Tuesday, January 26, 2021

What if he never changes? What then?

How can you find peace in this even if he never changes?

Those were the words of a wise friend of mine, one who's overcome infidelity (mostly) which coincided with the death of her mother, creating a complicated grief, not unlike my own. We were talking about our husbands who, though they were born to different mothers on different continents, might has well be twins. 

We love our husbands. They are kind and funny, smart and caring. They are also highly anxious (though each denies this), somewhat controlling (though each denies this) and able to compartmentalize much of their childhood pain (though each used to deny this).

Consequently, we frequently share the same frustrations. "Why do they have to have opinions about everything?" we wonder. "Why do they get so wound up?" "Why do they stress so much about money?" And on and on.

My husband and I are in the process of building a new house long-distance (thanks COVID). This is setting off every single stressor in my husband's brain. And though I'm trying to not let my husband's anxiety become my anxiety, it's hard. A lifetime of trying to manage others' feelings is hard to shake. 

And so I said all this to my friend, including lamenting that, when we were in couples counselling (another thing that has had to bite the dust thanks to COVID), my husband was learning how to better manage his feelings. Now, it seems he's backsliding. "I just wish he was seeing someone who could help him manage this," I said.

To which my friend responded, "How can you find peace in this even if he never changes?"

I almost gasped. She continued, "This is what I kept saying to myself when we were first working through his infidelity." His affair had been emotional. He'd confessed to his therapist before it went further. But still, as we all know, cheating is cheating.

So while my friend was working through her own pain and trying to determine whether to stay or go, that was her guiding thought: "....even if he never changes." She wasn't referring to the behaviour, of course. She wasn't prepared to stay if he continued to cheat. Rather she was figuring out that, even if he never addressed his childhood pain, even if he never learned to managed his anxiety, even if he remained the tightly wound, often stressed and money-focussed guy he was (all things she could overlook when she believed him fiercely loyal to her), could she find peace enough to stay. 

It's a question that's as unique as each of us and our marriages. It's a question only we can answer. But it's a question that we must answer if we are to find that peace.

How can you find peace in this even if he never changes?

Perhaps you can't. Perhaps that's what will propel you out the door and into the office of a divorce lawyer. You can still love your husband and know that you cannot live with him if he can't or won't change.

But maybe you can find that peace. Maybe, like my friend, you can accept who he is and still find him worthy of your love and attention. Maybe, like me, you can stop hoping for some elusive day when he will have become what you want him to be and instead begin creating peace for yourself with him exactly as he is.

Isn't that what we all want? Not to be someone's improvement project but rather to be loved as we are? Aren't we more likely to create positive change for ourselves when we feel accepted as is?

How can you find peace even if he never changes?

It's a question worth asking.

Monday, January 11, 2021

There's No Going Back to Normal: Infidelity Edition

It is a hard truth to swallow but: There won’t be a return to “normal.”

~Ekemini Uwan, "There's No Going Back to Normal", The Atlantic

I am awesome in a crisis. I am the one who takes stock of what's happening, calculates resources to deal with it, assigns responsibility to those available to deal with it. Later, I will weep. Later, I will curse the heavens. But now. Now, there's work to be done.

The crisis of New Year's Eve is receding. My daughter has support, both emotional and medical. My other daughter's lost cat, which seemed to amplify my sense of powerlessness in protecting my kids from pain, has returned home after five days of haunting my dreams. I can look around and admit that things feel mostly "normal".

But we all know that "normal" is an illusion, don't we? There is no "normal" after trauma, after betrayal, after such heartbreak. How things look to those on the outside simply doesn't match the change that has occurred on the inside. But it's crucial to remember: We have more control over the inside change than the outside change. Put another way, we don't control what happens to us but we have some control over how we respond to it.

I say some control because trauma sometimes takes the wheel. That heart-pounding tunnel vision "ohmygoditshappeningagain" is not easily controlled, at least not without therapy and strategies and practice.

