Monday, March 2, 2015

How to Heal From His Affair: Marshalling Kindness From Yourself

"...when I got to the point where I really thought I had lost my mind, another voice inside me stepped in, grown-up and gentle. This one said, "Well? Who knows. Maybe not..." ~Anne Lamott, Small Victories: Spotting Improbably Moments of Grace

In the days after learning of my husband's affair, I felt I was going mad. The world seemed insane. My life seemed insane. But I, most of all, seemed insane.
I screamed. I sobbed. I was inexplicably calm. I threw a pizza at my husband. I pulled a television set off its perch. I smiled benignly at moms when dropping my children off at school then returned to my car to unleash huge racking sobs when a sad song came on the radio.
Who is this person I've become? I wondered in rare lucid moments. I began to wonder if the saner, former me had been an illusion. If I'd always been this crazy and if that's why my husband cheated. It didn't help, of course, that he called me "crazy".
It also didn't help that I'd spent much of my youth being accused of being crazy. As in, "Of course everything's fine. Don't be crazy." This, despite my nine-year-old self listening in my bed to my parents hurling accusations at each other, the sounds of smashing dishes, slamming doors. It took me well into adulthood to understand that calling me "crazy" was code for "don't tell me what I don't want to hear".
Which brings me to the voices in our head we experience post-betrayal. Those of us blessed with loving, healthy families of origin are often better equipped to recognize those voices as belonging to a crazy person. We might hear, "he wouldn't have cheated if you were a better wife" but are able to see those words as the rantings of a lunatic and respond with "he wouldn't have cheated if HE was a better husband."
Those of us, however, who grew up being told that black is white and up is down might struggle a bit more with crazy. When we hear those voices in our head suggesting that he cheated because we're not skinny enough, or he cheated because we nag, or he cheated because we're lousy in bed, we're far too likely to listen and nod our heads in agreement. Not only do we not recognize crazy, we take it as truth.
Betrayal is undoubtedly a crazy-trigger. Even the most sane of us pre-D-Day can fall victim to the seductive lure of inner dialogue that confirms what our culture encourages: men cheat because their wives get old and frumpy and they fall victim to the irresistible sex appeal of an Other Woman who's a porn star in bed. That narrative can be a hard one to ignore. Even when there's ample evidence that it's a cliché rooted more in romance novels than reality.
When crazy comes calling, however, it's time to marshall your inner sane person as defence. Call out crazy into the light of day.
Remind yourself that you did nothing NOTHING that made his cheating okay. That this is on HIM to recognize and make amends for. That it's on HIM to deserve that second chance he's asking for and it's YOUR choice whether you give it to him or not.
Next time those voices in your head are berating you for not being enough, or battering you for not knowing what was going on, or warning you that you're going to get hurt again, I want you to try and listen for that tiny still voice that's so much harder to hear but sounds a lot more like truth. The voice that says, "Well? I don't know about that. But what I do know is that you're in pain. And that you need support and kindness and compassion. And I'm just the person who can give it to you..."

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why you (and he!) need therapy to heal from infidelity

We often hear on this site from women whose husbands don't "believe" in therapy, or women who resist it , or have had bad experiences with therapists. I remain convinced that avoiding therapy simply makes healing from infidelity even more difficult than it already is. A good therapist will coach you toward healing, while acknowledging just how devastating infidelity is. 
Contributing BWC blogger Steam had the benefit of a good – nay great! – therapist. She offers up what she learned here:

by Steam

Sometimes I wonder: Am I really this far along in my recovery from the largest trauma of my life? Is it really possible? I see so many of us who are stuck and although I know we are not supposed to judge our recovery against others, sometimes I can’t help but use our collective as a barometer. 

If my story has one thing that is a little different, it might be that, if my husband had not  agreed to go to therapy, that was a deal-breaker right there. But he said yes.

