Thursday, April 10, 2014

The danger of outsourcing our happiness

One of our BWC members recently wrote that the best her husband could come up with, to her question of "why...", was that, "it felt good."
We'll file that response under "Duh!", right beside any of the zillion tomes currently on bookshelves promising us how to maximize our happiness.
Happiness has become an industry and we're convinced that there's some secret formula that will unlock our own. 
And yet, in this great New York Times piece, author David Brooks notes (and I'm paraphrasing here) that situational happiness doesn't lead necessarily to, well, happiness. And though suffering is in no way to be confused with happiness it often leads to growth. And growth can lead to, you guessed it, happiness.
In other words, that which does not kill us can, with time, make us happy.
It's important, of course, to understand how we define "happy". Happy that comes from the outside – in the form of money, status, material things, sex, even people – will be fleeting. Money comes and goes, status can slip, things lose their lustre and people, even those we love deeply, disappoint us. Happiness built on that is the proverbial house built on sand. If, however, our "happy" is built on a deep sense of who we are, work (whether paid or not) that makes us feel useful and purposeful, a wisdom borne of experience, compassion for ourselves and others, it becomes less a feeling than a way of being. 
The first path is outsourcing our happiness; the second makes it an inside job. 
It flies in the face of everything our culture holds dear, especially around love. "You complete me," Tom Cruise famously said in Jerry Macguire and we all swooned. RenĂ©e Zellweger should have replied with, "only when you can feel complete within yourself can you offer me the type of partnership that will survive all the crap that is no doubt coming our way." 
Similarly, I cringe a bit when I watch the happily-ever-after storylines that books and movies offer our kids (and us adults). Or when I listen to the I'm-nothing-without-you song lyrics that saturate pop music (and I'm not even talking about the "let's get drunk and dance naked on tables" lyrics, though there's that too). My 11-year-old daughter, who resents boys for taking up half the planet, nonetheless thinks Pink's "True Love", in which she sings of a beloved whose neck she'd occasionally like to wring but also notes that "life would suck without you", is nothing like real love. Actually, I tell her, it's pretty bang on. She makes it clear that she prefers her romantic education from Disney Channel. 
I don't want to raise cynics. But I also don't want to raise fools who think that happiness is something we achieve when he thinks we're pretty. Because of course that means it can be taken from us when he thinks our friend is even prettier.
MBS, who frequently shares her insight with others here, had this to say in response to our poster's husband's "it felt good" comment:
Something we all should ask ourselves is whether we expect others to make us happy. I think we are all guilty of that. I think it is a common belief we go into marriage with. I think it is the root of most marital dysfunction. Maybe that is the lesson to be learned from infidelity and we can dismantle the myth of "true love" and "happily ever after."
For marriage to last, it means accepting each other's imperfection and still showing up with love and kindness for your spouse. He couldn't do that so he is the one who failed at being a partner. The next woman he is with will also reveal her flaws and fail to live up to making him happy and he will go looking again. The cheaters who haven't learned their lesson will endlessly repeat this cycle.So rather than dwell on how you could have made him happier, think about how you can be compassionate and kind to yourself. That also will ultimately make you a better partner.

That, my friends, is how to achieve happily ever after.

Friday, April 4, 2014


"Ruin is a gift. Ruin is the road to transformation."
~Elizabeth Gilbert, author of The Signature of All Things and Eat, Pray, Love

We frequently reject what's behind Gilbert's quote above. And many readers did. Here's the response she posted on her Facebook page.

Dear Ones -

OK, so I don't usually quote myself on this page, but a reader asked me today if I would take a moment to further explain this idea that ruin can sometimes be a gift in our lives.

*takes a deep breath*

Let me begin by saying that the ruin I'm talking about here is not something I would encourage anyone to ever deliberately seek. I've seen people who chase darkness and destruction on purpose (sometimes for the glamour of it, sometimes for the romance of it, sometimes for the sheer self-hatred of it) and this is not a path that I am capable of endorsing for anybody.

No, I'm talking about the ruin that happens to you, without you ever seeing it coming. The chaos that sneaks up on you.

