Sunday, August 16, 2015

In the Ashes: Finding Grace Against All Odds

"Grace cannot prevail until...finally and for good, our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed."~Robert Farrar Capon

I was the queen of scorekeepers. I never entered a room that I didn't subconsciously compare myself to everyone there. Was someone prettier? Was someone smarter? Was someone more gracious? More fun? More popular? Only be feeling in some way superior could I feel good enough. Which left me feeling almost consistently diminished.
I also kept score with my husband. Who did the dishes? Who spent more time with the kids? Who ensured that a good meal was on the table each day? Who made sure our children ate from all of the food groups? For each of these things, I gave myself a mental checkmark – a subconscious assurance that I was the superior mate.
I sound insufferable, don't I?
I wasn't. At least not constantly. Much of the time I was open-hearted and loving. Much of the time, I was appreciate of his contributions to our family. But I cannot deny that there were periods of time – sometimes long periods of time, especially when my three kids were young – that my score-keeping fed a hunger for superiority that bred resentment and disappointment. Hardly the hallmarks of a healthy partnership.
And then! Then, when I discovered my husband's affair (followed by his confession of an entire double life), I was left with little choice but to declare myself morally superior. I was practically a saint. I would never EVER do what he had done.

It was only when I began to really unpack the psychology of affairs, to dig deep into the whys of affairs in general and my husband's cheating in particular, that I began to challenge my own conviction that my moral compass was somehow less subject to movement. I began to wonder if, raised by the same cold judgemental mother that my husband was, raised in the same guilt-and-shame-infused home, I might have made the same choices he did. Might I have sought escape as he did? Might I have developed the same unhealthy addiction to emotionless sex?
I was willing to admit it was possible.
And within that admission, grace took root. Grace, says Ann Lamott, "meets you right where it finds you, but it does not leave you where it found you. It moves you toward breath; moves you towards things being a little bit better: wow. Grace WD-40. Grace is water wings. Grace makes you shake your head with wonder, and laugh and cry."
Grace allowed me to unclench my jaw. To unhitch my shoulders from my ears. To smile.
But mostly grace allowed me to see my husband, not as some inferior creature, lucky that I was magnanimous, but as someone on the same journey as I but filled with pain and confusion that he barely recognized let alone knew how to handle. Grace allowed me to see him with compassion. Which – and this is the incredible part – allowed me to see myself with compassion. 
I'm far better at silencing that critic in my head that compares myself with everyone else and mentally ticks off the score. I'm no better or worse. Just different. And lucky me! I get to live my life according to my value system, not anybody else's. Lucky you because you get to do the same.
And within that value system, there's room for mistakes. My own, my husband's, my children's. We learn from them. We do better next time. We shake our heads – often – with wonder, and laugh, and cry.

(I'm leaving the country for a few weeks for a vacation with my family. We're heading to Italy to play, explore and EAT. I will have only sporadic access to Internet so please be patient if your comments take a few days or more to be posted. I'll be back in September. In the meantime, hang tough my warriors.)

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

We Must Forgive Ourselves First

"The more I could forgive myself, though, the more I could forgive other people, many of whom I had placed on pedestals from which they were destined to fall. I had to get everything back into perspective: I’m not the greatest, or the worst. Where is my place in the middle?"~Sarah Hepola, Author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget

