Instead of Breaking
The glassblower knows:
while in the heat of beginning,
any shape is possible
Once hardened, the only way
to change is to break.
Taking the Stand
I’d be a lousy lawyer. I’m an even worse witness.
However, the lawyer mode is K’s approach to most conflict. Being right was the most important aspect for her. She is a verbal mongoose. I think being right equated to safety for her and if she had to strike you in a delicate part to make her point, you best have covered your balls.
For me, nothing shuts me down faster than the legalistic cross-examination. My answers become shorter and more defensive until I give no more answers. I get wires crossed and a breaker blows and I shut down…or worse yet my mouth short circuits and I say something unskillful. Learning to more skillfully in this area of conflict is something I need to learn to do better. I have limited skills here.
There are reasons of course.
Emotionally manipulative cross-examination was also my drunk mother’s approach. Completely accusatory, relentless, and one wrong tone or answer resulting in a flood of emotions, crying, a drunken blackout, more crying, my mom drunk dialing the neighbors at 2 am asking why they hated us, a bit more sobbing, and then finding her passed out on the floor.
In the morning, with the mercy of a blackout, she couldn’t remember what happened and so I was once more burdened with carrying to the bus stop what should have been her shame.
As such, I learned early to tell her – and others – only what I thought they needed to hear and nothing else. Too much information and she’d get drunk and cry and too little and she’d get drunk and cry. My father telling me to take care of her while he was traveling because she was having a “bad day.”
Did I mention the hours of crying? Every day? For years?
The passed out part eventually became my favorite time of day.
Blah. Blah. Blah.
It took a lot of Al-Anon to accept that it wouldn’t matter: she was going to find a reason to drink. It took even longer to find some compassion for her and see the pain she carried and was trying to numb. I’m only beginning to separate the responsibility to other people and their well-being versus my responsibility for other people and their feelings.
I’m clearly still learning: I am no more responsible for what others think or how they respond to their feelings than I am for my mother’s choices. We choose our reality. I choose poorly.
For example, I am responsible for my choices when I cheated, kept secrets, and told an escalating series of lies. Decisions fueled by anxieties and I’ve discussed elsewhere. My actions, when brought to my xp, may have hurt her. However, it is C’s choice to believe that my betrayal et al meant everything I did and said was a lie. It is not a conclusion supported by the facts or evidence but by what she thinks of her pain.
K’s cross-examination left me no time to breathe. She processes verbally. I write. She is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known. Her information and emotional processing drove my anxieties into overdrive. My emotional flooding, leaving me sometimes speechless, searching for answers, trying to control the emotional fallout. My every stutter being interrupted by more questions or accusations.
My reactions are not her fault or responsibility.
Instead, my reactions were a result of me not making the time to learn better skills. Instead, I spent decades avoiding the things that make me uncomfortable and expecting loved ones to change to make me feel more comfortable. At those moments it seemed easier than adulting.
I’d be truthful the first couple of questions, answers becoming shorter and shorter, and then if pressed too far I’d storm off in anger, deflect, or I start to lie – sometimes all three -telling her what she wanted to shut her up, end the tears, or stop the verbal assault.
…or what I felt was a verbal assault. In all likelihood, it was just my unskillfulness personalizing my pain and discomfort…because if I was uncomfortable than it must be something to be avoided right?
Sometimes I’d plead the 5th, throw a smoke bomb, or simply revert to Marine mode with angry loud, aggressive language.
FFS. I wouldn’t date me either.
I think my decision to leave was about divorcing myself from my anxiety more than divorcing myself from K. I really thought I could divorce, and then date my way out of my anxiety.
For a while, with my xp, it worked…I sure do miss her and my life with her.
K’s cross-examination always felt manipulative, even if it wasn’t. I felt as if I wasn’t being heard and instead I was being grilled and pressed into a corner until I admit she is right, even if she isn’t, even if I disagree, or even if I need something different.
Anything to keep the peace and everyone physically or emotionally sober.
Brene Brown: One of my worst defenses, when I get anxious or fearful in conflict, is to put people on the stand. I break into vicious lawyer mode and depose people rather than listening. “Last week you said this. Now you’re saying this. Are you lying now or were you lying then?” It’s terrible and always ends badly but it’s how I get to “being right.” What’s the solution?
