One can choose to go back toward safety or forward toward growth. Growth must be chosen again and again; fear must be overcome again and again.
I read people encouraging isolation, parroting outdated and misunderstood concepts of self and identity: you need to learn to stand on your own, handle your problems, learn to be alone, be tough, walk it off, and a host of other blather that sells the nonsense that to be strong and healthy means to do it alone or through a mob based intimacy.
Any wonder many people struggle with attachment, addictions, and loneliness?
We are taught needing someone is weak and wanting is selfish, and meanwhile, we hide behind unattainable stories of independence and freedom and compare ourselves to carefully curated pictures of beauty and success. All the while we silence our need to be needed and need, to be wanted and want, out of a pridefulness buttressed by a misunderstanding of vulnerability and bravery, and defined expectations of Others.
Compare that narrative to the professionals and experts reminding us there is a loneliness epidemic, largely because we’ve exiled the idea of vulnerability, interconnectedness, and graciousness with others into the emotional wasteland. Experts in shame, relationships, psychology, and medicine tell us to knock it off because we are damaging ourselves, others, our lives, and our communities. They encourage us to invite vulnerability back into our lives. “More vulnerability, not less, is the way to mend a broken heart,” said someone I cannot remember. Mark Nepo? Tara Brach?
SIDEBAR: Brene Brown talks that soldiers are consistently the most vulnerable of people because everything they do requires risk, uncertainty, and emotional integrity. As such, Kahn probably understood vulnerability more than most. He took risks, embracing uncertainty, and was probably emotionally more honest about needs and wants than most. He didn’t conquer the world, inspire an army, without being vulnerable in ways we cannot imagine.)
And what do we do instead?
We conveniently read these nuanced lessons from researchers, counselors, doctors, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and experts and repackage them as oversimplified memes, self-serving labels, and clickbait Top 10 articles. In the process, we reduce the complexity of people to caricatures and pin them to our carefully curated social media profiles to be regurgitated between our own “enlightened” mob providing the cover we want for excusing our shitheadery but leaving no room for the shitheadery of others.
We ridicule others as to say, “Nuance is for losers and chumps.”
As Brown writes, “There are too many people today who instead of feeling hurt are acting out of their hurt; instead of acknowledging pain, they’re inflicting pain on others.” This is cover for their fears, insecurities, and the opposite of badassery.
This cover behavior is easier than self-reflection and vulnerability.
I would know, and I have references.
The Lie of Happiness
Happiness means getting to know disappointment.
The narrative that has choked so many meaningful intimate moments in my life is the false narrative, “You deserve to be happy but if there is a conflict that must mean there is something wrong. Not with them, but with you.”
That is the primary lesson of my family of origin: I am responsible for the emotional well-being of others, and if others are happier, I will be happier too.
And because I’ve never learn to embrace my pain as my friend, because I run from conflict, because I feel responsible for the feelings and choices of others, because I’m afraid of being alone, because I am unskillful in verbalizing my needs and wants, because I choose equally unskilled partners, and because I simply do not know what I do not know, self-doubt and anxiety are my constant companions.
It never occured to me that Painter or Beatrix did anything wrong. My first thought is that it is my fault: I’m the man, I have to fix this, I need to make it right – and I have to look good doing it.
As such, I have to constantly remind myself – or be reminded – that both Painter and Beatrix made choices too, they have a part to play in the stories from within our relationship. They are not beyond reproach or culpability too. And because those relationships were dynamic, ongoing, and longterm, there is more to our stories than betrayal…but in a victim culture, we rarely talk about those stories.
Painter is not a queen, victim, or damsel. She is not pure, innocent, or better than me. She is only special to me because I chose to see her as special to me as a person and Partner. She has her good, bad, and Ugly qualities too. I have taken the brunt of Painter’s Ugly now and still love her…even as I don’t want to be with her.
Loving her is no longer enough. It never was.
