Monday, March 27, 2017

How to have a tough conversation

Our trip had not started off well. My husband was overworked and grumpy. I was overtired and resentful. I had a laundry list of things that had been building up that I wanted to talk to him about but hadn't found the time.
Neither of us had been doing any self-care and our attitudes showed it.
We snarked at each other in the airport. He snapped at the kids. I chastised him for snapping at the kids.
We might have been heading to a tropical paradise but none of us seemed very happy about it.
Two days in, we finally found ourselves alone on the beach. It would have been easy to tell myself that now wasn't the time. That I should just enjoy the breeze and the sunshine.
I swallowed hard. "I need you to listen to me," I said.

So often on this site, I read your stories of being triggered. You suddenly find yourself in a situation that takes you right back to a terrible moment. You hear a song. You spot a certain make of car. You pass a restaurant or a motel or a massage parlour. And it feels like a kick in the gut. You have trouble breathing. Your throat constricts. Your heart, literally, aches.
There's not much we can do about triggers but wait them out. But what we can do is have those tough conversations with our partners about them.
It's tempting to not bring them up. Our partners, especially if they're still new to this "tough conversation" stuff, will almost inevitably disappoint us with their response. They'll get defensive. They'll try and shut us down. They'll ask us if we're ever going to "get over this". They'll get silent. They might get angry.
All of those are countermoves and are the response of someone feeling deep shame. Someone who just wants this to go away.
We know that doesn't work.
Have the tough conversation anyway.
Even if you're the only one talking, have the tough conversation.
"I need you to listen to me."
"I want you to know something."
"It matters to me that you know this because I need support."
"I'm hurting and I need to share that with you."
However you phrase it, give words to your pain.
Not to make him feel bad (though that might be an inevitable part of this) but because he's your partner and you're going through this together.
Not to cast blame but to seek support and compassion.
It takes practice. If he responds in a way that's disappointing or hurtful, talk about it. Tell him you don't want to hear excuses. That you don't want to be talked out of your feelings. Tell him he doesn't even need to say a thing. Tell him that this was tough for you and that you need a friend right now. That's it. A friend. Not a therapist and certainly not a defence attorney.
It's fraught, of course. The person you most want to help you through is the person responsible for the pain you're in.
But that's the reality of it. And you can both use these tough conversations to pull closer to each other. Or you can avoid them and leave the wall up between your hearts.
But you cannot rebuild a healthy marriage without, eventually, learning how to have these tough conversations. Without learning to really hear each other's pain.

Fighting back tears, I proceeded to tell my husband how his attitude sometimes hurts me and the kids. I stuck to "me" statements. "I feel hurt when..." "The kids feel frustrated when..."
I pointed out that he seemed so annoyed with me. That I feel small and stupid.
He listened. He simply didn't realize how his stress came out as annoyance with me. That wasn't at all how he felt.
He shared some of his own frustrations with work, with our kids, with me. I listened to him.
By the time he got up to get us a couple of margaritas a half-hour later, I felt 20 pounds lighter.
Pain is heavy.
It doesn't always work out quickly easily. Sometimes we need to take a break and walk away and come back to the conversation a day or two later. Sometimes it takes each of us some time to really digest what the other is saying. Old habits die hard and we get defensive. Simple truth is we don't want to hear about the other's pain, especially when it triggers our own shame in creating it.

But...marriage is tough. Marriage after betrayal is especially tough. And having these tough conversations can create a foundation beneath you that will hold you both up as you move forward. Being able to listen and say little more than "I'm so sorry you had to go through that" or "If I could go back in time and un-do this, I would" or "Thank you for sharing that with me. What do you need from me?" goes a long way toward shoring up that foundation.
It takes courage on your part to start that tough conversation. You will feel unbearably vulnerable. You will feel naked. Your heart will be exposed.
But the alternative is a cop out that only disguises your pain but does nothing to validate it.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Changing our Minds

"Change is not painful; resistance to change is." 

