Monday, August 21, 2017

The strength it takes

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.

Monday, August 14, 2017

When You Feel Powerless

"Arrange whatever pieces come your way."
~Virginia Woolf

Most of us live in a sort of delusion that we have far more control over our lives than we do. It's an easy delusion. There's often not so much evidence that we're wrong. At least until the lump turns out to be malignant. Or our "good" kid starts stealing money to buy drugs. Or a fender bender leaves us with chronic pain that no amount of physio can fix.
Or until our spouse, the person we counted on to predictably keep the vows he took five, 10, 20 years earlier turns out to have been lying to us to five months, 10 months, 10 years.
Our delusion of control becomes clear. And it's terrifying. 
But here's what we know: We haven't changed. And what we could always control – ourselves – is still what we could always control. And what we couldn't ever control – everybody else – is still what we can't ever control.
And that, my dear soul-warriors, is good news.
It might not feel like that at first. At first, it might feel like horrible news. The worst news. How the hell are we supposed to move forward in a world where anybody can do anything at any time? Who knows what chaos will ensue? Who knows if he'll stop seeing her? Who knows if she'll respect "no contact"? Who knows if this will happen again?
Nobody. That's who knows. Nobody.
And nobody ever did know. 
We were deluding ourselves.
Life, for the most part, is a game of weighing the odds. Do I think this person is trustworthy? Does this person have a track record of keeping promises? Of being fair? Of being reasonable? The emotionally healthy among us weigh this carefully. The less healthy among us (ahem, myself included) were taught to ignore those calculations. To give second and third and fourth chances. To pay attention to the apologies and ignore the original injury. To see the smile, not the lie.
A lot of us responded to a chaotic childhood with what the psychologists call "magical thinking", which is to say that we believed we had far more power than we did. We thought we could control things that we couldn't. 
But even those with idyllic childhoods suffer the delusion of control. It's a way of surviving in a chaotic world where, frankly, anything can happen at any time. A bus can come careening around the corner and flatten us. Our child can develop debilitating mental health issues. 
To put it in the vernacular, shit happens.
But...we can always control our response to what life throws our way. 
And, let me say it again, this is good news.
We have power though it might feel as though we don't.
We have the power to decide what it is that we will tolerate in our marriage after betrayal. We have power to carefully consider the consequences of a partner's deception, or continuing deception after we've agreed to give them a second chance.
We can make calculations, perhaps with the help of a therapist who's more clear-eyed than we are. We can determine what we want the rest of our life to look like if our partner cannot or will not become someone who deserves a second chance. And we get to decide what that looks like. We get to determine what our second chance consists of. Do we insist they get therapy? Do we insist that they attend a 12-step group? Do we insist upon treatment for their depression/addiction/anxiety/ADHD/impulse control/whatever? Do we insist that they steer clear of "friends" who enabled the cheating? As Steam puts it so perfectly, "My heartbreak, my rules."
It won't be easy. The right decision isn't always the easy one, though a lot of us also buy into the delusion that if it's the right decision, it will "feel" right. Nope. Not if we're accustomed to a lifetime (or even a few years) of not paying attention to our instincts. It takes practice to trust ourselves. It's a muscle that needs developing.
But that, my fierce soul-warriors, is where your power rests. In the knowledge that you have what it takes to keep yourself safe. In the recognition that you control you and nobody else. 
And, one more time, that is good news. 

Monday, August 7, 2017

*Special opportunity for BWC in the Bay Area*

For quite a while now, I've linked to Infidelity Counselling Network, a free peer counselling group that operates out of the Bay Area but is, of course, available to anyone with a phone. I know that many of you have used the network – it's impossible to overstate how valuable it can be to have someone to speak with when you're in such pain. Someone who understands, someone who's trained in listening, someone who can recommend resources and strategies to cope.
Well, Infidelity Counselling Network needs a new director (or two). It's a volunteer gig, with a small stipend. Roughly 5 - 7 hours a week. If any of you live in the Bay Area and want to pay it forward, this is your chance. 
Please let me know if you're interested – post a comment with your contact info and I won't publish it online. I'll simply pass your info onto the current director/founder.
It would be a shame if this organization had to close its doors/phone lines after creating such a vital service. 

"How could he do this to me?": You may never understand. And that's okay.

The one cloud that hung dark in the days/weeks/months after D-Day was this question: How could he do this to me?
Inherent in that question is, of course, a whole lot of fear. How could I have been so wrong about him? What does she have that I don't have? Is he lying to me now?
I was certain that if I could just understand what he was thinking, what motivated this behaviour, then I could anticipate it happening again, I could gauge the likelihood of a repeat performance, I could protect myself from further pain.
I've come a long way since then. I no longer torture myself at 3 a.m. with toxic worry. I no longer believe that I can choreograph others' actions. I catch myself when I begin to assume blame for others' bad behaviour. 
And though I've gained a lot of insight into my husband's choices, I'm not sure I will ever understand how he could do this to me. Not really. 
But I know something else. It doesn't really matter.
There are lots of reasons why people cheat. But most of them fall under the umbrella of "I liked how it felt." That can include the sex itself – the physical feeling – but more often it includes the psychological feeling. People who cheat like the excitement. They like the anticipation. They like feeling as though they've turned back the clock: they're sexy, they're interesting, they're young. And, frankly, who wouldn't like that? I can remember all those feelings from back in the day. I loved flirting. I loved knowing that the person I was with was dazzled by me. We're our best selves when we spent only bits of time with another person. It's easy to hide our flaws, easy to imagine that life will be easier.
Those of us who can't imagine cheating, however, have an ability to think a few steps further down the road. We can imagine coming home and looking at our partner. We can imagine the day he finds the text. We can imagine our affair partner giving us an ultimatum – him or me. We can imagine just how awful it must feel to betray someone who doesn't deserve it. Consequently, we can't imagine cheating. The price is simply too high. 
Cheaters? They don't get past the "I like how this feels" stage. Or, if they do, they go back and rewrite history to somehow justify what they're doing. We're nags, they tell themselves. We've lost interest in sex. We're probably miserable too. In fact, they wonder if we're cheating. Or if we want a divorce. In any case, if nobody finds out, nobody gets hurt, right? Seems like everybody cheats anyway. 
In my husband's case, cheating was like booze. It was a way of numbing himself from feelings he couldn't stand. Even before I entered his life, he relied on sex to to keep at bay his feelings of loneliness, inferiority, grief. 
Do I understand how he could do that? Not really. Not anymore than I can understand my mother pouring herself a vodka and coffee for breakfast.
But I can understand that a whole lot of people prefer distraction over feeling their feelings. It happens all the time whether I understand it or not.
So "how could he do this to me?" isn't the right question for me. It gets me nowhere.
The right question, for me and for any of us who want to rebuild our marriages, is this:
What is he doing to ensure he never cheats again?
Is he doing the hard work of figuring out how he did this? To understand the stories he was telling himself? To learn how he was affected by cultural messages, family messages? Is he willing to really feel his feelings – including those around his cheating? Willing to listen to your pain even though it makes him feel terrible? Willing to support you as you inch your way through days and weeks and months of trauma?
Because that matters far more than how he could do this in the first place. Sure it would be nice if these guys were incapable of cheating. But they are. And so what shapes our marriages from here is how far they're willing to go to repair the damage they've caused.
It's really really hard. The issues that led them to cheat are the same issues that make it hard for them to own up to it, to accept responsibility, to do the painful work of understanding why. I don't know of many who can do that alone, without the help of a therapist or a support group. They lack the emotional bandwidth, the psychological tools to heal themselves and, therefore, help you heal too. 
But that is for them to manage.
You? Your job is to stop asking "how could he do this to me?". You only need to know that people cheat because they're damaged in some way. Hurt people hurt people. Damaged people damage people.
They did not do this because there's something wrong with you. They cheated because there's something wrong with them. 
And they need to fix it.

