Friday, May 28, 2021

When You're Mourning Your Old Self

We may feel sadness for what we have lost to the past — our freedom, our vigour, our values, our playfulness, our openness to life — but regrets can be a wonderful indicator of how to improve the current condition of our souls. Rather than allowing these regrets to swallow us up, we can let them identify our present needs. We can call back these lost parts of ourselves and live them in a wiser, more experienced way, instead of wasting precious time in pointless competition with the past.

This call to adventure can begin immediately, in the next moment. We can incrementally shift the direction of our impulses toward the next best thing, rather than the worst, and not become consumed by our regrets, but informed by them, as they guide us forward toward the more necessary part of our nature.

Nick Cave, The Red Hand Files

I hear it all the time. I want my old self back. I miss who I used to be. I'm not the same person.

I said those things too. I felt those things too. My typical buoyant self had been replaced by someone who was angry and bitter and miserable and I was convinced that was my new reality. 

And while, yes, for a time I did feel as though I had been completely changed by my husband's infidelity, it turned out that the "old me" wasn't so much gone as momentarily eclipsed. Though that's also not entirely true because "old me" was changed by what happened. Just not as negatively as I'd feared.

That can be hard to believe, I know. It can be hard to hear. Because so deep is our anger toward our spouses for the pain they've caused, for the change in us they created, that we almost want to believe that we are irredeemably altered, that we are permanently broken. It adds fuel to our fury. Look what you've done to me! I will never be the same! You have ruined me!

And while that might feel true in the moment, it is not true. Because, while someone can devastate us, can traumatize us, they cannot ruin us without our permission. The opportunity to rise from the ashes is always ours. It won't be easy. But it is ours.

Which is why we need to release our backward gaze and begin to look ahead. There have been losses, for sure. Our innocence. Our trust. Our conviction that our marriage was somehow better or less vulnerable than the 40% of marriages that experience infidelity. But, as singer/songwriter Nick Cave writes, we can allow those regrets, those losses to inform our present. We miss our old playfulness, our joy? Well, what, exactly, are we doing to nurture it right now? How are we shifting "the direction of our impulses toward the next best thing, rather than the worst"? 

I can hear you already: I'm exhausted. I'm too depressed. I don't know where to start. All of which might be true. All of which likely is true. And so we make those shifts tiny ones. One friend of mine, after losing her stepson in a horrible accident, determined that each day would she look for "loveliness". She made a concerted effort to find something "lovely" each day. Perhaps a flower. Maybe a kind gesture she noticed in the grocery store. Her snoring cat in the sunshine. The sound of rain on her roof. Looking for it, she inevitably found it. By taking time to consider it, its impact grew. And slowly, her world became lovelier, edging out the pain.

When something monumental happens to us, we think we need to mount a monumental response. When our grief is huge, we think we must push back mightily against it. Instead, we need only to reconnect with ourselves. You are not gone. Yes, you have changed. We are each of us forever changed by events in our lives – parenthood, illness, a new job, the loss of a job, witnessing an accident, observing a friend's grief. Betrayal. We are the sum of everything that happens to us, good and bad. But whether that alteration obliterates us or allows us to reimagine ourselves is entirely up to us. Pretending we don't have agency to use what happens to us, to mould it into the new selves we are creating, is declaring defeat. It is choosing to be a victim and only a victim. And you are so much more, so much greater, so much deeper, than that. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2021

How to Stay Without Shame

~tweeted by Dr. Caroline Madden @cmaddenmft

It irks me still that I have been called an affair apologist by those who think there is only one response to infidelity and it is the one that involves divorce lawyers. To them, staying is pathetic. To them, there are no cheaters worthy of a second chance. There are no reasons worth trying again. There is only wishful thinking, pain delayed. Cheaters, as far as they're concerned, don't learn from the consequences of their horrible choice, they only wait until the coast is clear so they can cheat again.
This blog is, clearly, not for them.
Which is not to say that some cheaters don't deserve a second chance. Anyone unwilling to acknowledge the pain they've caused and commit to doing whatever it takes to rebuild their marriage is a risky bet, at best.
And it's not to say that, for some of us, a divorce lawyer isn't the best path. I don't know what's best for anyone who comes to this site. My goal is to offer comfort and some guidance towards healing ourselves, no matter what happens with our marriages. To urge every person who comes here to take care of themselves, to recognize that betrayal is traumatizing, and that each of us has to prioritize our own healing above everything else. 
I still, much more rarely than when I created this site, get told I'm an apologist for infidelity simply because I don't think that the only, or the smartest response is to kick him out. 
But staying has its own challenges, it's own pain, it's own...shame. That's the kicker, isn't it? Shame. Even if we determine that staying is what we want to do, no matter how remorseful he is, no matter how much sense it makes -- emotionally, financially, family-wise -- there's often a voice that tells us we're schmucks. Pathetic. Weak.
And though I, and so many others, have nothing but admiration for you, though we all know how much courage it takes to stay, that voice persists. As Nadia Bolz-Weber puts it, shame slaps its label on you and makes you wear it. Hello, my name is Betrayed Wife and I am a schmuck.
So let's figure out how to rip that label off, shall we? Let's figure out how to stay without shame.

Where did your shame first put down roots?
For a whole lot of us, this latest dance with shame isn't our first. Shame was a longtime companion of mine, thanks to growing up in a home with addicts. Shame had long ago slapped a nametag on me: Hello, I am a child of alcoholics and if you knew what really went on in my house you would want nothing to do with me. I had battled it and thought myself victorious. But when my husband cheated on me, it was like shame sidled up to me with the words, hello, old friend. Remember me? 
So it's important when we feel that sting of shame for being cheated on at all but, moreso, for choosing to stay, to consider whether this is our old childhood shame rearing its very ugly head again and whispering those same old messages: You are not loveable. You are not worthy of loyalty. You are not enough. And, if that's the case, then it's time to rally your resources and fight back. Because the one thing we know about shame is that it doesn't speak a word of truth. 

