I know you hurt
Good day my Friend.
Depending where you are, it may not feel like a good day. That’s to be expected. Facing the consequences isn’t for the faint of heart.
It also isn’t optional. Karma always comes.
Of course, if you don’t hurt, and don’t feel the weight of any guilt and remorse over your behaviors, or you feel justified, I would encourage you to really dig into why you acted in a manner that involved breaking promises, commitments, and making a choice to keep-secrets and tell lies. If you were doing something you had a right to do, needed to do, or was true to your spirit and identity, why lie and keep it a secret?
Why did you avoid owning your own Truth?
However, what I really wanted to do is talk about our pain because we are constantly short shifting conversations about our feelings and our truths. No matter your decision and intention moving forward none of this will change quickly and somethings might not change at all.
What we need and want, feel and think, won’t matter for many people. When the pushback makes us uncomfortable, and we feel frightened or threatened, many will fall back to the emotional avoidance, caretaking, deflection, or some other unskillfulness habit we know. We will fall back to comfortable, as the saying goes, “better the devil we know.”
And frankly, the people demanding change will resist any changes we try to make. They will have preconceived expectations as to what we should be doing even if it isn’t a constructive and healthy alternative to the destructive and unhealthy. To paraphrase Mason Cooley, “We demand change even as we resist it.”
Therefore, our actions will understandably suck the oxygen out of the room for a while and many will respond with what they know how to do too. They will fall back to the conflict and relationship habits they know as well. That is why it is called a relationship pattern.
For example, some people will argue your infidelity makes you an abuser. Maybe you are. I don’t know. I’m in no position to judge you, I’m certainly not qualified to define your behaviors.
However, the oversimplified argument is essentially, “You’re an abuser because of XYZ!” It is natural of course, to bristle at such attacks and so respond defensively or as a victim. That may become the pattern when trying to suss out the truth from fiction.
However, angrily arguing about whether you are, or aren’t, an abuser only confirms what these people already believe about you. You aren’t going to change someone’s mind once it is set by angrily and defensively arguing with them.
Too often I have heard from the fairweather friends, flying monkeys, interlopers, and trolls declaring that if I hurt it must be simply self-pity, a manipulative tack to gain sympathy, or to deflect away from my behaviors. That is the same statement polluting multiple conversation about every betrayal.
That prospective is a bunch of claptrap.
The reality is, among the many other things, adulterer is forever stamped onto our relationship resume but that doesn’t mean we are incapable of change. We are now indefinitely branded with an A of our own design. There is nothing you can do to change this perception, and although we are more than our worse behaviors, it will always be one truth about this part of our life.
Some people will always define us by the cliche of “once a cheater always a cheater.” They see the remorseful and penitent as an act of an imaginary Unicorn. These people cannot or will not change, so they don’t believe we can either. There is no convincing those that lead with contemptful anger. They have these feelings for a reason, and like us, the feelings don’t have to rational to be valid.
Everytime you argue to defend your life and identity you are going to hurt yourself further, and perhaps them. Reminding others of all the good things that happened in the relationship will be met with grudging sarcasm at best and accusations of gaslighting at worse. The truth of your experience won’t cancel out the truth of their experience.
Regardless of our intentions now, few people will want to hear what we are feeling, our intentions, the nuance, our family of origin damage, or what we are thinking.
Perhaps, they never will and I discovered there is no use in trying to force it on anyone. These experiences and choices are our responsibility to sort through, not our Partners. They have their own injuries to sort through.
As such, let’s not waste energy tilting angrily at every windmill, shouting into someone else’s echo chamber, or try to chase off Flying Monkeys. Focusing on those intent on hurting us and perpetuating pain distracts us from moving forward and wastes the limited emotional resources required to reclaim our lives, heart, and integrity. Chasing approval,understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness from friends, strangers, trolls, interlopers, and family gets in the way of standing with the Partners standing with us.
The Partners that need us to stand with them.
Only by your own effort can you change the perception from adulterer to able.
Unfortunately, as Esther Perel points out in her book, The State of Affairs, the entire dialogue around infidelity and betrayal leaves little room for you to discuss your emotional truths or the truths of your experience with your Partners, friends, and family.
However, until we can own what is true we cannot even begin to address the changes our pain will require to move forward with, or without, our Partners. If we are being honest, our Partners are neither the problem, nor the solution, to the emotional and mental Thing rotting away at our integrity and honor.