It's an odd thing to suggest, isn't it? That those of us who've been betrayed – those of us who haven't lied to and deceived our partners – begin by forgiving ourselves. What do we need forgiveness for? We behaved ourselves. We held ourselves to higher standards.
And yet...
What do we need forgiveness for?
In my case...everything.
Behind my polished veneer, my look-how-fast-I-can-dance performance of the perfect wife and mother and writer, was terror that I was nowhere near as good as I pretended I was. That I wasn't worthy of the accolades, or the success, or the love.
I was only barely aware of that, of course. Mostly I performed so convincingly that I believed myself. I believed I had transformed myself from the shame-filled adolescent who feared that people would discover the truth about her hospitalized mother and her alcohol-soaked home life into someone respectable. Someone who needn't fear others' judgement. Except that I still did.
So when I discovered that my husband, the "perfect" spouse, was anything but, those monsters I'd barricaded behind closet doors came crashing through. Of course he cheated on me, was their rallying cry. I was a nobody. I came from dysfunction. I was a fraud. I didn't deserve love or loyalty. 
How could I even think of forgiving my husband for what he'd done when I couldn't forgive myself for being who I was. 
As long as I was fuelled by self-loathing for not being perfect enough to deserve a faithful husband, I could offer my husband nothing but loathing for his imperfection. And that's what I served up. Anger. Disgust. Hate. Shame.
I demanded to know how he could do this to me. How dare he?

I remember the day when I finally understood that his affair wasn't my failing, it was his. If I'd been a cartoon, there would have been lightbulb over my head. 
And it was at that moment that the grip of loathing I felt for my husband – but which was really at myself – loosened a bit. 
If it really wasn't my fault that my husband cheated, then maybe it wasn't my fault that my mother chose alcohol over me. Maybe it wasn't my fault that my father chose self-pity over me. 
Maybe the only person who ever had to truly choose me was me. 
It was a radical thought for someone who believed her value lay only in who she could be for other people. What if, my thought process went, I gave myself permission to be myself. Flawed. "Not the greatest, or the worst." Somewhere in the middle.
It felt terrifying. 
But if I allowed myself that freedom, could I – dare I – allow my husband the same latitude to be neither the greatest nor the worst. In the middle.  A guy who'd made a colossal mistake but wasn't a monster.

Forgiveness has been the single greatest gift I've ever given myself. I still – often! – fall into my self-bashing ways. I must be constantly vigilant against the critic (what's up with your ass? When did it get so big? You look old. Of course, that publication rejected your piece. It sucked. And so on.) Not surprisingly, I've noticed that my self-judgement runs lockstep with my judgement of other people. And that, when I can be gentle with myself, I can be gentle with others. 
Whatever your path toward healing from betrayal, I believe it begins with self-forgiveness. Only when we let ourselves off the hook for being who we are are we able to let go of what others have done to us. Their choices become entirely about them. We need only take responsibility for our own.
Whether we allow those who've hurt us room in our lives is another question entirely. Forgiving others doesn't necessarily mean an open door into our world. That's another choice that is ours.
And that choice need be neither the best nor the worst. But in the middle.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Beware the stories we tell ourselves

If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past thirteen years, it’s this: Just because someone isn’t willing or able to love us, it doesn’t mean that we are unlovable.~BrenĂ© Brown, "Rising Strong"

I was not an athlete. Though I tried many sports, I excelled at none. I was cut from every team, eventually giving up entirely and accepting that I simply wasn't an athlete.
In my late twenties, however, I decided to run a marathon. I trained, starting with short races and moving up to longer ones. I was never first over the finish line. But I wasn't last.
The day of the marathon, I had a lot of time to think (roughly four hours of time, mostly spent hoping I wasn't going to die). And during that time, it dawned on me that I couldn't be doing what I was doing if I wasn't an "athlete". I realized how much of my life I had spent on the sidelines because I'd accepted that role – the non-athlete role – that was bestowed on me when I was a child.
Maybe you were told that you were the "pretty sister" or the "bad student". That you were "irresponsible" or "flighty". Or that you were "too serious". Maybe you heard that you "weren't an athlete".
We wear those stories like a cloak. Even when that cloak has long stopped fitting us (if it ever did), we continue to support the narrative around it.
And we cloak the people in our lives with similar stories.
"She thinks she's so smart," we say inside our heads about our impatient boss. "He thinks he's better than everybody else," we tell ourselves about our brother-in-law.
Really? Does she really think she's so smart or does she simply lack interpersonal skills? Does he really think he's better than everybody else is quite the opposite true: that he's deeply insecure?
Stories are just that: Stories. Parts might be true...but much is likely conjecture. Most of us are barely aware of our own motivations and behaviour, let alone able to know what's going on in someone else's internal world.