Because sometimes the bottom falls out of our lives. People leave us. Precious certainties are yanked away. We lose our health, our money, our gifts, our faith, our familiar surroundings, our trust. All the truths that we thought we could believe in forever suddenly depart us with no warning. The ground that we always knew was solid under our feet turns out to have been nothing but a trap door all along. (And then there's another trap door under that one.) We disappoint ourselves. We are disappointed by others. We get dead lost. We are no longer longer recognizable to ourselves when we look in the mirror. It all falls to ruin.

And that, my friends, is when things start to get really interesting.

This is the chapter of life that Joseph Campbell called "The Dark Night of the Soul" — and it's a necessary step in every hero's journey. It's also the hardest thing in the world. Nobody ever chooses to stand in this place; it just happens to you. And you will often see later that it needed to happen to you, if you were to ever become more than a mere passenger on Earth. Because this dark place is where you must decide whether to die or live. You cannot go back to what you knew, because what you knew is a pile of smoking rubble. You cannot stay where you are, because where you are is a bleak shroud of despair. You can only move forward into the absolute unknown. And the only way to move forward is to change.

Change, to put it simply, is the suck.

Nobody wants to do it — not real change, not soul change, not the painful molecular change required to truly become who you need to be. Nobody ever does real transformation for fun. Nobody ever does it on a dare. You do it only when your back is so far against the wall that you have no choice anymore.

Or, rather, you do have a choice — you can always die. As Sartre said: "Exits are everywhere." But you don't want to die, so you discover that you have no choice except to find a new way to live. Which seems next to impossible, but somehow, if you fight hard enough, isn't. Because you know what else is everywhere? ENTRANCES. The task then becomes to find your entrance — to fight your way through the tunnel, into the dim hope of your own light.

The other day, I asked my dear friend Rayya Elias (who wrote the memoir "Harley Loco" about her years of heroin addiction) if — looking back on the pain and suffering of her life — she could imagine any scenario under which she could have gotten clean and sober earlier. I was imagining that maybe if she'd been sent to the right rehab, or had found a more kindly therapist, or had been told just the right words of encouragement by a wise former junkie, or had been rescued by the right family member...maybe she could have spared herself years of addiction and pain. Rayya's answer initially shocked me, and then made perfect sense. She said: "The only way I could've quit drugs sooner would have been if everyone had abandoned me sooner."

She explained that, as long as she was protected from total ruin by everyone's love and care and support and enabling, she never had to completely face her own darkest place. So she lingered in the murk, hovering just above rock bottom ruin for years, barely getting by on scraps and crumbs. It was only when she had destroyed every relationship, only when everyone had left, only when she had been banished from everyone's homes and lives, only when there was nobody left who would pick up the phone anymore when she called, only when she was dead alone with no money and no good will and no second chances left…it was only then, at the loneliest bottom of her existence, that she could finally hear the question that echoes at us constantly through the universe: "Is this really how you want to live?"

Her answer, to her own surprise, was "No." And when that answer, loud and clear, becomes NO…that's where our transformation always begins.

The changes in your life from that point forward will not be immediate and crisp. They never will be. Transformation isn't easy. It isn't pretty. (Ever watch a bird hatch? It's fucking exhausting.) You don't ascend from that lowest place of your life in a tidy straight line, moving a few inches upward every day. No, it's a messy and jerky and unpredictable trajectory. But it is a trajectory. And the general direction — from the moment of your decision forward — is always going to be UP. Up and out. You will shed whatever (and whomever) you need to shed. You will find whatever (and whomever) you need to find. You will crawl and bawl. Until eventually you are standing, finally, on your own two feet in your own shower of light. Until you are the person you never would have been, had you never met your own worst darkness face-to-face.

And that is the gift that ruin offers us.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