Our Partners certainly aren’t the source or solution to our feelings and hurts. Chasing solutions to avoid discomfort is how many of us ended up here.
Until I could see my choices for what they are instead of what I thought they were nothing is going to change. As long as the conversation around infidelity continues to swing on the pendulum between personalization and projection we will continue to avoid the very deep and unseen energies perpetually driving our choices. Feelings, biases, attitudes, actions, and prejudices that are cover for damage that is simply the tip of a large iceberg.
As long as conversations are framed around the nonsense of labels the solutions and problems will remain superficial, shallow, and short-lived. It is up to us to focus on something other than the ghost stories even when no one else will.
Setting aside my idealism about changing the discussion around infidelity to something more anchored in the experience, the reality of our choices will bring out the often hidden Ugly in many others. In light of our actions some Partners are going to leave, others will stay, and still others will leave and return or stay only to leave. There is no wrong decision, just skillful and unskillful approaches to getting there.
However, whatever happens will involve pain, confusion, fear, loss, and anger for you. These will be the cover for the truly deep and painful feelings that can no longer be painted over or avoided by lying, hiding, and secret keeping. We did a lot of what we are being accused of, and no amount of defensiveness, remorse, or apologizing can undo the emotional and mental injury we have done to ourselves or others. Once struck, the bell cannot be unrung.
Moving forward will require time and intention and the sooner we can act on the truth of our intentions, the sooner we will be able to find the firm footing we all seek.
Depending on where you turn for support and direction, you won’t often hear the truth about your humanity.
This is especially true if we are internalizing and personalizing the vengeful and angry labels and words you read on social media about cheaters, possibly hear from interlopers and flying monkeys, shocked and disappointed friends and family, or from our understandably angry, humiliated, and wounded Partners. When we personalize these perspectives our shame and guilt will kick into overdrive, fueling new secrets or we will become defensive and argumentative as we try to protect what is left of our lives and identities.
This has been one of the most difficult lessons for me: not every question needs an answer, not every comment needs a response. I actively had to stop defending my life, responding to each criticism, personalizing the opinions, and explaining the nuance. I need to recognize other people’s opinions, even those I care about, are none of my business. Just because someone has an opinion doesn’t make it True.
Once we adopt this perspective we will be accused of not caring but adopting this perspective is the start of defining boundaries and more clearly defining our Truth for others.
Knowing this and knowing what to do about this are hardly ever the same. We all want to be heard, loved, and accepted. Naming our pain is how it loses its power over our lives but the fear of being vulnerable, rejected, judged, and humiliated traps us behind defensiveness and attitude.
To protect ourselves, our reputation, our lives, and the people we love and that love us, we build dams and levees of overlapping lies and secrets to control the river of life from our choices from the exact situation we are now living. As such, we often direct the Truth and Lies side-by-side through locks, rising and falling to meet the demands of the situations we created. The locks we built, and designed to keep a semblance of order and control over our carefully curated lives, demand more and more attention and maintenance.
Frankly, it’s exhausting. I hated every moment of the experience but telling the truth was never the first option…or the second.
Only when years of emotionally engineered dams and levees carefully crafted failed did I become honest about my shitheadery and ugly. The failure of those barriers, and the flooding that ensued, was feedback. Consciously embracing the failure created opportunity to grow and change.
I won’t go back behind the levees.
I’m done with the carefully curated system of locks and dams designed to caretake others, protect my image, and fueling the role of Hero. Nearly every act I have taken since discovery has been about destroying anything blocking the natural flow of my life.
This pain and hurt you are experiencing right now is the battering you are taking as you try to hold back the flow of the river that is your life. Once the levees failed the ensuing flood is pushing the flotsam and dross of our deceptions downriver. These are the consequences of rising waters inherent when the dams fail and the river of life overflows the banks and drowns our lives, and the lives of others.
Meanwhile, our garbage poisons and pollutes the waters around us. Secrets, lies, and shitheadery swirls about us. Depending on the depth and length of our alternate life the debris is bound to become tangled up in our lives creating whirlpools, eddies, and hazards needing to be navigated as we clean up our lives. Our Partners demand we clean it all up immediately but that isn’t possible. If it took years to engineer our deceptions, it will take a few more to clean it up. And then only if we put effort into work.
