Monday, November 30, 2015

From the Vault: Five Ways We Hurt Ourselves After His Affair


Infidelity is excruciating. Never in my dreams did I imagine how excruciating. Like most women, I had talked about what I'd do if I found out my husband cheated. My friends and I, when we heard of someone having an affair, would inevitably say to each other, "Well, if my husband ever did that, I'd show him the door so fast..." We imagined we'd wipe our hands of the scumbag, throw his stuff on the front lawn and be done with it. At no point did I imagine years of therapy, anti-depressants, and a stack of books on my bedside table that covered everything from forgiveness to sex addiction.
Life has a way of messing with my plans.
I've learned, however, that though I clearly couldn't control what choices my husband had made (oh, if I could have!!) I could learn to control myself. I say learn to control myself because I'd never really thought of it that way before. I'd always operated from the "I am what I am" school of thought. That my responses to life were the result of some personality lottery, and I received a rather impetuous, emotional, mercurial one. So when I knocked a television off a table to indicate just how angry I was with my husband could I control that? I was fiery.
Over the years following discovery of my husband's cheating, I began to recognize just what I could control (actions). And what I couldn't (feelings). By controlling actions I can so often better manage feelings. I can keep them from galloping away, and taking me with  them. The goal, of course, isn't to turn into some sort of automaton whose feelings are experienced with precision and control. It's to get to a place of healthy healing, where you can feel all your emotions – joy, pain, fear, excitement – without acting in ways that aren't consistent with your values.
Unfortunately when we're in such emotional pain we can lose sight of what we can and cannot control. The part of our brain that performs the so-called executive functions has been hijacked by the part of our brain that focuses on pure survival, our reptilian brain. And by survival, I'm not referring to scrapping it out with our five-year-old over the last piece of pizza because we're starving...but rather emotional survival, a craving to understand just exactly what the threat is that we're dealing with so that we can be prepared for it. It's a rational impulse. But our ways of achieving it can be irrational. Julie Gottman calls at least some of our behaviour PTSD and had this to say in a New York Times story about deception: "When secrets emerge ... the partner suffers profoundly. Post-traumatic stress disorder is the result — being battered by unwanted intrusive thoughts about the betrayal, nightmares, emotional numbing coupled with unpredictable explosions, sleep disturbances and hyper-vigilance as the partner or spouse searches for yet some other betrayal."
Consider these five ways we hurt ourselves in the name of "survival".

Pain shopping (or asking the same questions over and over and over and...): Most of us, when we finally get proof (or an admission) of cheating from our spouses are flooded with questions. How did this happen? When? Where did they meet? What did they do? Did he meet her friends? Did other people know? What does she look like? Where does she work? Does she wear high heels? Is she vegetarian? and on and on and on, until our poor brains simply can't absorb the volume of information and our spouses can't even keep track of the details.
The need to know is crucial and valid. For too long, we've been outside the door of the affair with no awareness of what's going on behind it. In order for a marriage to heal (or you to heal on your own), it really does help to open the door and have the chance to take a look around. But – and it's a big but – at a certain point you have all the information you really need. The rest is pain shopping.

Digging for "evidence" of an affair he's already admitted: My husband came clean fairly quickly about his affair. Within 24 hours I knew pretty much everything I needed to know. Did that stop me from rifling through his drawers, his phone records, his VISA statements and anything else I could get my hands on? Of course it didn't. I was like some sort of crazed forensics expert, pouring over everything as if it could doubly confirm what I already knew. Did I discover anything crucial? Nope. Not a thing. Sure I saw some receipts for dinners out with her. But given that I already knew they'd slept together on a number of occasions, what did it matter that he felt obliged to buy her a steak? I already knew at that point he was a liar and a cheater...everything else was a matter of degree. Do yourself a favor. Find out what you need to know to paint the big picture. Then stop. At this point you're distracting yourself from actually feeling the pain of what you now know. You can't dam up that flood of emotions no matter how long you spend looking at receipts. 

