Friday, July 26, 2013

Five Steps to Healing A Marriage After An Affair -- Revisited

This post is frequently cited as the most viewed on my site (it originally ran in May 2012)...which indicates that there's a whole lotta women (and men) trying to navigate their way through the wreckage of an affair to rebuild their marriages. It's tough. But so, from what I hear, is divorce. There is no right path out of this. For some people, it's to rebuild their marriage; for others, divorce is the only option. For some, sadly, it's to stay silent and accept their partner's cheating.
If you're here, chances are it's because you're hoping to rebuild. No matter why you're here, you're welcome to share your story or simply relish the support and compassion of those who've been where you are.
Read on...

It seems presumptuous as well as pompous to suggest that I possess any great wisdom about healing a marriage after an affair. Yes, my husband had affairs. And yes, I'm still married. And yes, I would even consider myself and our marriage somewhat "healed" (if by "healed", one means that I no longer cry in grocery stores or fantasize about smothering my husband in his sleep). But wisdom? Not so much wisdom as life experience...which I suppose amounts to the same thing.
And I certainly know that, back when I was struggling to get through each hour of the day and wondering if I/my marriage was going to survive, I desperately wanted to know how others got through.
So, herewith, my thoughts. (And they are MY thoughts.  Take what you need, leave what doesn't work.) And remember too, this advice is for those who want to save their marriage...or at least preserve it long enough to determine if you want to save it.
Step #1: You have to both commit to putting the relationship first. Before your needs, before his serve the needs of the relationship, almost as if it's a child you're both nurturing. Once that is in place, you're far more free to hash stuff out without fear that one of you has one foot out the door.
This step is impossible with someone who's still deep in the fog of an affair. It takes two to save a marriage. You can try valiantly...but as long as he's refusing to take responsibility for the damage he's done, forget it. It doesn't mean it's over...but it does mean it's time for some tough love.
Step #2: You need to focus on healing yourself... Your main job in the early days following D-Day is to focus on taking care of yourself (and kids, if you have them). That means sleep, eating properly, avoiding excessive (or any!) alcohol, drugs, shopping, gambling. It means surrounding yourself with supportive people. Avoiding toxic people. Steering clear of drama. And staying away from the OW. It's time to wrap yourself in a cocoon and nurture yourself back to a sense of safety.
Step #3: ...and don't manage his healing. As much as it will kill you to acknowledge, he's hurting too. Yes, he detonated the bomb that caused the damage...but likely you both built the bomb together through years of slights, lack of appreciation, misunderstandings. And as much as it will also kill you (and you don't need to be privy to much), he's possibly missing the OW and very likely missing the sense of excitement that the affair provided. You don't need to (and should NOT) have to listen to his tales of woe and self-pity. He brought it on himself. But you would do yourself and him some good to allow him to heal on his own. You don't get to dictate his feelings. You DO get to dictate the terms of what you need to give him another chance but (and here's the catch), they must be terms that are focussed on your marriage healing, NOT on punishing him. (Sometimes it may seem to be both...but always check your motives.) For example, you get to insist that he cut off contact with the other woman as a condition of you staying. You do NOT get to insist that he doesn't miss her. Get it? Stay focussed on YOU, what you need and what you can reasonably control.
Step #4: Don't take his affair personally. I know it sounds wacky. In the days and weeks following discovery of my husband's affair, I went crazy trying to figure out what she had that I didn't. And for a perfectionist like me, it was excruciating! I was fit...she wasn't. I was smart...she wasn't. I was an overachiever...she wasn't. I raised money for orphans...she didn't. You get the idea. My husband kept telling me it had nothing to do with me and I would scream at him "How could this NOT have something to do with me. You chose to spend time with HER not ME? How is this not personal?" He had no idea...he only knew that it wasn't.
Finally, one day the light went on. I wish I could tell you what made me realize but I guess months of analysis along with my husband's reassurance finally clicked and I realized that it truly, honestly had nothing to do with me. It wasn't that there was something wrong with me, it was that there was something wrong with HIM. And he took that brokenness to someone else because it felt safer. Because if she rejected him, it wouldn't hurt the way it would with me. Counter-intuitive, yes. The thought process of a fairly screwed up psyche, yes. But also a thought process that so many of us have and simply don't realize. We seek outside ourselves what is missing inside.
So...I'll say it again. Don't take his affairs personally. They're about his broken-ness, not yours.
Step #5: Don't use his affair as an excuse for your own bad behaviour. His cheating does not give you an excuse to cheat, lie, steal or be physically or emotionally abusive. I said some horrible things in the wake of finding out. I said he was a lying scumbag (which, at that point, was factually validated by his behaviour). I said I hated him. I said he had "killed me inside". I smashed a watch of his, broke a television. I was pretty wacked out. Discovering a spouse's affair can make you crazy. Just keep crazy to a minimum as best you can. It doesn't help you, definitely hurts your kids...and can hurt your marriage to unleash crazy. If necessary, schedule your breakdowns -- rage and kick and scream in your bedroom when the kids are at school. Pound on your pillow, imaging it's his face. But keep yourself inside the law...and the boundaries of decency. Which also means NO revenge affairs. That's simply inviting another person into an already nutty situation. It's tempting, I know, to seek solace in the arms of someone who reassures you that you're still sexy and appealing. But you are. You never stopped being so (unless, of course, you which case, get thee to a gym. Physical health can go a long way toward emotional health and to self-confidence.)

