Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Without a Doubt: Coping with Indecision

The overwhelming question once we've learned about our husband's affair (apart from "what the HELL was he thinking?" and "how can I make it look like an accident") is whether we should stay in the marriage, or toss him out.
Oh, to have a crystal ball. Or even a Magic 8 ball that offers up something more decisive than "Ask again later".
Perhaps better than relying on outside oracles is to learn to tap into our own. Problem is, mine often seems to be dozing. I can sometimes nudge her awake with meditation or a solitary walk.
But too often, if she's offering up any answers, I can't hear them over the sound of my critic. The one who reminds me how often I'm wrong about things. The one who urges me to rely on others' advice instead. The one who whispers "you'll regret this".
Iyanla Vanzant, who writes "Iyanla, Fix My Life!" in O Magazine, recently tackled the "stay or go" question. Phrased as "How Do I Know When I'm Settling for Less?" it might as well have read "How Do I Know Whether to Stay With My Cheating Bastard of a Husband? because "settling for less" is what we often feel we're being asked to do.
Iyanla is a wise woman who knows a thing or two about betrayal. She also knows a thing or two about nudging that sleeping inner oracle awake. Her approach is to make some observations.
For instance, when your focus is on the time and energy you've invested in an endeavour [or person] rather than the love, joy, and gratification you've gained, you're probably settling. It doesn't matter if you've spent five years or thirty with someone if many of those years have been unfulfilling. But if you can honestly say that, within the time you've invested, you've experienced much joy and contentment, then it might be worth a second chance. The emphasis isn't on the investment but on the returns you've already experienced.
When you're making excuses about why you should stay put rather than going for what you truly want, you're probably settling. Sometimes we truly need to stay put in order to create circumstances that allow us to leave safely. But it's important to be honest with yourself about whether those reasons for staying are legitimate or simply excuses to allow indecision. If you stay, make sure that's a choice and not an abdication of choice. Similarly, if you leave, make sure it's a choice and not something you feel you should do because that's what our culture would have you believe.
Perhaps the wisest question we can ask is that age-old Ann Landers nugget: Am I better off with him or without him? 
If you can't hear your inner oracle over the deafening sound of your own breaking heart and our culture's collective roar to kick him to the curb, then the wisest course of action might be what the Magic 8 Ball recommends: Ask again later.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

How to Put Yourself Back Together

We often turn to disaster metaphors to describe what betrayal feels like. It's a nuclear bomb, a tornado, a hurricane. Our lives feel destroyed, reduced to ruins, blown up. And we ourselves feel torn apart, broken, a wreck.
They're apt, these metaphors. And they speak to the truth that betrayal changes everything. Just like a natural disaster, nothing is left untouched in some way. Not ourselves, our children, our jobs, our friends.
Surrounded by rubble – whether literal or metaphorical – we're left with the task of rebuilding. How?

Fall apart: Well, that part might have happened on its own. But don't fight it. Even when others around you are insisting that you DO something, resist that urge. This is the time for extreme self-care. Eat what you can (smoothies, toast, soup...), sleep when you can, shut out the world if necessary, especially anyone without your best interests at heart. Watch hours of television. Go for long walks. Cry. Then cry some more. Breathe. Deeply.
Sometimes it's when we're stripped of everything we thought mattered that we come to see what truly does. And sometimes when the only thing we can trust is that we're still breathing, we understand that's all we need to know. At least for now.

But don't make yourself crazier: Here's what NOT to do:
•Stalk your husband's OW on Facebook.
•Drink/drug/shop/gamble to escape the pain.
•Pain-shop.
•Have a revenge affair.
•Seek revenge against the OW.
•Track down an ex just to reminisce.
•Go to any event or spend time with any person that will make you feel worse.
•Do anything that could lead to you having your own parole officer.
•Hurt yourself physically.

Sift through the rubble to determine what's worth saving: Your marriage looks like a wreck. You have no idea whether to give him a second chance or not. Your kids are frightened. Your parents are wringing their hands. Your friends are wondering why you're not answering their texts. You haven't showered in eight days. Now's the time to take a good long look at what really isn't working in your life.
That friend you're avoiding because she always makes you feel lousy? Time to delete her from your life.
That job you hate? Time to consider your options. Back to school? Dust off the resumé? No need to DO anything yet, just be open to possibility.
Those toxic in-laws? Maybe now the is time to figure out your boundaries and learn ways of taking care of yourself that leads to self-love, not resentment.
That extra weight you're carrying? Start by walking off your pain. Those schlumpy clothes? Buy yourself something that makes you feel beautiful.
You get the idea. Open yourself to the possibility of a you who's ultimately healthier, inside and out.