Staying in contact with the Other Woman: I sent the OW a Christmas card (my D-Day was December 11) in which I included a photo of my husband and our kids, along with a note about how I knew how much she'd "done" for our family. It was the type of card that, had she taken it to my husband's and her employer, would make her look insane because on the surface it was innocuous. Almost sweet. But she – and I – knew exactly what I was saying. But that was where the contact stopped. I know too many women who stay in touch with the OW, either via Facebook or mutual friends or even face-to-face, and I can't believe anything good can ever come of it, assuming the OW knew about you. Block her on FB, steer as far out of her way as possible, cut her out of your life. She's poison.

Numbing ourselves with drugs/alcohol/food/shopping/insert-compulsive-behavior-here:'s tempting. So tempting that I didn't take a drink for months after D-Day because, as the daughter of two alcoholics, I was pretty sure it would end badly. But forewarned is forearmed. Recognize that right now you are incredibly vulnerable. And for most of us the discomfort of feeling vulnerable is something we'll do almost anything to stop. Like eat a chocolate cake, buy four pairs of shoes, pop Zoloft like it's candy, even exercise to the point of injury. Whatever your compulsion of choice is, now's the time to put it under a microscope and determine just how much is healthy...and how much is harmful. You need you right now. Not some numbed out zombie with too many shoes.

Maintaining toxic friendships: Infidelity brings up a lot of issues for a lot of people. There are those who will suggest you "get over" this, those who dismiss your angst with impatience that you don't just kick him out, those who avoid you because your experience brings up uncomfortable feels about their own marriage. It's tempting to keep everyone close because you're feeling so alone. But toxic people simply make your pain and loneliness worse. You need compassion and understanding, not blame, frustration, impatience or unsolicited advice. If there's no-one in real life, please remember that we're here, we know your pain and will lovingly guide to toward healing.

That's the short list. Are there things you do that you recognize are only hurting yourself? Share your story here. Others will no doubt recognize themselves. Together we'll heal.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Feeling Each Other's Pain

"It's when you can feel your opponent's pain that the path to reconciliation begins." ~Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi in an interview with Krista Tippet On Being

Being cheated on will never feel "fair". And "fair" is what so many of us are after. "But it's not fair!" I would wail, like a seven-year-old whose brother got a bigger slice of pie. I was right, of course. It wasn't fair.
It wasn't fair that he got the sex and I got the empty bed. It wasn't fair that he got the attention and I got the loneliness. It wasn't fair that he got the ego strokes and the excitement of forbidden relationships while I got the day in-day out mundanity of life with three young children.
It wasn't fair that I was in excruciating pain. That I couldn't eat or sleep or work. It wasn't fair that my entire life was turned upside down because of his choices. It wasn't fair that I couldn't listen to the radio without being triggered. I couldn't see a certain model of car. I couldn't go to certain restaurants or see certain friends or experience certain kinds of weather without doubling over in pain.
It wasn't fair. None of it.
But life, as I so often remind my own children, isn't fair. And all the wishing in the world won't make it so.
Where does that leave us? leaves us accepting that even if we cheat on him and dump his ass and successfully sue the OW for "alienation of affection" and he loses his job and his children hate him and he winds up, sockless and hatless, on a freezing winter day living in a refrigerator box and getting arrested for urinating in a public place, our hearts will still have been broken. It leaves us with a decision: To rave about the unfairness of it all or to move forward with a different understanding.
Because even if we think he somehow got away with something, what did he get away with, really? He got away with hurting the person he vowed to never hurt. He got away with being a lying scumbag. Do we really believe he isn't paying a price for those things?
Those who don't pay a price for betrayal are without a conscience. And if your husband lacks a conscience or is masterful at ignoring his conscience and plans to stay that way, then do yourself a huge favor and lawyer up.
If, however, your husband isn't a narcissist or too divorced from emotion to experience any genuine remorse for his actions, then your husband is paying. He might not be paying enough in your view (would a pound of flesh in the form of his private parts suffice, ladies?). But he's paying.
His self-respect is gone. His belief in himself as a "good guy" is gone. After all, he's that guy – the one who devastated his entire family just so he could screw someone who doesn't mean much to him in the cold light of day.
My husband paid for what he did every day for months when, as he said, he had to see the pain in my eyes and know that he was the one who caused it.
Understanding that our husbands didn't really get away with much goes a long way towards helping us feel their pain. Or at least knowing that it's there. There's plenty of pain to go around. And while the pain of the betrayed is different in that we did nothing to bring it on whereas he was the one making the choices, in the end, perhaps, pain is pain.
Betrayal hurts both partners. It's lose-lose.
Or maybe we win when we can feel each other's pain. Maybe, as Jonathan Sacks says, the path to reconciliation is created when we finally understand that we're each broken by betrayal. Reconciliation doesn't have to mean staying married. It can mean releasing each other to a different future. But regardless of what we want that future to look like, empathy for each other's pain frees us from needing "fairness" and instead offers us the imperfect grace to heal.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The fraught world of post-betrayal sex or "Here's what I know...and it ain't much"

