Betrayal of a Relationship (part three)

…Yet more on how dishonesty corrodes choice, agency, cooperation, authenticity, connection, and the deep sense that someone is genuinely looking out for you and your best interests.

In fall of 2016, we began planning an international trip for the following summer.  In my mind, this trip would be one to help us reconnect. We would focus on attaining a goal together and enjoy the fruits of our labors together. DH encouraged me to take a little more work a couple nights a week while he took care of our little one. What I did not know is that while I thought we were cooperating to ultimately benefit our young family, he was getting me out of the way so that he could develop his other relationships. We were not in fact cooperating. I was being taken advantage of.  Our relationship was no longer mutualistic. This was reflected in other arenas of our life as well.  DH had stopped working and schooling, but he insisted that we still needed the nanny to come twice weekly for his sanity, so that he could pursue business interests.  I tried to be supportive, so we kept the nanny on. He also did very little work around the house except for what was actually required for building maintenance. I did the laundry, the dishes, the vacuuming, the cooking, the accounting. I took care of the pets, bathed our child, tended our garden. I brought in all of the money. I did the majority of the household chores. I wondered what he did all day when he was home with our child or while he had his free time while our nanny was around. I approached him repeatedly and asked for more help. I got very little.

We also started drinking more with dinner and DH tuned out more and more.  At least twice a week, I had to struggle to get my drunk husband to bed. He had apparently also started lying about the amount of alcohol he consumed. Where I would be tipsy from two drinks, he would be slurring his speech and stumbling around. I repeatedly asked him if he was drinking more than he said. He claimed he was not, and eventually I insisted he go to the doctor to see if there was something medically wrong with his alcohol amylase levels. He would try to start drunken conversations about what he was going through, his various dissatisfactions with life, but these would only come out incoherently after he was several drinks in, more than he would admit to having consumed.  When I would follow up in the morning and ask him about what he was trying to tell me, he would dismiss his ramblings as the alcohol.

It was obvious to me that he was struggling with his new life as a husband and father, and I tried to be supportive and understanding.  As a child, I had witnessed the depths of my mother’s depression and had personal experience with my own bouts. I knew what I was looking at, though I did not know all of the facets of DH’s. I tried to help DH pull out of his downward spiral. I helped DH foster hobbies, some of which were expensive and kept me up into the night.  I felt more and more like I was being taken advantage of, like I was doing all of the hard work to keep our relationship and household running, while he was wasting into a depression and demolishing our life together with his betrayals. I did not realize until later that DH’s lies had burrowed into the foundation of our relationship and eroded his ability to work for the benefit of himself, his wife, and his child. They eroded his ability to be true to me and to himself. Cooperation and connection were replaced by exploitation. Authenticity was replaced by chaos and depression.  Another huge realization that I had was that in DH’s choice to pursue his affairs, to initiate them and keep them going, he was not looking out for my best interest.  He had abdicated that sacred responsibility the moment he chose to betray my trust in him. He had abandoned us and he had been abandoned by others. 

Long term relationships require trust at the most basic and the most complex of levels.  In long-term, intimate relationships, the partners’ lives are intertwined within one another’s. Every choice made, every action taken vibrates down the strings of the relationship. So cheating is never just simply cheating. Infidelity is the rotten string that unravels the Gordian knot of intimate relationships. It is inextricably bound to trust, self-authenticity, self-worth, self-image, honor, integrity, connection, cooperation, the intangible but nevertheless crucially important parts of our lives that comprise our how we see ourselves and tell our stories.

A Quick Intermission

I know that these first few posts express a good deal of the emotional turmoil I experienced after I discovered my husband’s infidelity.  I almost want to apologize for them, since these are feelings that we usually do not share with many others, especially not broadly. However, exploring these emotions is necessary to the healing process.  Such things need to be expressed, unpacked, and understood, so that they don’t keep us bound in place, unable to truly move forward in our lives. What I am exploring in the “Untying the Gordian Knot” mini-series is how infidelity is not limited merely to a single action or type of actions. Instead, it insidiously stems from and worms its way into many other aspects of life and erodes many of the things we hold dear about our relationships. Once we understand it and its effects, we can begin work to move past it. Whether we choose to remain in the relationship is not the purpose of this blog.  The purpose is to understand, heal and move forward in whatever shape that might take.