Our culture supports a narrative around betrayal: If we have been cheated on, it must be because we are: lousy in bed, getting old, not thin enough, etc. If he cheated, it must be because: he couldn't resist a sexy Other Woman, he's a total dog who cares for no-one but himself, his wife is a nag. Etcetera.
At first, we buy into the stories. He cheated because we got fat. He cheated because we stopped wanting sex 24/7. He cheated because we got old.
Or, the story that brings most of us to our knees: He cheated because we're not worth being faithful to. We are not worth loving.
Given that our number one question post-betrayal is "why", subscribing to these stories gives us an answer. It hardly matters that it's rarely the right answer. It's the cloak that fits. At least right now.
But, if our spouse is able to be insightful about his choice to cheat, if we're able to peel back the layers and really examine what was happening, we often discover that the cultural narrative (and the one we've often supported ourselves) doesn't fit our situation.
He didn't cheat because we got fat. In fact, he loves our body.
He didn't cheat because we got old. In fact, he's grateful for the chance to grow older with us.
He didn't cheat because we nag. In fact, the OW was a far greater nag than we've ever been.
But as long as we hold onto the long-held stories without challenging them, we don't delve deeper into what's really going on in our marriage – and outside of it. 
A few posts ago, I suggested walking our way out of the trauma of betrayal. I hope you're still doing that (I am...and I feel fantastic!). Now I'm going to suggest that anytime you find yourself agreeing with a long-held (or a newly constructed) story about your marriage, about yourself, about your pause and challenge it.
Does he really "always" dismiss your views? Are you really "never" interested in sex? Do your parents "constantly" interfere?
Who we are is constantly changing. It's one of the great things about us that we can adapt and evolve. When we know better, we can do better.
But it starts with challenging the stories we believe.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Ashley Madison Hack: Let's Think of the Wives

Ashley Madison, as I've said before, was created by a smug idiot delighted to profit off other's pain. Adultery did quite well on its own, of course, long before Noel Biderman created a site with the tagline: Life's short. Have an affair. (If life's so damn short, how hard is it to stay faithful to your spouse?) But to encourage and facilitate cheating takes garden-variety infidelity to a new low.
So it was with a certain glee that I heard about the hack of Ashley Madison and the threat by a group calling itself the Impact Team to expose the 37 million male subscribers (female subscribers don't have to pay so they're largely exempt from exposure, at least for now).
I couldn't resist a few tweets about the irony of guys who paid to join a cheating Web site expressing outrage that the site that had promised them anonymity and security had betrayed them. Or wonder aloud if life probably mightn't seem so "short" now that there's the possibility of spending years of it without your wife and kids by your side.
My glee, however, was short-lived. Because for every jerk who gets outed by this hack, there's a wife whose life is blowing up. And don't we all know her pain and the long journey ahead?
However this plays out, I hope that even the threat of exposure has made more than a few AM subscribers reconsider just what the hell they're doing. To ask themselves why they're risking their marriage for a not-necessarily-discreet encounter. To examine why they're going outside of their marriage rather than spend some time and/or money to fix what's wrong inside their marriage. Or, if they're really miserable and hopeless, spend some time and/or money to work toward an amicable divorce.
Cause that's the thing with cheating: you can't un-cheat. Once you've crossed that line, whatever the line is (texting dirty photos, confiding in a "secret" friend, or sex in a hotel room), you've betrayed your partner.
Maybe "cheating dirtbags who deserve no discretion" is a bit much. I doubt all of them are dirtbags. I imagine some are guys who are lonely and at a loss for how to reconnect with their partner. Some of them likely believe their partner has lost all interest in them, which may or may not be true.
Some might be struggling with their sexual identity. They might have bought into the promises of porn – quick easy sex that makes them feel like a stud.
Most have convinced themselves that what they're doing is a victimless crime. Nobody has to know, after all. So nobody gets hurt, right?
Until, of course, they do.
And then, if they have even a shred of integrity, all their excuses sound ridiculous. In the face of a loyal wife's bewilderment and pain and outrage, none of it really seems worth it. Not the thrill. Or the excitement. Or the novelty. Or the ease.
And certainly not the $19 fee that promised to protect your identity but did nothing of the sort.
So yeah...maybe these guys have it coming. They made the choice to cheat.
But not their wives. They don't deserve to discover that their husbands have betrayed them by reading about it on the front page of a tabloid. They don't need the additional pain of having to explain to their children just what Daddy has done and why the kids at school will be whispering. Or to face the embarrassed silence of their colleagues at work.
I wish these Ashley Madison subscribers would think about that when they're fuelling their self-righteous fury about their security being compromised. I hope it hits them like a slap in the face that the terror they feel right now about being exposed is nothing to the terror of realizing that trusting your husband was a mistake. Or the humiliation of sitting in a doctor's office to be tested for STDs when you've been married to the same man for two decades. Or the paranoia of wondering how many people have known and for how long and why did nobody say a thing.
So while the Impact Team is ostensibly threatening to take down a company on the basis of some high-handed moralizing – to embarrass the corporation and anyone who trusted in it – I'll be thinking of the millions of women about to join our ranks. Because they are the only truly blameless ones in this whole mess.