One any given day, my house is filled with my three kids, ages 12 through 17, and a collection of their friends, both male and female, gay and straight. One has to almost wade through hormones in our house. The air crackles with sexual energy. 
Dinner table conversation the other night ran from masturbation to teenage motherhood and the importance of protection ("Abstinence!" insisted my Catholic-schooled husband, who never practiced it much himself). My daughter's boyfriend shook his head in disbelief. "We never have conversations like this at my house," he said, and I wasn't sure whether to feel smug or sheepish.
But while there's plenty of talk about teen sex around our house, there's far less around post-betrayal sex. 
Sex is an arena that, almost nine years after D-Day, seems still dotted with landmines. It has become easier for my husband and I to simply avoid that topic. But, as I know all too well, "easier" can mean avoidant. And avoidant can fast-track us to disengagement and detachment, two signposts on the way to cheating.
That's not to say that I think either of us plans to cheat. It's just to say we should both know better than to ignore our own discomfort.
And sex makes both of us deeply uncomfortable.
It wasn't always this way, at least for me. In fact, I considered my sex life to be a model of agency and maturity and healthy sexuality. I loved sex, which, for me, was within the context of relationships with people I felt safe with and cherished by. I felt comfortable in my body. 
Not too long into my marriage, however, I began to notice that sex with my husband sometimes Though it offered up the expected physical pleasure, on an emotional level he sometimes seemed tuned out. Somewhere else. 
I bought Mars and Venus in the Bedroom and tried to get him to read it with me. In very broad strokes, author John Gray outlined the differences between male and female sexual desires. My husband wanted rough-and-ready sex. I preferred soft and slow. I tried to talk with him about achieving some sort of compromise, along the lines of, sometimes we do it your way, sometimes mine. But not much changed.
During that time, I gave birth to one, two, three children. I was exhausted. I became resentful. He worked longer hours. I was lonely. I freelanced part-time and mothered full-time. Sex waned. I talked myself into believing this was what life with three kids and two tired parents was like. Maybe that's true.
I was happy. Mostly. I loved being a mom. My career was going great. I had deeply fulfilling volunteer activities. I had good friends. So I avoided looking too deeply at what didn't feel right. My relationship with my husband.
We all know where this is going, right?
Dec. 10, 1996, the light in my head finally went on. My husband was cheating. My world collapsed.
For six months, I continued to believe he had cheated with one person: his work assistant. I remained baffled by the affair. It didn't add up – she was so incredibly unpleasant and his relationship with her was constantly strained – but I believed him when he said that was the whole story. And then came the day when he told me the rest: He was a sex addict who was in treatment and who had been carrying on secret sexual relationships for the entirety of our relationship before D-Day. His acting out preceded me – though, without being in a committed relationship, it appeared more as just the sex life of a 20-something than the actions of an addict.
That remaining puzzle piece explained so much that had felt wrong in our relationship. It explained my sense of feeling objectified when we had sense (his sex addiction included a lot of porn). It explained his inappropriateness around sex, sometimes making frat-boy-type jokes that to him were funny but to those around us were beyond the pale. It explained my awareness that he was often elsewhere emotionally when we had sex – present in body but not in spirit. Turns out, he needed fantasy to fuel his desire. A real-life wife – and mother of his children – didn't do the job, so to speak. 
Like so many of you after learning about a spouse's affair, my sexual identity was in tatters. I was so confused about our entire relationship – what was real? what was fake? – but especially our sexual relationship. I had believed myself desirable. I had thought of sex as connection. How could I have been so wrong?
At first, I responded with hysterical bonding. For the first time since very early in our relationship, I felt that intense connection through sex. We looked each other in the eyes, we talked and talked and talked. We tried new things. Our passion was unquenchable. 
And was over. For months and even years, we barely touched. 
In the meantime, my husband was in sexual addiction therapy and learning, for the first time, what healthy sexuality looked and felt like. 
I was just trying to hold myself together. It was enough to get through the day. My bed and my pyjamas signalled to my husband that I was closed for busines. I might as well have had a sign around my neck that read, "Leave me the hell alone." 
I began to wonder about leaving. Not the "to hell with you, you bastard" kind of leaving (which, I wholeheartedly support if that's what you want) but an "I want a healthy sexual relationship with someone who doesn't carry the same baggage" kind of leaving. I toyed with the idea of having a no-strings-attached sexual relationship outside of my marriage, feeling somewhat entitled given what my husband had put me through. But I knew I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I was violating my own value system.
Eventually, we found a therapist who specialized in sex. We saw him for about six months and though we might have inched forward incrementally, he ultimately wasn't moving the needle far enough. His most frequent recommendation was "wine time", which too often turned into "whine time" during which we complained about the kids. It sure as hell didn't lead to sex.
Back to a sexual wasteland for a couple of years.
All this time, however, we were rebuilding a marriage. Though I hold that sex is an important part of a marriage, I've come to recognize that it's not necessarily the glue that I'd always thought it was.
Marriages come in all shapes and forms and I felt no less married in a sex-less relationship than I had when we had frequent sex. In fact, I felt more married because we were so committed to making it work.
And then we found our current couples counsellor. 
We continued to try and avoid talking about sex, but she wouldn't let us off the hook. 
She'd gently remind us that we were starting over with sex. Like shy teens, we had to come together in a way that we hadn't before, or at least not for a very long time. She still reminds us that it will feel uncomfortable and embarrassing at times, and she's right. I've had to do a lot of work around my own body image, especially as my former marathoner's body has settled into middle age. Long-gone are the mind movies that tormented me in the weeks and months post D-Day but I realized that I replaced them with a squeamishness around ordinary people sex, as compared to the soft-light beautiful people sex we see on TV and in movies. Both involve somehow imagining that everybody else is having better sex than you. Both involve convincing ourselves that we're somehow deficient: we have rolls, we don't moan loud enough, we accidentally fart. And both take us out of the experience itself and into our heads, where dangerous thoughts roam and threaten our pleasure.
I've learned from one incredible BWC warrior that my own sexual pleasure isn't given to me by someone else but is mine to claim, a lesson I knew in my twenties but that got unlearned in the rubble of D-Day. I've learned that sex is many things – awkward, fun, amazing, uncomfortable – and that I don't need to feel threatened by any of that. The only person who expects me to constantly delight in bed is me. I've learned that, despite my conviction that I had no sexual hangups, I do. We all do.
I'm still learning. So is my husband.
Which is why I'm not sure if have much to offer you beyond my own story about where I am right now: A middle-aged woman who's realizing that another chapter of her sex life is still being written. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Here's How to Really Respond When a Friend's Spouse is Cheating

