I haven’t posted for a while. I had been trying to post at least once a week, but… life….
I have been doing a lot of processing lately, though, so there are many (currently half-written) things to come. 🙂
I haven’t posted for a while. I had been trying to post at least once a week, but… life….
I have been doing a lot of processing lately, though, so there are many (currently half-written) things to come. 🙂
A few weeks ago, I was at a party. It was a run-of-the-mill sort of family party, with couples and their kids, grandmas and grandpas, the usual. Towards the end of the gathering, as I was collecting my things and my child, I overheard a conversation in the living room between two couples. One of the women I had just met said to the other couple, “my husband doesn’t hit me and he doesn’t cheat on me!” Then she glared at her husband. She said these words with such ferocity and determination that no one could mistake the implicit or else!. In her, I recognized a current of fear that runs beneath many relationships—the fear of losing love, the fear of love betraying us through infidelity or violence. I also realized that it would be impossible for me to have an earnest conversation with this woman. She would hear my story and it would trigger her fear. She would be outraged and tell me that I should leave my husband and break up my family. She would tell me everyone would be better off. She would judge me if I didn’t do as she said. My pain would hit close to her fear for her own marriage and family, and it would be silenced. She would shame me as a weak woman who is more afraid of being on her own than living through abuse. And she would not understand how wrong she was.
In truth, I am not sure if that particular woman would have had this reaction, but I have seen many people react in that manner, and I feel deeply shamed by this reaction even while I recognize it for the fear it is. My shame tells me that I can not tell my closest friends and relatives of my husband’s infidelity and how it has hurt us, especially not in detail. I know that they will judge him for the choices that he made. I know that they will lose trust in him. I know they will treat him differently. And I know that they will judge me as well. They will wonder why he cheated on me. They will wonder which of my defects drove him to it. They will tell me I should leave and judge me if I stay. Either way, silence seems like the best course of action. Unfortunately, this sort of silence is also deepens shame and adds a dose of loneliness.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the connections between infidelity and shame as well as the connections between shame and trauma. This exploration led me to read an interview with Esther Perel where she states that infidelity has “always been painful, but today it is traumatic. Why? Because …. it shatters the grand ambition of love.” While I do feel that the love my marriage was based upon was a beautiful illusion that I desperately want even though I now realize that does not and did not exist, I also think there is more to the trauma. Perel’s statement explains the deeps sense of loss, but the “more” lays in the shame that people feel when they experience some traumas, like when a spouse cheats. It lays in the “why?,” in the “what did I do to deserve this?,” even if the “what did I do” is related back to something unknown or unknowable, something like “I made a bad choice in partner.” It is the regret that lays in the “if I had only…”
There is a dividing line between a terrible experience and a traumatic experience that seems to be based in understanding the experience. For instance, when children are involved in a car wreck, research has shown that what determines if the experience will be processed as scary or traumatic is the caregiver’s reaction. If the caregiver acts rationally and spends some time explaining why the crash happened, the child will process it as an unpleasant, scary experience that would be best avoided in the future. If the caregiver does not offer explanations, if the caregiver refuses to talk about the incident, the child will process it as trauma. The child will wonder why this scary thing happened, and not seeing a connection between actions and the event, she will not think of it as a result of something that she or the drivers did, but as the result of something she is. She will think of it as a the universe’s commentary on herself. In other words, if we think of trauma as an intensely negative event that one suffers from for no apparent reason and regardless of their personal actions or intentions, the implication is that the person suffers and is judged not for something s/he did but because of something s/he is.
The “I am flawed” is shame.
Interestingly, on a certain level, this shame allows the traumatized person to feel more control over their environment, even though this control is façade. If they can change who they are, then they can either change the situation they are in or prevent another such event in the future. If they can not change or prevent the bad things, then they can believe that they deserve those things because they are bad.
In infidelity, the trauma and shame gets translated as my spouse cheated because something about me is (insert insecurity, i.e. unlovable, not sexy enough, not a good enough listener, a pushover, etc.). For me, this happens on an almost subconscious level. I will wonder if I should change my clothes to something that my husband will think is cuter than what I am wearing. I will look at picture of potential babysitters and think, “nope, she’s too cute.” I will refrain from wearing my hair up in a style that my husband teasingly called “marmy.” These thoughts are a reflection of my deep, lingering feeling that that my husband’s infidelity was his commentary on me as a person. This feeling of not being enough in his eyes or in the eyes of my family and friends may not be rational but it is a key component of my shame.