Monday, July 22, 2013

How I Love a Cheater

Some people see the world in black-and-white. He-done-me-wrong-and-I'm-outta-here kinda thinking. Carrie Underwood "Next Time He Cheats" kinda thinking.
There have been plenty of posts on this site, and corresponding comments, revealing that many of us thought we'd respond that way. But when it actually happened to us, suddenly the future wasn't quite so crystal clear.
And, frankly, I think that black-and-white, if-this-happens-then-I'm-gone thinking doesn't always serve us well.
Syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage (he of the wonderful "It Gets Better" campaign) puts it bluntly in his book American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics where he writes, "Only someone obsessed with sexual fidelity to an unhealthy degree places a higher value on preserving the ideal of a monogamous marriage over preserving an actual marriage."
While I don't always agree with Savage, I do here. Absolutely there are cases where the only sane response to a spouse's cheating is to get the hell out of the relationship. Yet statistics indicate that 80% of people who divorce after betrayal regret that decision.
I suspect I would be one of those 80%. Which is why, when it happened to me, I waited.
I've often wondered if my ability to see both sides of a story is a blessing or a curse. I can't quite imagine doing what my husband did...but I can imagine how HE did it. I get how he deluded himself into believing it was harmless in the grand scheme of things. He never felt it threatened our marriage. He never believed it changed his love for me.
Clearly the guy had issues. BIG issues. A lifetime of unhealthy relationship issues.
But I had chosen him for clear-to-me and, no doubt, sub-conconscious reasons. And he was the father of my three children.
He needed my help.
He had made choices that had begun to disgust even himself, who was so adept at rationalizing his behaviour. Like most addicts eventually do, he was approaching bottom. He didn't want to be that person anymore. In hindsight, he had never wanted to be that person.
I offered my help.
At first that was all I could offer. I certainly couldn't promise that our marriage would survive. I had no idea if I could ever move past so much betrayal, so much lying, so much recklessness where my physical and emotional health – and that of my children – was concerned.
What I saw was someone incredibly sorry for the choices he'd made and desperate to find a better way. I saw my children's father. My best friend.
That was six years ago.
In that time, we've both fought our way back from hell.
He's had to face some truths about his family that he'd spent a lifetime denying.
I had to face that I still had serious issues around trust. That I really didn't know what a healthy relationship looked like as I'd never had one and never seen one up close.
And I've certainly thought at times that it would have been so much easier to just walk away and start over.
This was HARD work.
But I've come to realize it's work I would have had to do anyway if I'd hoped to have a healthy relationship in the future. And it struck me as prudent to try and create that healthy relationship with the father of my children. The guy who shares my bank account. The person who sleeps beside me.
But, some people cry, he's a cheater. He lied to you. How can you ever trust him again?
And the thing is, they're right.
Semantically speaking, he might not BE a cheater, but he WAS a cheater. He lied to me. How can I ever trust him again?
I can't.
But I also understand that I can never totally trust anyone ever again. I never could. People behave in all sorts of strange ways under different circumstances. Frankly, we don't even really know what we're capable of until put in that situation.
That said, he put himself in those situations. He sought out those experiences.
So yes, I can never totally trust him again.
But I have learned that I can trust myself. Not to always behave in ways that I think I'll behave (this point became clear to me when I was jet-skiing with a friend in Thailand. I had always believed myself to be an altruistic type. And yet, when we both fell off the jet-ski into waters rumoured to be popular with sharks, I practically clawed over my friend to get back on the jet-ski. So much for altruism!). But to respond in ways that are the best for me.
And frankly, if I thought he would cheat on me again, my marriage would be over.
So while I don't know if he'll ever cheat again, I believe he won't.
I also believe our marriage is stronger. I believe we have a far deeper understanding of each other, which has given us a deeper appreciation for each other. Our marriage is something we've chosen to rebuild. To create something that will never be as shiny and promising as it once was, something that shows signs of struggle, but that still stands firm and likely will for decades more.
I've learned to respect my husband for the battles he's waged and lost, not just the victories.
I've learned to see the pain that drove the choices he's made.
I've learned, contrary to anything I could have ever imagined, to love a cheater.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How to Avoid Rehearsing Tragedy