Raise your hand if you were part of the "if he ever cheats, it's over" club. Yep. Me too. Our culture casts infidelity as unforgivable. I've said it before. Women who leave get a high-five and a "hell yeah" from the sisterhood. Women who stay? Well, if they know about us at all (we tend to keep our choice private), we're viewed as kinda sad. Doormats. After all, cheating is a deal-breaker, right?
And keep your hand raised if, even now that you've decided to stay, even with clear evidence that he's genuinely devastated by what he's done and committed to rebuilding your marriage, you still hear that nagging voice in your head that you're a sucker for staying?
Yeah, me too.
Those messages are powerful. And they're everywhere. Despite the fact that most marriages will experience infidelity (though the cheated-on partner might never find out), our culture holds onto this one-size-fits-all response. Kick him to the curb. Only suckers stay. Or "chumps" in the parlance of a site that often traffics in absolutes.
Thing is, we're the ones who have to live with our choice. Whatever that choice is, we need to own it. And we need to make it based on what's the best thing for us. And, for those of us with kids, it's impossible not to factor in what's best for them too. I refuse to believe that I can ever know what that choice should be for anyone but myself.
That was never more clear to me than the weeks following D-Day. I thought back to all my conviction about other people's marriages. I was so sure about what I would and would not tolerate as I watched other people muddle through. I'd heard the whispers about who was cheating on whom and mentally calculated whether he or she "deserved" it by being nasty, or travelling to much for work, or whatever other ridiculous reason I surmised.
But when I discovered that my own marriage wasn't what I thought it was, it was a pretty short leap to the realization that I didn't have a damn clue what was going on in other people's marriages and I should stop being so sure I did. Gulp. That humility was a hard slap in the face but I needed it.
And yet...I can still judge myself harshly. I suspect you do too.
That voice that says I should have done things differently, should have left, should have made him beg. That voice that says strong women leave. It's a helluva lot quieter than it used to be. But, now and again, I still hear it.
These days, though I talk back. I remind myself that I did the best I could under brutal circumstances. I know, in a way I never did before, the courage it takes to get your feet back under you when betrayal has crippled you. I see, every day on this site, the power of the compassion we show each other and the strength as we each fight our way through the pain.
Changing our minds is an act of courage. If we know differently, we can choose differently. If we learn better, we can do better.
Holding on to those old messages, which were lies even then, keeps us stuck. Giving ourselves permission to change – our minds, our choices, our lives – isn't where the pain lives. Rather the pain arises when we're resisting what we know and instead caving into cultural messages that tell us our worth is in following the script rather than writing our own.