Monday, July 31, 2017

To My Betrayed Soul-Warriors

I know how exhausted you are. I know how your mind races from panic to fury to confusion. I know how you wish you could just go back to bed only to find that, when it's time to go to bed, you dread the silence and the darkness and loneliness. How, you wonder, am I going to make it til morning? And then, in the morning, how am I going to make it til bedtime?
I know because that was my life too.  
In one horrible phone call, my suspicions were confirmed. And nothing was ever going to be the same.
I had three young children. I had work deadlines. I had volunteer commitments. I had a life. A life shattered by the discovery that my husband, the guy I thought would always have my back, had been cheating behind it. Had been endangering my physical health. Had been damaging my emotional and psychological health. Had threatened the stability of our entire family.
What the hell are we supposed to do with that information, right? 
I could have kicked him out, which is what every made-for-TV drama would have told me to do. I could have looked the other way, convinced myself of something along the lines of "men will be men". What I did was fall apart, at least some of the time. I managed to pull it together for my children and their friends and teachers. I managed to put on a mask for trips to the grocery store and the occasional get-together with friends. For months, I was publicly fine while privately a mess.
My husband was the same. Though he had a messy work situation to deal with, thanks to his idiotic choice to cheat with his assistant, for the most part the mess was dealt with privately. And he had clients and meetings and something of an escape from me for eight hours a day.
I had enough work to distract me briefly but not so much that I didn't have time to simply sob or stare blankly at a computer, wondering what the hell I was going to do. 
My mother, literally, saved me. Each day, we would talk and she would remind me, as often as I needed it, that I was strong enough, brave enough. I was enough. This was his failure, not mine. 
I believed her enough. 
And then, six months after D-Day #1 when I learned of the affair came D-Day #2 when I learned of all the others. And, three weeks after that, my mother, who guarded my heart, died suddenly.
I don't know how I made it through, only that I did. I held on to every word of wisdom and strength my mother had armed me with. I surrounded myself with the very few friends who knew what I was dealing with and who were fierce in their love for me.
I smiled for the camera and the interviewers and the crowds as I promoted my latest book. I tucked a bottle of anti-anxiety pills my doctor had prescribed for me into my bag, as I was increasingly panicked at the idea of showing up and pretending to be together and successful. I rarely took them. Having them was enough. 
And I followed so many of the rules I espouse here. I was gentle with myself. I took care of myself. I learned to set boundaries to keep myself safe. I gave myself all the time I needed to figure out my next right step. When I fell apart – and I did – I picked myself up and forgave myself. I didn't know these rules on D-Day #1. I figured them out as I navigated my pain. 
And you will too, my betrayed soul-warriors. If you believe in this truth: You are enough. Have always been. This is his failure, not yours. 
And each morning that you awake to face the same demons that challenged you the night before, know this: I see how brave you are. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Is Intuition Your SuperPower?

In hindsight, I see that I knew that something wasn't right. I had asked a friend if I should be concerned about the amount of time my husband was spending with his work assistant (with whom I later learned he was having an affair). I was uncomfortable with the dinners they had when they worked late. But, I reasoned, he told me about this stuff so he didn't seem to be hiding anything. Innocent then, right?
But the whole truth of what was going on came out six months later, on a second "D-day". And I can honestly say that I never ever had a clue that the cheating had been going on, well, since Day 1. For our entire relationship.
So, my "intuition"? Not so reliable.
But maybe my expectations for what "intuition" would tell me were unrealistic. After all, I think that any decent intuition should have told me that there were other women in his life. However, looking back, my intuition was telling me plenty – just not that. But I just wasn't listening. Or rather, I was talking myself out of trusting my intuition because it meant rocking the boat. And I was a longtime calmer of waters. Boat rocking was something I avoided.
A lot of us feel stupid in the wake of betrayal because we should have "known". What kind of idiot doesn't know her husband is cheating, right? Our culture implies that women who don't "stop" it are somehow agreeing to it, as if, rather than actually being ignorant of what's really going on, we're feigning ignorance. It's a longtime defence of plenty of Other Women, who believe that the wife is somehow complicit in the cheating. That she's okay with it as long as he doesn't leave because she doesn't want to "lose her lifestyle". Yep, OW have actually written to me to tell this drivel.
And so a lot of us wonder if our intuition is broken. How come we didn't know? What's wrong with us?
Nothing. Nothing is wrong with us and, likely, nothing is wrong with our intuition. Intuition isn't an inner psychic. It's more a warning system that something just isn't right. Problem is, so many of us have been over-riding this warning system that we barely notice when it goes off. A friend cancels on us for the billionth time? Oh well, she's busy. We might feel a twinge of resentment but we swallow it. We'll just reschedule. A family member volunteers us for something we don't want to do? Oh well, it's no biggie. We can manage. Our husband seems detached? He's just stressed about work.
It takes practice to notice that early warning system. And the warning isn't necessarily that we're being cheated on – at least not in the sense of a sexual betrayal. The warning is more that we're being cheated out of something. Cheated out of our agency. Cheated out of clear boundaries. Cheated out of respect.
Often, we're cheating ourselves out of our voice. We stay silent, swallowing our fury, our disappointment, our resentment. That niggling sense that something isn't quite right? We're just over-reacting, being silly. Those around us are often too happy to confirm this for us because, god forbid, we should begin to act in our own best interests instead of everyone else's. And so they tell us that others mean well, that we're being too sensitive.
And our intuition becomes harder to notice.
But it's not too late to start paying attention. The other night I was in the kitchen facing a sink full of dishes. The inner monologue began: Nobody ever helps me. They're watching TV while I'm in here doing all the work. Blah blah I'm a long-suffering martyr blah. It's a familiar script for me. I can recite it by heart.
This night, however, I tried to pay attention. Maybe not intuition so much as my still small voice. And it was telling me to respect myself, to notice my boundaries, to pay attention to this resentment because it was telling me something important about my relationships – that they didn't feel fair.
And in that time that I stopped and noticed, I also realized that nobody was forcing me into the kitchen. I was welcome to sit on the sofa and watch TV. The dishes wouldn't get done, at least not by me, but they didn't care.
And so I found my voice.
"I'm going to read," I said. "Would someone do these dishes before bed?"
My husband and daughter agreed easily. Sure they would.
And with that, I left the kitchen.
Intuition isn't much more than that. Paying attention to our bodies, our minds, our hearts. Noticing when something just doesn't sit right with us. And we might need lots of practice to really sit with that discomfort and figure out where it's coming from. Our intuition isn't some private investigator, able to present evidence of wrongdoing, necessarily. But, when I think back, the night came when I did somehow just "know" that my husband was cheating on me. That the dinners and the late nights and the "work" was more than a new team dedicated to building a business.
I've let myself off the hook for not "knowing" sooner. I'm not sure what difference it really would have made. But I have tried to learn from the way in which I dismissed my own concerns, the way I bought his excuses that never did quite sound convincing. The way I chose to believe what I wanted to rather than notice that the knot in my stomach never quite went away.
I notice now more than I did. I'm still working on it. Intuition might not quite be my superpower, but it is powerful. And I'm revealing its power more all the time.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Crawling towards the light