In the process too often we are battling our pride and Karma. We resist, seeking new places to dam up feelings, fallout, chaos, and losses out of fear and shame. We sandbag problems, gunny sack resentments, avoid new conflicts, or simply run to a new distraction so we can avoid the adulting necessary to reclaim our self-respect and power. It doesn’t make you a coward as much as unskillful. We are using the skills we know to solve problems we don’t understand. Essentially, we are relying on the patterns of habits we have developed in relationship with others. Many of these habits aren’t particularly useful as life changes.
Instead of embracing the intimacy and vulnerability that would present us with the acceptance and love we crave we revert to dam building so as not to lose what we have. Our goal is to re-establish a feeling of control over life and we end up creating new pain and suffering while re-injuring others. We make the same mistakes over and over but perhaps in new ways. We swim for shore only to be beaten about by the currents and battered by the emotional and relationship debris swirling about.
We either point our feet down river and accept the flow to the next calm pool where we can regroup or we collapse in the exhaustion and chaos of trying to redirect and deflect the currents flooding our lives and are swept away anyway. What we have done to our lives cannot be avoided. The work falls on us.
Of course, it is natural to seek help. Some of us will even expect help. We will ask others to carry the load or shift the blame. Anything to be freed from the weight of fear and anxiety. We might beg looking for understanding, acceptance, or forgiveness.
However, because of our betrayal those closest to us will be hesitant to help us separate the emotional wheat from the chaff. It isn’t their job. Understandably, people that may have once believed you are often not going to again.
Our credibility is gone.
Taking a step back it is obvious why they wouldn’t believe us. This will be especially true if our Partner’s approach to the world is underpinned with an emotionally rigidity, intellectually judgemental, or morally absolutist black and white filter. Their approach makes little room for other people’s nuance, choices or failures.
If we are lucky, they might be willing, they might cheerlead for us, but expecting them to carry the emotional water for us would be just one more selfish act in an sea full of selfish acts. My choices caused these consequences in my life.
They can love me and still say “no” and walk away. When I realize I am owed nothing, and owe nothing, I was free to focus on the flow of my own life and really dig into my choices.
I cannot say this often enough, turn to a professional counselor and seek guidance. An experienced professional will help you navigate the waters between the past and future, between the lies and truth, between skillful and unskillful, between success and failure, and between Partners.
They will do this in a way that those closest to you, those with a vested interested in what does or doesn’t happen next, won’t and can’t. A professional will help you confront your consequences and regain your integrity. Our Partners want what they want and need for themselves, they hardly want what we want or need for us. A knowledgeable third party mediator will help you decode your Truth. A Truth that may often be at odds with what those invested in the patterns will expect and want from of you.
That doesn’t mean you won’t ignore their advice as you work towards what is best for you. Early on I had no idea what was best for me. I was anxious, running on four hours sleep for months, living out of my car and hotel rooms while trying to fix others, avoid pain, mitigate consequences, and recover my Partner’s confidence. Confidence I lacked.
I obviously wasn’t thinking or feeling clearly. Counseling gave me a place I could go and be heard without judgement and with someone that was genuinely interested in what was best for me. Someone that was invested, and paid, to help me figure out what is best for me.
And here is an uncomfortable truth: what is true and best for me will not appear to be what is best for my Partners or the relationship. Acted upon, what is true for me will make other people uncomfortable, afraid, angry, and possibly hurt them again. However, as the Good Doctor and others remind me, in the long run what is true for me is what is best for the other people invested in the patterns. To break the pattern will require a willingness to be perceived as the villian in someone’s story. To recover my integrity and self-respect will require a willingness to do the unpopular, an openness to losing it all.
Change requires finding your voice and power. “Whether you find it difficult to have your voice, or you struggle to allow yourself to be influenced by others,” writes Therapist Uncensored, “patterns can develop that impede the safe connections that we generally desire.”
Through my secrets and lies I was trying to exert control over my fears. Through this process, I’ve recognized adulting requires me to speak the truth of how I feel and what feelings led me here. Recovering my power requires a willingness to be vulnerable and speak in ways they are authenticity to my truth.
As Dr. Stan Tatkin reminds me, until I can speak authentically, and with transparency of my intentions and motivations, it is impossible to develop the secure attachment relationships that grow and thrive require. Not speaking my truth to someone that respects my truth breeds resentments and undermines stability. You can learn more about what Tatkin says by listening to his interview on the Therapist Uncensored’s If It’s Not Good For You, It’s Not Good for Us: Interview With Relationship Expert Stan Tatkin.