Friday, July 24, 2015

What does healing look like?

"I had that feeling you get—there is no word for this feeling—when you are simultaneously happy and sad and angry and grateful and accepting and appalled and every other possible emotion, all smashed together and amplified. 
Why is there no word for this feeling?
Perhaps because the word is healing and we don’t want to believe that. We want to believe healing is purer and more perfect, like a baby on its birthday. Like we’re holding it in our hands. Like we’ll be better people than we’d been before. Like we have to be.
It is on that feeling that I have survived. And it will be your salvation too, my dear. When you reach the place that you recognize entirely that you will thrive not in spite of your losses and sorrows, but because of them. That you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them. That you have the two empty bowls eternally in your hands, but you also have the capacity to fill them." ~comment from Betrayed Wives Club member

Healing. We talk so much about it on this site. Those of us further along on this journey leave our popcorn trail for those coming behind us to guide them to healing. We assure them that, even on days when they feel utterly hopeless, healing is somehow magically taking place within. That as long as they're not actively holding on to pain, healing will occur. That time will work its magic, though they can hasten it by taking care of themselves, by establishing clear boundaries, by finding support and compassion.
When you're mired in pain, however, healing can seem about as real as Oz. Believing in it can feel like being asked to drink the Kool-Aid. Like many who first arrive here, hearts shattered, I couldn't imagine a day when I wouldn't be in agony, when the mention of a certain name, the make of a certain car wouldn't leave me fighting tears. Healing, I thought, didn't apply to betrayal. It didn't apply to me.
Which is why I loved the comment (above) left on this site. It perfectly describes healing. Not some place of bliss and beauty ("like a baby on its birthday") but instead emotions laid bare, feelings raw but with our hearts still open.
That's what healing has meant for me. Like an alcoholic who will never refer to herself as recovered but always as recovering, I am healing from infidelity.
I would never have chosen this, nor would I wish it on anyone. But it has been my particular fate to have experienced it and it has changed me, I believe, for the better. Like my Betrayed Wives Club sister has so beautifully articulated, I realize that it is not in spite of but because of my sorrows that my life is richer. That I love more deeply. That I am able to stop sometimes and smile at the beauty I have in my life, all the more precious because, for a while, I lost sight of it.
Your healing might look different than mine. But all healing shares one thing in common: Gratitude. When we can feel thankful not for the pain necessarily but for the wisdom and compassion it engendered, we can recognize the healing within ourselves.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Carving the Path Forward, Inch by Inch