"The hardest times are when no one is watching and it doesn't really matter whether you're strong or not. The times when you think life is circling the drain, and the bedrock aloneness of it trumps everything else. That's when animal instinct kicks in and most of us start to crawl toward the light.... We like to call it courage, but the body doesn't recognize it as such. You just put your head down and keep moving."
~ Gail Caldwell, from the memoir New Life, No Instructions

Even now, I find myself sometimes thinking of those around me who know nothing of the struggle I fought after D-Day, "if you only knew..." Because while it's great that I survived and, to most, appear to be a healthy, stable, happy middle-aged woman, sometimes I want credit for what I had to do to get here. Sometimes I want people to know what a badass I am. How heroic I am. How many dragons I had to slay to arrive at healthy, stable and happy.
You all know. Because you've either slain your own dragons or are slaying them as I write this. 
You know the courage it sometimes takes to get out of bed and show up at work so you don't get fired. You know the particular brand of heroism required to nurture your children and keep their hearts safe even as your own feels shattered and abandoned. You know the white-knuckled self-discipline required to not smother your husband in his sleep, or resist firing off that brutal e-mail to the OW, or bite your tongue hard when your mother-in-law, who hasn't a clue about her son's, um, extracurriculars, comments on what a "good boy" he's always been. 
Those who've been decimated by heartbreak, by the particular brand of grief known to those of us who discovered we were, literally, sleeping with the enemy, know what Gail Caldwell means when she talks about crawling toward the light. Though there are many days when we're not really sure there is light. So many days when we just can't convince ourselves that there will ever be light again.
But that's where the others come in. That's where those of us who've gone before wave our lanterns from farther along the path, to beckon you toward us. To give you the light as a compass. To remind you, as often as you need reminding, that the light is in fact up ahead. Just a little bit farther. To assure you that, no, we didn't believe it either. We didn't believe we would ever laugh again, feel happiness again, trust again. But here we are. Mostly healthy, stable and happy.
Keep crawling, warriors. If you can't see the light, then follow the sound of our voices. 
You may not call it courage. You may barely be able to admit it's survival. But whether or not you consider it heroic, let me tell you that it is. It's heroic to reach out for help. It's heroic to tend to your wound. It's heroic to insist that you deserve respect and kindness and honesty. When the "bedrock aloneness" threatens to convince you that nobody can possible understand your pain, it's heroic to find your voice and share your story.
Crawl toward the light, my exhausted warriors. We're up ahead, waiting. 

Friday, July 14, 2017

The Lie of the Sisterhood

"If we do not transform our pain, we will always transmit it – to our partner, our spouse, our children, our friends, our coworkers, our "enemies." Usually we project it outward and blame someone else for causing our pain."
Fr. Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation

Some call it the "law of the sisterhood". Others refer to it as "girl code". What it stipulates is that we don't go after each other's husbands or boyfriends. What it stipulates is essentially a sort of moral high ground, in which we respect each other's relationships, no matter how cute we think their significant other is, or how much he flirts with us.
But sometimes this sisterhood feels like we're the only ones in it. I sometimes think it's the lie of the sisterhood.
My 19-year-old discovered that this week when she learned that a close friend had hooked up with an ex-boyfriend. Now the rules get a bit fuzzy with exes, at least for some people. And I've gently reminded my daughter that she was well and truly done with this guy. That, she tells me, is not the point. What hurts her more than the two of them hooking up, she insists, is that her friend did it behind her back.
And so, my dejected daughter insists, she's wiping her hands of this friend.
And I'm (mostly) keeping my mouth shut.
But here's the thing: While I don't condone her friend's behaviour (if we're being sneaky about something, that's generally our first clue that we know it's hurtful to someone and we don't want to deal with the consequences), I can empathize. This girl has had a miserable childhood with a truly appalling mother and her series of equally appalling boyfriends. This girl gets into relationships with guys who treat her badly. She craves attention, no matter where it comes from. And so, with this ex of my daughter's, she was willing to gamble her friendship for the short-term thrill of his attention.
Does that make it okay? No. And she's lost (at least for the time being) my daughter's friendship. As my heavy-hearted child noted, once someone has broken your trust, you never quite look at the them the same way again.
Tell me about it, I want to say. But I bite my tongue.
Hurt people hurt people, we often say on this site.
Father Richard Rohr says that if we don't transform our pain, we will transmit it. Those of us here were the collateral damage of that transmission.
But when we can recognize that, it helps us shake off any responsibility we might feel for how people treat us. It helps us realize that their pain is for them to deal with, that we cannot and should not be blamed, including by ourselves.
My daughter's black-and-white view of the world might soften as she ages – my own certainly did (though I remain an adherent to the law of the sisterhood). But she has reminded me what it looks like when we hold hurt people accountable for the pain they transmit. It looks like self-respect.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Why You Should Tell. And Who