Frequent visitors to this site know I'm a big fan of Brené Brown, author of the most recent Daring Greatly. Brown is a researcher on vulnerability and shame and much of what she says is soothing balm to the betrayed wife's soul. It also sheds much light on the behaviour of cheating men (and women!).
But a recent letter to this site by a woman contemplating suicide in the conviction that her spouse was cheating on her (though she hadn't confronted and he hadn't confessed) got me thinking about one of Brown's own admissions. That she "rehearses tragedy".
We rehearse tragedy, Brown explains, when we don't allow ourselves to fully enjoy a moment because in the split second we allow ourselves happiness we also allow in fear. Fear that it won't last. Fear that tragedy will strike and we'll lose what we love.
Think about it. Have you ever lain in your loved one's arms, feeling content and at peace only to suddenly wonder where was last Saturday night when he didn't respond to your text? Have you ever tucked your child in at night, gazed at her gorgeous sleeping face and then been seized by the terror a life without her should she get hit by a car, or contract meningitis, or..., or..., or...
What about getting a job offer and then, seconds later, anticipating failure at this new job?
That, my friends, is rehearsing tragedy.
And we betrayed wives often become very adept at it.
In our defence, tragedy has struck. The foundation upon which we've built our lives has crumbled. So it seems only reasonable to us to anticipate tragedy striking again. We become hyper-vigilant  to signs of impending doom. We'll be damned if we're going to be caught off-guard again!
The thing is, by rehearsing tragedy, we're missing out on those moments of joy that can save us. By living in a constant state of anticipated doom, we eclipse our current peace.
As one master rehearser said, "You sacrifice joy, but you suffer less pain."
Is that the life you want? One with less joy and less pain?
Probably not. But even if you want more joy, our ability to tolerate the uncertainty in life is severely compromised. We tried that. And got knocked down so hard we wondered if we'd ever get back on our feet.
The key, says Brown, is gratitude. She put it this way: "I learned the most about gratitude practices and the relationship between scarcity and joy that plays out in the vulnerability from the men and women who had experienced some of the most profound losses or survived the greatest traumas."
When you've lost so much, you often gain something incredible. The knowledge that you can not only survive but be grateful for what joy you have in your life. And guess what? The times I worried about losing my mom (she had a longtime lung disorder), didn't lessen the pain I felt when she died. It simply diminished the time I had with her when she was alive.
And here's another thought, courtesy of Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert. She recently reported that she'd sought help from her therapist because of recurring fears that she'd get divorced. Her marriage was solid but that didn't prevent her from rehearsing the tragedy of divorce.
Her therapist reminded her of something important. She'd gone through divorce. She'd experienced the tragedy. Most importantly, it was over.
Too many of us, post-betrayal, life a sort of half-life where we're so fearful of experiencing that pain again that we try to pre-empt it. Less joy but less pain becomes our motto.
But let's try another way. Let's try gratitude. Allowing ourselves to fully experience what joy is in our lives, no matter how small. A good cup of coffee. The warmth of a friend's support. The delight of a child's laugh. Fitting into our skinny jeans. Whatever joy is in your life, count it. Use it as guideposts to take you to healing.
And remember: It's over. Being hurt again is possible. Our marriages might not survive. But for's over. And you're here.

Let's start a list of things that give us joy. Perhaps we can inspire each other to acknowledge that it is the small things that can save us. Please share yours... 
I'll start: The joy of a quiet house so that I can finally write a post without being interrupted. Bliss.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

What Strength Has Been Unleashed in You?

