complicated. As Elizabeth Gilbert reminded us so beautifully a few weeks ago in this post, cheating makes us neither important nor interesting
Rather, they're predictable. And pathetic. And cowardly. They blame outside forces for their own lack of integrity. 
Those who remake themselves have all my respect. Those who don't? Not worth our time or energy. Except in fiction. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

What St. Francis of Assisi Teaches Us About Healing from His Affair

Start by doing what's necessary; then do what's possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.

~St. Francis of Assisi (October 4th is St. Francis of Assisi Day)

Those of you who find me here on this site often comment that you hope to someday be where I am, by which you mean in a happy marriage with the remorseful and recovered man who betrayed me. And I understand that desire. It's what I wanted to, back when I was devastated by the discovery of my husband's infidelity. I clung to the stories in which the marriage survived, even as I wondered if my own would. And those stories were hard to find. Much easier to find were sites that insisted he would cheat again, that all but guaranteed that the only way to get over cheating was to leave the cheater.

It's not true. 


It's not untrue either. 

And that's what I try to always convey here. 

You can stay. 

You can leave.

Neither will guarantee your happiness nor your misery. 

Because whether you find happiness or misery depends on you, not on him.

But...let me back up a minute. Because staying with someone who is refusing to hear your pain, refusing to be transparent, or refusing to stop the affair altogether is most definitely going to contribute to your misery and all the meditating and exercising and self-care and kumbayas in the world aren't going to make you a happy person if you want fidelity in your marriage and he's being an ass. So I am most definitely not minimizing the role that our partners play in our happiness or misery. 

What I am saying is that, in the presence of healthy boundaries that you've put in place and anticipate him abiding by, your happiness or misery is in your hands. 

Let me clarify something else too: I don't subscribe to the Happiness Industrial Complex that tells us that if we do x, y or z we will achieve "happiness". Happiness is a mood, not a state of being. None of us is happy all the time. But, for lack of a better word, let's use happiness as referring to a state of being in which our good days outnumber our bad, in which we have the resilience to respond to life's inevitable ups and downs and in which we generally anticipate positive things in our life rather than negative.

By that metric, happiness is absolutely in our hands.

And it works by doing exactly what St. Francis of Assisi urges. (St. Francis is my favorite saint in large part because he loved animals so much and animals = happiness.) First we do what's necessary. Then we do what's possible. And we discover that we have done the impossible

What does the look like post-betrayal? 

What's "necessary"? Well, what's necessary is to take care of ourselves. To absolutely prioritize our health. Many of us are not just wives but mothers. We have young people in our care. So we must keep ourselves well. 

Eat: I could hardly take a bite without throwing up so I ate smoothies. I choked down toast. I swallowed a few gulps of soup. Take a multivitamin. 

Exercise: I ran. It was the perfect outlet for my fury. The sound of my feet pounding the pavement, my thumping heart. I ran at night so I could cry and nobody would see me. You might walk. Or hike. Or bike. Or hit the gym. Or do yoga (which I did too. A reminder to slow down and just be). But reconnect with your beautiful body. Cherish it. Nurture it.

Support: Friends can be a bit iffy at this point. They don't often know what to say and can sometimes step in it. Or they take sides. Or they get judge-y. If you have one or two good friends that you can trust with this, then by all means, tell them. You need support. But get a therapist or a pastor or a social worker or someone who can support you as you process the grief of betrayal, the trauma of betrayal. A safe space that's just for you.

Boundaries. Yep, you guys know all about boundaries because I won't shut up about them.

What's "possible"?

What's likely is that, by giving yourself time and care, you'll feel much more clear about your marriage. You'll be able to assess it based on what it truly is rather than what you want it to be or thought it was. And with that clear head, pretty much anything is possible because you will have created the space to make it happen.

What's "impossible"? 

It isn't impossible but I know it feels that way when you're first reeling from a partner's betrayal. What feels impossible is being where I am. Where so many are. With a partner who has done the work. In a marriage that feels safe and interesting and vital and loving. 

What also feels impossible but isn't is discovering your happiness outside the marriage, beyond the marriage. Leaving and discovering that you are okay. 

What feels impossible but isn't is getting past the pain, finding joy again. 

And it all starts by doing what is necessary.


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