The first person I told was my mother. Though she and I had a rocky relationship when I was a teen (less to do with my hormones than her addictions), as adults we were the closest of friends. I could, and often did, tell her anything.
Her support was invaluable. While I was trying to hold it together and parent three young children and reeling from the news that my husband had been cheating on me with his assistant, she was my rock.
I then reached out to an old friend whose husband had cheated on her a few years earlier. She was no longer married and, I knew, it still hurt. Her response chilled me. "I couldn't stay married to him," she said of my husband, and made it clear that was pretty much all she had to say on the topic. She even defended the Other Woman, my husband's assistant as being completely entitled to a generous severance. While it might have been technically true, I hardly wanted to hear it.
Not long after, I confessed to a friend who worked in my husband's office. I told her mostly because of her relentless questioning about what the hell was going on between my husband his assistant but there was such relief in the telling and in her response: Her eyes opened wide with shock, then filled with tears. (A few years later, she discovered the same about her own husband and I was able to return the favor of unrelenting support.)
Over time, I told other friends. It wasn't so much intentional as natural. A friend concerned over my weight loss. A friend whose own marriage was dissolving at the same time but who I didn't tell until she was on more solid ground herself.
With that one early exception, those I told responded with concern, with compassion, with incredible kindness. And not just to me. With some time having passed, they could see my husband's shift. He had changed. And now they understood why.
The one exception was painful for me. I had reached out to her almost immediately. She was an old friend but our friendship had been rocky for a time when her boyfriend-turned-husband decided I was bad news. He later cheated on her and she reached out to me again. Now it was my turn. And her response hurt me deeply. I hadn't asked her for advice. I really just wanted someone to commiserate with. To tell me I'd get through this. Instead, I got judgement over how I was handling the worst pain of my life.
Lesson learned. Again.
Betrayal doesn't just change our marriage, it changes us. And it changes relationships around us. I became acutely aware of what role each friend played in my life. The people I spent the most time with – moms on committees at school, running group – weren't the people to whom I turned. I carefully parsed who could be trusted with my pain. My friend going through divorce herself at the time remains a close friend but she's never been good in a crisis. So scratch her off the list, at least right away. My friend who worked in my husband's office wasn't a close friend at the time. But her support and her loyalty to me during such hell meant so much to me. To this day, I know she has my back.
All of this is to say that I don't think I could have made it through this without having people in my life who could help me carry my pain. My therapist was a saint. I'm brought to tears by the memory of her "just happening" to drive my house one morning (she was friends with my neighbor) and stopping her car as I was loading kids in my van for the trip to school. She looked me in the eye, asked how I was doing, and assured me that I was going to be okay. She said it with such conviction that I had no choice but to believe her.
We need those people. The ones who see the pain in our eyes and don't look away. The ones who hold our stories as sacred, who don't turn our agony into gossip, who withhold judgement or advice. The ones who are whole enough to put aside their own feelings about infidelity to make space for our experience.
These people are rare. But sometimes they don't exist so much as they are created by us. Our courage in telling them our story gives them the chance, if they take it, to step up. To be brave themselves. To open their own hearts.
Infidelity triggers a lot of feelings in people. Awful feelings. Fear. Anxiety. Shame. The most judgemental people are usually the most frightened.
Know that.
Know that their fear often comes out as anger or disgust or a need to tell you, exactly, how you should respond.
But know also that there are people who've been through this themselves and learned the hard way about the pain of betrayal. And you might just be surprised at who in your life has learned this lesson.
Take stock of the people in your life. If there isn't a single person you think you can trust with your story, then part of your healing needs to include finding someone. Or a few someones.
None of us should go through this alone. And though this community always always amazes me with the way you reach out to each other, to the way in which you wrap your virtual arms around the most wounded, real-life support is crucial too.
Telling people is an act of self-respect. It is an act of courage. It is a way of insisting that your pain matters. That remains true whether or not people have enough courage to hear it.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

When you feel forced to get back to "normal"

My husband would watch me like a hawk. Every twitch. Every smile. Every remark. He was seeking evidence that we were "okay". That things were "back to normal". He was seeking evidence that the crisis was over and that our marriage had survived.
And I was loathe to give him evidence because, whether or not I was having a good day, the crisis was not over. Our marriage might have survived but only for the moment. And I reserved the right the end it tomorrow should I so choose.
What's more, I'd be damned if I'd give him a moment's comfort, a second's reprieve from feeling like a louse. He deserved to be on tenterhooks for the pain he'd caused me.
Or so I thought.
A lot of us find ourselves there, don't we? Afraid to actually exhale and experience the slightest joy or relaxation or relief. Determined to make it clear that things are not "okay" and, perhaps, never will be again. That our marriage is being held together only by our inability to get it together and call a divorce lawyer. That he had better not make a single misstep or we're outta here.
Our message, loud and clear: Things are not "back to normal" so don't you even dare to think I'm "over this."
Beneath this message is a fear. A fear that "normal" means releasing him from responsibility for what he did to us. That "normal" is acting as if none of this ever happened. That "normal" means we never have to speak of this again. That by bringing it up, we're somehow ruining a good thing. A fear that he believes that everything would be fine IF WE COULD JUST GO BACK TO NORMAL.
I've got news for him. If by "normal" he wants you to go back to being the you who you were before he betrayed you, then "normal" is a fantasy. That you is gone. That you is forever changed by his betrayal. That you is replaced by a you that can absolutely get past this. A you that will laugh again and feel joy. A you that perhaps even feels joy more deeply for the gratitude it now holds. But a you that has also experienced a pain that you didn't anticipate, a wound that can heal but will leave scars.
And that's something that every guy who's ever cheated on a woman and then wants things to go back to "normal" needs to understand. "Normal" isn't an option. Not any more.
To those outside of my marriage, things look "normal". We have fun together. We are great at co-pareting our kids. We share a value system (which, now, includes the value of monogamy to each other).
But we know better. We know that our "normal" includes incorporating the painful lessons we both learned, it includes a gratitude for each other that's directly related to the recognition that we're only where we are because we worked our asses off to get here. Our "normal" recognizes that our marriage isn't perfect. That it's a process. That some days we make our marriage stronger – by listening to each other, by respecting each other's needs and wants, by making it clear to each other that we're glad to be together. Other days, well, we don't do such a great job. Which, come to think of it, is pretty normal.
But know this: You don't have to hold on to pain to make it clear that what he did was not okay. You don't have to resist any slivers of joy or contentment out of fear that he'll think things are back to "normal". You are not only allowed to talk to him about your pain, you are encouraged to do so. His ability to listen to you, to hold your pain even in the face of his own shame and disappointment, will make you stronger, will make your marriage stronger.
Don't let fear of "normal" control you. Your new normal will be a creation of your own. It might involve divorce lawyers. It will likely involve therapists. It might include new vows.
What it won't include? Amnesia. Pretence. Faking it.
But let your new normal include any bit of happiness you can. That doesn't negate what happened to you. It simply reminds you that you are healing. And healing is perfectly normal.