When I step back I can see how my system of secrets and lies, dams and levees, were designed to exert control over my fear of loss, rejection, pain, and other imaginings of hurt. It was an attempt to avoid pain I imagined would happen if I let people see me and love me. And through my behaviors I created the exact bugaboos I was trying to avoid.
In reality, if you are serious about change the fear, pain, and sorrow will be a constant companion for a while. Depending on your skill level and available resources, you may just be a passenger on an emotional roller-coaster. The roller-coaster will hurt. It will beat the stuffing out of us leaving us bruised, sore, and perhaps vomiting our life up.
It may even seem more steamroller than roller-coaster.
That doesn’t make you a baby or weak or a coward. It means that, like so many others, we may feel angry, useless, hurt, confused, betrayed, defensive, or one of a hundred other emotions. Sometimes all at once.
Your losses are real. Your sense of isolation is legit. Your confusion is understandable. Your anger has meaning. Your desire to be heard and understood matters too. Your feelings and thoughts are yours, they are important, meaningful, and valid.
For example, if you are resentful because your Partner made you feel inadequate in the bedroom, that means something important. If you are hurt because your Partner emotionally ignored or shamed you, that matters. If you are lonely because you felt your Partner’s work was more important than you, that is significant. If you didn’t get enough oral sex and feel your sexual needs are being ignored, that is true too. If you feel taken for granted, own that and give it a voice. If you are carrying shame and believe you are unlovable, undesirable, or broken, it is important to own that too.
At some point in time, if you are sincere about recovering your integrity these feelings and thoughts need confronted.
If you feel betrayed, that is real too. It is just as true as your Partner’s feelings of betrayal. “We have all been betrayed and we have all betrayed,” writes Rick Reynolds at Affair Recovery. “What you’ve done may not be the same magnitude as infidelity, but we’ve all wounded others.”
There is nothing wrong with feeling betrayed or hurt. They are true to your experience. If that is the way you experienced it, it is not wrong. As Mark Nepo writes, “If you had experienced different things you would have different things to say.”
Speaking the truth of your experience isn’t blame shifting or defensiveness. It is not manipulative or entitlement. Speaking our truth is how we reclaim integrity and heal.
Although, it is important to remember that the way we speak our truth may not always be helpful, appropriate, or skillful. Timing matters. Knowing your audience is essential. We are not responsible for how it is heard or couching our language in ways that makes others comfortable.
Discerning when, and with who, we share our feelings isn’t always easy when we are angry, scared, and defensive. It isn’t easy when we clearly have difficulty with differences between what is public, personal, private, and a secret. Unchecked, discernment, easily can slip into acts of control. Others may even confuse our attempts at discerning as acts of manipulation. Especially when we’ve demonstrated we have such poor skills at maintaining, and respecting, boundaries.
Over a sustained period of time an experienced counselor will help develop the skills to be more successful at distinguishing between what we think is helpful and what is actually helpful.
However, I cannot say this enough: your feelings and thoughts are, in every shape and form, just as valid as your Partners. They are just as true to your experience as anyone else’s experience in this ugly and unskillful drama.
If you are remorseful, you have guilt and a conscious, and will hurt for yourself and the people you care about. It doesn’t matter if no one else believes you are hurting. You cannot prove you hurt to others. There are no polygraphs for feelings. There is no litmus test defining the level of rationality or irrationality of emotions.
In the process of attempting to prove the un-provable we end up resentful, shame-filled, and angry resulting in further isolating ourselves from meaningful support.
I was taught feelings are right or wrong.
In reality, they are neither, and neither are they good or bad. They simply are, and if you want to change part of that burden is deciphering where our feelings, and our thoughts about feelings, come from, and what to do next and not whether they are valid or rational. Miri at BruteReason writes, “Irrational feelings are still valid, and valid feelings can be irrational.” The difficulty of course is we make judgments and what feels wrong or right for us we think must be wrong or right for someone else.
It is helpful for me to remember, regardless of what I feel or think, regardless of my intentions or reasons, I cannot prove or disprove any of my feelings. As such, the most unskillful and hurting will dismiss anything we say or do as self-pity, an act, a lie for attention, more manipulation, or some pathology de jour.