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Light Inside You

"Thank-you for seeing the light inside of me," said a teenager to the woman had welcomed her to the family dinner table.
It's what we all want, isn't it? For the world to recognize and value the light inside us? The one that burns with our fiercest dreams, our deepest love, our most creative impulses.
Over the years, that light can grow dim. Under the burden of caring for everyone else, we can forget to feed that fire.
And then, hit by betrayal, it's easy for that light to get extinguished altogether. For everything to go dark, including our heart.
But healing from betrayal can do something too. It can breathe on those dying embers and bring them back to a flame. It can reignite that fire inside, the one that had been ignored for so long.
It can remind us that we are not just a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, an employee. It can, if we give it the chance, bring us back to life.
I would have told you I was happy back before D-Day. And, if I put aside a simmering resentment about everything I did that I felt unappreciated for, I was happy. Or happy-ish. Or rather, I thought I should be happy. After all, I had three healthy kids, a beautiful home, work that I enjoyed. I had friends. I even loved my husband, with a side of resentment. To not be happy felt ungrateful. Like tempting fate. There were people, I knew, who envied my life.
Looking back, however, I was performing. Trying so hard to be the perfect...everything...that I had nothing left for me. Rather than try new things, I stuck with what felt safe. I didn't venture out of my comfort zone because, well, what if I failed? What if that long-held but barely acknowledged fear I had – that I wasn't good enough – turned out to be true? What if all the smoke and mirrors I had created to fool everyone into thinking I was more than I was, fell away and I was left, naked and exposed? A fraud. I could almost imagine the gasps. And the laughter.
And so I played it safe. And in the process, my inner light grew dim.
You know what happened next. What I thought was "safe" was anything but. My marriage became a minefield. Turned out, my husband's role of dedicated husband was a total fraud.
And I came face to face with some uncomfortable truths. If I was going to carry on with my life, I was going to do things differently. I've written elsewhere about going into something of a cocoon. Much of that was pure survival but it also led to a transformation. Having stripped away so much of what didn't matter in my life, or what had become toxic, I was left to figure out what did matter. How was I going to shape my life – far more consciously this time – into one that fed my inner light?
And that, ultimately, is the question facing all of us. Betrayal just shakes us out of our complacency sometimes. It forces some of us to realize that our inner light was almost dead.
How are you going to shape your marriage into one that nourishes your soul? How are you going to shape your work into something that fuels your inner light? What about your friendships? Your caregiving? Your hobbies?
If we approach life with that single goal – how do we tend our inner light? – no matter how external circumstances change, we will be living an authentic, rich life.
Thank you all for seeing the light inside of me. This site has helped me fuel it, to get back in touch with what delights me.
And thank-you for sharing your light with all of us. Even those of you just embarking on this tough tough road to healing have something to share with us. You might not yet see it. But we do. And we're grateful for it.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Do we ever heal from infidelity?

"The truth about healing is that you don't need to heal to be whole. And by whole, I mean damaged, missing pieces of who you were, your heart—missing what feels like some of your most important parts. And yet, not missing any part of you at all. Being, in truth, larger than you were before."
~Augusten Burroughs, from Running with Scissors

I speak a lot on this site about healing because, frankly, it's more important that we heal ourselves than that we heal our marriage. But I wonder how many of you assume from my words that healing is a sort of destination. A place that you will arrive at and feel whole and happy and "whew, glad that's over".

Though I hate to disabuse you of this lovely fantasy, the truth is far less straightforward. Healing isn't so much a destination as a process. And though we absolutely come to a point where the pain is largely absent, where trust is largely restored, where we come at life from self-love and self-respect, the wound will always be there. 
Case in point: My husband recently went out of town on business. It was to an exotic locale. Good food and good wine. Waves lapping at the shore. And me, home with our kids. An empty seat beside him at the dinner table, the pool, the bar.
He's gone away many times since D-Day. But this time was different. We'd been bickering. Stupid things. Where to take the kids for March Break – he wanted snow, I wanted sunshine. Who does more work around the house. Too little sleep, too much nitpicking.
And so, when he left for holiday, fear took root. What was to stop him, after all? He was free as a bird. And I had been anything but loving recently. Why wouldn't he seize the opportunity to spend time with someone else?
Forgotten in that moment was the years of work he'd done to get to the root of his infidelity. Forgotten were the many many promises he's made to me since, that he will do everything he can to never hurt me like that again. That he doesn't want to be the person. That he's happier than he's been in his life. 
I don't know if I'd have the same fears of betrayal I hadn't already discovered, a decade ago, what he was capable of doing. I might. I know a lot of marriages that have been shattered by infidelity. Even without personal experience, it's not impossible that I'd wonder.
But it's different when you've gone through it. You know it's possible. And you know it's excruciating. 
So here I was, ten years of healing, and I felt vulnerable and sad.
The wound was still there.
As much as I wish healing was complete, it's not.
As much as I wish that what happened to me, to you, to all of us could be erased by years of it not happening, it can't be. It's always there, sometimes buried deep, sometimes breaking the surface.
And no amount of wishing will change that.
Does that mean healing is a myth? 
Not at all.
But it does mean that our healing is never really over. It means that there will be times when we're triggered. It means that we can never un-know the pain of betrayal. And it means that we will always be more sensitive to the possibility of it happening again. Once bitten, after all.
But, and here's where I acknowledge the silver lining part of this dark cloud, it also means that I've spent years learning self-care and self-respect. How to develop and enforce boundaries. How to talk about difficult things. How to love a man who hurt me. How to give second chances without giving away my soul. 
In other words, in many many ways, I've healed myself. 
And I continue to heal, not only from this but from so many hurts in my lifetime. My parents' addictions. My brother's anger. Friends who betrayed me.
I'm changed by those experiences. To paraphrase Rainer Maria Rilke, sadness is life holding you in its hands and shaping you. 
My heartbreaks and my healing have made me who I am.
And that's fine with me. If you want to call that healed, then sure. I call it not a place but a journey. 