Dr. Michelle Buck: That’s a common strategy for people. But if you want to transform a disagreement into an opportunity for connection, you have to distinguish between past, present, and future. When disagreements revolve around what happened in the past it’s easy to fall into countless volleys of “you said…I said” back and forth. Focusing on what did or didn’t happen in the past or what past events led to the current situation, usually increases tension and decreases connection. A critical first step is to shift the focus to “Where are we now?” and the most important turning point is when we focus on the future. What are we trying to accomplish for the future? What do we want our relationship to be going forward, and what do we need to do, even if we still disagree, to create that future? What do we want for our family in the future…or for our team, or our faith community, or our industry? This shift in focus does not necessarily mean we agree, but it may help us identify agreement about a shared feature that we want to create together.
Thinking on it makes me sick. As Brown acknowledges, “it’s terrible and always ends badly.“
And so it did. It ended badly with my xp. It ended badly with K. Twice.
It always ends badly without a more skillful approach to conflict…and even then it may still end badly.
So how do I break the cycle?
Buck breaks the issue into key questions revolving around our intentions and processes allowing us the opportunity to transform the fear, anxiety, and anger inherent to conflict into something useful:
- Where are we now?
- What are we trying to accomplish for the future?
- What do we want our relationship to be going forward?
- What do we need to do, even if we still disagree, to create that future?
- What do we want for our family in the future…or for our team, or our faith community, or our industry?
Outside of a small handful of couples I rarely hear these discussions. People are trapped in the cycle of proving a point and being right. The end up “focusing on what did or didn’t happen in the past or what past events led to the current situation,” writes Buck. They forever avoid transformative discussions.
These are the questions I hoped my xp would be willing to explore with me. I hoped, but in my heart I knew better. And after fifteen months of examining our patterns, I think I understand better why.
Perhaps this is why Esther Perel and others talk about healing from betrayal as an exploration of experiences and identities moving forward as opposed to focusing on salvaging the wreckage and beating each other with the pieces and parts that weren’t working.
In reality, it’s not. It works only if both partners are willing to take a risk, face the uncertainty, and be emotionally open. Despite the many protests to the contrary almost everything I read written by the men and women that have been betrayed is nearly always written from a point of safety. In this, everyone on all sides of the betrayal have this is common: we claim we want vulnerability and openness but then when pain cracks us open, forces us into a vulnerable place, we rebel and flail about looking for someone else to stop the fear and pain.
In reality, we cannot be vulnerable and safe. Vulnerability requires we be willing to lose everything. I clearly was not.
My lies and secrets were an attempt to avoid vulnerability, to keep what I had, to avoid risk and uncertainty so I could navigate the emotional minefields of my past without judgment or fear of abandonment. I longed to be seen but refused to show the deepest self. I didn’t want anyone to see my Ugly because it meant I was unloveable.
Perel goes to lengths in her book, The State of Affairs, to remind those that betrayed their loves, lives, and selves that those betrayed will not be able to think or act clearly.
She also goes to lengths to remind me I wasn’t thinking clearly either. No one is prepared for the emotional fallout and natural consequences of betrayal.
Pain and fear are two of the shared features of betrayal. It isn’t much but it is more real than what many couples had before. It is a starting point for individual and joint healing.
Shifting the focus for me has required a willingness to lean into the pain from the beginning, thanking it for being my teacher. As such, I have taken to the mantra: “My pain belongs to me. Others introduced us, but it’s my friend, teacher, and lover now. I have a choice, I can use it to help me become better and more skillful or I can deny it and it will break me, stealing my eye and denying me the ability to see the world as it is. The choice is mine.“
By adopting this method I am consciously shifting the focus from a demoralized hopelessness to one of self-aware empowerment. I am making the choice to turn the focus from the problem to the solution. Buck reminds those navigating conflict that “this shift in focus does not necessarily mean we agree, but it may help us identify agreement about a shared feature that we want to create together.”
In other words, where are we now? That takes time, and intention (a process for healing), to discern. I’ve been through this for 15 months and realize that it may take me another 15 months to trudge…but I trudge on none-the-less.
I see in the situation of infidelity, there will never be agreement about my intentions, motivations, or reasonableness but Buck is challenging us to discover what we can “create together.” To focus on the solution and not “fall into countless volleys of ‘you said…I said’ back and forth.” This unskillful approach “usually increases tension and decreases connection.”
I read those men and women betrayed falling into the rigid mentality of “I didn’t break this and so I have no obligation to fix it. It’s enough that I didn’t simply divorce you.” Whether anything worth repairing remains, or is wiped off the face of the earth, requires both individuals to contribute to the reconstitution of what is possible, to find something worth creating together.
In many respects, this parallels Perel’s believe that infidelity is a door to exploring something deeper and more meaningful about ourselves, our partner, and our relationship. Paraphrasing Buck, Perel is asking, “how can we use infidelity, and our pain and fear, to identify a shared feature we want to create together?“
This concept of a shared feature recognizes there will be things where shared agreements, more often or not, are not possible. The Gottman Institute research reveals 69% of the problems Relationship Master’s face are perpetual problems. These issues will not go away no matter how much of the relationship’s resources are expended to find a solution. In other words, we might not agree 69% of the time so let us find out what are the “shared features that we want to create together” the other 31% of the time.
