Wednesday, July 28, 2021

If we are not to give ourselves away

There must be those among whom we can sit and weep, and still be counted as warriors...

I think you thought there was no such place for you, and perhaps there was none then, and perhaps there is none now; but we will have to make it, we who want an end to suffering, who want to change the laws of history, if we are not to give ourselves away. 

~Adrienne Rich, "Sources"

As I write this, news is reverberating about Simone Biles, that superhuman gymnast, has withdrawn from Olympic competition. There are plenty of "how dare shes", as if her body exists to perform for others, while wearing the American brand; but there is also a loud chorus of cheers for her courage. Because, sadly, it takes courage to prioritize ourselves over what others expect of us. It takes courage to prioritize our own wants over what others want from us. What Biles did was demonstrate for us what it looks like when a young woman refuses to give herself away

Betrayal was an awakening for me. And oh yes, it was also traumatizing and devastating and crippling. But once the constant ache subsided and I was able to take stock of where I was, what struck me was how little of me seemed left. Strip away all the ways in which I made myself useful to people and all that remained was...who exactly? Without a doubt, I had spent many years giving myself away. A piece here to a friend who never reciprocated. A piece there to a husband who couldn't be bothered to be home for dinner. A piece there to a brother who only valued me when I agreed with him. I gave away so many pieces of myself because I believed that my value lay in being useful that there was nothing left. And it was that realization – that long before I discovered my husband's betrayal, I had repeatedly betrayed myself – that was, perhaps, the most painful of all.

Which is why, when I began to imagine what healing from betrayal looked like, I had to center myself. I had to reclaim myself, to reassemble myself. I had to learn to act as if I had value  without giving any of myself away. I had to learn how to be in a relationship that allowed me to expand rather than shrink, that gave me a voice rather than asked for silence. 

It was profoundly uncomfortable. Often it still is. But not as uncomfortable as betrayal, whether by myself or someone else. 

It's why this community continues to matter. We must be among those whom we can sit and weep, and still be counted as warriors. I am convinced that it is among each other, who know the pain of betrayal, where we are reminded of our worth, where we are counted as warriors, where we are urged not to give ourselves away. 

No response to betrayal is more right than another. We each get to chose our path out of this hell. But one thing must be consistent across responses: We must not give ourselves away. We must reclaim ourselves, find value in who we are utterly independent of how others expect us to perform.

Simone Biles, a young woman who has already endured so much betrayal, is showing us how it's done. By centering ourselves. By refusing to give ourselves away. By refusing to wrap ourselves in anyone else's brand. By recognizing that we are so much more than our ability to perform. 

Friday, July 23, 2021

From the Vault: The Strength It Takes

This post was first published in August, 2017

There's a pervasive cultural myth that strong women leave cheaters and weak women stay. Staying is for suckers, for chumps, for women too pathetic to demand respect.