Normal appeals to us exactly because it implies an erasure of what took place. Normal promises us that the pain is gone, that the threat has been removed. Which is why it's so deceptive. The threat was always there, even when we didn't recognize it. Not to sound sinister but ...people can betray us. We know that now. And there is no unknowing it.

But accepting that reality, as Ekemini Uwan writes, is not to be confused with approval of it. She's writing about our new Covid-colored reality of lockdowns, and Zoom meetings, and isolation. But it's just as true of the days following betrayal. We must grieve the loss of our old "normal" even as we accept that there is not going back to it. And, if we're honest, do we want to? Just as before Covid relegated us to watching life happen on TV, there were uncomfortable truths we were ignoring. Racial injustice, economic inequality. A frenetic pace that was making a whole lot of physically and psychically ill. Do we really want that again? Or do we want to build an intentional...something...in its place.

I chose the latter. Once I accepted that my old normal, which included me overlooking a lot of painful things, wasn't an option, I set out to create a marriage that felt better. It started with insisting my husband no longer schedule evening meetings with clients. It included my husband being home for dinner with me and our children at least five nights a week. It meant no more work trips without discussing them with me first. I looked at things I had been tolerating in the spirit of "partnership" and "compromise" but that were actually a betrayal of my own values, that were about poor boundaries disguised as being "easy-going". 

Uwan puts it like this: "...radical acceptance is not a call to stoicism. An array of emotions (anger, fear, anxiety, grief, etc.) may arise within you in response to reality. Suppressing these emotions can be tempting, but allowing yourself to feel whatever you feel without judgment is also a kind of radical acceptance. And I have found that radical acceptance can be freeing—accepting what you cannot change enables you to focus on what you can."

We cannot change that we're in the midst of a devastating global pandemic. We cannot change that our marriage has been injured by infidelity. But we can give ourselves permission to feel the pain around that reality while accepting it anyway. 

Only then can we focus on what can grow from the ashes of what's been destroyed.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Being a Human Is Hard

2021 was ushered in by our family with a trip to the emergency room. Our eldest, who has a long list of mental health symptoms, has been struggling for many months with intrusive thoughts telling her to kill herself. Exhausted by fighting back, she began swallowing pills. One after another after another until the bottle was empty. She didn't want to die, she tells us and the doctors. She just couldn't fight any more. The thoughts were louder than any telling her that her life was worth anything. That she was worth anything. 

I read an obituary last night for the son of a US politician who took his life on New Year's Eve. This was a kid with everything. A loving family, scores of friends, an Ivy League education, a promising future. And depression. That too. And, as he said in his note, "my illness won today."

It was also reported that he often reminded people around him that "being a human is hard". It was a plea for kindness. A reminder that we're all doing the best we can with what Anne Lamott calls our rusty bent tools. 

We forget that, don't we? We put such high expectations on everyone, especially ourselves. We should leave. What sort of person stays with a partner who cheated? No, we should stay. What sort of person breaks up a marriage with someone who wants to stay married to them (even if they did cheat)? Why can't we stop crying? What aren't we crying? Why can't we feel anything? What's wrong with us? What's wrong with us? What's wrong with us?

And, don't get me started, but what's wrong with them? The cheaters, the enablers, the affair partners, this culture that celebrates infidelity as sexy and forbidden and titillating?

Being a human is hard.

This is not an excuse. Not at all. It is not a way out of accountability. It does not free any of us from what we owe to other human beings – honesty, decency, kindness, respect. It is simply a reminder that it is almost impossible to extend compassion to others, true compassion, if we cannot give it to ourselves

It is, rather, my own plea that each of us suspend judgement as often as we can. That each of us recognize that we haven't a clue what battles others are waging. Hurt people hurt people. Sometimes with intention. Often not. 

My daughter is okay. She has good care and a treatment plan. But being a human is hard, particularly a human with a persistent disease that is difficult to treat and that many continue to deny is real. It's a particular type of pain we feel when others tell us it's not there. That we're not trying hard enough. That we're overreacting. We know that pain, don't we? Invisible to so many.

Being a human is hard. 


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