Monday, June 28, 2021

Now. And not yet.

Maybe healing doesn’t have to be the far off place we’ll never arrive; maybe healing is the now and not yet.

Good lord, we want it over, don't we? We want the pain gone. Banished. Never to darken our door again. We want to get on with our lives. To laugh again. To relegate "what happened" to the past and, fingers and toes crossed, something we never ever have to deal with again.
And we're getting there, yes? We're thinking about telling our therapist that we no longer need to come every week. Cause when we get there, we don't have a whole lot to say. And so we complain about random stuff – our jerk of a brother who isn't helping out with our elderly mom, our kids who roll their eyes at us, our office mate who takes credit for our work. But the infidelity? Well, it still stings sometimes. Our hearts beat a little faster when we drive by the street she used to live. But mostly? It's better. 
Or is it?
We think it's better but then we watch a movie in which a husband cheats and the scenes are graphic and, ugh, sexy. And we wonder, was that what it was like?
We think it's better but then our friends invite us to their 20th wedding anniversary party and they look so happy and we think to ourselves, well, of course they are because their marriage isn't tainted by infidelity. Theirs is a real love story.
And then we think to ourselves, when will this ever be over? When will I ever be done with this pain? 
Now. And not yet.
You are healing. Have already healed in ways that you can scarcely imagine. Wasn't it just a few months ago, maybe years ago, when you couldn't go a day without sobbing. A day? An hour! 
Wasn't it weeks, maybe months ago, when you couldn't imagine staying with your husband for one more day while at the same time being unable to imagine leaving?
You are healing right now. But also...not yet.
Cause the thing with healing is that it's endless. There is no end point at which point the wound is entirely healed. Just as an x-ray will reveal a bone break from so long ago we have to think hard about whether it was our right or our left wrist, the injury of infidelity leaves its mark. 
And I know how disheartening that reality can feel. 
Because we're tired of hurting. 
I know that exhaustion. 
But I'm here, from your future, to tell you what I see. To tell you what I know.
When I look around, I see a family resurrected from ashes. I see a husband who reassembled himself from his broken bits into a man whose heart carries the weight of the pain he caused. 
I see a life that doesn't look exactly like the dream I had but that is nonetheless beautiful. 
I see the man who stood beside me at my mother's death bed. I see the man that stood beside me in my daughter's room in the psych ward. I see the man who wanted to be better. For me. For us. But especially for himself.
I ache when I imagine another's "perfect" marriage and then I remind myself that I know nothing of what happens between others, just as so many know nothing of my own.
I ache when yet another friend tells me that she discovered her husband's affair. It was years ago, it was months ago, it's going on still. And I assure them that I know their pain and that it will not feel like this forever. 
And I ache when I imagine any of my children going through the pain of infidelity because there was nothing in my lifetime of other pains that prepared for the agony of betrayal. And then I remind myself that they are stronger than they know. And that, if they do go through it, they will not feel that pain forever. And that I have taught them that pain is part of life and it's what we do with that pain, how we refuse to let it make us bitter, that keeps our hearts soft and open to all the beauty in our lives. 
You are healing, my secret sisters. Now. 
And not yet.

Monday, June 21, 2021

"There it is again." When trauma just keeps showing up at your door

I have a friend that I've been running with this past year-and-a-bit. Our pandemic ritual has been getting outside three or four times a week and, with each foot hitting the pavement, we sort through our lives. She is brutally honest with me and has incredible, rare insight.

I recently confided to her that I was struggling with my eldest, who had unleashed on me the day before. My daughter, as longtime readers know, struggles with mental health issues, although to the world she is beautiful and smart and a high achiever, although perhaps a bit moody. She is all those things to me too but she is also more than a bit moody and, far too often recently, suicidal. My mother, too, attempted suicide. A few times.

Despite plenty of therapy and trauma work, any mention of wishing to be dead remains terrifying to me. I’m not sure I can ever “therapize” myself out of the trauma it induces.