Beatrix is not a bitch, monster, or a villain. She is not a bad person. She too has her good, bad, and Ugly qualities. I married her for good reasons. I left for the Ugly ones – mine and hers. There isn’t anything “wrong” with her. She isn’t “broken” or “psycho.” She is, like Painter, a person.
Neither women is “better” than the other one. These two women are people, not cars. Neither consistently got the best me. That reality will always be my burden, not theirs. Neither of them is the problem, nor are either the solution to my pain or the path to finding happiness.
Through this process, I’ve come to recognize it is not Beatrix or Painter’s job to make me happy or bring me joy. Making them responsible for my well-being and happiness, just like blaming them for my pain and anxiety, is selfish and avoidant. If I recognize they made the best choices they could with the skills they have it doesn’t matter what they did or didn’t do.
What matters to my healing, happiness, and joy is how I choose to respond. Any other approach is a lie.
Unicorns, Chumps, & Other Mythological Creatures
My grandmother was a very tough woman. She buried three husbands. Two of them were just napping.
Last year I read a Tweet from a woman struggling to understand why her husband asked for a separation and moved out.
Over the course of the next few hours the entire thread filled-up with women that were betrayed telling her, “he must be cheating” and that “she deserved to know the truth.”
The mob suggested tracking devices, reviewing phone bills, looking at credit card receipts, and generally focusing all her energy on his behavior instead of her own feelings of loss, abandonment, and humiliation. The victim panel encouraged her to focus on the energy and pain on another and not on simply learning to own her experiences and feelings.
By the end of the thread, she was spending her exhausted resources defending her life and her husband. She came looking to be heard and the victim panel’s offered only solutions to a problem they imagined and no empathy. Instead, they simply offered a projection of fears and anxieties.
I cannot imagine the pressure Painter felt after I left with people outside of our relationship filling her minds eye with the worse possible scenarios. I know several people flocked to Painter and, at the height of the chaos, piled-on with armchair psychology and nonsense about narcissism and other ghost stories.
As I wrote last year about this, “we make our pain theirs. That is why, if I imagine my ex is an adulterous malignant narcissist, your ex must be too.”
If a man or woman stays in the relationship, they’re chumps and shamed for not conforming to the expectations of a shallow narrative focused through a selective reading of feminism or masculinity, dashed with ten-cent armchair psychology, and glazed over with outsized indignation and subjective morality.
Complex people with nuanced motives bringing extensive histories, living with a mixture of skillful and unskillful talents, and a lifetime full of paradoxes are, in the end, reduced to caricatures: once a cheater always a cheater and only those staying embracing the experience must be chumps.
I read stories and comments written by the victim panels, the vengeful, the self-congratulatory, and the contempt-filled projecting their hurt and pain of their experience, the broken expectations, the wounded pride, and anger onto newly wounded others: “I’m bitter and you should be bitter too.”
One of the many things I have learned as I’ve trudged this experience is hurt people hurt people. Therefore, while “Anger is natural, intelligent and necessary for surviving and flourishing,” writes Tara Brach, “when we are hooked by anger, it causes great personal and collective suffering.”
While it is easy to see how venging and infidelity are perpetuating hurt back and forth it seems to me we often overlook the reality that by keeping other people angry, by sharing our anger and contempt, and fueling their anger and confusion we are hurting them too.
Perhaps in many ways, by fanning their anger we are re-traumatizing them over and over. We become part of the problem and not part of the solution. In other words, “Misery loves the company and if I can help you justify your anger, I can justify mine.” The untreated, self-righteous, and justified anger gives rise to “collective suffering.”
Too often the narrative reads to me, “If it doesn’t work for me it won’t work for you and I’m going to say enough things to keep you angry and full of self-doubt.”
We call the mob-mentality driven victim panels a tribe and then pedal sophistry as science: hurts we label abuse, anything that makes me uncomfortable must be avoided, every lie must be gaslighting, everything I perceive as a selfish act is narcissistic, and anyone that disagrees with me must be justifying through some non-existent cheater’s playbook.