The fear of not being enough in the eyes of the people we love is a common, possibly unavoidable sentiment, and in relationships, we should be mindful of it. It was expressed by the woman at the party and her fears about her husband being unfaithful or violent. It says, “I want you to love me. Please love me like I love you. Please love me despite my failings. Please love me for what I am.” And if our love rejects us through infidelity, then we deeply internalize the rejection. In our shame, we ask, “what did I do to deserve this.” And we refuse to believe the answer, “nothing. You didn’t deserve this.”
One of the things I have struggled with most through this ordeal is the memories and connections that come back unbidden and take my breath away. I could see an item or a gesture, remember an event, and be unexpectedly and utterly overrun by a vivid cascade of betrayal. For instance, I remember pulling into my driveway one day and being happy that the corn was growing well. I remembered last year’s small harvest and the joyful pictures we had taken of my husband shucking corn. Then I remembered that he had shared these pictures with the women he had been cheating on me with. At the same time, I felt unreasonable and sheepish that I was upset because someone had seen pictures. I felt like I was overreacting in a way that was totally not me and I felt disturbed by this uncharacteristic reaction, like I was becoming something other than myself.
It wasn’t until months later when I was reading Dignity by Donna Hicks that I figured out what was going on and why that mundane task, and truthfully many others, had suddenly taken on what seemed undue significance. She states, “love is attention.” She was arguing that the ample and positive attention that parents show children affirms that the children are loved and valued more than the simple words “I love you.” When I heard this, a couple puzzle pieces fell into place for me and led me to better understand how mundane acts can unexpectedly link together memories and trigger moments that take my breath away.
I remember a time not long ago when I was doing our laundry. As I laid out one of DH’s shirts so that he could hang it later, his words rang through my head: “I came home, took a shower, and washed my clothes after I saw her. I didn’t want you to smell her on me.” The next thing I knew, completely unbidden, I was taken back to the day of that particular, mostly forgotten incident.
I had come home from work as usual. My husband and I had a short conversation and then he went to switch over the laundry. I remember being glad for his help. I thought in some small way he was starting to come out of his depression and help a little more around the house. We went about business as usual. I cooked dinner, we watched some TV, that sort of thing. Later that evening, I remember him getting the laundry from the dryer. When I saw he had only washed a few things and that the few things were his things, I was disappointed that he had not really done everyone’s laundry, just washed a few of his things. I didn’t say anything, though, because I was hoping he would continue to do more things around the house. He didn’t.
As I laid out his shirt, an everyday act of love and care, it dawned on me that his actions that day had nothing to do with helping me or contributing more to the family. They had more to do with maintaining his deceit and making sure that I did not discover what exactly he had been doing while I was at work. The picture of what had actually happened that day became depressingly fuller. I had to stop folding for a few minutes and catch my breath. Thankfully, I do not remember exactly when that happened, but I do remember the event because of the hope and disappointment I felt, a disappointment which was then compounded by the knowledge of why he was actually washing his clothes.
Everyday acts of attention and care affirm love. Tending our gardens, washing someone’s clothes, making someone dinner, these are all acts of love. During the era of his infidelity, during his depression, he was giving his positive attention in to other people. He contributed less around the house, was distracted when we were doing things together, and would not engage me in real conversation. He was giving me as little attention as possible and seeking to exclude me from many of his activities. He would speak words of love, but he would not put time into our family. His attention was in maintaining his façade and in the women he pursued.
Understanding the significance of everyday acts of love helped me to understand my reactions. Him sharing the pictures of our corn shucking with his girlfriends was him showing them attention. It was him taking our moment and including them in it. Him washing his clothes as an act of deception felt like a slight on the love that I regularly show by doing our laundry. The laundry list goes on…
Principles of the day:
In the Book of Forgiving, Desmond and Mpho Tutu make the point that in order to heal and move forward, that is, in order to forgive, we need to tell the stories of how we were wronged and we have to name the pains that those experiences have caused us. I have found this to be helpful, in the cathartic sense, but also difficult because my feelings and hurts evolve from day to day. For instance, I spent about a week reflecting and trying to name the hurts caused in the following part of my story:
My story: My husband’s actions with the other woman were hurtful in themselves, but what makes the healing process feel impossible at times is his lack of honesty. I spent many months processing and healing, getting myself to a place where I could feel joy and peace again. DH too seemed to spend much of this time working on becoming a better husband and father. He was open about where he was going, who he was with, who he talked to, and he interacted more with our child. He also began to do the hard work of unpacking his childhood traumas and dealing with those. However, even while he was doing this work, he was not completely honest about his betrayal. He was completely hiding, in fact outright lying about, being physically intimate with someone else and he was also hiding many important details about the betrayals I already knew about. In my mind, this equates as such: I was working to trust him again; he continued to lie, and in so doing, he continued his infidelity even though he wasn’t in contact with anyone (at least that’s what he says, but how can I really know if he is telling the truth this time after so many and so long a period of lying?).