Find support: I made haste to a therapist who could hold my head above water until I could tread water myself and/or make my way to shore. But support goes beyond simply the paid kind (though it's generally Worth. Every. Penny.). Surround yourself with those who love you unconditionally. Avoid those who think they know exactly what you should do, unless they're suggesting a long, hot bath. Steer clear of those with an axe to grind (their own nasty divorce/cheating husband/miserable life). This can be hard on those who love you though. So recognize that sometimes they'll step in it. That sometimes they'll get frustrated with you for not healing fast enough (it's hard to watch those we love in pain). But no matter. Explain to your trusted inner circle that you need their support and compassion, not their advice. That you need a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold and, perhaps, a casserole or two left by the front door. Sometimes you might need a gentle kick in the pants to remind you that there's a big beautiful world out there that needs your presence.
Seek out online support that's based on self-compassion...and compassion for others. There's a lot of cruelty on the Web. Don't support it, don't take it personally, and don't contribute to it.

Practice gratitude: Ugh. This can be a tough one. But study after study has shown that practising gratitude leads to a happier life. Today you might be grateful that you didn't follow through on your plans to smother your husband in his sleep. You might be grateful that your four-year-old doesn't know what as asshole her father is. You might be grateful you still have all your limbs. With time, you'll begin to notice that gratitude will creep into your life in bigger ways. And it will give you a platform on which to build a better life.

Hold tight to your values: Betrayal is such a primal wound that it pulls to the surface our most primal responses. We want to kill someone. We want to curl into the fetal position. We want to retreat to a cave and never show our face again. Feeling all that is absolutely fine...and to be expected. Acting on it? Not so fine. Once this shit-storm is over, you want to be able to hold your head high. You want your self-respect intact. You don't want to be wearing an orange jumpsuit (orange, frankly, is NOT the new black). Continue to live a life of honesty and compassion and kindness, even when it seems you're the only person who does. The day will come when you'll look back with pride on how you handled yourself.

Share your story: Whether in the pages of a journal, in e-mails to yourself or to a trusted friend, or on sites such as this one, sharing our story is a powerful way of putting ourselves back together. It allows us to see our stories from the outside, which can give us perspective. It is cathartic, giving us the chance to offload our fury, our pain and our confusion. And it's an important and scientifically proven way to heal from trauma.

Trust the process: It takes a long time to heal from betrayal and it can often seem as if you're stuck. Assuming you're taking steps to heal (counselling, self-care, boundary setting...), you are getting there. Trust that the day will come when this is simply part of your life story, not THE story.

Extend a healing hand: It's enormously healing to guide others along the path. None of us want to be in this club, yet here we are. And extending a hand to those who are feeling the same pain, struggling with the same confusion, reminds us that we're not alone. That we've healed, even just a bit. And if we've healed a bit, then we can heal a bit more. And bit by bit, we become whole.




Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Opting Out of the Painlympics