Betrayal of a Relationship (part two)

…More on how dishonesty corrodes choice, agency, cooperation, authenticity, connection, and the deep sense that someone is genuinely looking out for you and your best interests.

The moment I discovered DH’s betrayal this is one of the strongest and one of the most enduring feelings: I felt like less of a person and less of a woman.  Since then I’ve read that this is a common feeling, but I could not quite understand why until I realized that DH was not respecting my personhood. Of course, logically, I know that I am not diminished.  But I also know that this feeling is a valid and founded one. It is less my perspective of myself than my understanding of how DH saw me and treated me.  It explained an odd sense that I had been getting for a while before my discovery that in his mind I was somehow connected to his abusive foster mother. He was vilifying me and turning me into less of a person in his own mind.  I was no longer wife and partner; I had become something less to him.

I don’t think he realized at the time, but when DH first decided to break my trust in him, he opened a space for his lie to taken an insidious foothold that would erode our marriage. We would end in a space where we could not talk openly for his fear of what might leak out. We could not address underlying problems because DH had already taken things too far to be recovered undamaged. He lost his ability to be authentic with me or around me or any of our friends and family. He had to keep up the lies, which increased every day and tore him apart. They sent him spiraling deeper into the depression he sought refuge from. In a way, he too had become victim to the crushing weight of his betrayals. I can understand that.  But I also can’t forget that he was the architect of his house of lies. And every day I look at the wreckage and wonder if parts of that house still remain buried or of they are being reclaimed for use else where. What betrayals are continuing? What do I not know yet? What else will I find out? What new lies are being told? What is he seeking out in others that he should be seeking out in me?

We lived like this, with the lies mounting, for a year and a half so far as I have been able to glean. During this time, I knew that we were struggling. We had an infant, a new house which had flooded, and very little support from friends and family. There was one month that we had to sleep in the dining room while the hepa-filters whirred in our bedroom all night. I was also on a birth control medication that exhausted me further and made me gain ten pounds. On all fronts, we were exhausted and stressed out. Still, through it all, I held faithfully to the belief that DH and I were in the trenches together and that we would, someday soon, come out the other side. I knew that the man I depended on and admired was a kind man with honor and integrity who respected me and was looking out for me through our shared hardships.

There were a few instances where I wondered if there was something going on extra-maritally.  One time, I walked downstairs and heard him getting of the phone with a “love you.” I asked him who he was talking to.  He said it was a good friend of his.  I didn’t question further because it was a common salutation between the two, between all of us in fact. Another time, we were on our way out the door for one of our Friday “date” days, the few hours a week we were able to scrounge for some together time. I heard him on the phone in his shed.  I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he said he was talking to his step-dad, someone who he knew he could talk to and I wouldn’t complain about its delaying our time together. The other time that I can remember is that we received a returned package.  He had made me some brownies and unbeknownst to me made extra for some friends.  The package that was returned was from someone I knew about.  I was a little upset because he did not mention making extra or spending money for expedited shipping, but I dismissed the thoughts and ate the returned brownies. I did not know that all of these instances were betrayals.  I did not know that I was eating from the same tray as the woman DH was having his affair with.  At that point, I believed in him and trusted him.  I could not see that our connection continued to erode.

It also bears mentioning that while my pregnancy had been a relatively easy one, the birth and breast-feeding had not been. I had a C-section after 36 hours of labor and it took a long time to recover. I was still bleeding after 10 weeks. Breast-feeding was difficult as well. In addition to the usual difficulties new mothers face, with the macerated nipples and constant lactation, I also got mastitis, thrush, and a baby who could not latch well for months. She was lip and tongue tied when she was born. I distinctly remember waking up in the mornings and having to hold my guts into my abdomen because my bladder had a large to the point where it was spreading apart my rectus abdominis muscle and my intestines were pushing out through the opening. I struggled to produce enough milk for my giant infant and was constantly either feeding or pumping for the first nine months. My breasts finally gave out at nine months when I had to return to work full time. I did not get a full nights sleep until my child was 14 months old and finally slept through the night for the first time. I know that while I struggled, my husband felt as though he were losing his connection with me and that in part influenced his decision to betray me. However, I also know that he made his decision when I was struggling thorough the depths of my New mother misery, With very little support from friends or family. The only thing I wanted for Christmas that year was for someone to take my baby in the morning so that I could get a full night’s sleep. That did not happen. And when it was his job to support me more than ever, even though I was exhausted, even though I felt disgusting and unappealing, he chose to remove himself and to devalue the faith and love and trust that I had for him.