Which surprises me. I thought I was long past the trauma of my childhood, of my mother’s addiction, her suicidal ideation. 

And so, when my daughter stopped taking her medication for bipolar, when it was clear to everyone that she was spiralling despite declaring that she felt "great", when I felt myself tense whenever I didn't know where she was, or who she with, or what she was doing, I got angry with myself. Because there was nothing I could but wait for the inevitable crash. And doing nothing but wait is, for me, the worst feeling in the world. 

My urge is always to fix. 

To find the right  book. To find the right course. To find the right expert. To find the right words. If only I can do that, my distorted thinking goes, I can fix whatever is wrong.

My friend reminded me that I was acting out a trauma response. She pointed out that my daughter always always reaches out when she’s in crisis. Your job, she said to me, isn’t to fix your daughter, it’s to love her. And it’s to learn to manage your own emotions.

I’ve come to learn that we’re never “fixed”. We simply learn to acknowledge the boulder that lodges in our gut when we come across a trigger. “There it is again,” we learn to say. 

If we’re lucky. If we’ve done the work.

If we’re not so lucky, if, despite the work we’ve done, we still get blindsided by our response to a trigger, we’re more likely to react. To not recognize the boulder but rather to act out our trauma response. Each of us likely has our favorite. Fight. Flee. Freeze. Fix.

There it is. For me: Fix.

My daughter is struggling? I swing into fix-it mode. I call doctors. I Google. I buy books. I make suggestions.

My husband cheated? Fix it. Therapy for both of us. Google for online help. Buy books. Occasionally realize that I'm not actually fixing anything and collapse in grief. Rinse. Repeat.

You can imagine just how annoying I am. Cause despite my best intentions, I can't fix other people. Not my husband. Not my daughter. Each is responsible for themselves.

I am responsible for myself. And I need to learn how to manage my response to my daughter's health issues.

That includes stopping trying to fix it.

Or, more to the point, stopping trying to fix her. 

I can see just how awful my response is when I put it in print. Fix her. As if she’s a broken vase. A car in need of repairs. But she’s a human being. Not to be fixed.

My task is the exact same as it was when I first learned of my husband’s infidelity. To learn how to heal myself. To learn how to manage my own feelings so that I respond from a place of self-love and self-compassion, as well as compassion for those around me.

Don’t get me wrong. Responding with compassion for your partner is never to be confused with tolerating his hurtful or abusive behaviour. Responding with compassion is acknowledging his humanness. His flaws. And then taking steps to keep yourself emotionally and physically safe. The two responses are not mutually exclusive. They complement each other. Compassion. Boundaries.

I know this. And yet…I fix. Or I try to.

I’m learning. 

To take a breath before I react. To trust my daughter to ask for help from the experts when she needs it. To acknowledge that I am not, in fact, an expert.

It isn't easy for me. So much of my childhood wired me for the trauma-response to fix. Parents fighting? Step in and referee. Mom's drunk? Put her to bed. 

Husband cheated? Calmly tell the other woman to stay out of our lives then give my husband an ultimatum: Either get your act together or get out. 

Inside, of course, I was terrified. Terrified of being abandoned. Terrified that he would, in fact, take the option to leave. Terrified that I would wind up destitute, that my children would suffer. Terrified of so many vague things that basically amounted to the fear that had governed my life: That I was not worthy of being loved and loyal to. That I was not enough. That if I couldn't fix people, that I would lose them.

That continues to be my work. To push back against that belief. To stop myself when the impulse is to fix. To not act out the trauma but to learn to say, "There it is again. Hello."

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

How to Apologize for Cheating and Breaking Your Wife's Heart

 Often I hear something like, “I told you I was sorry about the affair ten times so let’s drop it already.”  That won’t cut it. High-stakes situations calls for an apology that’s a long distance run—where we open our heart and listen to the feelings of the hurt party on more than one occasion. There’s no greater gift, or one more difficult to offer, than the gift of wholehearted listening to that kind of anger and pain when we are being accused of causing it.

~Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger and Why Won't You Apologize: Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts

Okay husbands, this one's for you.

