Friday, April 30, 2021

When the Past is Alive

 Most of us look at our past as...the past. As in yesterday's news. Been there and done that. Maybe we learned a lesson or two.

But for some of us, those of us marked by trauma, the past isn't behind us. Or at least, it's not always behind us. Sometimes it's right beside us. Sometimes it's right inside us. 

The past, for some of us, is alive. That's how Bessel van der Kolk describes it in his bestselling The Body Keeps the Score. And that's how he explained it to Kate Bowler on her amazing podcast, Everything Happens

If you haven't watched Bowler's TedTalk, please do. Right now. It details how Bowler was diagnosed with cancer. Far too young. Far too frightening. And that experience took her out of her conviction that everything happens for a reason and left her stranded at everything happens. 

We know that place, don't we? Betrayal. The place where awful things can happen for absolutely no good reason at all. Or at least no reason that makes sense, that we're willing to accept. And no, "my husband is an idiot" isn't a palatable reason for infidelity. Neither is, "to teach us something," even if this pain does, in fact, often teach us something. 

But back to Ver Der Kolk. He was on Bowler's podcast to talk about trauma, which is his speciality. Bowler herself experienced trauma when sick, when she discovered that the doctors she turned to for healing weren't available to her unless her insurance company said they were. She felt betrayed and abandoned by a system she had believed had her back. 

Yeah, I saw the parallels too.

And I felt such recognition when van der Kolk said for those of us who've experienced trauma, "the past is alive". The way he describes it is that trauma shows up in our bodies in a way that feels immediate. We're walking along the street and notice a man who reminds us our abusive father. We don't think to ourselves, "that guy looks like Dad", our bodies flood. Our breath becomes shallow. Our vision narrows. We want to fight. Or flee. Or freeze. Sometimes, when it's someone with whom we have a relationship, we want to fix. 

All trauma responses. All alive. All immediate.

As van der Kolk puts it, "Before too long everything sort of starts disintegrating because your whole body keeps behaving as if you’re back there again."

Back there again. In the past. Except it's our present. And so we dissociate from our bodies. Our brain tries to tell us we're safe. The danger is past. But our bodies are saying, no way. Don't believe you.

Reconnection is the way out of this past-present. Putting our brains and our bodies back on the same team. For van der Kolk, that path is through movement. Yoga. Martial arts. Dancing. It's about being alive, he says: "...your body is both a source of pain and a source of pleasure. So if you if you cut off sensation your body, which many times traumatized people do somewhat successfully, you also cut off your avenues for pain and for pleasure and for change reality and feeling satisfied and feeling alive."

The key is re-embodiment. Finding our way back to our bodies. Integrating those trauma experiences into our present so that we can examine them as what happened (past), not what's happening (present).

I turned to EMDR many years ago, which is something else van der Kolk recommends. It's feels very hocus-pocus-y but, let me tell you, it worked for me and for so many others with whom I've spoken about it. 

In the meantime, be gentle with yourself. Find something that reconnects you with your body. Yoga worked for me though there were times when, on the mat, I felt so vulnerable and naked and scared. Stay with it. Breathe through it. Running also worked for me. This is me getting stronger. Faster. So did hiking. I see. I smell. I hear. 

And when your husband is 10 minutes late and you go into that nononononononono, where is he this is happening again (yes, I've been there), try to recognize it as a trauma response. It is your body hurtling you through time right back to where the injury happened. Try and feel your body right now. And, if you feel safe enough with your partner, tell him what happens to you when you're in that trauma response. Try to enlist him to support you. This isn't about you being unreasonable or refusing to "move forward". This is about you experiencing a trauma response. This is about you trying to find safety. This is a physical manifestation of your wound. It is, until you heal, beyond your control. 

I want that for everyone who comes here. I want all of us to learn how to find that safety in our own bodies. Then and only then can our trauma truly be something that's in the past. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

The Meaninglessness of Affairs

[He] didn't want in so much as allow himself to respond to her. He suddenly sees this clearly. It startles him. God. So even in this, he hasn't been an adventurer, a seeker, so much as a schlump. No, a schlemiel. He slowly shakes his head. He made nothing happen.
It happened to him. Because he let it.
~From Monogamy by Sue Miller