Thing is, I don't know a single woman who has stayed in a marriage after infidelity who fits that description. Quite the contrary. The women I know who've stayed do so for a lot of reasons, none of which are that they're too weak to leave.
At first I stayed because I was exhausted and knew that I couldn't create the calm and stability that my three children would have needed to deal with their parents' separation. Being able to consider my children's needs isn't weakness. It's a mother's strength.
I stayed in part because I had made a vow to my husband – "in good and in bad". This fell firmly under the "bad" category. It isn't weakness to stay true to wedding vows, even when a partner has failed to. I took those vows seriously. And I knew that, at points in our marriage, we'd be tested. To honour those vows takes strength.
And I continued to stay because I could see my husband working hard to figure out why he'd risked everything that mattered to him, to find a way through this mess to redeem himself, to learn how to be a better man when he was lost. To be patient, to allow trust to regain a foothold takes strength.
But perhaps, most of all, I used that time to begin to heal. To do the hard work myself of figuring out why I had lost myself to some extent in my marriage, why I had failed myself. With no healthy marriage as my blueprint (my parents' marriage was marred with addiction and infidelity), I had thought that my job was to be supportive, to compromise, to accommodate myself, to, I dare say, abandon "me" in pursuit of "us". To untangle my healthy ideas of love and marriage and carve out a place for myself in this "new" marriage took determination and patience. And a whole lot of strength.
Thing is, those on the outside have no idea what's going on within the marriage. I hear it a lot from Other Women, bitter because the guy whose words they believed goes back to his wife and his marriage and, they're convinced, suffers no real consequences for his behaviour.
I hear it from people who know the rumours about someone's infidelity and yet see the couple at social gatherings, sitting together, laughing together. Together. "Why does she put up with that?" they've whispered to me with no knowledge that I've "put up with that" too.
What people don't see is the work it takes to get there. What the Other Women don't understand is the effort that goes into rebuilding a marriage that has been shattered by infidelity.
I don't know a single marriage in which a guy who cheated (where his wife knows he's cheated) returns to the fold and is welcomed with no questions asked.
Recently, a man who cheated on his wife posted on this site, suggesting that it would be "better" for his wife if he simply walked away so she's not reminded of the pain he put her through. This guy wasn't interested in doing the work of helping her heal. He just wanted her to be over it already and, since she wasn't, he thought it would be helpful to exit stage left so she didn't have to think about it. Doesn't that strike you as cowardice? A guy who would rather not have to face his own moral failing every day when he sees the pain in her eyes? Sure sounds like that to me. She's not asking him to spare her the pain of his betrayal (a bit late for that, buddy), she's asking him to walk through it with her. She's strong enough to face it. Is he?
And that's the truth of a marriage after betrayal. It's about facing that pain, every single moment of the day. It's about working hard to keep your heart open when every ounce of your being wants to close it off to further pain. It's about showing up at events with your husband, possibly even laughing together, and then going home and sobbing into your pillow because everything hurts.
Don't tell me it doesn't take strength to get up each morning and fight your way through the day while he's at work, sometimes where the OW works too. Don't tell me it isn't strength that gets us to our own jobs, to parent-teacher meetings, to the grocery store. Or that it isn't Herculean not to openly flinch when every bloody song in the mall where you're shopping for rainboots for your kid reminds you of what he did.
And this, of course, isn't to say that leaving is weakness. Rather it is to say that doing what feels right for us – especially when the world has strong opinions about what we should do – takes incredible strength. To battle that inner narrative that tells us we've betrayed ourselves for staying, to fight a culture that insists that the only acceptable response to a cheater is to kick him to the curb, to ignore the cries of the "once a cheater, always a cheater" brigade, takes a strength that most of us never knew we had.
And until we realize that, statistically, most women choose to stay, we didn't know how much strength the women around us have. Strength we don't always see because women are so good at hiding our pain.
In the end, we have nothing to prove to anyone but ourselves. And what he have to prove to ourselves is that we followed the path that was right for us. Our reasons for taking one path over another are our own. But they are legitimate. They matter.
Weakness is letting others dictate our life choices. It's abandoning ourselves to be who others want us to be.
Strength? It's what you see every day in the mirror when you straighten your shoulders and turn to face a world that thinks it knows what you should do and decide instead to do what's right for you. Whatever that is.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Don't Build the Same House

If a house is levelled, don't build the same house.

~Dr. Debi Silber, PBT Institute

If there is one fundamental misunderstanding by those who don't see the inside of our marriage (but who think they do, and yes, I'm talking about the other woman), it's that our marriage post-infidelity is pretty much the same as our marriage pre-infidelity. I've heard the wails: "He gets to go back to his wife and his marriage and I'm alone." As if we welcome them back with open arms. As if we aren't shattered by betrayal. As if...

But it's a mistake that, sometimes, gets made by those of us inside the marriage. We're so desperate to get past this, to have our marriage back, that we build the same house, as Dr. Debi Silber puts it. We recreate the same marriage with the same dynamics with the same guy and then expect everything to be different. Or at least one thing to be different: That he doesn't cheat again.

It's lunacy, isn't it? Even if we thought our marriage was great – even if he's telling us that our marriage was great, that his cheating had nothing to do with us, that he never stopped loving us – even with that, we still need to build a new house. Cause the old house is gone. The trauma of betrayal blew that baby to bits.