But that blessed saint could also be yourself—the person who, in this moment, makes a decision that can make a bold path into the years to come and whom your future happiness will always remember. What could you do now for yourself or others that your future self would look back on and congratulate you for—something it could view with real thankfulness because the decision you made opened up the life for which it is now eternally grateful?  ~David Whyte
I was pretty much always in control. Thanks to a chaotic childhood, I'd become uber-capable, one of those people you could always count on in a crisis. I could think quickly, weighing possible solutions and deciding on what made the most sense. I cast aside my own needs/wants in the moment and ensured that everybody else was supported, that they were safe, that they had what they needed.
In the hours that followed my husband's admission that yes, he had cheated on me, I followed that familiar script. I told him exactly where I stood on this, exactly what he needed to do if he wanted to prevent me from packing up my three kids that very minute and walking out the door.
And then...I fell apart.
In the days that followed, I realized that control had been a total illusion. I didn't control him. I'd been completely ineffective at keeping him faithful. Despite believing that I'd marred someone so principled, he couldn't cheat. Despite a conversation we'd had when I we first considered having kids in which we promised each other we'd always talk to each other first, if ever we were tempted, that we'd seek help before we'd make a choice that could destroy everything.
I felt impotent. Out of control. Terrified.
And yet, it's within that emotional space – where light is dark and nobody seems who we thought they were and we wonder whether we're betraying ourselves further by reaching for comfort from the very person who has broken our heart – that we're expected to make a decision: stay or go. Forgive or move on.
If we've dared to share our pain with others around us, there's no shortage of opinions. We're told by some that monogamy is unnatural so of course he cheated. We're told by others that they sure as hell wouldn't tolerate someone cheating on them and if we had a backbone we would pack our bags and make the bastard pay. Some suggest that leopards don't change their stripes so staying with a cheater means more pain. And, occasionally, someone confides that an affair is what broke up their marriage. Less often we might hear that an affair is what woke up their marriage.
But against all this noise, whether from actual people in our lives or the culture in which we live, we're expected to make a decision. Stay? Or go?
Is it any wonder we feel like we're losing our minds? How in the world can we be expected to make a choice that will impact us years if not decades down the road – that will alter the course of our children's lives as well – in the days following one of the biggest emotional shocks of our lives?
We're a reactionary world. For every action, we are expected to respond with an equal and righteous reaction. You cheated on me? How dare you. You. Will. Pay.
And yet...
Some of us measure payment in different currency. It's not a pound of flesh we're after (though, come to think of it...). It's a genuine acknowledge of the cost – to us – of their choice. It's a commitment to doing whatever we need to help mitigate that cost. To help us heal.
But in the absence of our spouse's immediate remorse and a commitment to rebuild a marriage, what choice do we have?
We can leave.
Or we can do what David Whyte suggests. We can make small decisions that put us on a path that our future selves will look back and be grateful for.
Perhaps that small decision is to seek professional support, even when money is tight. Perhaps that small decision is to begin saying 'no' to the things that everybody expects from us but that we have, for years, grit our teeth and done anyway.
Perhaps it's seeing a lawyer to get a clear picture of what our financial future might be should we leave, to get an understanding of how we can protect ourselves in the meantime.
Maybe it's refusing to remain silent to protect our husband from facing the disappointment of his family or ours.
Maybe it's putting our needs first, for a change. Joining a gym, quitting a soul-sucking job, getting childcare for a blissful evening a week to spend in the company of friends.
Or maybe it's refusing to tolerate the same old marriage that he was so quick to risk...and instead making some new rules. My heartbreak, my rules, as Steam has put it.
Making the decision in the days following D-Day can feel unimaginable. Overwhelming. Terrifying. But making a decision – one that honours ourselves – is not only manageable, it's empowering.
Figure out what you can do to make your future open up, even just a crack.
Then do it.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Word Hug

Should you feel an ache in the chest, a pressure in the rib cage, as if the heart would break, that is all right. Your heart is not an object that can break... But if it were, they say the heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe. Your heart is that large. Trust it. Keep breathing...
~Joanna Macy


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