Naming the Hurt:
Reflection Day 1. Today I am in an angry place. In this place, I feel fearless. For that reason, I recognize it as a dangerous place as well, one where I could say something without considering the repercussions, but also one where I do not fear being single. I may not be so angry tomorrow or the next day. This is one of the reasons I write. Today, I want to see how writing this feels: My husband is many things. He is loving, affectionate, generally kind, and sensitive. He is a good father. But he is also a liar and a cheater. He does not want these appellations, but he has earned them. He lied and cheated for years, and these actions can not be undone. They do not define him in total, but they are a part of who he is. I don’t think that I will ever be able to say that they are a part of who he was. There will always be a kernel of those traits in him. Ok, so maybe I am feeling bitter, too.
At this point in our relationship, I am wondering if it is worth it. When times are good, they are magical. Most of those times happened in the first few years before our son was born. But the majority of our relationship at this point has not been magic. For more than half of our relationship, there has been a lot of misery—depression, lying, cheating. I am not sure if I can take much more. I am not sure if it is worth it to any of us.
Reflection Day 4. I am still feeling incredibly detached from my husband today. I can’t say that I necessarily like it or dislike it, but I do feel like I am in a holding pattern and I know that these feelings are a mask for something. After thinking about it for a while, I came to the conclusion that the problem is thus for me:
Reflection Day 5. I will say that today I am feeling a bit less disconnected. I do not especially yearn to be single. However, I am also more in touch with the hurt and sadness today. Yesterday, I shared an article by Robin Weiss with my husband on radical honesty as a means for restoring trust. He recognized that he committed a few types of the not quite honesty that Weiss talks about. DH recognized that he was and is still guilty of a few of the pitfalls Weiss lists, namely the minimizing, the partial disclosure, the passive truth telling, and the playing the child’s role. He says that he is working on these types of things and that he knows he has a lot of work to do still. We will see….
Reflection Day 7. Had another conversation with my husband. I am still trying to name the hurt and what I still come up with is anger and detachment, but there is also resignation. I know that the anger and detachment are the result of suspended trust. I know there is nothing really to be done until more time has passed and my husband had acted in a way so as to earn back my trust (or not). Now, I just wonder how long I can live in the nowhere-ville that is this holding pattern.
One of the hardest parts of moving through my husband’s infidelity for me is the memories that crop up unexpectedly and take my breath away yet again. Some memories are of things that I have found, texts of endearments and naked bodies, presents for these other women. Some memories are of things that we have done together as a family while the women lingered, obscure, in the background. When I look at pictures of our family vacation, for instance, a thought that goes through my head, never fail, at some point is Was my husband talking to one of those women that day? Was he sending them pictures? Was he making them a part of our memories? Was he making plans with them? These thoughts come unbidden as if they have a will of their own, as if someone else were giving them to me as some sort of awful gift. I want to eventually be able to look at our family pictures again, without the shadow of my husband’s infidelity creeping in. I hope someday that I can do that, but I am not there yet.
Most often memories of my husband’s infidelity will materialize when my mental defense are down. First thing in the morning when I am groggy and my mind is refocusing on the world, the memories of what I have found will surface unbidden. Sometimes, even when I wake feeling refreshed, I’ll think to myself “wasn’t there something….” and that’s all it takes for a vibrant memory to come back and sting me. Usually, I just force myself out of bed to the coffeemaker and begin the day–“the cure for grief is motion,” as Elbert Hubbard says.
So I try hard to push these thoughts and memories out of my mind, to stop looking at the pictures of his hands on another woman’s flesh and stop hearing my husband call another woman “his darling hummingbird” (one of my favorite animals, by the way, so that an extra pin through my heart). Somedays I can do this with relative ease, some days not at all.
There are a lot of memories, far more than I want. I wish I could get rid of them, but they are a part of my life now; I can’t unsee what I have seen. Yet, in a perverse way, part of me wishes I knew more, as if such torturous knowledge of the past can help preserve me from pain in the future, but I know this is an urge leading me towards self-destruction. This is, perhaps, one of the most difficult aspects of infidelity for me to manage. Fortunately, it is one that I at least have some control over. I came up with some principles for myself that I try very hard, even now, to adhere to:
The theme here is that knowing such things exist and actually seeing them are different matters. I don’t need to see to know they exist. I don’t need to see because I can never unsee. I don’t need to see because seeing can corrupt my personal pleasures.
