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.


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