But the thing with trauma is that it can help us lay down an entirely new foundation. This is, in no way the same as saying that trauma is "good" because it helps us grow. (In some cases, it does exactly the opposite as Lisa Arends so beautifully described in a recent blog post on her site.) But trauma, when it hits us as adults, is lay bare all the cracks. In my case, the trauma of my husband's betrayal forced me to look at all the ways in which I'd been abandoning myself. I brought childhood trauma into my marriage. I was the capable one, the responsible one, the "fixer". Which left my husband the role of errant teenager, which fed into his family dynamic that, without an adult telling him what to do, he was likely to get it wrong. And so I seethed with resentment that I had to do everything. And my husband seethed with resentment that he was treated like a child. 

Enter the trauma of betrayal. I had the choice to either build the same damn house or build a new one. And though I still slip into that old house – my default as fixer shows up every single time I'm stressed – I nonetheless built a new one. One that required my husband to be a partner to me. One that required my husband to work through his own childhood stuff while I addressed mine. 

As Dr. Silber tells us, the problem isn't trauma, it's staying there. When you heal from it, you learn that even though it was done to you, it wasn't about you.

I had to learn that. And I don't know how else I would have learned that if I hadn't had my metaphorical house blown up. We betrayed wives tend to spend a lot of time playing "what if". What if he'd never cheated, would I be happier? What if he'd never cheated, would I feel more secure? 

It's a fool's game. He did cheat. And we are left to rebuild a new house with the same husband (or rather a husband who'd damn well better not stay the same), or to rebuild a life without him as our husband. Either choice is a perfectly reasonable one. But if you choose to stay, you cannot move back into that old house, no matter what the other woman thinks. That house is gone. 

Wednesday, July 7, 2021

If I made the "right" choice, why does it still hurt?

Letting go is actually a long, arduous series of choices and moments that build up over time. I also think “letting go” as a concept gets a little overblown in terms of importance. You don’t have to completely be “over” something to move forward with your life, and what does over even look like? Some things from the past will always sting a little when you press on the wound and that’s ok!

From "Here's the Thing", June 21, 2021

There's something that so many of are taught when we're young and trying to determine which path to take and it's this: If it's the "right" decision, it will feel right.

I believed that. And sometimes that belief served me well. But mostly, it did not. Because what felt "right" for me was often very very wrong.

I stayed, for instance, for seven years in my 20s with a guy who was emotionally unavailable to me except when I got fed up and pulled away. I was locked in this push-me-pull-me dance for seven long years. It felt "right" to me because my whole life had been about being told, in one way or another, that my needs were too much, that I was too much. And so, when he pulled away, it felt familiar. I needed to reign in my need, I figured. I needed to reign in myself. "Right" only felt right because it felt familiar. 

Part of this idea, that a "right" decision feels right, is the belief in a gut instinct, in "trusting our gut". And, again, on some level, I subscribe to this. It was my "gut" that finally convinced my brain that something was up with my husband. It was my "gut" that knew what that something was, that knew who that something was. And I do believe that we often know things before we know them. Which is to say, we can learn to be still, to listen to that small still voice that we've often muffled if not silenced, and discover that's where our truth lies – a truth that centers ourselves and our needs. A truth that respects ourselves.

But that's different than assuming that the right decision feels right. That right somehow feels easy. Quite the contrary. Because often the "right" decision feels horrible. It feels panicky. It feels incredibly uncomfortable not because it's wrong but because we're not accustomed to making decisions that are "right" for us. For many of us, it's been a lifetime of making ourselves small to fit into what others want us to be. It's been a lifetime of dancing the same steps we've been taught, even when that dance was harmful to us. To stop doing that can feel like being parachuted into a strange country.

But look around. This new strange country, while frightening, can also be beautiful. This "right" choice might feel uncomfortable only until we start taking a look around, acknowledging just how fresh the air tastes. That doesn't mean we won't have moments of regret. That we won't sometimes miss what was familiar. New is 

Until it's not. Until we've made it our new home, until we've made ourselves comfortable there.

So, whatever choice you ultimately make, do it with no expectations that your life will suddenly come up roses. You've got to plant those suckers. You've got give them good soil, prune them back. And then, when some time has passed and there's been a good mix of sunshine and rain, just watch that babies bloom.


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