Your marriage is not the betrayal
What so many don't understand about those of us who choose to stay in a marriage with someone who cheated on us is that our marriage is made up of a zillion moments, the vast majority of which had nothing to do with the affair. But what our culture does with regards to infidelity is it takes that event and makes it emblematic of an entire marriage. So the question becomes: How can anyone stay with a cheater? 
And framed like that, pretty much all of us would say...we can't. We shouldn't. But we can stay with someone who cheated but is doing the work to become a better man. We can stay with someone who's grappling with a horrible choice and trying to make amends. In other words, it's a whole lot easier to forgive someone, or be willing to give them a second chance, when we don't see them as nothing more than the biggest mistake they've ever made. And so our shame, instead of coming from our own ideas around infidelity and second chances, is dictated to us by an unforgiving culture.

Don't hand your choice over to those who don't have to live with the consequences
"Don't take criticism from those you wouldn't ask for advice" goes the adage. I had three young children when I discovered my husband's infidelity. Choosing to stay included what I thought was best for them. Choosing to stay included the option to change my mind if I discovered more infidelity, or if he stopped working at our marriage, or if I simply felt I wanted to leave. I was the one who had to live with this choice. To make it based on what others thought I should do seemed ridiculous. 
But people have strong feelings about infidelity. Especially those who either haven't experienced it, or haven't learned from it. They're the first to tell you that there is one and only one way to respond to it and that is "don't get mad, get even". The same people who claim they've never felt more empowered by leaving their unfaithful exes are often the angriest people you'll ever meet. And though I support anyone's choice of how to respond to infidelity, I get sad at those who remain so pissed off, years, sometimes decades, later. Because that's not healing, it's fomenting. That's not growing, it's growling. Yes, infidelity is excruciating. And sometimes we don't get to choose whether our marriage survives. But we do get to choose how WE survive. 

And finally,
Shame might have something important to tell us
It's possible that shame is pointing out something that requires your attention. It's possible that you feel shame not because you've chosen to stay with someone who cheated on you but because you aren't holding him accountable for what he did. Maybe it isn't his betrayal that's shame inducing, it's your betrayal of yourself.
As Dr. Madden said in her tweet, it's possible to feel compassion for someone's suffering while still holding them accountable. In other words, you can feel badly that your husband screwed things up so badly while nonetheless insisting that he make things right. That's not punishing him. It's treating him like an adult. It's respecting boundaries. It's respecting yourself. By doing that, you're also going a long way toward reducing your own shame for staying. Because there's little that takes more courage than facing the person who hurt you and giving them the chance to show you they can be better than that. 


Monday, May 10, 2021

Unfaithful Spouses Who Want Forgiveness Can Learn From Peleton

When someone is upset at you – your business partner, your relationship partner – your immediate reaction is to tear apart their argument and show them why they're wrong. When the reality is, if they're upset, that's enough evidence that you need to do something. You need to acknowledge the problem and you need to overcorrect. Consumers and relationship partners love to forgive – they just need to know you care.

~Scott Galloway, Pivot Podcast, May 7/21

Peloton, the company that created the COVID-perfect futuristic in-home bike that haunts my dreams and threatens my bank balance, had a problem. Its treadmills had caused the death of one child and injured a few dozen other people. Not thousands or even hundreds. But, of course, one death should always be considered too many.

And so they recalled their treadmills. Their many many treadmills. I'm sure it hurt to take a hard financial hit. But it was the right to do, said Scott Galloway, who, with the brilliant Kara Swisher hosts Pivot, a fascinating podcast about tech, culture, politics, life. 

It's the same, he said, with relationships.

He's right. 

Unfortunately, so many unfaithful spouses get this wrong. 

So. Many. So. Wrong.

Consequently, what could be the opportunity to add balm to the wound of infidelity becomes a further injury. 

And so this post is for any (former) Unfaithfuls who want to learn how to do it differently, who genuinely want to heal, who can put aside their defensiveness to make space for their partner's pain. 

What we need from you is really fairly simple. If we've stayed, if we're even considering trying to rebuild out marriage, it means we want to forgive you. You can help us do that.

We need you make like Peleton and overcorrect. 

We need you to not minimize what happened.

We need you to not explain away our feelings.

We need you to bite your tongue when we say awful, horrible things about the OW. No, we likely wouldn't be her friend if the circumstances were different. She sleeps with married men. 

We need you to understand that behind our anger is so much pain. Overlook the anger. See the pain. If you can do that, our anger-mask will shatter and our fragile shaking self will appear.

We need you to listen without simply waiting for us to stop talking.

We need you to be patient with us as we dismiss your gestures of caring as manipulative, or too late, or not enough. Do them anyway. 

We need you to take responsibility for your own healing. You call the therapist. You find the 12-step group. You find the books and the podcasts and the websites. You do the work.

We need you to understand that we are traumatized. We are not being dramatic. We really do want to die somedays. We really do believe that we will never feel like ourselves again. This is trauma speaking. Trauma speaks big, bold, terrifying lies that we absolutely believe. Support us as we learn to speak back.

Overcorrect, Unfaithfuls. Do more than the bare minimum. And then do more still. Show us in a hundred different ways that you care that you hurt us, that our pain matters more than your pride, that your family matters more than her.

Do it right, Unfaithfuls and you will have helped rebuild your marriage. It will have been worth it to also rebuild your integrity. 

Overcorrect, Unfaithfuls. That's the key. 


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