My Letter to Husbands: Just Talk About It, For F&%#$ Sake

I get letter upon letter from women who are desperate to be heard in the wake of your betrayal. And over and over again they tell me that you won't talk to them about, won't go to therapy with them, don't understand why they're not "over it."
You want to know why we want – why we need – to talk about it? Because you shattered our faith in you as a decent honest man, and the only way we can reconcile our desire to stay with you with our knowledge that you lied and cheated and violated your vows is to try, as best we can, to understand just how you could do that and still be someone worthy of our love. We're begging you to help us love you again. And the best most of you can do is ask, aloud, why we aren't "over it."
There isn't a woman on this site who doesn't desperately wish she could be "over it". We're not a bunch of masochists, revelling in our pain, compulsively picking away at the wound. We are women who are experiencing more pain than we ever imagined.
A lot of us had, perhaps, wondered abstractedly what we might do if our husbands cheated. I always thought I'd just be pissed off. I figured I'd get angry, show him the door and that would be the end of it.
I never ever imagined how emotionally crippled I would be by the realization that my husband had cheated on me. I just never imagined it. Anger? Hell yeah. But a pain so deep I could hardly breathe? Wasn't expecting that.
Psychologists and marriage therapists aren't surprised. They've seen how damaging what they term "trust violations" are. They've seen what a deep primal wound it causes. It's no coincidence that children who experience trust violations, if they aren't given help to heal, go on to experience the world as a terrifying place. In fact, many therapists insist that often what they see in partners who've been betrayed are symptoms of post-traumatic stress. Free-floating anxiety. Fear of what could happen. A lack of trust in our ability to handle things. A feeling of numbness. Sudden rage or terror. Sounds an awful lot like your wife after learning of your affair, doesn't it? And though many of us get better at managing those emotions, the best way to eliminate them is to process them.
And we do that by telling our story. Sometimes over and over again. And we need you to listen. To answer our questions, even if you've already told us (it's amazing how foggy our brains are post-betrayal).
I know it's hard. I know it requires you owning up to, over and over, just how shitty you feel. We know you feel shitty. But that doesn't change how we feel. It just makes this about you and your feelings instead of about us and our feelings. It requires a really brave man who can admit his shortcomings.  Who can face that he made a choice that devastated the one person he promised never to devastate. In means doing the hard work of figuring out just what story you were telling yourself that made cheating okay. And figuring just what part of that story still needs addressing. You don't feel heard in your marriage? That's legitimate. Talk to her about it. You feel like little more than an ATM? Not uncommon. Talk to your wife about it. But talk about it after you've dressed her wound, so to speak. She can't hear you and your pain when she's metaphorically bleeding all over your floor.
Tell her that nothing she did made what you did okay. That you hate that you were that guy. That you are doing everything you can to never be that guy again. That you know how hard it is for her to give you a second chance but that you are going to spend every day of your life deserving it.
Hold her, if that's what she needs. Listen to her, if that's what she needs. Pour her a bath, if that's what she needs.
And know that you may need to do that again tomorrow night. And the night after that.
But please also know that, the more you do this now, the stronger she'll become. It's like depositing into a bank account now and letting the interest accrue so you can simply enjoy it later.
Now will be hell. I get that. Just when you want to forget about this, she wants to go over it. Again.
She's not doing it to punish you. She's not doing it to hurt you. She's doing it because her brain is trying to process something confusing and excruciating. She's doing it to figure out what little clue she missed so that she can be sure she never missed it again. Sometimes she's doing it because she saw something that day that triggered her pain in that deep, deep place. And she felt vulnerable and scared.
She's doing it to heal.
So please, don't dismiss her pain. Don't insist that she should be "over this by now."
The good news? It seems counter-intuitive but the more you talk about it and validate her pain, the more quickly she'll move through it. She'll be better able to replace those fears with the assurance that you're there for her. Maybe not then...but now. Now you are.
Betrayal changes everything. And while you can't undo what you did, you can take steps to show that you've learned from it. That you're a better man than that. That she's worth going through hell for. And that so are you.

Monday, March 31, 2014

After his affair: You must acknowledge your suffering

A woman recently asked an important (and common) question: Her husband, it seemed, withdrew when she wanted (needed!) to talk about her pain. She knew he was tired of it, recognized that he was losing patience with her. She also wondered why she wasn't "over it" yet and wondered if her need to talk about it was actually prolonging the pain. So she asked, "Should I just STFU?"

It was wonderful to see the betrayed wives that rushed to tell her, resoundingly, "no!"

It's simply not possible to heal if you silence yourself. You might be able to fake healing. You might be able to convince those around you that you're just doing jim-dandy and are completely over that unpleasant affair thing.

But the truth will live on in your body. The truth of your pain. The truth of your suffering. The truth of the deep wound that remains where trust and joy used to be. By ignoring that, by denying it, you're hurting yourself in a far deeper way than anyone else ever can. You're telling yourself that your pain doesn't count. That you don't count.