Once upon a time, and maybe where you live, as recently as yesterday, therapy was frowned upon.
You were mentally unstable if you had to seek therapy.
Although that's not always the case, in fact it rarely is, if you are just finding out you have been betrayed, here is the truth:
You really ARE mentally unstable.
For damn good reason. You have been rocked to the core. You know how you feel – you feel crazy.
But right now, for you, crazy is the new normal.
And don't you dare feel ashamed about this. 

I knew, even on D-day, that I wanted to be with my husband and, in my mind, that pointed to my own insanity. I must be nuts to want to stay and yet I wanted to…and had no idea how to do it.

This is where therapy became a must, not just for me, not just for my husband, but as our therapist pointed out on our first visit, for the third entity – “the relationship”.

Our therapist – let's call her Mary – knew exactly why we were there and her first question was “do you want to stay together?”. We both answered yes. If you are unsure if you want to stay, I still believe therapy is a good place to learn why you’re not sure…and perhaps become sure, one way or the other.

Mary's style is very active. I didn't just watch someone nod her head and ask me “how does that make you feel?” 
No, we had to get off our butts and do things, such as…

Learning to communicate 
That is an art form and neither of us had the tools. We never would have made it without them. Everything had to come out: ”Fine” was not a real answer to “how are you?” and “nothing” was not an answer to “what are you thinking?” If you did not feel like talking, you could set a time in the not-so-distant future,  say, 30 minutes, to get it together and communicate. We could not just shove our concerns aside until they were convenient.

We had to go on a date once a week and only one person planned it. No squabbling during planning. One partner just planned it, told the other what to wear and to get in the car (which explains why I went hiking in heels once – men sometimes miss the God in the details, and I will never ever judge another woman by her footwear on the trails. She may be on the same path as me, literally and figuratively).
We had been living in the same house, quietly and often too independently, for so many years that bringing fun back was a game-changer.
No matter how awful the week was, we had something fun to look forward to, and no matter what, we had to go. The change of scenery was always good. It only failed one time, our very first time when I fell into a heap of tears looking at other happy couples. They looked so young and untarnished, I knew I would never be like that again and it killed me. But the next weekend, we adjusted and did it again. Practice makes headway. 

But above all else, Mary urged me to feel and explore this state we call crazy and she called it PTSD (hallelujah, it has a name! Facing it was the only way to go through it. I was up, I was down, I was crying, I was re-living, I needed HELP and not just once a week. I needed help from the person who betrayed me. Gasp! She asked if my husband was willing to not just listen, but actively support me through my bout with PTSD. It could not have been easy for him, but yes, he was.
She taught both of us that “crazy” was totally normal, at least for now, and we both had to deal with it.
This newfound me with my need for passwords and complete transparency, who needed to know every moment of every day where my husband was and who just texted, felt bossy and controlling, wanting passwords and to “talk” at any hour of the day. 
I was hurt, I was shattered, I was NORMAL.

I have always known and said to anyone that my husband is the kindest man I have ever known. He has never said an unkind word to me in our 15 years together. Never put me down, never noticed if my weight creeped up, or if he did, was brilliant enough not to mention it. But what I put him through for at least six months was not pretty, or easy or fun.

Without Mary and my husband’s urging, I never could have set rules and demands. That was so not my style. I needed permission to feel every feeling, to learn the difference between feeling them and acting on them, and my husband learned a lot too!

Run, don’t walk to a good therapist!
If your husband tells you (or you feel the need) to “put it behind us”, “leave the past in the past”, “never speak about it again because it makes him (or you) feel bad” then you need some tools,  either to stay or to go, and to find out why you want to or not, and the best place I know is inside the office of someone trained to help.