A further principle that I would add to this is your partner should be willing to honestly and thoroughly answer any questions you have about what happened. What matters at this point is not what painful tidbits that s/he shares. What matters is your partner’s willingness to share completely and utterly without trying to hide anything else. My husband did not do this, and his failure to do so makes the process of reconciliation harder, even more than a year later.
The night that I first saw the text messages on his phone from his other women, I forwarded them to myself. I am not quite sure what compelled me to do this, except perhaps that I am one for collecting evidence. The next morning when I asked to see his texts so that I could better understand his betrayal, he handed over his phone. All that remained of the months and months of messages were the cute and funny memes that they had sent to one another. “See it was mostly harmless,” he said, trying to cover his tracks and minimize the damage he caused. I am not sure if he realized at the time that in that action, he was continuing and deepening his betrayal. Months later, I would discover an entirely new set of betrayals that he had managed to keep hidden, and I would be forced to start the whole processes of grieving our relationship again. His secret damaged us far more than the truth would have.
With infidelity, there is a lots to sort out, whether you chose to stay in your relationship or not. Most of the finer details really don’t matter. They are all hurtful. They will all haunt you and you cannot unsee or unhear. I saw enough to get a real idea of what was going on, but what I saw still haunts me every single day. I am thankful that I did not see more.
To say that infidelity is hard to process is an understatement. Mere words seem inadequate expressions of the pain of betrayal, the fear that it will happen again, the vulnerability of living without trust. One of the many things that is hard for me to reconcile is having this specter of other women in my life, two in particular and other acquaintances. The part of me that I am not proud of craves the balm of retaliation. It wants to hurt as it has been hurt. The better part of me knows that such retaliations are good for no one. This “better” part also feels the need to purge the festering poison of betrayal. A healthy means for doing this, I have found, is letter writing.
Here’s an example of one I have written:
Dear Other Woman,
I am not even sure where to begin. I would like you to read this letter so that you can understand the damage that your actions have caused, but I am not really sure that you will read it. It does not insult you, merely explain some things you might not realize. I also know that you must think of me as a villain of sorts, someone who is callous and insensitive at best. But still, I feel I must proceed.
I found out about you, “Carlos” as my husband called you in his contacts, October 4th. That is the day my husband texted you that he could no longer see you, and you responded with a simple “rude.” That day will forever be a black day in my life. DH had forgotten to turn off his music and when I opened his phone to do so, I found messages from you and another woman. Yes, there was another main girlfriend who he said he loved (I am not sure if you knew) and several other flirtations besides.
I don’t know how to adequately explain what such a discovery feels like, but imagine having the meaning stripped out of every aspect of your life. It is disorienting and extremely depressing. My eyes have been puffy from tears shed every day since October 4th. The world has lost all luster, and I find it hard to even climb my way through the opaque layers of sorrow to find joy in playing with my beloved child.
She, too, suffers on a daily basis because of your choices. She does not know exactly what is going on, but she sees DH and I talking, upset. She plays alone while we try to sort the shattered remnants of our life and build something from the rubble. I try to explain to my four-year-old in the best way I can. She knows she is loved, but I know that we are not the parents or couple that we could have been had DH not allowed you to enter our lives.
You have probably asked yourself, “How could you, his wife, no know?” I have a two-part answer for you. The first is that I chose to trust him. He is my husband and sometimes that is what we have to do in marriage—choose trust. The second is that I was trying and he was lying. I could indeed tell that he was spiraling deeper and deeper into a depression, which seems in retrospect to have accelerated after he started fiddling with you. He would only incoherently open up to me when he had been drinking, which was every other night at one point. But nothing productive would happened during those times. His rants were incoherent and when I would try to open a discussion the next day, the most he would say is that he was just drunk and depressed. He would dismiss his behavior and not talk about the things I am sure he mentioned to you. He had cut me out.
In addition to trying to start dialogues, I worked hard to try to get us to a place where we could reset our relationship and have fun together again. In my mind, this was our trip to Europe. (I did not realize that you would be along with us an undercurrent and confidant). The point I am making is that I tried and tried to communicate with my husband and to get beyond the symptoms that were alcoholism and self-diagnosed mental illness. It was a very difficult time. It was not until my heart lay shattered beyond repair that DH began to realize that he needed to change his behavior and address the underlying symptoms.
