What discovering cheating in a relationship feels like.

Cheating is a common topic in conversation.  Most discussions about it are not terribly deep. They instead seem to focus on vague, unfinished threats, “my wife would never cheat on me…” with the implied “or else” not actually spoken. Some people add a “dare” as in “my husband would not dare to cheat on me.” What this belies is the fear that is present in every intimate relationship. The words beneath the spoken ones say something like “my husband holds my heart in his hands. I hope that he will always care for it well.” If we could lead with this vulnerable truth, I think we could open a far better conversation that would allow us more understanding of what infidelity feels like to the person who has been betrayed. In my view, no one who has been betrayed feels immediately angry or sad or even defensive.

Let me explain to you the shock of infidelity. ­It’s discovery is disorienting. There is a surge of energy that makes you shake. There is the sense that your body is lying to you, that your eyes can not be seeing what they see.  It feels unreal.  You think you would be immediately upset. You think you would immediately rage at the injustice and betrayal. You think that you would be immediately sad, but you are not. You are not sad, you are not hurt, you are not even mad.  You are simply numb, numb and shaking uncontrollably. You observe life in a matter of fact way, do the next item on your to-do list, and then your world washes away.

I’ve experienced this twice (the second being the remnant of the first) at the hands of my husband, the man who promised to love, honor and keep me, the man who promised to protect me and stand with me for the rest of our lives. My husband, my lover, my heart’s slayer. And what I needed in the aftermath was not someone to be angry or indignant for me. What I needed was an anchor, someone to hold me as the tide rushed in and carried my life as I knew it away.

Cheating in a Relationship and Birth Control, is there a link?: Something to Consider

Something I desperately wanted was to identify a root cause, the one thing that was at the bottom of my husband’s betrayal. If only the answer were so simple.  Unfortunately, there are a myriad of factors, many of which are unique to the relationship.  One factor that contributed to my husband’s infidelity, I believe but have only circumstantial evidence for, is my birth control.

I know that this might sound a bit farfetched, but please bear with me for a little while, and I will explain.

After the birth of our little one, we decided that we definitely did not want another child. However, I was still breast feeding at the time and our choices for birth control were limited by that factor. We opted for what was generally agreed to be the safest choice for a breastfeeding mother: the implant, an inch long, progesterone-infused, plastic stick that is inserted into the underside of the arm (a procedure which hurt me more than an IUD, by the way). The side effects can include such things as weight gain and moodiness.  What was not really described is the insidious nature of these potential side-effects, the way that they can slowly, nearly unnoticeably become part of daily life.  For instance, I thought the weight was remaining baby weight that I just would not be able to easily lose.  I did notice the moodiness, but I became decent at recognizing it for what it was and it seemed to decrease over time. What I did not notice until after the stick was removed was that my general outlook on life had slowly deteriorated.  My disposition had turned angrier.  And what was nowhere mentioned is the secondary effect these hormones can have on people living in close proximity. I don’t think that these secondary effects are even studied, certainly not with birth control pills and only somewhat with couvade syndrome, better known as “sympathetic pregnancy.”

My husband has always tended towards these hormonal sympathies.  While I was pregnant, he got a good dose of relaxin and had to be extra careful of his joints, for example. A few months after the stick was inserted, he too began experiencing some of the hormonal effects.  In retrospect, this marked the time when my husband started gradually sinking into a depression. He felt disconnected with the world and began to drink more.  He describes the time as “being sucked into the abyss” and not being able to pull himself out.  He began to feel increasingly detached from me, and as that feeling grew, so did his compulsion to seek comfort outside of our relationship.

Two and half years later, we decided to have the stick removed (it was generally uncomfortable and caused frequent menstruation) in favor of a non-hormone based IUD. Within a couple weeks of having the stick removed, our moods began to shift back towards normal. It seemed to me that we were finally beginning the slow ascent from early parenthood into something more sustainable, where we could have time and even fun again.