How does that make you feel? You don’t know? Make an appointment. 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Anatomy of An Affair

Long-time readers of this blog know that Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, which is a compilation of her incredible run as Dear Sugar on The Rumpus, is one of my favorite things in the world. Dear Sugar is now back...on radio. And the most recent episode, a celebration of Valentine's Day, features a letter from a woman who reconnected with her high school boyfriend.
It began with a phone call from him...and evolved into daily texts and calls and a meeting (no sex, though, she swears!).
Our heartbroken letter writer wondered, now that her first love's wife found their correspondence and he stopped all contact, whether her "emotional affair" was actually cheating. She also wondered whether she should stay with her husband, for whom she no longer felt any passion though she loved him and had a good life with him.
The "Sugars" – Cheryl Strayed and co-host Steve Almond – were their usual compassionate, warm-hearted, wise selves.
But what was particularly interesting for we Betrayeds was how typical the trajectory of this emotional affair was. Everything about it was cliché. And viewed through the lens of detachment, it can be helpful for us to see just how little our spouses' affairs had to do with us.

She's Vulnerable
Her former love reached out to her when she was about 50. Her kids had left home. She and her husband had a nice, if predictable life. Her career was...fine. Her marriage was...fine. But mid-life is when so many of us begin to wonder if this is all there is. Marriage can, if we haven't worked hard on it, seem a little...stale. Where's the passion? we wonder. Is this all there is?

Enter Distraction
Her first love represented passion and excitement. He reminded her of who she used to be – young, sexy, fascinating. They reconnected and shared their new selves. As Steve Almond says, they shared their stories, which is a more intimate betrayal than sex. So now you've got this alchemy happening. Someone at a crossroads, trying to figure out where to go with her life, meets up with someone who distracts her from those big, scary questions. He makes her feel young again. Like all things are possible.

It Escalates
The phone call becomes regular texting and more calls. They arrange to meet up. They do and it feels wonderful to be with someone who, they believe, really knows them Really gets them. Sure there's a spouse at home but he/she hasn't paid attention to them in years. Doesn't even seem to notice that they're having this secret relationship. Besides, nobody's getting hurt. Right? They don't have sex but the atmosphere is charged. Electric with possibility. How can routine home life compete with that? It can't.

The wife finds the texts. She insists that her husband make a choice. Either he loses his marriage and family or he re-commits. He chooses to re-commit telling his former love that his wife found the texts and it's over. We don't hear on the show how this played out...but we're living how this played out.

The Married OW Wonders What's Next for Her
She writes a letter to a radio show that offers advice. That advice includes: Yes, emotional affairs are cheating. They're as devastating (sometimes more!) than sexual affairs. And then the Sugars tell her that there's no escape from life's big questions. We can distract ourselves (look! somebody likes me just the way I am!). We can ignore what's right under our noses (a spouse who loves us. A spouse who's likely feeling as disconnected and lonely and confused as we are. Or who will listen to us as we outline just how disconnected and lonely and confused we are). But there's just no way around coming to terms with who we are, what we want out of our lives, what we want from our relationships, and how we want to spend the rest of our days. They urge her to tell her husband about what she did (thank-you Sugars for advocating for deep, painful honesty over deception and a much shallower connection!) and see if they can reconnect based on the love they continue to feel for each other. They recommend that she do some deep soul-searching of her own to determine what she wants from her life. They remind her that long-time love will never have the intensity or passion of new (and forbidden) love but that it brings rewards of its own.

The End
We don't know what letter-writer decides to do. But we have been given a glimpse into the affair itself. It's so clear that circumstances converged that allowed both former love and letter-writer to reconnect in their secret friendship, convincing themselves all along that what they were doing was okay. Instead of self-examination (who am I now that my kids have left home? how do I create meaning in my life? how do I maintain passion in a 25-year-old marriage?), they opted for fantasy. They created their own world in which responsibilities, disappointments, real life was held at bay. A world in which their spouses were kinda erased.
It had to end. But, unfortunately, not before other hearts were broken.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Five More Ways We Hurt Ourselves After Our Husband's Affair