I recently wrote about how betrayal can trigger past trauma. And many of you rushed to your keyboards with a "yes, yes, that's me!" response.
For one thing, let me tell you how much I LOVE knowing that I'm able to give words to so much of the confusion we feel post-betrayal.
And let me also say, I've yet to meet the person who doesn't have some pain in their past around abandonment, shame, neglect. We are most decidedly not alone.
But I've also noticed that to those of us whose stories include words like abuse and addiction and jail and so on – those of us who survived situations in which we felt powerless over the pain inflicted on us by the people who were supposed to be safeguarding our hearts – anything that sounds remotely like blame for our spouses' cheating makes our blood boil.
Which is why it can feel like another betrayal when so many of the "how to heal from an affair" books/sites imply that we're somehow responsible, even just a teensy bit, for our spouse's affair.
When you're seeking support for the incredible pain you're in and someone – anyone! – even suggests that you're the reason he cheated in the first place, it lands like a sucker punch.
And it's even more infuriating when it's our spouse. Some guy who's just ripped out our heart explains that he cheated because he felt neglected by us when we were nursing our cancer-stricken mother, or tending to our disabled child, or working to pay for our kids' tutor, or going to the gym to lose weight to get our diabetes under control or maybe just checked out because we were fed up from giving and getting so little in return. Or maybe it was his emotionally absent mother, his abusive father, his drug-addled older brother.
Well...it's at those moments when we should ensure we don't have access to firearms because Holy Bad Timing.
Thing is...he just might have a point, though, admittedly, his timing is a bit off.
I couldn't hear it at first. I didn't want a whiff of "excuse" from him. I wanted – and frankly deserved – total accountability from him. Nothing less than "I am so sorry and I will spend the rest of my life trying to be the husband you deserved all along."
But a big part of my inability to hear any explanation for his betrayal of me was my dedication to my own sad-sack story as somehow more deserving of sympathy than his.
I honestly believed that if there was a painlympics – a contest in which the suffering I'd endured was measured against his – that I would go home with the Gold. He'd be lucky to make the podium.
What's more, I felt I deserved a medal for having conquered those demons. Sure my childhood sucked, but I'd spent much of my adulthood trying to learn the right stuff and shake off the wrong stuff.
Besides, I figured I'd had my quota of pain. The universe owed me an easy time of it. I'd made peace with my addict mother. I'd dumped (or been dumped by) the bad boyfriends and married the nice guy. I was healed. Cue the hallelujahs.
Turns out, not so much healed as healing.
It also turns out that the universe isn't really keeping score.
But when we engage in the painlympics – measuring our own pain against others' in order to determine who's more entitled to victimhood – nobody wins.
I've learned this the hard way.
Case in point: A few years ago my daughter was disappointed that she didn't get the part she wanted in a play. She really wanted it. She worked hard for it. "It's not fair," she wailed. "I never get picked," she cried.
I was empathetic, at least at first. I understood her disappointment. I'd felt her disappointment. But then I got a bit tired of it. I tried not to sigh too loudly. I refrained my rolling my eyes. I didn't, however, manage to keep my mouth shut. There are children who don't have clean water, I pointed out delicately (not for the first time). There are children sold into bonded slavery. My point was clear: Your suffering isn't as bad as someone else's so get over yourself.
Fortunately, I was gifted with a daughter who'll have none of that. With the steely authority of a prosecutor, she admitted that, yes, she knows other children have it worse. But, she said, right now she didn't want to hear about them. Right now, it was about her. Right now, her pain mattered.
She was right.
Her pain, no matter how small it might measure on some universal scale of suffering, mattered.
So does yours.
So does mine.
It all matters.
Even the pain of the offending spouse.
There is, however, a deeper lesson there. I came to realize that I dismissed my daughter's suffering as somehow less than deserving of my empathy because it made me uncomfortable. I had wanted my daughter to succeed in ways I hadn't. I had wanted to spare her the pain of, well, living in this world. So when it became clear that I was powerless to protect her, I didn't want to hear it. My reaction was akin to covering my ears and insisting that she tell me a better story in which she felt loved and grateful for all her blessings.
But she was wiser than that. Not only did she make it clear that her suffering mattered, she also made it clear that she was strong enough to handle it. More than once in her so-far short life, she's told me, when I play my "children that don't have clean water" card, that she needs to just be left alone to cry and feel sorry for herself...and that she'll come out of her room when she's feeling better.
And that's exactly what she does.
I've noticed that she's equally capable of being with others in their suffering – no matter how "small" – without fearing becoming lost in it. She sees it for what it is. An open wound that needs love and compassion to heal.
Suffering doesn't frighten her, it pulls her in.
All suffering matters.
I know this is radical. And I know it pisses off those of us who hold firm to some deep belief in fairness.
People like me, for example. People who inwardly scoff at those whose suffering, in the grand scheme of things, seems pretty silly.
Like a husband who claims that he cheated on us because his mother didn't hug him enough.
Silly, right?
Not exactly.
It took me a few months before I could handle listening to my husband finally purging decades of pain that he'd adeptly buried. But once I did – once I could acknowledge his suffering as no less valid than my own – something shifted. He stopped being the enemy and started being a fellow human being, doing his best (which, frankly, sometimes sucked) to get through.
And that changed everything.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Crystal Balls and Stepping Into The Next Right Thing