One of our BWC sisters recently linked to this recent New York Times column about whether or not to tell a friend his wife is cheating. 
In the summer, O, The Oprah Magazine advice columnist Lisa Kogan (whom I love and generally agree with) also responded to a question from a letter writer wondering about whether to out a cheater. 
Both Lisa and the Times' ethicist gave advice consistent with the response to affairs by our culture at large – which tends to support a "look away" approach. They pointed out that marriages are private and none of us really know what's going on, which is a way of saying that the marriage might make room for other partners in some sort of hedonistic open way that most of us can't imagine. They point out that perhaps the partner does already know and would be embarrassed by any "publicity" around the affair. They mention that sometimes partners don't want to know. They suggest that, perhaps, the partner will smarten up before anyone has to know and the couple can live out the rest of their years in bliss. 
Of course, any of these situations is possible. But probable? Please.
So I'm copying (below) the letter I sent to Lisa Kogan in the hopes that, in some small way, I'm stimulating a conversation that I believe our culture needs to have: a conversation about the true cost of infidelity; an honest, nuanced conversation that acknowledges, as one recent commenter put it, the "act of emotional violence" that is betrayal. But a conversation that also includes the possibility of true reconciliation.
To her credit, Lisa Kogan responded to my letter with a large gulp, a mea culpa and a desire to revisit her advice in a future column.
Baby steps, ladies. Baby steps.