Betrayal can sometimes makes us believe that. We feel cast aside. We feel unvalued.

And yet, those of us who've read this and this and this know that's not why our husbands cheated. We know that it wasn't because of us or her, but about him.

But that doesn't make it any easier when we're desperate to share our pain with the person who caused it. When we so badly need a witness to our suffering and though it might defy logic to seek it from the person who caused it, we also know that the only way to reconciliation is to show our wound to the one who caused it and trust that his acknowledgement of it and expression of genuine regret will lead us to greater healing, alone and together.

Denying that pain, in the service of not rocking the boat, might seem wise in the short-term. After all, who wants another occasion ruined by tears. But it's a false sense of happy. It forces you to wear a mask. It forces you to pretend to be something you're not.

If we accept that our goal in reconciliation is to rebuild a marriage with the collected wisdom of our healing, then it only makes sense that we rebuild based on honesty and transparency and a mutual respect for each other's pain. Otherwise, we're rebuilding not only our marriage but our sense of who we are within it on a profound lack of self-respect. And, I would argue, a lack of respect for our spouses. Even if they won't (or can't yet) see it this way, sharing your deepest pain with him is a gift. It's a chance for him to make good. It's a chance for him to be that better man. Whether he takes the chance is up to him. It doesn't diminish you for offering it; it does diminish him for not seizing it.

Danielle Laporte puts it this way: "Our suffering does NOT want to be denied or avoided... It wants our attention.When we paint over pain ... we’re actually delaying our healing. We’re denying a critical part of our experience — the actual suffering, in which there is incredible power and agency."

So, dear BWC member, do not STFU. Never STFU. If there is to be one lesson learned from this experience, let it be this: We must be heard.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Desmond Tutu on Forgiveness

 "The invitation to forgive is not an invitation to forget. Nor is it an invitation to claim that an injury is less hurtful than it really is. Nor is it a request to paper over the fissure in a relationship, to say it’s okay when it’s not. It’s not okay to be injured. It’s not okay to be abused. It’s not okay to be violated. It’s not okay to be betrayed.
The invitation to forgive is an invitation to find healing and peace. In my native language, Xhosa, one asks forgiveness by saying, Ndicel’ uxolo—“I ask for peace.” Forgiveness opens the door to peace between people and opens the space for peace within each person. The victim cannot have peace without forgiving. The perpetrator will not have genuine peace while unforgiven. There cannot be peace between victim and perpetrator while the injury lies between them. The invitation to forgive is an invitation to search out the perpetrator’s humanity. When we forgive, we recognize the reality that there, but for the grace of God, go I."~excerpted in Spirituality & Health from The Book of Forgiving: The Fourfold Path for Healing Ourselves and Our World, by Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

I Cannot Walk Your Path

"The maps and travelogues left behind by others are great blessings, full of useful information and inspiration, but they cannot take the journey for us."~Author unknown

Many of us knew exactly what we would do if our husbands cheated on us. And then it happened. Suddenly we not only weren't doing what we always said we'd do (almost without fail, throw him out), we were behaving in ways that were confusing to us. That made us wonder if we'd lost our minds. And within that confusion lay such judgement of ourselves. So many of us were ashamed of ourselves for not sticking with what we said we'd do.
Thing is, none of us really knows what we'll do until we're in the situation. And once we're in that situation, the best we can do is treat ourselves with compassion for the challenge we're facing.
And, of course, none of us knows what another woman should do because we're not in her situation.
I bring this up because a BWC member commented a while back that she had taken my "advice" and stuck with her husband only to find out that his affair had never really ended. There she was, another year or so invested in her marriage, and only deeper in pain.
She was leaving him then and only wished I had encouraged her to do so earlier.
I told her I was very sorry for her pain. Sorrier still that her husband wasn't able to accept the deep gift of her desire to rebuild their marriage.
But, I pointed out, I never told her to stay or leave and I felt badly that she had interpreted my response to her as such. I, frankly, haven't a clue whether any of you should stay or leave. Actually that's not true. If there's abuse of any kind, get out. Now. (Though even with that, I know that some women simply can't leave for any number of reasons that I might not understand.)
But beyond that, there's isn't a right way to respond to this. 
Life is messy. Marriages that look hopeless somehow get stitched together to everyone's benefit. Others just don't make it despite valiant attempts. Some survive betrayal only to fall apart down the road for other reasons. 
I wish I had a crystal ball and could therefore predict which marriages were worth fighting for and which should be hastily exited. Of course, I don't. I don't pretend to.
What I do offer here is hard-won wisdom from walking my own path. Though each of us is unique we face similar challenges. Our husbands behave in bizarrely similar ways. We can benefit from each other's experience as long as we recognize that we don't all walk the same path to healing. As long as we understand that what worked for her mightn't work for me and vice versa. 
There are times when I will use such words as "here's what you should do" and then outline the steps a BW can take to, for example, get back on her feet, get some sleep, or regain her self-respect. But I don't have all the answers. I haven't even faced all the questions. I have my own experience and an understanding of what so many of you have faced as you've trusted me with your stories. That's all.
Each of our stories is our own. Each of us walks her own path to healing. I cannot walk yours and you cannot walk mine. But we can hold each other up along the way.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Why you should stop asking "why"...and instead ask "why bother"