For example, they may label you a narcissist or sociopath and then they can justify ignoring your feelings, needs, wants, desires, and misrepresent your actions because, after all, they imagine you’re pathological. Through this act of armchair psychology they will justify any number of vengeful actions and words and blame you.
And although we tell each other not to care what people say or do, we still do. Being ostracized from family, friends, and community hurts and that is the reason it has been the go to tool for the enraged and entitled mob forever.
After all, through the prism of anger, fear, and entitlement, they believe you deserve whatever you get, just as that same prism warped our reality and allowed us to justify some big and cruel acts of shitheadery too.
Early on I forgot there will always be people that take pride in hurting hurt people. Because they don’t know what to do with their pain, they will find pleasure in kicking you when you are already down. They will shame anyone that tries to stand with you and help you up as chumps. There will always be people committed on misunderstanding the intentions, actions, and feelings of others.
In anger some people will be incapable of finding compassion. They will confuse our newly revealed emotional vulnerability as weakness or worse. The will perceive compassion as permissive or tacit approval for out lies and secret keeping. They may even see efforts to change as an act and finds ways to discourage you and others.
Which makes sense, of course.
We lied about so much and kept so many secrets now we are desperate to be believed and heard. Perhaps expecting our Partners to believe us now is not a reasonable, or realistic, expectation.
As such, the most unskillful will perhaps demand evidence and we will unskillfully oblige through a ritual of emotional bloodletting, setting ourselves ablaze on a fiscal pyre, or provide some other equally subjective and arbitrary tribute.
Others will turn to vengeance, one of the oldest and most human of endeavors. For many vengeance will become a sport. They might believe the only way for you to understand their pain is to hurt you back while at the same time believing you will never be capable of knowing the depth of their pain. In their bitterness they will eat their own heart and pretend it is yours.
Too often in our lack of skill in confronting conflict, feelings, and borders we will throw ourselves on a sword, pretend normal, rely on trickle truth, become defensive, or sarcastic.
Perhaps even sadistic.
Anything to avoid the very Thing that brought us to our knees, and our lives to a rocky bottom. The very Thing we sought to run and hide from and from a place of shame try to keep hidden.
Everything new can be scary when so much is at stake. It is human to want to avoid the adulting that is required to honor the life we want moving forward. We may have to do it alone for a while as the Partners we betrayed decide on what they need and want. We may have to hurt the people we’ve already hurt in order to live the life we want in a way with integrity.
However, if we are serious we have to begin to own what is true. This is not for the faint of heart and will require a vulnerability I think many of us avoid. If we really want to change it will require us to be willing to lose it all.
This of course raises important questions.
- How long will we ignore the truth of our needs, wants, feelings, thoughts, and desires?
- When will we begin to speak the truth? If not now, when?
- Out of fear of imagined losses and pain will we flee or will we freeze, pretending normal, avoiding the adult conversations that need to be had?
- Will we simply emotionally shut down, responding to each issue with confusion, prayers and platitudes?
- Will we fight Ugly with Ugly, internalizing the pain of others and reflecting back more pain?
- Will we fall back to the habits of lying, secret-keeping, and acting out?
- Will we angrily treat others with contempt, become defensive pushing back with blame shifting or tantrums?
- Why are we surprised when we attack other people in anger they respond in kind? Or we feel attacked and snap back?
After all, we are taught at a young age “the best defense is a good offense.” It is also known as the Strategic Offensive Principle of War and it is a core principle of every soldier, athlete, and schoolyard bully. But here is the thing: this isn’t a war and what makes sense on the playground or in combat has no place in issues of the heart. The people we hurt are not playing a game.
This isn’t philosophy, this is science. It is biological.
Therapists Uncensored does a great job talking about the brain science behind our reactions in their podcast, The 7 Circuits of Emotion: What Animals Can Teach Us about Human Relating.
Every time I lose my center and perspective and react I am perpetuating the pain for myself and others. Whenever I have tried to justify or explain my actions it re-energizes and reinvigorates the pain for everyone. “How we respond to relational pain, whether we are in the role of betrayer or betrayed,” adds Reynolds, “is largely determined by whether or not I understand it’s not all about me, that life is hard, and that I am not in control.”
The people we hurt are trying to survive and avoid the pain too. How they respond in the face of their pain is different than how we think they should act, just as how we avoided pain is different than how they would act in the same situation.