Dear Lisa,

When I was nine years old and out shopping with my mother, I spotted my best friend's dad. "Hey there's Mr. Shannon," I said. And then, faltering, "But that's not Mrs. Shannon." My mom quickly shushed me, making it clear that I saw nothing and was to say nothing.
Back at the Shannon home was Mrs. Shannon, who had no "don't ask, don't tell" policy. There was no "open marriage". Mr. Shannon didn't "come to his senses" before his wife found out.
Instead, there was only a bewildered Mrs. Shannon, wondering why her husband never seemed to be home and why he found fault with everything she did. She had no reason to suspect she should be insisting on protection when she had sex with her husband. She had no reason to speak with a lawyer to ensure her self-employed husband wasn't hiding assets. 
So when he asked for a divorce so he could marry not-Mrs.-Shannon, she was blind-sided.
Fast forward 33 years and I'm in Mrs. Shannon's shoes with a cheating husband in a culture that looks the other way. So are the 2,000 women DAILY who visit my Web site, The Betrayed Wives Club.
Before I'd been cheated on, I would have given exactly the advice you gave. Don't get involved. There might be agreements in place, etc. Which is true. There might be though I doubt it. And while we're looking the other way, the betrayed wife might contract an STD as more than a few women on my site have. One woman, who contracted cervical cancer, will never know if it's because of the STD her husband passed along thanks to one of his extracurricular partners.
A betrayed wife might choose to get pregnant again, go back to school, become a stay-at-home mom. In other words, she might continue to make decisions based on having a solid marriage and a dependable partner, when unbeknownst to her, she has neither.
At the very least, betrayed wives feel utterly humiliated when they learn that others knew of their husband's affair...and said nothing. It compounds the shame we already feel for not knowing it ourselves, for not suspecting. If we do suspect and have no real evidence to back up our suspicions, we're routinely told we're crazy. "Of course not," our husbands scoff. "She's just a friend/just a work colleague/just an old college acquaintance." And so we silence that voice. I don't know a single betrayed wife who doesn't wish some benevolent person – friend, stranger, doesn't matter – hadn't taken them aside or written a letter and gently told them what he/she knew. Something like, "I hope I'm off-base here but I saw your husband having lunch with a woman and it looked a little cozy. I just wanted you to know." Or "I will keep my mouth shut to everybody else, including your mother if you wish, but I recently discovered that your husband is having an affair. I'm here for you in whatever way you need."
Sure the wife might respond with anger. She might insist that you're wrong. Her own head will be spinning. She'll be in shock. If there is some sort of "agreement" (though I highly doubt it), she can respond with "I know about that. But thanks for telling me."
Telling the cheater himself gives him the chance to go underground, to cover up his tracks, to lay low until the coast is clear. To prepare the wife to dismiss anyone else's disclosure with a pre-emptive "oh, I ran into Marilyn when I was out with Joe's girlfriend buying him a gift. She looked at me kinda funny. She's such a gossip."
Being cheated on is one of the loneliest experiences. Everybody pretends it isn't happening while your world is caving in. It's not uncommon for people who've been cheated on to experience post-trauma symptoms: hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, nightmares. 
Nobody should take any pleasure in telling someone her spouse is cheating. You're right that it's a no-win situation. But that doesn't mean it's not the right thing to do. It's just not the easy thing. 

Kind regards,
"Elle", founder of The Betrayed Wives Club

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

What Does She Have? Nothing You Would Want...

One sour lemon is pretty much like another.
“Affair choices are usually far more neurotic than marriage choices. When one is chosen to be an affair partner, one should not feel complimented. The most important characteristic of such affairees is their immediate availability.” ~Frank Pittman, Private Lies: Infidelity and the Betrayal of Intimacy