A month after the stick was removed, I discovered my husband’s infidelity.

I’m not blaming the birth control for the choices that my husband made.  Clearly, he is responsible for those. However, were the situation different, were some factors changed or removed, his choices may also have been different. And it does bear mention that there is a strong correlation between 1) the insertion of the birth control stick and the deterioration of our moods and relationship and 2) the removal of the stick and the beginning of our slow ascent.  Unfortunately, much irrevocable damage had been done in the meantime.

How to Get Over Cheating: Where to Start, Barriers and Suggestions

Some of the most difficult to grapple with aspects of infidelity are not part of the relationship proper.  When I found out about DH’s betrayal, I immediately knew that it was not something I could talk about with the people closest to me, which made me feel even more alone.  Involving my family and friends in our relationship troubles would fundamentally change the way DH was seen and also the way that I was seen in ways that would be irrevocable and possibly undesirable. My siblings, for instance, would have a harder time forgiving DH than I would. They knew in some ways of our difficulties after the birth of our child, but if they knew about his infidelity and my resulting heartbreak, that would be all that they would see.  I knew they would pressure me to leave, and I could not have that informing my decision. I could hear the “I would never stick with him after he did that to me.  Have more self-respect!” kind of lectures. Their support would be just what I needed if I did decide to dissolve the marriage, but it would be precisely what I did not need if I decided to stay.

I also deeply felt the shame and loneliness in a different way.  I felt like people, my friends and family included, would on some level wonder what is wrong with you that your husband would do that? The speculations they could make rang in my head: she must be awful in bed, she must be a bitch to him, she should have known better than to marry someone so different than her. The thought of others judging me in this way was harder to bear than the loneliness of not sharing.

I did seek therapists to help me through this dark time. Unfortunately, therapists are not entirely free of judgement either and the ones that I found have values that did not sync well with my own.  One lady basically said that there was nothing she would do for us until my husband stopped drinking.  Her assumption was that alcohol was a root of the problem rather than an effect of it.  Try as I might to explain to her that the problem lay deeper, it had no effect and colored her perception and treatments.  At one point, she suggested I go to support groups specifically for wives of alcoholics and listen to their stories so that I would know that my perspective held validity.  For me, “validity” was never an issue. Standing up to my husband was never an issue.  I wanted practical support and direction, not the scapegoat of alcohol. I wanted to know if the relationship could be saved, was worth saving, and what steps to take.

I found the supports that I needed creatively in a few places:

  • Books–I began reading a lot on a variety of related topics. Sometimes, the books I read were about infidelity and relationships. The challenge was to find things that would align with my values. Esther Perel’s work on relationships was particularly helpful and insightful. It helped me to understand the idea that affairs can be an expression (albeit an unhealthy one) of a need that is not being met. Some of the other books I read, such as Brene Brown’s work, focused on how to sort through the complex jumble of emotions I was experiencing, shame, resentment, forgiveness, boundary setting, as well as establishing realistic expectations of my husband. Books, while not being terribly personal, were also non-judgmental.  They presented information in the “take it or leave it” sort of way and did not keep forcing ideas that did not apply to my situation.
  • Physical/Somatic Therapy--I also found other forms of therapy to be more helpful than talk therapy, massage therapy for instance. I was introduced to this idea in Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score.  Van Der Kolk is a therapist and researcher, who over the course of his studies, has found that traumas and emotions of various sorts are held in our bodies and that treating the body can be a very effective way of treating the trauma. I decided to test this idea.  I figured the worst that would happen is that I would get a massage.  What I found, though, is two sessions in particular that were very effective.  One was with a craniosacral therapist, one with a lomi-lomi specialist.
  • Healthy supplements—Something nearly impossible for me to do when upset is sleep well, even when it is what I most need. Taking Kava Kava or L-Theanine before bed really helped with this.
  • Writing—Writing allows me to vent my feelings and organize my thoughts so that I can more clearly think about what I actually want to say and where I stand on certain issues.

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.