PART I: Thank you
One of the most constructive actions I’ve taken post discovery of my infidelity was to create a semi-anonymous Twitter account. Combined with my self-revealing writings it has allowed me to get feedback and thoughts from people on all sides of infidelity without the emotionally charged feelings of the people most directly involved – or think they should be involved.
One of the several writers I’ve come to appreciate is Dolly Allen. On more than one interaction with her, I’ve left the conversation with a better understanding of how my betrayal broke the trust in my relationship and damaged C. She is willing to call me out and help me see things from a perspective not enmeshed in my current experience.
As much as we think we “know” we all live in a silo and are blinded by our own biases, experiences, fears, and secrets. I’m thankful for Allen’s writings and Tweets in helping me separate the story of my infidelity, C’s story of my infidelity, from the reality of the infidelity and secrets.
“We do not see things as they are,” wrote Anaïs Nin, “we see them as we are.” And so it is when contemplating and discussing my infidelity and betrayal with those closest to me.
PART II: Perspectives
Recently, Allen and I had an exchange that pushed me into a rabbit hole. Questions, concepts, and ideas were coming faster than I could process them and soon my thoughts were verging on shallow, reactionary and thoughtless. As such, I tried to break the topics into categories so I could more thoughtfully understand what we were discussing. This allowed me the freedom to walk away from the conversation and reflect on what I really thought and felt and how it relates to my betrayal.
The difficulty, of course, is too much reflection causes an emotional distancing lending to discussions more philosophical than substantive. The other difficulty is the farther removed I am from the secret the more expansive my perspective. As such, I can come across as being unrepentant, arrogant or condescending to outsiders still looking to be a part of the story. The reality is, only C’s and my opinions matter and we are both in agreement the relationship is over even if I am holding out a foolhardy hope.
However, how it appears to others isn’t my issue. Some people are never going to see me or my choices in any other light than their own pain. I can do nothing about that. The criminalization of infidelity and the attached secrets is not unique to my situation. They will see my writing and talking about it as part if some pathology. If I did nothing and said nothing they would see that as part of some pathology too.
Confirmation and negative bias ensure we can always find what we are looking for if we look long enough. Armchair psychologists will always see me as malignant narcissist regardless of how I approach my infidelity and surrounding behaviors.
Combine this with the power of time and distance and it is easy for others to think I am unremorseful and overlooking the realities of the damage my betrayal and secret keeping did to people and their lives. However, as I have had almost no interaction with C I’m very grateful for people like Allen that are willing to share their experience as the betrayed so I might better understand what C is experiencing and my own oftentimes blind perspectives.
For this, I appreciate the honesty I find on Twitter and the pushback from loving friends when I start to adopt a one-sided, self-serving or self-pitying narrative.
The purpose of counseling, reflecting and investigating is it reveals patterns and allows for new choices to be made. For example, the process revealed my reliance on a Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic in my relationships. A recognition continuing to provide a freedom and insight for making choices. A dynamic I didn’t know was prevalent in almost all of my past intimate relationships.
I know from feedback sharing discoveries about myself has helped others see their lives in a new light too. What they share helps me own my consequences, feelings, biases, and blind spots. Whether we like it or not, we are all connected. Even in our pain. Let the pain mean something.
PART III: The Issue at Hand
After the conversation, Allen took a bit of time and gave some thought to my questions from the betrayed perspective and shared her thoughts on the attached blog.
The core of the discussion revolved around the writings of Esther Perel.
“We’re quick to blame infidelity for the breakdown of relationships, but perhaps the more destructive factor in many cases is a dogged insistence on sexual exclusivity at all costs.” – Esther Perel
Dolly: “Sexual exclusivity” is a vow we took to each other, not to mention the fact that when you go elsewhere, you risk your partners health with STD’s. So yes, that is a problem…
Cad: I agree sexual exclusivity is a vow we make but I perceive Esther Perel’s point is monogamy is often a romantic ideal that’s sets us up for failure. It creates a limit to the depth of vulnerability. My keeping secrets was driven by anxieties & fear. I didn’t think I’d be heard.
Now before we go any further, I do not think this specific quote applies to my situation. C has the reasonable expectation of monogamy, truthfulness, and transparency. She has the expectation because I set the expectation by committing to at the very beginning of our relationship to the basic vow: “No secrets. No lies.” Within two years of our seven-year relationship, I had secrets and lies.
This conversation was never about my infidelity but about Perel’s writings. Perel’s writing started a philosophical conversation for personal reflection. For me, this is not intended to be a personal reflection rationalized by a philosophical perspective.
Here are the questions:
- Expectations of monogamy as an ideal
- Expectations of marriage as an institution
- Expectations on your marriage and your H
- Limits on vulnerability & intimacy in the face of personal and social expectations
- Realities of the limits on communication & relationships tools we bring to the table
- Society’s pressure on couples to conform to set of outside defined norms
- Expectations post discovery
- What is a vow and at what point in time is it negotiate able?
- The criminalizing of infidelity and the lack of neutral, no judgemental language by which to discuss it.
You can read Allen’s responses here. I would suggest reading the additional comments as well. There are some really good contributions from others too.
Here is the thing about Allen’s writings, I mostly agree with her but she made the time and asked me to add my thoughts. This is not a retort but rather my perspective.