Buck is encouraging partners to find where they can work together to create solutions instead of rehash the problems. A perspective echoed over and over by Perel, Brown, Stan Tankin, and a host of researchers and professionals.
I read these concepts and I think, “This doesn’t seem hard.” Clearly, this makes sense but then why do I struggle?
Is this rocket science?
It’s Not Rocket Science
I’m sure many betrayed spouses will hear Buck’s suggestions as simply a variation of “why aren’t you over it yet.“
Taken in the context of Buck’s other comments about transforming conflict, and Brown’s work as a whole, no one is asking or suggesting anyone should get over it. The question of “why aren’t you over it?” and “what are we trying to accomplish for the future?” are fundamentally different concepts whose answers are reflecting the unskilfulness of everyone involved in navigating the pain of betrayal et al post-discovery or reveal.
However, none of the concepts Buck is outlining should be used as a club to further humiliate or browbeat someone else into submission. In the middle of the fight, emotional flooding, or in the newness of it all is not the time to say, “Hey I know I betrayed you, our life, and my vows but let’s talk about ‘where we are now’ and our future goals.“
I recognize that if I drive over someone with a bus, I can’t run up to them and ask them to sign the liability waiver while the medic is performing triage. That would be simply one more selfishness act piled onto selfishness. It’s as if I’m responding, “I feel bad you feel bad so let me know you forgive me so I don’t feel bad…also, stop being a baby about the skid marks.”
What Brown and Buck are advocating is an angle of approach towards conflict rooted in generosity and clemency. Not an easy thing to do when flooded with outrage, hurt, loss, shock, and righteousness. The things Brown and Buck are advocating are skills that are learned and practiced over time.
Will it heal your partnership, allow you to reconciled, prevent your partner from cheating again, or make you more comfortable in leaving the partnership?
Maybe not, but that isn’t the point.
I do believe these are the skills I need to develop if I am to heal my broken heart, develop a deeper understanding of people, and become more skillful in my own life moving forward. Brown and Buck are advocating growing ourselves into more skillful, vulnerable, courageous, and loving people.
Of course, as Dolly Allen and I have discussed before, it is easier to be skillful when you aren’t emotionally flooding. When your life is on fire it is difficult to take a step back and apply skills, to think, and act, rationally.
It’s all practice.
Rituals & Practice
For me, especially early, perspective required counseling, Lexapro, meditation, writing, journaling, and several real and virtual friendships.
It has required a deep dive into my heart, mind, and spirit. It required losing everything that I held most dear and dismantling it one lie, one secret, at a time. It required looking into the mirror and owning my shame so it could not be used against me.
I required consequences.
Maybe you don’t.
Many of the conversations around infidelity et al revolve around the past. The focus on the past becomes a relationship ritual. We become comfortable with the uncomfortable. In the situation of my choices, I was practicing the ritual of lying and secret-keeping. Those are dangerous and hurtful habits.
I wonder now if my choice of my ex-wife as my affair partner was more about finding some comfort in the familiar to avoid the discomfort of all the ways I was vulnerable to my xp. At least K was familiar even if unskillful.
Much of what was going on between my xp and I was strange, new, and different. It required a deep and heartfelt vulnerability. It was all risk and uncertainty.
The pain of infidelity is painful but at least it is familiar. Focusing on the past instead of looking to the future is safer. In the future, I may be disappointed, hurt, abandoned, or lost again, but the past was survivable. Living in the past requires no vulnerability or courage but it sucks down enough oxygen to keep people from moving forward.
Of course, information is important. It is necessary for informed decision making moving forward but what value is there in knowing how often, where, and in what ways beyond a morbid and prideful curiosity if the experience isn’t applied?
The empowering questions aren’t “what did you do and why,” the empowering questions for me is, “Knowing what you did and why, what will you do now?” As Buck asks, “What do we want our relationship, life, business, or community to be going forward?”
The simple answer is, without C, I don’t know yet…but with time and intention, my life is slowly unfolding and as I confront the new and old conflicts I hope I can face them with more skill and vulnerability and in a way that demonstrates the truth of my heart and intentions.
I never wanted to be anywhere other than with C. I was hardened to that truth.
Now I am everywhere but with her. And I have am shattered.
I am facing myself and beginning again. Transforming conflict requires I transform myself. After all, the meaningful conflicts in my life originates within.