Monday, July 3, 2017

When counselling becomes performance art

A friend of mine is in couples counselling with her husband (after a few years of me nagging her to stop complaining about her marriage and either do something about it or get out). The change, she says, has been remarkable. Her husband is helping more around the house. He's turning off the television and listening to her. They're laughing more. Sharing more. Planning the rest of their lives.
They're also running into something that most of us hit in therapy. Or rather two things. The first is that a genuine desire for help becomes a desire to enlist an ally. Once the worst of the crisis is over and the counselling becomes about negotiating the smaller things, it can too easily slip into trying to use the therapist as backup,  sort of "see, she thinks you're being ridiculous too". After all, you think, you're clearly right and your husband is clearly wrong. And surely the therapist agrees.
But a counsellor is not there to gang up on the "wrong" partner. She is there to help you find that place where you can begin to mend some damage, to help each of you see that your point of view isn't so much as a matter of "right" vs "wrong" but to help each of you try to see the others' point of view.
A good counsellor sees his job as teaching a couple to negotiate. A good counsellor should clear the way for you and your spouse to talk to each other and listen to each other. To communicate without someone in the middle. That takes practice for most of us who never learned how to have a healthy respectful conversation in which we listened without agenda, without assumption, without bias.
Infidelity, however, does complicate things.
While it's not the job of the counsellor to pile on the cheater and harp on the pain he's caused, it is reasonable to expect your counsellor to agree with you that what he did was not okay. And counsellors who refuse to condemn the action of cheating, even while supporting the cheater, can do a lot of damage to the betrayed who feels, again, betrayed.
But note that I said it's important that the counsellor condemn the cheating. Not the cheater.
It can feel excruciating to we betrayed wives, however, to have a counsellor who won't beat up our spouse. He deserves it, after all. And especially if we're feeling unheard by our spouse, we want to be sure that he hears LOUD AND CLEAR that what he did means that he's a no-good snake and should worship the ground we walk on because we're giving him a second chance.
If you can both agree that the cheating has caused a lot of damage in the relationship and hurt you deeply, then it's probably time to move onto what you both plan to do about it, how you plan to rebuild. And that's where more typical couples counselling comes into play: How to speak with each other, how to carve out time for each other, how to respond to each other with kindness and respect. Not how to enlist an ally to help you catalogue every dumb hurtful thing your partner has ever done.
This can also morph into a second issue that can arise in couples counselling: using the counsellor as a referee instead of dealing with issues as they arise. (And, uh, guilty as charged.) Those of us who hate conflict can often put things off until we're in an environment where our partner is less likely to respond with anger, or with snark, or any other way that means we retreat into our pain rather than hold our ground. Our counsellor becomes something of shield we use.
Which is fine in the short term. Fine as we learn to use our voice to lay claim to our needs, to insist upon our value in the relationship.
But again, a good counsellor will help you gain the skills needed to tackle issues as they arise. To learn how to bring up a difficult conversation, to recognize counter moves, to know when to walk away if the conversation turns disrespectful.
In fact, the best couples counsellors put themselves in a position where you no longer need them.
It's important to take stock of what we want from our therapist. The best ones are coaches not referees.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Feeling authentically you when things aren't what they appear

I posted a pic on Facebook the other day. It's of my three gorgeous children. The occasion is my youngest's grade eight graduation. My kids are smiling. I know I sound like their mother but they are radiant.
I could have commented something about endings and beginnings. I could have written about the awesome teachers and incredible school my daughter had the good fortune to attend. Or about the sibling love and loyalty so apparent in their hugs and their grins.
Instead, I posted something perhaps oblique to those who don't know us well. I wrote that it's tough to be a kid. I noted that some hurdles had been cleared but we know there are more to come.
I was referring, without coming right out and saying it, to the mental health issues that my youngest – our current grad – has faced. Two years ago, she was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and, at her worst, begged her father and I to kill her because she couldn't endure another minute of her thoughts. Instead, we found her help and she participated in an out-patient program at our local hospital. For weeks, she underwent what's called Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP), a therapy that slowly exposed her to her worst fears – contamination – and taught her that she could not only endure it but, with time and training, accept it.
Today, though she needs to routinely do mindfulness work to stay on track, you'd hardly know she will have OCD for the rest of her life.
I was referring also to my eldest who was recently diagnosed with Bipolar Spectrum Disorder and who, in the past couple of weeks, has been on 24/7 watch to prevent her from harming herself. She's doing better but we are, by no means, out of the proverbial woods.
To most who saw the photo I posted, I'm a proud mom of three beautiful children. Which is true.
But it's only part of the story.
And that's a challenge most of here face, isn't it? How to accept that something can be true – and no less true for being only part of the story.
It can be true that my husband loved me deeply. And also true that he cheated on me.
It can be true that my mother valued being a good mom. And also true that she routinely drank herself into incapacitation.
It can be true that you are an amazing person. And also true that your husband cheated.
It can be true that your husband is a kind, good-hearted soul. And also true that he made choices that hurt you deeply.
Our job, in the wake of betrayal, is to learn to accept these seeming paradoxes. 
And it's to discover that not telling everyone the entire truth of our lives isn't the same as lying. 
You don't owe people the whole story of your marriage, of your life. What people project onto you – that your life looks "perfect", for instance – is about them, not you. You're under no obligation to open the whole of your heart.
Human beings are natural storytellers. And we often fill in the blanks of what we don't know. We peer in from the outside and think we know the inner mechanics of their relationships, of their quirks.
But we don't know.
And we never will know what it is like to live in another person's marriage. That, however, rarely stops people from projecting. We see the put-together woman with her healthy beautiful children and we figure the inside story is as glossy as the outside version. And so we're shocked to discover that perfect makeup is to hide the bruises. Or we see the frazzled mom who's routinely late and are surprised to discover she's a well-respected CEO.
We are so swayed by external evidence that we, again and again, forget that it's a package. The contents can be wildly different. And the we humans are full of contradictions.
And while it's disconcerting to discover another person's life is not what it seems, it's devastating to discover that's true for our own.
But his cheating doesn't alter who you are.
And though at first you struggle to reconcile what you believed to be true with this new information, it can become easier.
This isn't some sort of semantic hocus-pocus. There is unquestionably parts of my marriage, before D-Day, that were a lie. I believed things about my husband that were patently untrue.
But I've learned that the larger part – that I was loved – can remain true.
And, more importantly, that I am a person worthy of love isn't changed by his choice to betray me.
All of which is to say, I get to choose the parts of my story that I share with the wider world. Choosing not to tell casual friends or acquaintances – even those who express envy at my "perfect" family – isn't being inauthentic, it's having clear boundaries. I don't owe anybody my whole story. Our lives are our own, and we get to decide what parts of our lives we share with the around us.
We choose who to tell about the mental health issues we're currently struggling with. For instance, we've chosen to tell close friends. We haven't told my daughter's landlord. We've told some family members but not others.
Don't confuse authenticity with full disclosure. Authenticity doesn't require you to reveal everything about yourself, it simply requires you to be fully present and fully yourself. It requires you to be honest with yourself. Always.
I know a lot of us struggle with this and feel as though we wear a mask. Give yourself time. Share your story with people who've earned the privilege, who will hold your pain in their hearts. Or don't. The choice is always always yours.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Is Hope Lying to You?