I once confided in my friend that I worried my husband was cheating on me with his assistant. Her? my friend scoffed. Ewww. He would never cheat on you. And certainly not with her.
I felt relieved. And, frankly, I thought the same thing. He would never cheat on me. And certainly not with her. She was portly. She was demanding. She was a drunk. She was often unkind. I reassured myself that I was just feeling insecure and neglected because my husband was spending so much time at his new job. 
Turns out, of course, that my suspicions were correct.
But still...her?
Six months later I learned that there were plenty of hers, not just one. And when I asked my husband's counsellor what these women had that I didn't, he told me, "What these women have is nothing you would want." 
While I took some comfort from his words, it was still months before I could wholeheartedly agree. After all, the one thing these women had that I wanted was my husband's attention. It was only when I began to really understand the dynamics of affairs that I understood what the counsellor meant. My husband didn't select women based on their beauty or their charisma or their sexiness or any of the attributes that he might consider in a partner. He selected them because they were willing and able. That was all it took.
On the one hand, that's pretty damn insulting, isn't it? He risked our marriage and family for...what exactly? But that's the thing with affairs. They're not rational choices. Even the language we hear around them – "we couldn't stop ourselves", "it just happened" – speak to a lack of rational thought. It's possible, of course, to argue that love isn't rational. And yet...healthy love is. Healthy love is the product of mutual respect. It's the result of two people who've taken the time to get to know each other, to admire each other, to feel safe with each other. 
Affairs reek of desperation. Unhealthy people seeking what's missing in themselves wherever they think they can find it. In that sense, people who engage in affairs are no different than people who gamble secretly. Or drink. Or snort. Affairs are a distraction from real-life. A parallel world in which the rules don't apply.
In my husband's case, he cheated with his assistant because she made herself available and he was on some self-destructive path that I still don't entirely understand. Sex, for him, meant escape. Thanks to years of porn, he had expectations that weren't necessarily in line with the reality of longtime marriage. Sex was a drug and she was one of his suppliers. It just provided the requisite high that allowed him to ignore all those uncomfortable feelings he couldn't face. Long-buried grief around losing his father. A terror of true intimacy. Years of guilt and shame around sex, thanks to an oppressive childhood. What's more, meaningless sex gave him the freedom to focus exclusively on his own physical pleasure. 
With time, however, it was becoming harder for him to pretend his actions didn't have consequences. For one thing, he was becoming disgusted with himself, less and less able to compartmentalize. His anxiety grew. He became more depressed. He was close to hitting bottom when I finally figured out what was going on – and had been going on for years. He even confessed relief in the week's following D-Day. The jig was up. The sneaking around was over. 
He could lose everything, which suddenly made him see the value in all that he'd been escaping from. He didn't know how to perform all his roles perfectly, which he thought was expected of him: to be a father, to be a husband, to be a provider, a friend. He felt like he was failing at all of them.
Without the affairs to distract him from his pain, it hit him hard. He worked with a therapist to examine and challenge the thought processes behind his actions. He felt enormous guilt and shame. He had never imagined he could be capable of such deception, of so deeply hurting the most loyal friend he had. He fully expected me to leave.
Like my husband, a lot of men have no hesitation in dropping their affair partner because the appeal vanishes when they realize the price they might pay. They're not interested in a relationship with their affair partner. They've been chasing a feeling, not a person. 
Which is why other guys have a hard time letting go. In rare instances, they really have fallen in love with their affair partner though the statistics don't bode well for relationships that start as affairs – fewer than 3% will last. But even the vast majority of those who don't want to lose their wife or their family can have a tough time giving up that feeling – that he's sexy and exciting and interesting. On top of that, our human brain craves novelty.
And yet so many of us, in the days and weeks and months following D-Day wring our hands, stalk the OW on Facebook and try to discern what she had that held our husbands in such thrall. Why would they risk everything for her?
And the answer is as simple as it is confusing to us: They were there. They were willing to participate in deception. They were willing to lie. To manipulate. To hurt.
Nothing we would want. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Come Out From the Shadows: Putting Down Your Story

"Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it."~Brené Brown
Melissa, who frequently comments on this site and who inspires us all with her resilience, her clear-eyed optimism, and her steely determination to heal from betrayal, noted in response to yesterday's post that she's found this community so valuable in helping her through this.
And though I've written often about the value of sharing our stories, I thought I'd, once again, encourage anyone who finds herself on this site to write down her pain. 
If all you hear from us is "me too", then you will have had your pain held by us, which just may reduce its weight on your heart.
And just to show that I walk the talk, here's where I recently shared my story


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