"Men don't cheat because of who she is, they cheat because of who they're not."
~Charles J. Orlando, author of "The Problem with Women...Is Men"

We often talk on this site about the question of "why". It's generally the first word that forms in our brain when we learn of a spouse's affair. But sadly, we often answer that question with a catalogue of our own perceived failings: I've been preoccupied with the kids; I've been busy with work; I've been stressed with moving my parents into a nursing home; I'm aging; I'm fat; and blahdy blah self-flagellating blah.
It's all, of course, bullshit. So is all the stuff we tell ourselves about what she has that we don't. As my husband's therapist once said to me, "what she's got, you don't want."
No matter what your spouse tells you or what you tell yourself, he cheated because opportunity met moral failing and wound up in bed together. That's not to say that your list of "why"s aren't necessarily true. Maybe your marriage was under strain. Maybe you could have spent a bit more time at the gym. Maybe you did take your stress out on your husband. All of which are absolutely valid reasons for your husband to suggest counselling, or anger management, or even a separation. They're not valid reasons for cheating. I'm not sure there is a valid reason for cheating. 
The time will come when the two of you, should you choose to rebuild your marriage, to pore over your marriage like a couple of forensic detectives, looking for just where it went off the rails. Ideally you'll do this within the context of "where can we improve our communication so neither of us feels so alone again" rather than "this is the long list of ways in which you're a complete asshole". But sometimes that compassion and willingness to be open to your cheating husband's pain takes time.
It also takes strength, which doesn't come from beating yourself up about the myriad ways in which you somehow brought your spouse's cheating on.
Your task, post-betrayal, is to keep yourself strong. No easy task. It means extreme self-care – avoiding anyone who isn't loyal to you; it means avoiding any commitment that makes you feel more vulnerable; it means eating and sleeping; it means avoiding excess (or any!) alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping or other means of numbing your feelings. And it means stopping, at least for now, asking "why".
Your husband likely can't tell you. Not really. People who cheat aren't generally the most self-aware. They can learn self-awareness and the fallout from cheating often spurs them in that direction. Decent people who cheat are often so disgusted with themselves that they want to know how they were able to do such a thing in order to ensure they'll never do it again. But there are plenty of guys equally disgusted with themselves who simply can't admit that – it's far easier to blame something outside of themselves (your work schedule; their boss) than own up to their moral failing.
The first group generally make rebuilding a marriage as easy as it can be (which, frankly, still isn't easy); the second make it a whole lot harder and should prompt you to ask whether or not it's worth trying. Without a clear understanding of how people can use other people to avoid feeling pain or shame or loneliness or stress, there's little to prevent them from doing it again.
As Charles J. Orlando points out in the quote above, men cheat because of what's missing in them, because of who they're not. Who they're not is a guy who recognizes when he's seeking escape in an unhealthy way. Who they're not is a guy who recognizes the damage created by cheating before he does it.
Instead of asking why he cheated, the question you should be asking is why – and if – he deserves the chance to rebuild your marriage. It's the question he should be asking himself too.


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