Most mornings, you'll find me in the woods, hiking through the underbrush with a friend. As we trek, we talk – about kids, about spouses, about work and friends and life.
Over the years, I've heard often about a friend of my hiking friend. This friend of my hiking friend has had a heap of health problems, she's medically obese, her finances are a mess. And her husband has had a long string of affairs and visits to prostitutes and people on Craigslist.
She says she's finally ready to leave but has a long list of reasons why not quite yet. And it has been years of this. Years that have impacted her health. Years that have drained her finances. Years in which she has felt miserable and invisible and utterly devalued.
Her list for not leaving is long. Her religious faith dictates, at least in her mind, that marriage, even to a philanderer, is sacred, that lying (about, for instance, setting up her phone bank account, which he didn't allow) is wrong. But mostly, she's been held in place by hope.
Anyone who comes to this site knows that I'm fully supportive of staying in a marriage after betrayal when both partners are willing to do the work to rebuild. Or staying while you figure out your next right step. Or staying until you gather the money, education or whatever it is you need to leave.
What I struggle with is hearing about people who stay because they hope he's going to change. They hope things are going to be different. They hope that he will wake up, become a new man and they'll have their "old" life back.
Hope is "the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all," writes Emily Dickinson. "Where there's hope, there's life," wrote Anne Frank. "It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again."
Well, yes.
But not always.
Sometimes hope keeps us where we don't belong. Sometimes hope tells us lies. That things will be different. That he'll change.
The problem is when hope is passive. When we cling to it like a life raft instead of swimming like hell.
Hope, as the saying goes, is a verb with its sleeves rolled up.
What this means is that hope makes demands on us. You're hoping he'll change? What evidence is there that this hope is well placed? You hope that your marriage will be stronger? What are each of you doing to make that happen? You hope that your kids won't be devastated by the impact of his affair? How are you supporting them or finding them support outside your home?
In other words, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Don't let hope do all the heavy lifting. Let hope inspire you to do some of the lifting yourself.
I'm all for hope. Especially when the word feels dark and hopeless. But pay attention to what hope is telling you. Is it making promises that depend on others to change? Is it keeping you small? Or is it reminding you that, no matter what, you are going to be okay? Cultivate hope that is active, that sings your song, that gives strength. That other hope? The type that keeps you rooted in place? That's just fear telling you a fairy tale. Use real hope to write your own happily ever after.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Six Things You Must Know About Being Cheated On

I will not say that my husband's affair was a good thing. The cost of his betrayal was too high. My ability to meet my children's needs was undoubtedly compromised when I could barely get out of bed. My career suffered when discovery of his betrayal coincided with the publication of my book, along with a number of related opportunities that I simply didn't have the energy or confidence to pursue. And I continue to wonder about the impact all that stress had on my physical health.
However, I recognize and acknowledge (such as here, here and here) that through healing from my husband's betrayal, I've learned and grown in wonderful ways.
Put simply, I'm not the person I was. And though I wouldn't have admitted it at the time, that is a good thing.
But when you're still in the weeds, it helps to see someone standing on the shore waving you in. So I've put together a half dozen things that you need to know about being cheated on, plus a bonus one. 

1. Affairs are about escape, not "trading up".
The stereotypical Other Woman is a sultry siren, dressed in a short skirt, and with long flowing hair and perfect teeth. So we're often shocked to discover that the Other Woman is, well, ordinary. Or younger but crazier. Or skinnier but nastier. Or chubbier and a raging alcoholic (as in my case). But his affair was never about so-called trading up. It was about escape. Consider this from New York magazine: "It might be reassuring to know that most people have affairs not because they’ve found somebody better or hotter or more perfect (perfect people don’t tend to have sex with other people’s spouses) but because affairs make us feel alive and seen; they counteract feelings of numbness or flatness or disconnection that seem like they might kill us, if we don’t kill ourselves first. And since we aren’t up for suicide, we find a work-around." 
In other words, the affair offers a distraction from those awful feelings he wants to avoid. They're the coward's way of dealing with problems. And his affair isn't about you at all. You're just collateral damage.

2. Happiness really is a warm puppy or fill-in-blank-here.
I discovered, by accident, that the way out of my pain was noticing those fleeting moments of contentment and holding on for dear life. In my case, I took great comfort in my giant white dog whose love for me felt solid and certain. I would walk him in the morning, which not only got me out of the house and into the world, it reminded me that the world can still hold beauty even when I'm in pain. I would marvel at the sunlight scattering on the fresh snow. I would notice the birdsong. I would delight in my dog's ability to be entirely in the moment – not miserable about yesterday or terrified of tomorrow. 
So, for me, happiness was my warm puppy. For you, it might be your newborn daughter, or your grandchild, or your blank canvas, or Mozart, or the weight room at the gym, or your garden, or...,or...or.... Whatever it is, be grateful for it. Prioritize it. It will save you. 

3. People love us the best they can. And sometimes their best sucks.
I owe this lesson to my mother, who pointed it out to me when I was in the "why would he do this to me?" stage of mourning my marriage. A graduate of the 12-step school, my mom had plenty of lessons to impart. And she died weeks after D-Day #2 (when I learned the full extent of my husband's betrayal). For the six months, however, between D-Day #1 and #2, my crisis provided the opening for me to really start paying attention to my mom's wisdom. To be so grateful for the rock she provided me when I felt like I was drifting. She was speaking about my husband at the time. But this particular lesson was true for her too. The worst of her alcoholism came during my teen years, when I desperately needed a mother. She loved me then the best she could. I know that now. And when she was better, she could love me better. 

4. Judgement masks fear.
Ohhhh boy. I shake my head when I remember how certain I was that my marriage was safe from infidelity. And when I heard rumours of infidelity in other marriages, I would comfort myself with the certainty that I wasn't like those wives – who nagged, who "let themselves go", who weren't much fun. Gulp. 
In the days following my own D-Day, I admitted just how judgemental I'd been. And I realized that I hadn't a clue what was going on in those other marriages. Just like nobody had a clue what was going on in mine. What's more, it became acutely clear that feeling invisible in a marriage does things to a woman. She just might nag. She might "let herself go". She's not much fun. None of which make it okay to cheat (or continue to cheat) on her. 
When we judge others, it's like a neon sign toward our own fears. We judge others to feel superior. To feel safe. I have a friend who, whenever she's being judgey about someone else, does this: On a sheet of paper, she writes down that person's name and underlines it. Then beneath that name, she lists everything about that person that drives her crazy. And then, when she's finished her list, she goes back to the top of the page and crosses out that other person's name and writes her own. Looking over the list, she says, she always ALWAYS finds a list of things she doesn't like about herself. And that gives her the clarity she needs to recognize that her judgement about others is really fear of judgement about herself.
Fear is often behind our worst behaviours. Judgement is no exception. 

5. Perfection is the enemy of joy.
Speaking of fear, I often hid behind a pursuit of perfection, certain that if I could just be perfect, then everyone would love me and I would never be abandoned or alone. Great theory right? All it did was leave me resentful and exhausted because perfection is always just out of reach. I was never quite skinny enough, or quite pretty enough, or quite a good enough cook, or quite intelligent enough, or quite successful enough, or quite sexy enough, or...or...or... 
D-Day forced me to admit that my life wasn't perfect. I wasn't perfect. I hadn't been able to  protect myself from emotional abandonment. In fact, focusing so much on being pleasing to others left me empty. I hadn't bothered to take care of myself. I kept many people at arm's length, lest they see behind the mask. 
After D-Day, it was all I could do to remain upright. The idea of perfection was laughable, if I'd been capable of laughter. Instead, I learned something my wise mom had been trying to tell me for years. That all I ever had to do in life was "show up". Showing up was all I could do (and even that felt impossible some days). But I discovered that showing up was enough. Showing up -- really showing up, in all my imperfect authentic glory -- allowed me to have deeper friendships, it created work opportunities I couldn't have imagined. I didn't have to do the ol' jazz hands to make me notice me. I just had to show up. 
Perfection keeps us forever on the path of not enough. It keeps joy out of reach. Joy, on the contrary, embraces us exactly where we are. As exactly who we are. Joy is laughter. It's a deep appreciation for our imperfect selves and all other imperfect selves. 