These are the words of Graham, the cheating husband in Sue Miller's most recent novel. Graham loves his wife Annie. He's not remotely interested in leaving his marriage. In fact, he considers his marriage a quite happy one. 
But he's a pleaser. Of himself. Of others. He wants everybody to be happy. And so, when a female acquaintance makes her interest known to him, he goes along with it. He figures there's no harm in it. A little fun on the side. But even when it stops being "fun", he continues. Because it's easier. There's no conflict in just carrying on.
I hear similar stories so often on this site. Cheating husbands who express relief at getting caught. Cheaters who got caught up in the affair and then, when they decide they want out, realize that a spurned affair partner is a dangerous one. That the OW could blow everything up. Suddenly, the stakes are clear.
I don't have a whole lot of (any?) sympathy for these guys. Their inability to think even two steps ahead is a huge liability but it's their wives who bear the heaviest cost for their idiocy. 
I post this passage from Sue Miller's book because I think a whole lot of us who haven't cheated fundamentally misunderstand affairs. We subscribe to the Hollywood version – the steaminess, the desire. But, like all things Hollywood, the reality is far less interesting. The truth is that those who cheat are looking for something rather than someone. They are seeking validation. Evidence that they are interesting, sexy, appealing. It isn't the person they are attracted to as much as what the affair makes them feel. Until, of course, the affair stops making them feel good and starts making them feel trapped. Which, from the anecdotal evidence I get handed here, happens a whole lot.
So where does that leave us? We can be clear-eyed about affairs even if the cheater in our lives is still living in his fantasy
We can remember that affairs, like the one our heroine Annie's husband gets involved in are as much about laziness as desire. About carelessness more than adventure. Graham realizes that he's, as he puts it, a schlump. A loser. And imagine discovering that you've jeopardized everything that matters to you for something that matters not at all.
Not that we need to be sympathetic. We don't. But, for all the pain my husband's infidelity caused me, I maintain that I'd still rather be me – devastated me – than him.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Don't Dare Ask Us for Reconciliation Without Doing the Work of Accountability

There is no repair without accountability

Last week, one of our secret sisters posted here that her husband chose to stay with her instead of the 18-year younger girlfriend but only if she agrees to not bring up his cheating because he can't move forward if she keeps reminding him.
I share this because it's a sentiment (threat?) I hear perhaps not a lot but more than I should. And I share this not to embarrass the woman who came here with her shattered heart open but because a lot of guys, even if they're more subtle about it than her husband, really want us to "move forward", to "stop living the past", to "focus on the future". They want us to know that they "chose" us over the OW but only if we remain on our best behaviour. The threat is there, even if they don't say it. I have other options.
But we know that, don't we? It's clear they have other options. And the worst part of those early days following D-Day for me was that reality hanging over my head – that offered both comfort (he chose me!) and humiliation (but he chose her too. Also...why do I even want this asshole?). 
So let's unpack this a bit, shall we? Let's take a look at what these guys are really saying to us when they remind us that they "chose" us, when they let us know that all this talk of heartbreak and pain and fear, all these goddamn tears, is really getting on their very last nerve and can't we shut up about it already, even if they phrase that sentiment as you're keeping us stuck in the past and you need to move on from this and I want to move forward. After all, they point out, they're here aren't they? With us. We should be grateful.
Except we don't feel grateful.
We feel angry. And sad. So profoundly sad. We don't feel chosen, we feel rejected. We feel humiliated. Our feelings are overlooked. Inconvenient. Ignored.
Because we chose him when we said, I do. Or when we agreed to move in together. When we agreed to have a baby with him. When we signed a mortgage, or visited their mother in the nursing home, or reminded them that they'd find another job when they returned home having been "downsized".
He didn't choose us, though. He looked elsewhere. He didn't say 'no' when she suggested a drink after work. He didn't refuse when she flirted. He didn't delete the DM, or the nude photo.
And so all his talk of choosing us now is meaningless unless it's followed by actual real-life, every-minute-of-the-day evidence that he is, in fact, choosing us and that he is prioritizing our healing from the pain they inflicted.
And, while we're at it, talk of "moving forward" is meaningless too because there is no "moving forward" until we have fully excavated the past. His past. Until he is willing to examine the lines he crossed and interrogate himself to understand why he crossed them, then "forward" will never come. We will be left in the interminable past – unable to trust that we know what happened and unable to trust that it won't happen again.
There is no repair without accountability. There is no repair without acknowledging what's broken. What he broke. What he damaged.
And so, our only healthy, self-respecting response when we are told that we need to stop talking about this, that we need to move forward, that, after all, he chose us, is to say no. To say that there is no repair without accountability. That there is no moving forward without a full reckoning of the past.
He chose us? Maybe. But let's get clear on what was going through his head when he was choosing something, someone, else. When there's accountability, there can be repair.

Monday, April 19, 2021

"How do I do this?": My Letter to a Betrayed Wife

Every day, there are new voices here. Voices of pain and bewilderment and rage and confusion. Voices that sound so much like my own so many years ago. Yesterday, I read a letter from a woman whose husband spiralled into a twisted, dangerous relationship. His story sounded a lot like my husband's. One of shame and addiction, compartmentalization and pain. 

At the end of her story, she asked me, all of us, "How do we do this? How do I do this?" It's the question, isn't it? It's the question at the heart of our pain, no matter what actions we take – stay, go, figure it out minute by minute: How do we do this?