He tried to get me to appreciate your support of him, saying that he had vetted you and that you and he were deep friends. You can imagine how that would have been a booted heel grinding my shattered heart into dust, especially as it becomes more clear how you impacted his decisions to further betray his family, his kid, his wife, our life.
DH’s physical betrayal, his visiting a woman while I worked to pay for a babysitter (who I imagine suspected something, much to my humiliation) was in part due to you. I can’t blame you for feeling a married man to be unreliable as a lover. He is, after all, committed for life to another woman if nothing else than through the welfare of the child we share. I can understand why he would fall to the wayside; your shared fantasies of meetings or a life together could never be fully realized. However, your inconsistency motivated him to act out some of his fantasies in real life. DH’s hands actually touched another woman. He actually played with candles with another woman and took pictures of his beautiful hands on another woman’s naked chest, I presume to show to you. I was never supposed to see those pictures, but I still feel defiled by them. He visited her in part because of you, he says. You were part of the world that he had created and excluded me from. You were a willing part of his manipulation and a focus of his betrayal; you were #1, and poor other other woman was #2.
Something else I should mention because it is illustrative and still stings is that hummingbirds are one of my favorite animals. I’ll let that sit with you to interpret as you will. I am not sure what to do with it myself.
I don’t really have much more to say at this point. I just want to make sure that I was at least a little clear in my rambling. This is very hard for me to write about and almost impossible to speak out loud. What I am trying to say is that you only helped DH towards destruction, and in doing so, you have changed my life forever for the worse. I can’t help but cry every day. I mourn every day for the death of the dream that in my husband I had found someone who would cherish me for the rest of our lives, that I found a person who would always look out for me, especially when I could not do so for myself. I grieve for the lost trust and for the time and care my child had lost because of your choices.
I am not sure that you will ever fully understand what you have taken from me or the misery you have caused. I am still trying to wrap my head around it. You and DH have mutilated my dreams, security, love, trust…life. In that, you two will forever be united. You are now a part of our story (mine and DH’s). And you have forever marred my child’s life.
Please make better choices in the future. Please stay away from everyone I love, DH included. And please give deep thought to the pain and torment your actions have non-consensually caused.
With deep sincerity,
The woman whose heart you crushed.
I don’t think that I will ever send this letter. I am not especially proud of what I have written (but you should have seen the first draft, eeek!). And more than anything, I do not want to invite the woman back into my life in any way. Still, I’ll be darned if it wasn’t cathartic.
Edit: added some to the conclusion and fixed a couple typos.
My two cents on the matter:
Money in nuclear families is a paradox. In my family, as in many, our finances are shared, our bills are shared. While I have been the one to earn practically all of the money and to ensure that all of the bills are paid, I never have viewed this as my money. It is not my money. It is made for my family and spent to better my family. It buys our food, shelter, and communal pleasures. It is ours, but does not belong to a single one of us. If I were to take from the pool, I would be taking from us all. And I would not be able to pay back what I have taken because what I make is not mine; it is ours. It may seem strange, but this is how family money works. We own as part of a whole, not individually.
When my husband was unemployed and going through his depression, our money was tight, and one of the things he lamented was that he did not have his own money. When he would ask if we could spare any for a night out with friends, I, being in charge of the bills, would do a mental check and usually respond that $50 here and $100 there add up and we really can not afford that, nor can we afford to make the withdrawal equally benefit everyone. This is not to say that he was denied pleasures, but that inexpensive ones were encouraged, like BBQing or hanging out around the house.
What I did not realize is that after many attempts to explain the state of our finances to my husband, he did not understand the point I was making. He continued to think about any money he earned or was gifted as “his money” to do with as he pleased. I do not think he considered any of it as “family money” unless we specifically discussed how it would be spent. And I am fairly certain he was mad at me for saying that we can not afford for him to spend our money an expensive night on the town with his friends.
Had we had separate finances and had he regularly and equally contributed his money to the family pool, then what he spent on his girlfriends would not have been taken from us. It still would have been used selfishly and destructively, but it would not have been spent at our expense.
This, however, was not the case. He was unemployed and did not contribute much money to the family at all. When my husband spent money on his girlfriends or on babysitters so he could pursue his girlfriends, he stole from his family. He used the money that he knew was ours and that he perhaps even thought of as “mine” to betray me and our family.
The money that he spent was our family’s money, and as family money, he can never pay it back. He stole money from our family to betray the family. This debt can never be settled. The theft is eternal.