17: Broken Promises


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Shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment.

The two most powerful words when we’re in a struggle is “me too.”

Brene Brown


The Doctor asked me: “What was your vow to your Painter?”

It was simple:

I’ll take any slings and arrows. I promise I’ll be there. We are partners and I’ll always share everything I have with you. I’ll protect you and keep you safe.

My vow came with a white horse and silver bullets for every problem.

In hindsight, I recognize my vows created a situation where I had nowhere to go when I needed help. That isn’t my xp’s fault, it is one of many ways I create a loyalty trap. Where do I go when I make bad decisions? Who has my back? How do I face the shame? How do I face my partner?

Reading my vows it is obvious, no matter what I did, once I made a bad decision, I was bound to break my vows. I said to my Doctor that the only way to completely honor my vow was never to make a mistake or bad decision, and to never fail.

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The vow was non-sustainable across a lifetime.

“Shame is an epidemic in our culture,” states Brene Brown. According to Brown’s research, unless you are a sociopath, you have been washed in shame, to be human is to experience shame.

In her TedTalk, Listening to Shame, Brown relates the story of a man that came to her at a book signing and confronted her about why she doesn’t talk about shame and men.

Talking about the expectations of the women in his family he said:

My wife and three daughters would rather me die on top of my white horse than see me fall down. When men reach out and are vulnerable we get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me it’s by the guys, the coaches, and the dads because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else.

Unlike women, whose shame is driven by competing expectations, “for men,” says Brown, “shame is being perceived as weak.” Every day this man lives with the expectations of people he loves, and that love him, to never fail, to never show a weakness.

As such, when he does fall off the horse, what are his options? Who can he turn to for help? To admit his mistakes? To be vulnerable? What does he stand to lose if he takes the risk, faces the uncertainty, and is emotionally transparent?

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Who or what makes it safe for him to feel courageous if he cannot be vulnerable at those he loves most?

Whiskey? A gun collection? A mistress? Hating immigrants?

Research says that for men to conform to male norms they must always show emotional control, financial success, achieve status, and leverage violence.

Where does vulnerability and empathy fit onto that scale? Asking for help and admitting failure is the anthesis of those norms.

The Lone Ranger that confronted Brown and her research was making the point that the expectations of the women in his life were part of a Pattern preventing a deeper vulnerability in the relationship. The expectations were based on his vows.

On more than one occasion I have heard a woman betrayed say, “He betrayed me and to make it up he needs to step up and be a man.”

In many respects, I think that is precisely the problem post discovery. It sounds to me many of the betrayed spouses want a man that meets their expectations but are unwilling to change the expectations to adapt to the new paradigm of the relationship. All because they refuse to renegotiate the vows.

I’ve been told it is the man’s job to “fix it.”

However, couples like Moisy, Dolly, and Elle consistently describe seeing their partner’s vulnerable as essential to healing and finding empathy and compassion. Healing comes from more vulnerability not less. As Brown said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of…change.” Stoicism and rigidity is not the solution, it is the trap.

Setting aside the morality and romanticism perspectives, I think this is the mindset I brought to my vow. In a situation full of failure, Shame used my vows to convince me the important thing was to stay on the White Horse, that to be a man meant to fix it without asking for help.

I believed, rightly so, if Painter, or others, knew I had vulnerabilities, frailties, and failings they would be used against me. They would be perceived as a weakness. And frankly, if you look at the way Painter, Beatrix, interlopers, and flying monkeys have responded, that is precisely the narrative being peddled.

Too often my behavior and my vulnerability are treated as a character failing, a weakness, a pathology.

Something to be ashamed of and hidden.

Rarely, has Painter or her supporters treated me as simply a human being learning to be human. My behaviors et al are treated as a weakness while they have treated her as the damsel, a victim of an out of control weak man.

It’s actually fascinating.

This leaves me wondering, “Was my vow realistic?”

And the way Painter accepted it, was that appropriate? Did it leave her feeling entitled when I fell off the White Horse? Did I allow her to take advantage of my vows? Was she even aware of the Pattern we were living? Are vows renegotiable? How do we confront the conflict when the vow doesn’t match reality?

At this point, I will never make a vow like that again.

Ever.

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And this too is part of my struggle in deciphering the patterns: the vow becomes a trap.

I thought I knew, without asking, the expectations of Painter, plus I had expectations on myself. Once I fell down and knowing what the promise was, I had no way to recover. My sense of responsibility, honor, loyalty, idealism, and hunger for my life with Painter conspired with my vows, shame, and anxiety to make addressing the issue head-on seem insurmountable.

I was left to deal with it alone; killed by my own silver bullets, a dead man, riding a dead horse.

This morning I found this comment in my Facebook Esther Perel Discussion Group and I think it summarizes the trap well.

I can only speak for men and what I feel about a lot of us, based on how I’ve acted in relationships and how that correlates with what other men do, but I think a lot of men devalue their opinion, their emotions and there sense of self to preserve some nebulous noble sense of romance that they think they have to attain and uphold for the sake of the relationship instead of letting themselves get annoyed, angry, mad, irritated, speak up, doing that thing they honestly just don’t want to do, avoid an argument, avoid a discussion- all because we think relationships are built on peace rather than true expression of our own emotions and taking a chance that another person will love us inspite of possibly hurting her, annoying her, irritating her, making her mad, making her sad. That’s what I mean. So, maybe the next time a guy shuts down, it might be that he doesn’t actually value his own opinion or thinks the woman he is arguing with won’t value his as much as he thinks she values her own. I think a lot of men don’t feel heard, sexy or seen and assume it is not their right to either. It’s usually the more abrasive men who do value themselves in those ways….which is what makes them abrasive, but also more attractive. He’s being himself. Or he allows himself to be so. That’s how I see it anyway. I had to learn myself, how to express myself without being abrasive and without sacrificing the truth, and I went a period of time “being an asshole” until I adjusted and calibrated to my own feelings after suppressing them for 31 years (my whole life up until that point) out of a sense of duty in accord with what I was told I was “supposed” be all my life which was a “gentleman”. Gentleman to me came to mean suppressing my own truth in feeling out a sense of duty to not hurt other’s feelings (especially women- and especially ones I was attracted to), and trying to become a gentleman killed any sense of self I might have developed had I been encouraged to express my emotions for what they were, not avoiding them for the potential damage expressing them might cause. After I stopped sacrificing honesty in my attempt to fulfill this role of what I thought was a gentleman, that is when I truly started to love. And, myself first.

Shame is an unspoken epidemic, the secret behind many forms of broken behavior. Brené Brown, whose earlier talk on vulnerability became a viral hit, explores what can happen when people confront their shame head-on. Her own humor, humanity and vulnerability shine through every word.