Monday, March 6, 2017

The loneliness of the betrayed wife

Betrayal is lonely business. Not only are we left reeling from the shock of a husband's affair, we're experiencing it in a culture that leaves women with few publicly acceptable options about how to respond. No matter whether we leave or stay, there's a stink attached to betrayal, a pervasive blame that, surely, we must have done something to get cheated on. Even if that something was not having the sense to marry someone who wouldn't cheat.
It does an effective job of silencing us, of isolating us from exactly the support we need most. In that moment when we need an army around us, assuring us that we did nothing to deserve this, reminding us of our strength, and supporting us as we heal, instead we retreat.
We have good reasons, of course.
My husband's career depended, to some extent, on being trustworthy. While I recognized the hypocrisy of an industry rife with alpha males with mistresses putting on this public face of honesty and integrity, I nonetheless knew that an unemployed husband (or ex-husband if that was the route I took) would damage our whole family. So even as those around him worked to quietly remove his assistant with whom he was cheating from the office – an expensive maneuver – I kept silent.
I kept silent because his family would, likely, have either disowned him or humiliated him, neither option a good one. I recognized pretty quickly that their long-held judgement about others was a big part of why we were in this mess.
I kept silent because, for years, I had listened to the whispers about others. The knowing glances about a guy who was cheating on his wife. The snide remarks about why.
I kept silent because I live in the same culture as you all do – where I can't purchase bread at the grocery store without walking a gauntlet of magazine covers boldly proclaiming "BETRAYED" over some miserable celebrity's face. Infidelity as entertainment. Betrayal as gossip.
We pay a price for that silence. Aching loneliness. Paralyzing isolation. A lack of perspective. A toxic stew of self-recrimination, shame, fear, loathing.
We need to tell our stories.
We need community.
We need our soul warriors, our sisters. We are fighting at a level that others can't see, not for our marriages or our families but for ourselves.
We need witnesses to our pain.
We need midwives for our rebirth.
Loneliness stops here.
It stops the minute you Google "my bastard husband cheated on me and I'm dying here..." and up popps Betrayed Wives Club, "your kickass survival site".
It stops the minute you begin reading words that sound as though they formed in your own heart. Words about profound sadness, about anger, about fear and confusion and a hurt so deep we believe it will never go away.
It stops the minute you realize that you are not alone. Not at all.
There is an army of soul warriors – souldiers, if you will – fighting the same invisible fight that you are.
Betrayal is lonely business. But it doesn't have to be.
Somewhere we can find the courage to post our story. Somehow we can begin discerning which among our real-life friends can deliver the required compassion we need to help us heal. We can read how others have re-discovered a strength and a wisdom they never knew they had. We read their evolution, whether they stay or go, into women not afraid to value themselves, to be heard, to take up space.
We can pick up the phone and make an appointment with a counsellor. And make an appointment with a different counsellor if the first one says something stupid like "you need to learn to forgive him and stop dwelling in the past".
Betrayal is lonely when isolate ourselves.
Reach out for support.
Ask for help.
We are soul warriors and you are among us.
Not alone at all.


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