I recently watched the TEDx talk of my newest muse, creator of Momastery Glennon Doyle Melton. And she said something that made my brain emit a tiny "eureka". She said that our feelings, which so many of us spend considerable time and effort trying to avoid, are simply guides. They are our "personal prophets" pointing the way toward the next right thing.
I've said it here too – the next right thing. Not THE right thing.  But the NEXT right thing. Big difference.
Let me explain.
Many of us, post D-Day or as Melton called it "The News", spend the next weeks and months mentally spinning in terror because we're faced with a HUGE decision. Do we stay and rebuild our marriage? Or leave and rebuild a life without him? I spent about two years in that suspended state of fear. Stay or go? My hand constantly on the door handle. My bags metaphorically packed. "One wrong move, buddy..." could have been my motto.
Of course, underscoring that BIG QUESTION is the deeper fear: Will my heart be broken again?
When betrayed wives lay out their story and ask me whether I think they should stay, they might be hoping I'll trot out the statistics about re-offending. They might believe I have some deep intel into the mindset of the average cheater. But more likely, they're looking desperately for reassurance that they're safe now. That they won't ever EVER have to go through such hell again.
Because, man oh man, those feelings were excruciating.
I wish I could offer that reassurance.
I wish I could guarantee that every guy who cheats works tirelessly to become a man who deserves that second (or sometimes third) chance.
Some guys do exactly that, of course, and their marriages become stronger and richer as a result. But we all also know that many do not. That many squander that second (or third) chance and break their wives' hearts all over again.
In the absence of a crystal ball, you need to pay attention to those feelings, those "personal prophets".
They can't predict THE right thing to do, but they can guide toward the NEXT right thing.
perhaps the NEXT right thing is to pour yourself a cup of tea and watch your baby sleep instead of asking your spouse, for a zillionth time, why he cheated.
Perhaps the NEXT right thing is to make an appointment to see a lawyer and figure out your financial situation in case you decide you can't stay in the marriage. Perhaps the NEXT right thing is to change the locks. Or maybe it's to have coffee with a friend who you can trust with your pain.
Living this way eliminates any possibility of falling down that rabbit hole in which you're already rehearsing the conversation you'll have with your daughter on her wedding day (though right now she's in preschool) about how sorry you are that you made such a mess of your own marriage. It eliminates the paralysis that comes with trying to make decisions that you're simply not ready to make. Whether or not to end the marriage? Maybe that's your NEXT right thing...but maybe you just need to separate. Or sleep in separate bedrooms. Or take a weekend holiday together.
Pay attention to those personal prophets and let them guide you to your NEXT right thing.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Mercy or Justice?



I read recently about a woman brought before a judge on drug charges, a woman who'd been given chances before and promptly screwed them up. This time, she promised the judge, things would be different and she proceeded to outline her plan to ensure it was. Finally, she said to him something along the lines of, I know I don't deserve another chance. But I'm begging you to show me mercy not justice.
The judge chose mercy, putting the woman (who became author of Harley Loco, a memoir about her drug-addled days) in a rehab facility instead of jail. It was a pretty radical thing the judge did. The criminal justice system isn't really in the mercy business. 
Our larger culture isn't so big on mercy either. Mercy is weakness. It's letting people off the hook. It's co-dependence. 
Justice is giving people what they deserve. It's punishment. An eye for an eye. Or, at the very least, locking someone away so we can feel "safe".
And when we've been betrayed? That thirst for justice seems unquenchable. We're Shakespearean, raising our fists to the heavens and demanding justice for our pain. "He will pay for this!" we vow. Or perhaps we imagine the revenge affair we'll engage in, just as soon as we can get up from the fetal position on the bathroom floor where we lay soaked in our own tears. We'll hurt him just as he's hurt us.
In the early days post-betrayal, our mindset is generally more about justice than mercy.
Thing is, justice is damn near impossible. I'm just not sure there's a pound of flesh (metaphorically speaking. Put down the carving knives, ladies) that will satisfy us. No matter what we do in order to exact so-called justice, it will never un-do what he did. It will never heal the hurt. It will never mend our heart.
What's left in our toolbox? Well, there's mercy, that pitiful runner-up to justice. 
It's hard to even consider. Especially with the cries for blood we hear from those around us. "Once a cheater, always a cheater," they say. "Don't let him do this to you," they say. "Kick him to the curb," they say. In other words, serve him up some cold-hard justice.
Mercy? That's for doormats.
And yet...
While justice is about closing your heart, mercy is about opening it up.
It can be terrifying to even think about. Your heart has been stomped on. It needs protection. It needs armour and weapons.
Doesn't it?
I don't think so.
Or rather, I think you need for protect your heart from abuse. From continued deception. From someone who refuses to acknowledge how great a gift your heart is.
But to those who come to you stripped down, marinating in shame at what they've done? Who know that they deserve justice but are asking, instead, for mercy?
Let me ask you: How many times have you been on the receiving end of undeserved grace? 
If, even once, you've screwed up and faced eyes soft with love instead of cold with judgement, you've known mercy. My kids have shown me mercy more times than I can count. My mother, guilt-ridden over her years of addiction, asked for my mercy and got it. She repaid it to me a thousand-fold, every time I blamed her for some failing of mine.
I'm slowly learning, after a misspent youth of shame-inducing acts, to grant myself mercy. To silence the voice that sneers at me as undeserving of kindness and grace. Who judges myself most harshly of all.
Mercy, for all its bad press, is powerful stuff. 