Betrayal of a Relationship (part one)

(My original title for this post was “Tying the Gordian Knot: How dishonesty corrodes choice, agency, cooperation, authenticity, connection, and the deep sense that someone is genuinely looking out for you and your best interests.” But it, like the post itself, got too long.  I’ll be posting the other two parts after they’re more polished. )

Trust and honesty are the watchwords of successful, healthy long-term relationships. Everyone knows this, but we know it in a way that we fail to fully understood what trust and honesty are in a relationship.  For me, the ideas lived in the realm of stereotype, taken for granted and caricatured.  I could never put into words quite why honesty was important in an intimate, long-term relationship.  I had been taught since childhood that honesty is crucial, and I had been rewarded for honesty, but I had lied on occasion too. Every child does. I knew vaguely, though, that honesty promoted trust and integrity.  I also knew that on some level if I was honest with my parents, more specifically my dad, that he would have more trust in me and that that would in turn allow me greater freedom.  I could also sense his pride in me when I was honest with him despite the trouble I might have gotten into by telling the truth. So I knew that trust and honesty were linked somehow and that personal authenticity and integrity were also located somewhere in their midst.

It wasn’t until my trust in my husband was completely overturned that I began to ponder and fully understand how honesty and trust thread their way through nearly every aspect of our lives. At a very basic level, trust is required for us to operate in the world.  When we are babies, we must trust that others will take care of us.  Our survival depends on it. When we are driving, we trust that the other drivers on the road will not endanger us.  When we go to a public venue, a store, a school, we trust that people will generally behave in a courteous manner or at the very least not violate our person.  When these trusts are broken, various traumas ensue.  I won’t delve into these. However, I do want to extrapolate two very important points 1) that our ability to function in the world depends on our trusting other people and 2) that when trust is broken so are many other aspects of our lives.

In the context of my relationship with DH, I realized that trust and honesty allow us some very important things.  When people in a relationship are honest with each other and trust each other, they have choice, agency, cooperation, authenticity, connection and the deep sense that someone is genuinely looking out for them and their best interests.  These things ended with DH’s betrayal.

When DH decided to pursue a relationship with someone else, he began his betrayal.  He did not explicitly lie to me to begin with, but he was dishonest.  He did not communicate with me.  He specifically chose not to communicate with me because he knew that he was betraying an explicitly expressed trust.  I had told him that, in my view, polyamory was fraught with potential dangers and that I considered my relationship with him too valuable to chance someone’s interference else destroying it.  He disregarded my thoughts and beliefs and pursued extramarital relationships anyway. He did not give me a choice.  He never told me he had began a romantic relationship with someone else.  He made the decision on his own for himself. I had no say in the matter.  I had no voice.  I could not say, “no” or “yes” or “what do you mean?”  I was given no choice, and I had no voice. I had no agency. In his choice, casually or deliberately made, DH had diminished my personhood for his own personal pleasures.

The moral philosopher Emmanual Kant proposes a few ideas about what absolute moral laws might be.  In other words, he inquires as to what social values can be considered universally applicable and absolute, things that everyone should do in all situations.  One of the principles he establishes for assessing whether a moral value, specifically truth, might be universal is that its opposite, lying in this instance, takes away from people’s humanity.  He finds that dishonesty is a violation of others’ humanity because dishonesty takes away people’s ability to make informed decisions for themselves. In my case, since I had no choice and no voice, I could not make informed decisions in my best interest, nor could I make them in my child’s best interest.  I could not say to DH, “hey, let’s go to counseling. I think we might have a few problems to work out.” I could not say, “you get the mistresses or you get me. Not both. Not ever.” I could not say, “The way you are treating me, the things you are doing, these are destructive examples to set for your kid.” I could not say, “Do not send pictures of my child to the women who are betraying me, her mother.” I had no agency. I had no self-determination. I had been made less of a person.

WTF has happened here?