For example, some will claim they would “never cheat” and cannot see it in any other terms than this is something we did to them with malicious intent and simply as an issue of character, moral, or pathological. Their decision not to sleep with someone else doesn’t make them better people or Partners, just different.
Others might choose to take ownership of what is our behaviors, guilt, shames, and humiliations. They will think it is about them. It is human to personalize and we do.
As my Good Doctor reminds me, different life experiences create different coping mechanisms. We all experience the same feelings but have our own conditioning that in stressful times sometimes reveals our own peculiar Uglies or strengths. Some of the very qualities I warped to allow me to compartmentalize my life have value in other times and places.
I’ve come to recognize the only solution is to own the truth or it will own me. In my case, when asked why, I simply say, “Because I wanted too.”
Everything else is nuance and contradictions. It’s my nuance. The contradictions are mine too.
I’m not saying the nuance and contradictions aren’t important. Meaningful discussions on infidelity fail when it is limited to simply accusations of selfish pleasures or pathological intentions. Conversations about infidelity would be more meaningful if we would focus on what we might have been avoiding as much as what we were getting.
However, it is our job to weed our garden. Going to the people we betrayed and asking for help or understanding with our pain and confusion is not going to be well received by the person whose heart we used as fertilizer for the daffodils growing in our garden.
When the Sirens of Infidelity call no one thinks, or acts, clearly. As soon as I understood my Partners’ actions as a reasonable response to their pain, the sooner I realized there was nothing I could do to stop them from venging, hurting or running. Throwing our live overboard as a sacrifice to Fear makes complete sense. After all, that is exactly the Thing driving your choices: avoiding the things we fear.
Expecting others not to act the same is fairly naive considering the injury our behaviors inflicted on others.
Whether you stay or leave, whether they throw us out or keep us, until we own the truth of our actions, feelings, and thoughts lasting change may never come and the trauma will revisit us, and our loved ones, over and over. This is why it is essential we connect with, and name, our feelings even when no one else hears us. Even when they seem irrational to others.
Which, again, is why professional and experienced counseling is essential to understanding. Think of them as an emotional nutritionist or coach. Helping you emotionally feed yourself in a better way or learning to stand in the batter’s box taking appropriate swings at life’s curve and fastballs.
Here is the thing for me: I cannot unring the bell and there are consequences. The consequences hurt. They still hurt. There is pain. Pain is not wrong. Hurting is how I know something needs to be addressed. Pain is not the enemy as much as your Partner in change.
The difficulty is when we are in pain, we just want it to stop and in the process seek all kinds of unskillful ways to soothe the pain. As I said, sometimes we flee, or freeze, or fight. As such, we often meet anger with anger, hurt for hurt, indignation with indignation, and rage with rage while others will turn to some shade of silence and sulk. Our every response communicates a hundred shades of our fear and anger as we attempt to stave off the next sling and arrow.
However, as soon as I stopped running from my hurt, I began to find perspective on my past choices, my consequences, and my future. And once I started to find perspective everything my Partners have done makes complete sense.
Once I started to filter my choices and actions, and the choices and actions of my Partners, through the lens of pain I start seeing the meaning and lessons more clearly. Once I become aware of how much I acted out of fear I could start to see how those around me did the same.
Until we listen to our pain we may not even know we are acting out of fear.
Feelings cannot be fixed. Feelings are not a weakness. Feelings cannot be ignored. Unable to express ourselves the feelings eventually come out as anger, depression, or fear and we act unskillfully because we are inexperienced.
For example, C flees finding Heroes to carry her emotional water and hides, K fights seeking control and the upper hand, and I freeze and avoid the conflicts by going along to get along.
Also, obviously, I have affairs, keep-secrets, and tell lies.
In reality, everyone carries their own secret and unspoken traumas and how they are motivated to respond to theirs can be a witch’s brew of potions and poisons. Each mixture limiting how they take to shouldering their burdens and traumas. “We don’t see the world as it is,” writes Anais Nin, “we see it as we are.”
Tragically, too often the way we see the world is distilled through the filter of our problems and we are left with a toxic potion that distorts our ability to recognize any solution other than the one we think we want. As such, people we love, and love us, will use us as much for what we do for them, as we have used them.
Of course, that is not a criticism or excuse, although it might be take that way. I am simply stating the the truth of relationships and love. The same relationship can mean different things to different people. “We had often read the same books at night in the same bed, and later realized they had touched us in different places: that they had been different books for each of us,” writes Alain de Botton in his book, On Love.