Anything that makes me face my the truth of my angry must be a ploy and we create a cheap new label to avoid what is under the discomfort or anger. “The truth will set you free but first it will make you angry.”
Easier to blame me being angry on others than to dig into why I’m angry.
Heaven forbid we sit with the anger and ask ourselves what our pain is telling us? Anger certainly isn’t always telling us the Other person is an asshole.
The comfort of this echo chamber is too often members tell us what we want to hear and not what we need to hear.
“Don’t make it worse by telling yourself stories about how you are a victim,” says Pema Chodron. “Drop the storyline and experience the disappointment. What happens if you escalate it with your storyline, it then turns into rage.”
The victim panels’ mob mentality reinforces the rage in an attempt to avoid disappointment, hurt, loss, and pain. Happiness means getting to know disappointment.
Don’t oversimplify my point.
There is plenty of nuances…except entirely too many people aren’t interested in nuance except when it serves their pain. Any progress I have made is because I have chosen to lean into the patterns, sit with the loss, learn where I am unskillful and skillful, and seek out the internal conflicts I was avoiding.
Any progress I have made has been by choice.
Perhaps the biggest tragedy of our lives is that freedom is possible, yet we can pass our years trapped in the same old patterns…We may want to love other people without holding back, to feel authentic, to breathe in the beauty around us, to dance and sing. Yet each day we listen to inner voices that keep our life small.
When I read partners that terminated relationships – or stay and repair to re-pair – they have done so on their own terms and with an eye towards self-awareness. They have not blamed other people. They have consistently made the same statement: “I’m doing this for myself and for my own reasons.”
Women like Lisa Arends at Lessons from the End of a Marriage, Alejandra at Not My Weekend, Elle Grant at Betrayed Wives Club, Moira Swindell at Making This Better, Dolly Allen at The Queen is In, Spouse of a Sex Addict, Betrayed Wife, and Two Cheating Hearts. None of these women, at least in what I’ve read, make their Partner responsible for finding the solution (here are a few others you might consider reading).
As someone that betrayed people that loved me, and I loved, I know I am 100% responsible for my decisions to sleep with my ex-wife, keep secrets and tell an escalating series of lies to cover up my shame and guilt.
However, what these authors have taught me is that the solution requires a braving spirit from everyone involved. Otherwise, you remain a bitter bitch thriving on being a perpetual victim or seeing anyone willing to invest resources as simply a chump.
These women have recognized that to move through this chapter of their lives they have a responsibility to the solution, and not expect someone else to heal them. They recognize that healing requires time and intention, and they have embraced a vulnerable approach to participate in whatever solution they’ve chosen.
Of course, they are angry and hurt but they don’t use that to justify “acting out of their hurt” or “inflicting pain on others” without accountability for themselves. I’ve watched each one of them treat the betrayed and the betrayer with dignity and respect and recognizing we are each on our own path, each situation is different, but the solutions are softer hearts, not harder ones.
As Dolly Allen, wrote, and I’m paraphrasing, “Yes, he cheated, but I also betrayed him in my ways too.” She isn’t taking responsibility for his cheating but she is acknowledging that there is more than one type of betrayal, that she has her own faults, and that her husband, and their life, is more than the sum of his betrayal. She owns that given the opportunity she may have made similar choices.
Like Allen, I consistently see in the writings of these women an awareness of their own choices and heartfelt vulnerability to making their lives better with or without their Partner.
Do their efforts mean it will work out for those that stay? No idea, and that isn’t the point.
Each of these women, in their own ways, have taken a vulnerable approach to their pain, without making someone else responsible to fix what they feel. They may stay or they may leave, their spouses may cheat again or leave them.
In some cases, because these people are human, will cheat too…or find a different way to betray their own principles.
The point is that they have looked at themselves and recognized that have a role to play to make their own lives better regardless of who, or how it broke. Just I have owned my life, these women own theirs.