Powerful enough to change everything.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Depression: It's Real, It's Horrible, It Can Be a Consequence of Betrayal. But It Doesn't Have to Be Fatal

I recently read a Goodreads interview with The Alchemist author Paulo Coelho about his latest novel  Adultery. Asked why he chose this particular topic, he responded that he was planning to write about depression because so many of his social media followers dealt with it. But when he asked his followers to talk to him about their depression, he discovered that, for many, the depression was a consequence of betrayal.
And then news came that Robin Williams died. His battle with depression was well disguised by his infectious energy and the beauty of that Cheshire cat grin, but it was there. Hungry.
And while Williams' depression was mental illness – presumably the result of out-of-balance brain chemistry – depression triggered by a painful life event is as real, as devastating and as deserving of our compassion. For self and others.
As so many Facebook posts and Tweets are reminding us today, depression lies. Depression tells us we don't matter. But we do. Depression tells us things will never get better. But things do get better. Sometimes they get worse first...but every day we have proof that things get better. Illnesses are healed. Friends reach out. The clouds part and the sun shines down, literally. Things don't always get better as quickly as we'd like. And depression relies on us not having the patience to wait it out.
Depression insists that we're to blame for our problems. If we were smarter, if we were prettier, if we were thinner/kinder/more fun...then he wouldn't reject us. He wouldn't choose someone else over us.
That, too, is a lie. And a dangerous one.
But depression's biggest lie is that life isn't worth living. 
I believed that. I believed it so much that I thought about ways to kill myself. After swimming my entire childhood in emotional neglect and shame, I thought I'd built my adult life on solid shore. So when that turned out to be an illusion, I wanted to give up. I didn't think I had the strength to get back up again. I told my therapist I was just too tired. Too tired of getting knocked down and picking myself up. Too tired of being hurt. Too tired to convince myself that life wasn't just a slog to the end.
She urged me to try anti-depressants. I resisted. My mother had spent decades on lithium and years trying to get off it. She had mixed her prescription meds with plenty of booze and gone, literally, crazy. I would visit her in the psych hospital, extend my hand and say, "I'm Elle. Your daughter." It hurt like hell that she remembered my brother but not me. More proof, I figured, that I didn't count for much.
So, given that the only other viable alternative for me seemed to be swerving my bike into the path of an oncoming truck (I figured it would be considered an accident and my kids would not suffer the stigma of a mother who killed herself, as my own had attempted more than once), I caved in to the meds.
Within a few days, the clouds seemed to lift slightly. Within a couple of weeks, I had the energy to put some effort into getting dressed.
And slowly, with therapy and time and those detested meds, the depression lifted. I also revisited those old childhood wounds, ripped open and bleeding from my husband's betrayal, and challenged many of my deeply entrenched beliefs. That I never quite measured up no matter how perfect my life appeared on the outside. That people only cared about me because they didn't know the "real" me. I can see now that I vastly overestimated my ability to fool people and vastly underestimated the love and compassion that exists in this world. People prefer the imperfect me to the "perfect" one, hands down.
But I'm also aware, as I write this, that I've relegated that dark chapter of depression to my "past" and that I wonder how effectively I respond to those of you who still are there.
I wonder if my rah-rah brand of betrayal support doesn't acknowledge enough just how debilitating depression can be.
If I've ever seemed dismissive of your pain, I'm sorry. It's not that I don't remember how horrible it was to feel nothing but blackness. It's that I now know it's possible to move forward from that.
But I want to take this opportunity to say that I'm aware that depression sucks the marrow from our bones. It turns us into shadows.
But the you – that beautiful, divine you that the world needs – is still there. And you need to fight like hell to find your way into the sunlight again. Maybe it's with the help of meds. Maybe it's with the help of a therapist or two or three. It takes a village, after all. Maybe it's with the support of a remorseful spouse or with the absence of one who never deserved you in the first place. Maybe it's posting like a madwoman on this site or any other that feeds your soul.
Let us be your army in this battle. Let us remind you as often as you need it that we have fought and, in so many cases, triumphed.
Depression is real, it's horrible, and it can absolutely be brought on the deep wound of betrayal.
But it doesn't have to be fatal.

Resources:
Suicide hotlines -- international list
National Association of Mental Illness/Depression
Mind Your Mind/Canada

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