6. It's possible to be happier after heartbreak. 
Raise your hand if you said, in the hours/days/weeks following discovery of your partner's betrayal, something along the lines of "I will never ever be happy again." I read it here all the time. Women who, in their agony, embrace hyperbole to insist their husband "murdered" any hope of happiness ever again, or "destroyed" their souls, or "shattered" their hearts and hopes. 
I know if feels like that. Lord, do I know! But let me tell you something I've learned on this path out of hell (there I go!): you will not – I promise! – feel like this forever. Emotions are transient. This too shall pass, the wise 12-steps folks try and tell us. And they're right. That doesn't mean it doesn't feel like your heart is in pieces. I know it does. But feelings are not facts, as my brilliant therapist reminded me over and over and over. 
And if you do the hard work of healing from betrayal, by learning how to be gentle with yourself, by learning to love and respect yourself, by letting go of any expectation of perfection in yourself and in others, you will come to a place where you not only feel happiness again, but you feel a greater happiness. It's a different kind. As one of my favourite poets, William Blake, tells us in Songs of Innocence and Experience, we gain a sort of understanding of pain having gone through this that will forever alter our understanding of the world. Our broken hearts are now capable of holding both dark and light. As Leonard Cohen puts it, the cracks are how the light gets in. 

Bonus Lesson: You do not need to be able to read your future in a crystal ball. You only need to ever know your next right step. Too often we think we need to respond RIGHT NOW to discovery of our husband's betrayal. And so we react – angrily, impulsively, thoughtlessly. We might file for divorce. We might light his clothes on fire. We might call his boss or his mother and give them an earful. We might run into the arms of another man. And frankly, any of those things might be a perfectly acceptable action. The key is to determine what you're going to do based on what is really the right thing for you. Not ready to kick him out? Then don't. (Just make sure some clear boundaries are in place.) Can't live with him in the house right now? Then don't. But before you make a difficult-to-undo choice, make sure it IS a choice. And not simply lashing out in pain. You don't want to compound your heartbreak. 
Your next right step. That might be an appointment with a therapist. It might be a facial. It might be changing the locks. But putting pressure on yourself to somehow know the absolute best way through this is setting yourself up for more heartbreak. Just focus on the now. And the next now. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Am I letting him off the hook?

It feels like something of a miracle in those weeks or months following D-Day. Something makes us laugh and, for a moment, we forget that our life is a wreck. Or maybe we wake up one morning and the boulder on our chest feels a little less heavy.
Or perhaps our husband comes home to find us sitting at the table, colouring with our child and soaking up their innocence.
We almost smile at him. Then we remember. He's the enemy. And so we scowl instead.
Navigating those first few months is hell. Even if we've decided to stay in the marriage (for the time being, anyway), even if we're engaged in hysterical bonding like crazy, even if we can't imagine life without him, we can feel as though we're on opposing sides. We are loathe to, as we think of it, let him off the hook.
And what is the hook?
The hook is this misery he has cast us into. The hook is this heart of ours he has shattered. This life he took a wrecking ball to.
The hook is our fear that, if we even for a minute behave as if we're not utterly ruined that he might just think that what he did was okay.
And it was decidedly NOT okay.
It will never be okay.
But let's stop for a second and consider this mindset.
Do we really think that, without a constant reminder of the destruction he has wrought, our husband might think that he's off the hook?
Because, frankly, maintaining a look of agony, day-in and day-out for the rest of our lives in order to ensure that our husband knows he is not off the hook sounds exhausting. It sounds like manipulation. Not in the short term, of course, when we really do feel shattered. But eventually.
I remember the feeling well. I remember worrying that if I actually started feeling better and, more to the point, acting as if I was feeling better, that my husband might mop his sweaty brow, breathe a sigh of relief and think to himself, "whew. Glad that's over and I can get back to my job of ignoring her pain and doing whatever I want regardless of the impact to my marriage or her."
I might not have put it in exactly those terms. More likely, I thought of it as, if I am revealing that I'm healing then he will think he's off the hook. And he is not. He will never be.
And that has remained true.
Though it has been more than a decade since D-Day 1 and a month shy of a decade since D-Day 2, my husband is not off the hook. No matter that I now laugh, that I go days or weeks without thinking about his former infidelity at all, that I feel grateful to have him in my life, he is still not and never will be off the hook.
He knows that.
He knows that I can love my life and still never be okay with his cheating. He knows that healing from his betrayal will never make his betrayal okay. And he knows that, having been given the gift of a second chance by me, he would be a fool to ask for a third chance.
And so...I was free to heal. You are too.
You are free to laugh when something is funny. You are free to smile when you feel happy. You are free to feel whatever you might feel in the moment without forfeiting your right to NOT be okay with his betrayal of you. To never be okay about it.
You don't need to remain miserable in order to ensure his fidelity.
You can speak to him about it. Like an adult.
You can share your feelings with him. You can share just how difficult it is to heal from this and what a miracle it feels to be able to laugh again, to have a glimpse of a life that isn't utterly darkened by betrayal.
And, if he is a good, decent man doing the hard work of understanding why he made the indecent choice he did, he will listen to you. He will do his best to understand. He won't ever be okay with what he did either. He will always know that pain he caused. As my husband once said, the worst feeling in his life was seeing the pain in my eyes and knowing he had caused it.
If your husband has really acknowledged what he did and taken responsibility then he will think your laughter is the most beautiful sound in the world, not because it lets him off the hook but because it sounds like hope.
Hope doesn't erase the past. It opens the heart to the future.