C''re smarter than that!
A couple of years ago I wrote a post called Five Ways We Hurt Ourselves After Our Husband's Affair. That post became the most popular post on this site, with more than double the page views of Five Steps to Healing a Marriage After an Affair, Letter to a Cheating Husband, and Seven Lies We Believe After a Spouse's Affair.
What I find interesting and wonderful is that the most popular post on this site is about we women seeking to heal ourselves. It's about us taking responsibility for what we can control, which is ourselves. It's about self-empowerment. It's about taking this horrible experience and recognizing how we're hurting ourselves...then changing our story.
Sadly I still get many comments from betrayed wives visiting this site that detail the ways in which they continue to hurt themselves. So I've added to my previous list. I'm sure I've still missed a few so please share your thoughts in the comments. Even better, tell us how you stopped hurting yourself – and began to heal.

#1: Letting him dictate the terms of reconciliation
He wants to determine whether or not you get couples counselling? He wants you to respect his "privacy"? He wants to continue to work with the OW? No way. Not a chance.
We sometimes get so blindsided and crippled by a spouse's affair that we forget to respect ourselves. We forget that we can't control whether he continues to cheat. We forget that we can't stop him from leaving us by simply being total doormats and letting him trod all over us. We forget that we matter.
This isn't about saving a marriage, this is about saving YOU. Marriages can survive all sorts of abuse and disrespect. But that's not what we want. We want, ultimately, a marriage that is stronger for the storms it has weathered, not simply hanging together through co-dependence, willful blindness, and fear.
This new paradigm begins when it is made clear that you, as the injured party, get to dictate the terms of reconciliation. You' get to set boundaries and ensure an atmosphere of emotional safety in order to reconcile. (He gets to call you out if you're unleashing your inner Kim Jong Un.)
•This begins with No Contact with the OW.
•No Contact might also include friends who were complicit in the affair.
•Total access to any and all electronics, social media accounts, passwords.
•Total accountability. Your new MO is "trust...but verify." He needs to be transparent about where he is and who he's with at all times.
•Counselling. Any guy who offers up the "but I don't need to go to a head-doctor" defence definitely needs to go to a head-doctor.

#2: Blaming ourselves
You are NOT the reason he cheated. Repeat that to yourself to absorb the full truth of that.
You are in no way to blame for his choice to cheat. That is 100% on him. If your marriage kinda sucked when he cheated, then absolutely take ownership for your part in that. But he had the choice to talk to you about it like a grown-up or run away from it and cheat, thereby making any problems in your marriage about a bajillion times worse.
As for blaming ourselves for any one of the "sins" our culture tells us leads our husbands to cheat – we were too focussed on the kids, we gained weight, we experienced depression, we got old – that is bullshit too.
Your husband cheated because he sought escape over reality. He sought avoidance over confrontation. He chose to betray you over saying 'no' to himself.

#3: Competing with the OW
How many of us suddenly feel cast into this competition with the Other Woman (or Women)? We desperately need to know whether she was prettier than we are. Younger? More successful? Better in bed? Skinnier? And on and on, while we keep a mental tally of whether she's ahead or whether we are.
Thing is, as I point out above, we're not to blame for his cheating. If all it takes is a younger, prettier woman, then we're all doomed. But that's not what affairs are generally about.
What the OW offers is nothing we want. It's sex without intimacy, it's a relationship played out in the shadows. The OW offers convenience. She offers fantasy. She is like a fun-house mirror, reflecting back everything our cheating spouse wants to see about  himself: He's sexy! Charming! Smart! It's the reason why so many OW are thrown completely under the bus the minute the affair comes to light and the offending spouse has to face up to what he's done.
This isn't a contest and making it one will only lead to misery, even if you think you're "winning".