And it's a question I feel that I can answer. But I did do this. And I've been part of thousand and thousands of other stories, a witness to how you do this.

And so, here's my answer. I wanted to share it because, although her situation is specific to her, her pain and confusion is something we all know. I share it in the hopes that it might help another: 

You ask "how do we do do I do this?" You're doing it. You're doing it right now. When you're crying and when you're not crying. When you're tucking your kids into bed. When you're having better sex than you've had before. When you're afraid and when you think 'hey maybe I've got this'. You're doing it.

And that's how you'll get all the way through this. You will continue to prioritize yourself. You will continue to interrogate how you betrayed yourself and why, how you kept trying long after it was clear that he was hurting you. And you will learn from that. You will discover a reservoir of strength you never imagined you had and you will continue to draw from that. And each day, you will ask yourself -- either loudly or quietly -- is he continuing to deserve this second chance?
And if the day comes that you decide that you simply cannot remain in this marriage -- no matter how "good" he's being -- then you will honor yourself and get out. But if you discover that time and hard hard work is helping you both build a stronger marriage, then you will honor yourself by staying.
You have already endured the worst pain any of us can imagine – the loss of a child. I promise you that you will get through this too. Feel the pain because it's the only way I know to get through this. Bottling up the bad stuff only means we bottle up the good stuff too. Life is all of it. You are going through the pandemic and all the misery and anxiety that provokes while also experiencing the agony of betrayal. But here you are! Doing it. Loving your children. Extending grace to the guy who broke your heart.
As for the AP, she is not even worth the energy it takes to think of her. She is so damaged. An empty shell. Her punishment is being her. With her kids who see through her, her husband who discarded her, her career that she uses to prey on others. Yuck.
Your husband? I have empathy for him. I think he made a horrible horrible choice when he crossed that line with this woman but I see it not unlike someone handing him meth for the first time. He's responsible for himself, of course. He's not a victim. But his own pain blinded him to anything else. Hurt people hurt people. His job is to redeem himself. To become the man you always believed him to be. To be the father he wasn't for too many years. If he's anything like my own husband, his punishment is the knowledge that he hurt the people he loved and who loved him most in the world. I personally wouldn't want to live with that knowledge. It takes guts to face that, to live every day facing the pain in his family's eyes and still show up and do better. He's no hero, of course. He's human. And he made a horrible mistake.
You're going to be okay. I promise you that. Your gratitude for what you have will keep your head above water and your ability to nonetheless feel the pain and grief for all you lost will keep your heart soft.

Monday, April 12, 2021

Constructing Something New

"Can you spend the next year of your life building on what you learned? Even if it was the hardest of lessons. It’s not even about the specificity of the lessons. Keep them, yes. Don’t toss away what you’ve earned, handled, massaged. But right now, you’re tired of processing it all, managing the repetitions of this existence. Now it is time to climb to the top of that heap of ideas, even if they feel like rubble. Now you will begin to construct something that feels fresh.
Don’t throw anything away. But build something brand new."
~Jami Attenberg, Craft Talk 

I will preface my post by noting that the above comment is from a writing newsletter. It is NOT about responding to infidelity, which is important to note because, having done both, finishing a book during a pandemic is not even close to as painful and difficult as healing from infidelity during normal non-pandemic times.
Still...I was struck by Attenberg's words because what she's recommending to anyone who's survived this pandemic is that we 1) acknowledge that it's been, at times even for those of us lucky enough to shelter at a stable, safe home, really difficult; and 2) that we not just throw away what we've learned through the experience simply because it's over. 
It is exhausting to process the pain of infidelity. And it can be tempting, when our lives begin to return to something remotely resembling "normal" -- for instance, we can go days without crying – to put it behind us and "focus on the future" as our husbands so often plead with us to do. But I think that's a mistake. 
Because even those "hardest of lessons" are valuable. Maybe even more valuable for the price we paid to learn them. I'm not referring exclusively to what we learned about our marriage. Many of the lessons I learned through healing from infidelity had to do with other relationships. I had friends, for instance, that I had been forever giving a pass for various unkind remarks, or disrespecting my boundaries or just, generally, being shitty friends. One of my takeaways from infidelity was to establish clear boundaries in all my relationships and to stop letting people put one toe (or two) over the line. To stop saying, "I'm sure she didn't mean it", or "I'm being too sensitive". But rather to insist on being treated with kindness and respect in order to have a place in my life.
It was, as Attenberg calls it, "hardest of lessons". Another was to cut ties, temporarily, with my in-laws. I struggled mightily for the first decade of my marriage to maintain my stability around my in-laws. It was hard enough when I wasn't dealing with my husband's infidelity. But after I learned what my husband had been doing? It felt impossible to spend time with them, feeling undermined and gaslit, while trying to heal. And so I opted out. Yes, my husband hated it (his own family-pleasing, I realized, was his problem to solve, not mine). Yes, it went against everything I thought I owed to others. But it was necessary. And, with time, I regained my footing and was able to reestablish a relationship with them. I hadn't made a big deal of not seeing them and so, when I returned to the fold, it also wasn't a big deal. But I felt different. And, consequently, they treated me differently, whether or not they were conscious of it. When we stand firmly in our own truth, others have no choice but to either respond with respect or walk away. 
But Attenberg also makes an important point. Healing – assimilating the lessons we've learned – is exhausting work. Which means we must rest. We must allow ourselves to sometimes put down the burden and simply catch our breath.
That's not backsliding. It's self-care. It's acknowledging the weight of our experience. We aren't throwing away what's happened to us, what we've learned. We are building on top of it. We are creating something new. Whatever that looks like for you, it is difficult, important and necessary work. 