- Expectations of monogamy as an ideal – I think it is a beautiful ideal. The difficulty is when the ideal becomes an absolute it leaves no room to be imperfectly human. We all have ideals and fall short of them. The difficulty is when someone falls short the absolute ideal leaves couples that love one another no place to go.
- Expectations of marriage as an institution – I agree with Allen and this is one of the reasons I admire her and her husband. They are doing the hard work many couples don’t want to bother with. I cannot imagine C doing anything that would have caused me to abandon the relationship. Part of that is because I’m a romantic but also because we always said as long as we stood together we could overcome any obstacle. Except for infidelity. As soon as I betrayed her I knew it was just a matter of time. I lied and lied and lied so as to avoid this exact situation.
- Expectations on your marriage and your H – We had the opposite problem than Allen and her husband. My doctor asked me if C and I ever fought. I replied, “Never.” The doctor looked at me, tilted her head, added a slightly surprised, “Really?” and proceeded to write in her notebook. I remember two major fights, one when I started flirting with a fellow artist at an art show and in a stress-filled moment, humiliated her. Once again when I was cruel to one of her sons in a moment of frustration over how he disrespected her (me transferring my anger at self onto him). I had some low-level resentments over finances, business issues, and feeling like I was always the heavy with her kids, but we were always self-congratulatory over the fact we never fought. After some additional conversation with my doctor and readings, I realize this wasn’t particularly healthy, honest, vulnerable, or productive. When we finally had something to fight about we had no experience to fall back on. This set off my role in the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic I’ve discussed elsewhere. I’m definitely the Pursuer. I don’t know if she is a Distancer…but I definitely have a type.
- Limits on vulnerability & intimacy in the face of personal and social expectations – I think, in hindsight, appearances are more important to C than to me. For me, every human experience – good, bad, and ugly – is intended to move people forward into being a more complete person. Failings are opportunities for growth. On more than one occasion I have openly admitted my mistakes. My writings are very revealing, not because I’m an attention whore but because I believe we are all in this together and pain needs to mean something. Growth requires we work through the pain to find value and purpose. Once I was free of the secret my writing became an outlet to make something destructive useful. The problem with writing is making the assumption that it represents everything going on with the writer. As if looking at a painting you can tell everything about the painter. I cannot comment on C’s perspective.
- Realities of the limits on communication & relationships tools we bring to the table – Prior to the reveal I would have said we were good at communication. However, upon post-reveal reflection, a bunch of counseling, seeing how others dealt with the betrayals in their lives, study, and listening to how people responded to the issues post-infidelity, I’d say I was seriously lacking in vulnerability and intimacy skills. You cannot carry a secret for three years and not have it warp your perception of self. I come from a lifetime of abandonment and betrayal experiences that I didn’t even realize were still defining my interpersonal relationships with loved ones.
- Society’s pressure on couples to conform to set of outside defined norms – This is where I see many of the couples dealing with this issue get hung up and Esther Perel writes about it extensively. Infidelity – and the secret keeping required to maintain the betrayal – has become a crime. I’ve talked about this elsewhere so I’m not going to get into here. You can read my thoughts on the topic here, here, and here. There are more thoughts on my free private blog but you have to subscribe.
- Expectations post discovery – My expectations were pretty obvious: I thought we’d eventually fight, deal with the secrets, develop a deeper and more vulnerable intimacy, and take the great qualities of our relationship and build something better. What actually happened isn’t even close. As they say, “Expectations are premeditated resentments.” I still don’t understand what happened. I’ve yet to have a meaningful conversation with C since the reveal but have received a lot of attention from her friends playing the role of armchair psychologists, internet trolls, and Lancelot. I’ve talked in more details about this here and on my private blog. As a result, it has been important to find perspective with friends, detached third parties with other people dealing with the issues of infidelity.
- What is a vow and at what point in time is it negotiate able? – I think Allen hits it right on the head when she writes, “A vow is not negotiable. But my hard line of ‘you cheat, you’re gone’ is not that easy to follow once in the situation.” It’s easy to have 20/20 hindsight but one of the things I like about Allen and a few other couples and individuals is how hard they have worked to give their pain purpose. I’ve said before, “It is easy to love someone when it’s good, it is much harder to love someone when it is ugly.” I will not speak to C’s upbringing, but I can say that alcoholism, secret-keeping, and betrayals in my family of origin directly contributed to how I am relating to the end of my relationship with C. My parents are not perfect but they loved each other enough to stay and fight through all the damage. Watching them interact today I see two people that love one another and are kind and gentle with each other. Their situation isn’t ideal but it is loving…which is more than a lot of people have after 51 years of marriage. It’s more than a lot of people have after one.
- The criminalizing of infidelity and the lack of neutral, no judgemental language by which to discuss it. – I agree with Allen. I will add the quality the couples I’ve talked with have together and individually is willingness. A willingness to fight with each other and for each other. You call your partner out, you don’t kick them out. However, unless both Partners are willing, there is no solution. I make no value judgment. I really am in no position to judge who should and shouldn’t split up post-infidelity. What I do know is whether a couple splits or stays there will be a plethora of opinions by people wanting to become part of the story.