#4: Ignoring our own needs
We feel on thin ice post-betrayal. Our spouse feels like a stranger. We don't trust ourselves, let alone anybody else. And yet somehow, within that, we need to acknowledge and respect our own needs. It can feel impossible, in part because we feel impossibly needy. We might need to be held while we sob for hours. We might need as much space as possible while we weep in solitude. We might need friends around us, we might need them to leave us alone. We might need extra help with housework, childcare, getting out of bed.
Honor those needs. Buy honoring your needs, you're honoring yourself. You're telling yourself that you matter. That you have value. That you are not defined by the worst thing that has happened to you. You are infinitely deeper than that.

#5: Letting our culture of "once a cheater..." determine our next step
Ah particular bête noire. I have taken some heat from another betrayed wife (who shall remain nameless and linkless) for selling fantasy in the form of reconciliation. An yet, statistically most couples dealing with infidelity remain married. That, in itself, is not cause for celebration because there will undoubtedly be those in that group who choose the rug-sweeping method of reconciliation. What IS cause for celebration is that, with a truly remorseful spouse willing to learn from his excruciating choice and a betrayed wife willing to extend compassion and respect to the person who hurt her (as well as herself), a re-created marriage is not only possible, it's probable.
Sadly too many betrayed wives follow the script handed to them by pop culture and cynics: the "once a cheater..." script, the "kick him to the curb" cynicism.
I'm no Pollyanna. Rebuilding a marriage after betrayal is a long, hard road. But so is divorce. You get to make the choice about what path to take based on what's right for YOU. Nobody else has to do the work. Nobody else reaps the benefits (or regrets). You decide. To hell with what everybody else thinks.

Monday, February 9, 2015

After Betrayal: Facing Down Fear

I was recently interviewing someone for a story that had nothing to do with infidelity or betrayal when my interviewee said something that virtually made me gasp:
"Everything I want to do lies on the other side of fear."
She was referring to people who fear whitewater rapids or climbing shear rock faces or jumping out of planes.
But she was also, whether she knew it or not, talking about me.
Everything I want to do lies on the other side of fear.
How true is that for you?
Would you leave him if you weren't afraid of being alone? Afraid of the impact of divorce on your children? Afraid of the financial hit you'd take? Afraid of what people would say? Afraid you'd never find someone to love you again?
Would you stay and work it out if you weren't afraid he'd cheat again? Afraid that you'll never be able to forgive him? Afraid that if people knew he had cheated, they would think you're a doormat? Afraid that you'll never get past the pain?
Fear drives many of our choices in life. But are they truly "choices" if they come from a place of fear?
Is it a "choice" to stay in a miserable marriage or is it inertia?
Is it a "choice" to leave if we're afraid to deviate from a cultural script whereby women who are cheated on are expected to toss the bum out?
Fear is an impulse, a way to avoid judgement or anger or loneliness.
Fear is avoidance.

Most of us have become adept at pretending we don't have fears.
We can sometimes admit macro fears – losing our child or parent, getting a terminal diagnosis.
But can we also admit the micro fears? That we're afraid of opportunity because we might fail? That we're terrified of being alone? Of rejection? Can we face our deepest fear – that we're unloveable?

We rage at a partner's betrayal. But what is that rage really but a fear of abandonment? A deep fear of being found unworthy? We are social beings. Feeling rejected is tantamount to fearing for survival.
Betrayal triggers so many of these micro fears, this tiny voice that whispers our secret: that we're not good enough.
These fears are real. And we must examine them if we're to find what's on the other side.
Instead, we dismiss them. We rationalize them. We hide them.
We can't, however, eliminate them except by pulling them into the light and exploring them. Turning them over and discovering that what we most fear is what everyone fears. It's part of being human. And that by acknowledging that, fear loses its power over us. Our more rational brain can then make choices rooted in our values instead of acting on impulse. A dark impulse.