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Let's Talk About The Other Woman, Shall We?

I never imagined I could hate someone so viscerally. To help me manage my rage, I would run. At night. When I could also cry without anyone seeing me.

I would fantasize catching my husband with the Other Woman (whom I knew. She had worked for my husband for years). And then I would imagine chasing her down the street. Her running. Me driving. I would imagine her terrified face in my headlights. The tires rolling over her body. Like a rabbit. Only bigger. And uglier.

But, at some point within the first six months, I realized that my fury toward her wasn't helping me at all. I felt ugly. I felt mean. And so I began to do what various ministers in the church I attended urged all of us to do. See the face of God in every human being. Every! Even her.



But I was willing to try. It's not unlike the loving kindness meditation, in which we begin by imagining spreading loving kindness to those close to us – our kids, our parents, our friends. And then we extend it outwards. To our boss. To our kids' teacher. To the grocery store clerk. And then outward further until, eventually, we are imagining extending loving kindness (or at the very least, the wish for a harm-free life) to our so-called enemies. To her. 

The thing is, it worked. With time and intention, I was able to see her not as a monster but as someone who hadn't learned to transform her own pain and so she transmitted it. It felt good. Like a thousand pound millstone around my neck was gone. And, for the most part, I haven't given her a whole lot of thought since. 

But it can nonetheless help to consider the character of the Other Woman when we're still in our early raw days post D-Day. If only to recognize that, in the immortal words of my husband's therapist when I asked what she had that I didn't replied "what those women have is nothing you want."

He was so right.

It's a point that Sophie Benoit made beautifully in her most recent "Here's the Thing" newsletter. The advice seeker asked Benoit for her advice on his relationship with an ex-girlfriend who had moved back in with her ex-boyfriend but with whom he was again sexually involved. He saw himself as morally un-compromised. She saw it differently:

you aren’t doing day-in-day-out relationship shit. You two are fucking clandestinely. OF COURSE that’s “winning” some imaginary battle of what’s more exciting. I know that you two have had a bunch of emotion-laden confessions of love and like, which might make it feel as if this relationship is More Than Just Fun Sex, but let me be clear: those declarations are not actual emotional hard work, they are indulgent outpourings that build drama (and thus excitement) right into the very foundation of your affair. Late night “I miss you”s are a pale imitation of the work that goes into a loving, functional relationship.

It's, perhaps, a perfect description of an affair, isn't it? As we often remind each other on this site, an affair is fantasy. It's "late night 'I miss you's'".

She goes on to address the letter-writer's admission that he doesn't feel guilt that he's sleeping with another guy's girlfriend: 

For most people, it’s a pretty big ethical boundary to cross, no matter how much you like the person you’re crossing it for. If you do decide to look inward, I would encourage you, as much as you can, to exclude her actions from informing your self-judgement. Yes, it’s her relationship with another person; yes, she chose to cheat on her partner. But what role did you play? What does that say about your respect for monogamy in the future? What if that guy were you? 

What role did you play? she asks. It's a fair question. And it's a question that often gets overlooked by those of us who recognize, validly, that it's our husbands who have betrayed us. That the OW owed us nothing, really.

But again, I recall the words of my husband's therapist: What those women have is nothing you want. Cause ain't that the truth! No, she hadn't made a commitment to me. And yes, my real issue was with my husband who betrayed his promise, both explicit and implicit, to me. But that doesn't change that the OW (or in the case of this letter, the OM) has played a role in the harming of another person. What those women have is nothing you want.

Think hard about that. I don't care how pretty the OW is, or how young, or how desirable she might seem. What she has is nothing you want.

Now sit in a church pew or on a meditation cushion and begin to shed yourself of any connection to her beyond wishing her well a long, long distance from you. Hating her is nonetheless a connection. And you are far too amazing a person to be connected to the likes of her. 


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