It happened to me.  I’ll never forget the day that it happened.  October 4, 2017 I was putting my inebriated husband, let’s call him DH for short, to bed.  I went to turn off his music and saw a message from an old girlfriend that read “I love you.” Honestly, my first feeling was one of confusion.  I knew that my husband would never cheat on me.  I knew that we had been struggling adjusting to our new life as parents following a very difficult birth (c-section after 36 hours of labor) and a baby that would not sleep. But despite the difficulties, I knew that we were in it together.  Ours was a shared struggle and we were finally starting to come out the other side.

Hardly knowing what I was doing, I opened the message and found a conversation that made the floor drop out from under me: messages of love, of flirtation, naked pictures, comments about how my DH could not wait to get away from me for a night so they could spend it together, comments about how he wished she were with him (made on days when I was right there with him camping or traveling in Europe). And she wasn’t the only one.  There was another woman who had been around for longer, so long that they had developed pet names for each other. I am not sure that I will be able to look at a hummingbird, one of my favorite animals, without being reminded of this other woman, this unwelcome but now permanent figure in my life. That night was the night that a huge chasm opened in my life and I was left staring into its abysmal depths.

As a rational and generally calm person, I don’t make such statements lightly. Over the past months, I have come to understand that feeling as grief.  Greif is the result of profound loss and my marriage, as I knew it, died that day, as did much of what I thought about myself, my family, my husband, and my life.  And it did not die a calm, natural death, it was defiled into oblivion.  Much of what I held as sacred was marred that day.  I know the pieces can be put back together, but in my mind, it will never regain its former glory.

I think of a cathedral I once visited, I think it was Canterbury, where a beautiful and beloved stained glass window had been shattered during a war.  The people of the parish lovingly collected the glass shards and took them to their various homes to keep the broken glass safe until it could be put back together.  Beautifully, it was put back together, but it was never the same. Beautiful it is, but it is the fire of the diamond rather than the cut of the jewel that remains.  The splinters of glass were broken into too fine of pieces to be puzzled back into its original form, so several artisans crafted the pieces into light and color, lovely but abstract, together but profane. This is how I feel about the potential of my marriage, forever marred.

My partner’s infidelity cut me deeper than I like to admit, even to myself; the wound spread wider than I ever imagined it would, and left me feeling helpless and without in direction. I still feel ashamed to talk about it with people, as if revealing it would reveal some inadequacy in me. The logical side of me says “Poppycock! You know it was not your fault and that you had no choice in the matter.” The emotional side of me still can’t quite grasp that concept. It still lives in last year somewhere, walking in circles around the wind-scorched plains of my personal abyss.

It has been nearly a year since the day my life changed. I am still not sure whether I like my life now.   There have been some ups but a lot of downs. I can not go a day without my husband’s infidelity being called to my mind in some way. It is something that I have come to expect as a constant companion for the rest of our relationship, possibly the rest of my life. It invades my dreams turning them to nightmares and my memories turning those into falsehoods. My husband seems to be doing better. Our marriage seems to be doing better. I, personally, still struggle.  Some days I feel almost normal.  Some days I feel strangely euphoric. Other days I feel back at ground zero, barely able rouse myself enough to get through the day.

About six months in, I began to wonder why the subject of infidelity, a common occurrence, is something that so few people were talking about in a real, non-judgmental way.  Why were there no guiding principles for how to cope with this ordeal and for where to go with the field of devastation that my marriage had become for me? I read a good number of people’s stories, read through the research (I’m a researcher by profession), and worked with a variety of therapists. What I found always fell short. In reading people’s experiences, I could hear the bitterness and sadness of the stories (and rightly so). In reading the research, I gleaned statistics about the potential survivability of my relationship and the steps more likely to lead back to marital success. In my own therapy sessions, I was able to vent, although the feedback never seemed to quite fit me or my situation. I scoured self-help books, going through the collected works of Brene Brown, for instance, in mere weeks. But healing my self, I began to realize, was only part of the problem, part of the injury. Around this time, I fortuitously stumbled across Esther Perel’s work on infidelity and was drawn in by her idea that “the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.” This statement opened me to the idea that, in distinctive ways, a relationship has its own life; it’s an umbilicus connecting people through which each person can be nourished or starved. To heal my self, we would have to heal our relationship. We would have to tease through the Gordian knot that we tied when we decided to marry our lives together.  We would have to find the rotten cords and repair them.  We would have to see everything laid out to better understand what I had lost, what we had lost and to start rebuilding our life.