I mentioned in a recent post that my daughter is struggling with OCD. In the past few weeks, I've felt completely on edge. Furious. It's not like me to feel such free-floating anger. I decided our world was stupid and cruel (I mean, c'mon. ISIS? WTF?). I hated everyone who seemed to be blithely going on with their lives – shopping, driving to work, planning vacations.
I snapped at my kids. Barked at my dogs to shut up. I was an absolute bear.
And then, when my daughter was having an OCD episode (her first in seven days! Yay!), it hit me. Though I know realistically that we're handling this well, have great support and all indications are that she'll emerge from this wiser and stronger, I'm nonetheless terrified because I remember all too well my mother's stays in a locked psychiatric ward. My anger isn't really about ISIS and animal cruelty and idiots who cut me off in traffic (though...seriously? This world needs a makeover). My anger is the outward face of my abject terror that my daughter is slipping down a dark hole.
It's a long-held fear (based on childhood experience) that mental illness will take away someone I love.
It's not, however, a rational one.

What's on the other side of fear?
Hope is on the other side. Realistic hope that we're all learning from this. That it's making us more attuned to our daughter's struggles, and also to the struggles that so many people experience around mental health issues.
A better me is on the other side of fear. A me who recognizes that I can't control other's behaviours. That there are many things I can't change.
A life lived more consciously and gratefully is on the other side of my fear.
What's on the other side of yours?

Thursday, February 5, 2015

What does an affair feel like?

What does an affair feel like?
I know most of us on the betrayed side of the affair think it must have been passionate. It must have been exciting. The sex must have been mind-blowing. It must have been so incredible that it was worth betraying us.
Unless we've had an affair ourselves, we'll never really know what it feels like.
We might, however, notice in hindsight that our husband was pretty jumpy. Or that he seemed stressed. Maybe he seemed agitated, impatient with us.
Here's how Wendy Plump in her book Vow: A Memoir of Marriage (and Other Affairs) describes an affair:
"An affair is not fun. It is like a bad habit. It is like addiction. You do it all on the sly, and you steal from your own cupboards to cover the cost.... You act on reckless impulse and hope to unscramble the consequences later on."
When her husband "forgives" her ("forgive" being a euphemism for sweeps it under the rug), without really expecting anything more of her than she stop, this happens:
"I looked back and saw that nothing all that terrible had come of it. Our marriage was intact. Bill seemed to have forgiven me...And so I concluded that nothing all that terrible was going to come of my having another."
Plump's book is painful to read and not just because she seems to lack her own moral compass. To say that Plump is immature seems obvious. She also has a lack of empathy for her husband's pain that's staggering. She twists words and metaphors to somehow pull us into complicity with her adultery, making me want to shower after each early chapter.
But then she discovers that her husband has not only been having an affair, he's been living an entirely separate life with another woman and child. Shockingly, she's shocked at his duplicity. She's brought to her knees. Nothing about her own betrayals of him has in any way prepared her for the agony of being betrayed herself.
Whether to be the betrayed or the betrayer? Here's what she says:
"I spent a lot of time examining the differences between having an affair and having one foisted on me. If one was better than the other. In the end, this was not true for me. The conduct of an affair was only marginally less miserable.... I do not know that deceit and happiness can co-exist."
Whether any of this sounds familiar to you, it certainly did to me. So many husbands, it seems, feel almost relief at being found out. Finally, the charade is over. But that's the thing with affairs. They're entered recklessly. People are seduced by the fantasy of escape. Fascinated by the image of themselves in another's adoring eyes. Like Narcissus who can't tear himself away from his reflection, drowning in his own vanity.
All of which is to say that affairs are highly misrepresented in our culture. Instead of steamy and alluring, affairs are messy. Exhausting.
There are many cautionary tales to take from Plump's published one:
•Nobody wins when somebody's lying.
•"Forgiving" an affair without doing the hard work of figuring why it happened in the first place is dangerous and simply postpones further pain.
•It's possible to spend years in therapy and learn pretty much nothing.
•Affairs aren't nearly as fun as they seem on TV.


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