Monday, June 5, 2017

What to Expect When You're Expecting

"People say that expectations are resentments under construction..."
~Anne Lamott, Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy

The day I turned nine was perfect. I awoke the morning after, went downstairs before anyone else was awake, and recreated the entire thing. I rewrapped my presents. I gathered up the kitten I'd been given the day before (not exactly the one I wanted -- I got grey and white when I wanted the ginger kitten but was a kitten!). And I felt that same sense of excitement and anticipation and delight that I'd felt the day before.
By my 12th birthday, my mother had abandoned any party planning. I invited a few friends over, cooked hot dogs, bought myself a cake in the frozen section of the grocery store. My mother, drunk but also sick with laryngitis, spent the entire party ringing a dinner bell to summon me to her bed for one thing after another. My friends exchanged looks. My helpless fury mounted. Finally, as my giggling mother requested that I get her water or fluff her pillows, I begged her to stop and let me just be with my friends. They left shortly after and I was left with my humiliation.
I've had a lot of birthdays since then. And for way too many years, I've been disappointed. However, as my old therapist would remind me, if your feelings are bigger than the situation calls for, it's always about old stuff.
My birthday is old stuff.
And yet...I can't seem to let go of those expectations.
For one day, I want it to be about me. For one day, I want people to spoil me. Just one day.
And though my family knows that this occasion takes place every. Single. Year. On. The. Same. Day. They can't seem to get their acts together to buy a card, bake a cake, choose a gift (or make one! I'm not picky!). 
Over the years, I've worked to accept reality. I know my family loves me. And I know my expectations are about "old stuff". (Though I don't think they're unreasonable.)
And so I organize something annually to mark my birthday. We see a play (and my son has sat through many musicals). This year, I bought us all tickets for a baseball game. I sometimes make our dinner reservations. This year, I bought all the ingredients for a cake and simply announced that "at some point, I would like a cake." My husband and daughter argued over whose fault it was that they'd forgotten. I didn't take it personally. I managed to find their spat amusing. 
I've come a long way. 
I've learned that, rather than nurse those resentments disguised as expectations, to give myself what I need. What I need is to feel valued. And so I value myself.
It can look different depending on the year. I might buy myself an outfit that I'd otherwise tell myself I didn't need. I might take the day away from my computer. Last week, on my birthday, I sat outside in the gorgeous sunshine and read a few chapters of a devastatingly beautiful book (The Mercy Papers, by Robin Romm). I ignored that little voice that said I should be doing something productive, like making money or taking care of someone.
I was taking care of someone. Myself.
It has taken me more than five decades to see the value in the simple act of taking care of myself. The value in not letting resentments gain a foothold.
My family loves me. I know this. They show me in many ways, none of which involve having a cake made on time or carefully chosen gifts. 
Instead they show me with last-minute promises, like my son's card that told me I'm the best mom "ever" and that he'll take me to lunch and then to the store that sells my favorite yoga pants and will buy me "anything". With homemade cards that, though created out of necessity more than desire, nonetheless are more beautiful than anything in the Hallmark store. With a cake that was, honestly, the best I've ever had, despite my daughter forgetting the eggs until the very last minute. I didn't taste even a hint of resentment in that cake.
Managing my expectations continues to be a challenge for me. People disappoint me all the time. But as I learn to go easier on myself, I'm able to go easier on others. It's not the same as letting people off the hook for bad behaviour. Rather it's about not expecting everyone to think and act like me. It's about letting them be who they are and to love me in their own way. 
But mostly it's about getting clear about what I need and then finding a way to deliver it to myself. That's what being a grown up is about. 
It's something I seemed to understand on that 9th birthday. That, even the day after, I was able to give myself what I needed, to remind myself that I matter. And, for the record, what I almost always need involves a cat. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

"I just want things the way they were": No, you don't. Here's why

"In the aftermath of an affair, one partner often says, “I just want to go back to the way things were.” And I say, “Really? How well was ‘the way things were’ working out for you if you ended up in my office?” I say this much more gently, of course, but I make sure that they hear the question and are able to reflect on it. And when they do, they realize that “the way things were” wasn’t sustainable after all."
~Lori Gottlieb, writer and psychotherapist, "Is My Husband Having An Affair", New York Magazine

What I wanted more than anything else in the days following D-Day was a lobotomy. I wanted to carve out the painful knowledge of my husband's cheating so that I could return to my state of blissful ignorance. I imagined those days as halcyon, a period of time in which I was joy-filled and calm. Nothing like the hell I felt like I was in after discovering the truth.
Interesting thing about those halcyon days. Halcyon days, literally, means the calm before the storm. A period of time in which things seem peaceful. But clouds are gathering. The center cannot hold.
And so my nostalgia for that pre-D-Day period of time was for a time of ignorance. My marriage wasn't good and safe. I just didn't know it wasn't.
That ignorance is a dangerous thing to want back. 
Lori Gottlieb, whose New York Magazine article I've quoted above, was responding to a woman who suspects her husband of cheating and is asking whether or not she really wants to know. She signs her letter Head Happily in Sand.
I understand her impulse. I have a vivid memory of picking up the phone to ask my husband about what I thought I knew, to get his confirmation that my intuition was correct.
And I knew, by letting this particular genie out of the bottle, that there was no going back. I knew that I just might hear something I most definitely did not want to be true. My head could not be buried in the sand. 
I've never been a head burier. I far prefer the painful truth to anxious speculation. For most of my life, whatever I was imagining was inevitably worse than what was really happening.
Until D-Day.
Learning the whole truth, rather than what I'd imagined, was excruciating. It was, in many ways, far far worse. For one thing, the cheating had gone on much longer. (It was also, in some ways, better. The affair had nothing of the romance or passion I'd imagined. Instead it was...transactional.) 
But as Gottlieb points out, my desire to return to a pre-D-Day marriage omits the reality that was my marriage wasn't what I thought it was. One of us was, clearly, not fully invested. And that, as she puts it, is not sustainable.
And it's why a big part of rebuilding a marriage is about taking a clear-eyed look at your marriage. 
It's tough. A marriage counsellor my husband and I had begun seeing before I knew about my husband's cheating had told me that I had "rose-colored glasses" about my marriage. His exact words. We were "best friends", I had told him. Which begged the question of why we were in his office. 
I took offence. How dare he? 
We stopped seeing him because I didn't like him.
Now, of course, I can see that I didn't like what he was telling me. And I didn't like it because it was the truth and it was painful and it was pointing me to something I didn't want to admit to myself. The worst kind of truth. The kind that means I have to accept something I don't want to accept or change something I don't want to change. 
It was a long time before I stopped wanting that lobotomy. A really really long time. Even years later, after I felt optimistic about my marriage, after I could see how much stronger our relationship was, how much deeper, I still kinda wished I could cut out that knowledge. I envied those soap opera characters who awake after trauma with zero recollection of who double-crossed them. 
But without that knowledge, we wouldn't have the relationship we have. I wouldn't have the compassion I have for others going through this. I wouldn't know so much about human nature, about resilience and recovery, about healing. And I wouldn't have all of you.
The problem with a head in the sand is you miss the horror but you miss a whole lot of positive things too. And it's not that the awful stuff isn't happening, you're just not seeing it. 
And that's the painful truth about marriage. If one partner is cheating, it's not because there's something wrong with you. It's completely on him.
But it does mean that the marriage isn't what you think it is. And that's not sustainable.
Instead, if we're going to stay in our marriage, we need to examine the truth of it, figure out where the foundation is shaky and shore it up in ways that make it stronger – more honest and, likely, much more uncomfortable at times because you'll be dealing with problems face on rather than ignoring them or minimizing them. 
And if we're not going to stay in our marriage, then recognizing that it wasn't what we thought it was is a key part of moving on. No more rose-colored glasses. No more head in the sand. 
Just a clear-eyed assessment of our reality. And with that truth, we can move into our future. 


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