Lilacs in September

Shocked to the root
like the lilac bush
in the vacant lot
by the hurricane–
whose black branch split
by wind or rain
has broken out
into these scant ash-
colored blossoms
lifted high
as if to say
to passersby
What will unleash
itself in you
when your storm comes?
-Katha Pollitt

It's been just over six years since I lost my mother, who died less than a month after D-Day #2, when I got the whole story of my husband's infidelities. All I could do during that emotional maelstrom was curl into myself and ride out the storm. I felt small and lonely. I felt abandoned.
But with my mother gone, without that person who fought for me, I had to learn to fight for myself. In many ways, without her voice outside of me, I carry it inside. I stand up for myself when before I would have backed down. I've learned to respectfully disagree instead of swallowing my words. I've finally understood what she meant when she urged me to "just show up." It took a time when showing up was all I could do. In the days following her death, just showing up felt Herculean. But it was enough. I was enough. All those years of thinking I had to perform or achieve to earn people's love or admiration or respect...when all I had to do was just show up.
It's a lesson I try and teach my own kids. That they're enough simply because they are. And I hope when the storms come their way, they'll wonder what strength and beauty will be unleashed in them. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

How Secrets Silence Us: How to Find Your Voice After Betrayal

“The worst part…is imagining how alone he was. This is the most poisonous thing that secrets do to us – they isolate us from everyone around us and make us feel even lonelier than we are already are.” –Tim Kreider, from his collection of essays We Learn Nothing

"We're only as liberated as our secrets." —Oprah

Affairs thrive in the shadows of secrecy. The secrecy fuels the feelings of urgency, of excitement, of longing. But while that secrecy withers in the cold light of recrimination and obligation, that's not the secrecy I'm talking about.
What I'm referring to is the secrecy that we feed after we find out. The secrecy that forces us to smile at our kids' teacher when our hearts are broken. That prompts us to offer a halting, "I'm just not feeling too well," when a curious friend asks what's wrong. The secrecy we wrap ourselves in that leaves us feeling alone. That isolates us from those two words of comfort: "Me too."
Not all of us opts for secrecy, of course. Some of us scream their pain from the rooftops. They unleash cries of rage. They broadcast their husband's transgressions to anyone who will listen...and even some who'd prefer not to.
I envy those women. I envy them their weightlessness by refusing that heavy load of silence. I envy them the commiseration from others. I envy them the authenticity with which they can move forward, no masks, no pretence.
That, however, is not me.
I opted for secrecy for a number of reasons.
•Shame. I was, frankly, embarrassed to find myself married to someone who would do this. But deeper than that, I didn't completely believe that his behaviour wasn't a reflection on me. As the child of alcoholics, I had a long history of carrying others' actions as my own shame. So, at least at first, I defaulted to "don't let others know what's really happening."
•Co-dependence: I also had a long history of protecting others from the consequences of their actions. While my husband had to face a boss and a lawyer in order to remove the OW from his employ, I didn't put him in a position where he had to face his clients, his own family or our friends. To a degree, I protected him. But I was also protecting...
•Financial stability: My husband's job depends on the trust of his clients. And though he'd been deceitful with me, there was no indication (indeed he insisted) that he'd ever been deceitful with his clients. Without any evidence that he'd actually done anything wrong where his clients were concerned, doing anything that might negatively impact his income seemed like cutting off MY nose to spite HIS face. It would serve nothing, except a desire for revenge.
•My children: More than any other reason, I opted for silence out of protection for my children. They love their father, which is as it should be. Yes, I could argue persuasively that he hadn't acted very loving toward them by jeopardizing their mother's emotional and physical health. But, honestly, did they need to know this? What would be served by informing young children of their father's idiocy? The pain it would cause them, the confusion it would engender...and for what? So I kept my mouth shut, though I did explain my tears and general sadness by saying that Mommy and Daddy were having "problems" but that we were working on them.
Most of the time, I'm glad for the path I chose. I'm glad that the world doesn't know exactly what my marriage looks like on the inside. I'm glad I don't have to reassure people that I'm fine. That we're better.
Still, there are times when silence weighs heavy. When, as Oprah points out, I don't feel as "liberated" as I'd like to feel.
It took me many years (decades!) to speak openly about my parents' alcoholism. Now, those who know me well and those to whom I'm a new acquaintance are just as likely to know my history. An offhand comment about my childhood, or a reference to my mother's years in AA make it clear that I have no secrets where that's concerned.
And I suspect the day will come when I'm (almost) as candid about my husband's infidelity. Even now, the circle of people who know is growing. My children are still unaware, but I wonder if even that day will come. I won't lie about if ever my kids ask me if infidelity affected their parents, I'll come clean.
What silence have you chosen? It's an important question. Who are you protecting? What are you hiding from? The answers can give you insight and help you move forward in healing.


Related Posts with Thumbnails