Most of you likely didn't respond to your wife's pain around your betrayal the way renowned relationship expert Harriet Lerner suggests, above. If you're like most guys, you said you were sorry, promised it would never happen again, it meant nothing for chrissakes, can we drop it already? And then you really really hoped that she would forgive you, you'd have makeup sex and then move forward into the rest of your lives. She might even be a little bit more appreciative of you now that she knew you had other options, right?
If you were a bit more realistic than that, you figured you'd go to a marriage counsellor a half-dozen times, let her cry, bow your head with genuine remorse and even endure the insults she'd throw at you. And then, thank god, move forward into the rest of your lives.
It likely hasn't worked out like that. 
But here's the thing: It hasn't worked out like we hoped it would either. Never did we imagine how excruciating betrayal was. Never did we think we'd come as unhinged as we did. We figured we'd be mad. We might execute some funny but biting revenge, like in the movies. We might meet our girlfriends and sob into a martini. But we didn't imagine there would be days we couldn't get out of bed. We didn't anticipate the confusion, the mental fog, the dull dread that took root in our stomachs or the stabbing pain in which, we swear, we could feel our hearts actually breaking. 
We didn't think that, even months later, a song on the radio could reduce us to a sobbing ball on the floor. Or that a chance encounter with your affair partner could unleash in us a fury that threatened to swallow us (and you!) whole. 
I've been there. So has my (still) husband. Ten years later, we know a thing or two about getting through this.
You? My guess is you're in uncharted water. Well, so is your wife. So, in the interest in helping you help her through these treacherous days, weeks, months, here's your guide to apologizing for breaking her heart:
1. Apologize. Sounds simple, right? It's not. Do everything you can to imagine her pain. Look directly into her eyes and don't look away. See just how deep that agony goes. And then tell her how sorry you are that you weren't the husband you should have been. That she did nothing to deserve this betrayal. Repeat, as often as necessary.
2. Be transparent. Here's the thing about asking us to "trust me again because I've learned my lesson": Ain't gonna happen. She's sad, not stupid. You've shown her you aren't to be trusted. That's the problem with lying and cheating. It's easy to squander trust. It's really hard to earn it back. And that's what you're doing now. Earning it back. Bit by bit. By showing her, not telling her but showing her, that you are where you say you are, that you're with who you say you're with. I know you feel like a child. I know it's humiliating to have no privacy. Do this right and you won't live like this forever. But for now, you need to prove that you're worth taking another gamble on. And you prove that by being willing to sacrifice your privacy. If she's not worth it to you, then do yourselves a favor and leave. 
3. Work really hard to understand why you did what you did. Face your demons. You wouldn't have done such harm if you weren't struggling with your own self-worth. Go to a therapist. Doesn't matter if you don't "believe" in therapy. There's a reason you risked everything that mattered to you for someone who didn't. Figure out what it is with someone who's been trained to help you. You're no good to us until you've worked out your own shame around what you've done. Until then, you're going to try and deflect, you're going to minimize, you're going to defend. None of which moves us toward healing. All of which compounds our own pain and isolation. Fix yourself first. Oh, and by the way, don't ever cheat on her again. Ever. 
4. When she tells you what she needs, give it to her. If she wants you to read a certain book, then read it. If she wants you to call home if you're going to be late, do it. If she needs space, give it to her. If she needs closeness, give it to her. Understand that you're asking her to do the hardest thing she's ever had to do: Forgive her best friend for lying to her, for jeopardizing her physical and mental health, for subjecting her to humiliation and gossip, for betrayed the promise you made to her. What is she asking you to do? Bring her flowers. Make a bit more effort to select a Mother's Day card. Compliment her. Make yourself uncomfortable by talking about your shame. Doesn't seem like too much after all, does it?
5. Help her carry the pain. You do this by understanding it. You do this by really listening to her, over and over and over. Yes, it gets exhausting (it is for us, too). It doesn't mean you have to endure abuse, emotional or physical. Its just means that, by listening to us, by answering our questions even if we've asked the same ones repeatedly (you'd be amazed at how fuzzy our brains are), you're helping us process our pain. You're shouldering a bit of the burden for us. You're showing us that our hearts can be safe with you again. We're grateful for that, though it might be a few months before we can show it. 
6. Be patient. Healing takes a long time. Three to five years, by many experts' calculus. That doesn't mean you'll both be miserable for that long. But it does mean that there will be setbacks. There will be triggers, large and small, that reduce her to a sobbing mess, that feel as though you're back where you started. You aren't. It's a setback. And it can even be a chance for you two to remember you're on the same team, that you're working together to rebuild your marriage. Double down on the genuine remorse for creating this pain. Remind her again that you're working hard to make sure she never goes through that pain. And then, for good measure, tell her that you're the luckiest guy in the world and that you're going to spend the rest of your life earning the second chance she gave you. And that she'll never have to give you a third.

None of this is easy. But it is worth it. If rebuilding your marriage is what you want, I guarantee that following these steps will get you a whole lot closer to that goal. I can't guarantee that your wife will be able to move past the pain. I can't promise that she will forgive you. I have no idea whether she'll respond with a revenge affair, or file for divorce anyway, or just make your life miserable for eternity. But I do know that you will have done what you could to begin to make reparations for the damage you caused. And I also know that, no matter what happens, you will have begun to live your life with integrity. Which means that, whatever happens next, you're going to be a better man for it. 

This was originally posted in April, 2017.

Monday, June 7, 2021

Your Silent Sudden Grief Alarm Clock

It's real, you know. The grief alarm clock. It doesn't go off with bells or dings or buzzes or the scream of  wake me up before you gogo. It's a silent alarm that makes itself known in tears. Or tantrums. Or a pervasive numbness. Or a fog that envelops everything. We wonder what's happening. Are we getting sick? Is it PMS? Menopause? Why, when we'd been feeling better, are we suddenly right back in that place we never wanted to be again?
Get out your calendar and you'll know why. Your anniversary is coming. Or your D-Day. Or the day you first noticed that strange number that appeared, repeatedly, on his phone bill. Maybe a change in the weather is nudging your subconscious. Yes, it felt like spring was coming on the day I found out. Or maybe his birthday reminds you, on some level you're barely cognizant of, that she was there, lurking in the background even if you didn't yet know it.
Whatever the anniversary, whether an official one or just a date seared into your brain that you may have thought was forgotten, your grief alarm clock is worth paying attention to.
Like all of our feelings, grief has something to teach us. Do your best to push back against the despair that comes with feeling as though we haven't healed, we aren't healing, because here we are crying again, or lost again, or numb again. You aren't backtracking, my old therapist used to tell me, you're recycling. Old feelings are coming back around so you can consider them again, in different light, with different resources. These feelings are coming up again because you have experienced loss. Loss of a dream. Loss of the marriage you thought you had. Loss of the belief that your marriage was different. That he was different. 
It changes us. At first, I was convinced that I was only changed for the worse. I was angry. So angry. And I felt hollow. As if my heart had been cut out, leaving me alive but unable to feel. 
Now, with the long view, I can see that, yes, betrayal changed me. But it wasn't all or even mostly bad. There are things that I learned that I'm grateful to know. It has made me less judgemental. It has expanded my ability to empathize. It has shifted my black/white world view – that people are good or bad – so that I can recognize so many shades of grey. 
I continue to have a grief alarm clock although the one associated with my husband's infidelity seems to have gone, finally, silent. Now, when the tears come or the numbness appears, it's almost always related to the death of my mom. And so when that grief alarm clock reminds me of  her loss, I invite it in. The grief reminds me of how much she filled my life, of how much she continues to fill it, even in her absence.
If your grief alarm clock shows up the form of tears or tantrums or numbness or any other form, invite it in. Give it the change to impart whatever lessons it may hold and then, trust, that it will find the door and show itself out. 


Related Posts with Thumbnails