“Might the same divergence not occur over a single love-line?” he muses.
I didn’t cheat, keep-secrets, and tell an escalating series of lies because of how the people in my life behaved. I cheated, kept secrets, and told an escalating series of lies because that is my potion for dealing with a lifetime of trauma, conflict, fear, anxiety, loneliness, and loss. Each relationship experience adding something new to my brew reinforcing the taste of the potion until I came to adapt to the bitter aftertastes. I repeat the potion because that is the recipe I know even though I also know it is a recipe for disaster. I drink the potion and then try to avoid the emotional dry heaving it inevitable brings.
C conveniently describes me as a narcissist. K has shown more generosity, moving between hating me and loving me. And when I fall into the pain filled trap of simply defining my identity through their tears and angers my Good Doctor reminds me of the truth of my unskillfulness and theirs, and we talk about the ingredients of my potions – and theirs – and I try again to return to my center by embracing life and love and pain’s impermanence.
I grudgingly have come to recognize I don’t simply hurt because of what my Partners have done, or even the consequences. I don’t hurt simply because of the abuse and neglect I received at the hands of unskillful people around me. I hurt because I judge the behaviors of others as a reflection of my value.
I take what others do and say to heart, making it personal, and react to it like a bass to a baited hook. I swallow the shiny charms to feed my hunger for value, and the hook lies in wait next to my heart. Then when there is the inevitable tension always found tied to love, I jerk away and as the hook’s bard tears at the walls of my heart, I dive deeply into the weeds of life looking to escape the fear of the pain and in the process discover pain. All to avoid the very bait I so eagerly swallowed earlier when it fed my value.
As a result, the hurts will cut the deepest were willingly consumed. Too often I have avoided owning the truth: I willingly took the bait because it was beautiful and when it tugged on me emotionally I ran. I ran when I realized I was vulnerable to pain and loss.
The very effort to escape the pain creates the pain.
And afterwards, I continue to suffer because I avoid taking any medicine that would provide solace and healing. I suffer because I am bitterly disappointed that, given the opportunity to love, I did not do more with it. I suffer because at my core I believe the lie that I am unworthy of the love that my Partners offered me, that I am not enough.
I suffer from the self-inflicted wounds of judge the value of my feelings and thoughts and thereby find myself judging myself against arbitrary and subjective standards of masculinity, identity, worthiness, and emotions.
And for this, I pay by carrying a deep and old shame. Instead of listening to the lessons I shouted down the message and across a lifetime sought multiple someones and somethings to validate my value. And in doing so I created opportunities for Shame to take the bullhorn and shout louder still until my entire life shook in agony as the reverberation swept through my being.
I understand these may seem like big, overwhelming ideas at the moment, but it is my small, underwhelming ideas about love that betrayed so many including myself. It is my lack of imagination, not my lack of value, that drove my unskillfulness. I hurt because I have lived for so long with the untreated wounds they have festered and are now infected. My current aches is simply the blood pushed to the wound. I hurt because I don’t listen to what my pain it telling me and so run from it and avoid treating the wound.
However, I just want you to know, regardless of how you got here, you are allowed the dignity of you pain and confusion. Your pain has value. Our feelings are just as valuable as the feelings of the people we betrayed.
It doesn’t matter what other people tell you, think of you, or believe (or don’t believe) about who you are, what you did. Their opinions and perspectives are not more important or valid than your thoughts, feelings, and experiences. The value of our humanity is not diminished by our behaviors, but our power, integrity, opportunities, and self-respect understandable will be.
As I said, your hurt and your pain is important. Your pain, loss, grieving, humiliations, loneliness, despair, anger, and shame matters. However, they gain real power over us we we deny them.
I’ve come to respect the idea that my feelings and attitudes matter because each one of those feelings and experiences are trying to help me recover my self-respect, integrity, and power.
If I will learn to listen, be humble enough to learn, and have the patience to practice new skills, each one of those feelings is showing me the path out of this life trap I created.
The difficulty is I treat pain as the enemy and in the process I simply splinter my life up into one more war I wage on myself. In an attempt to avoid the enemy, and win the war, I emotionally carpet bomb my life and the lives of others. As such, I find myself in a relationships where I lie to myself and my Partners.
I treat my emotional self as another. I try to carve off what I feel about myself, my behaviors and life, and others from my choices. I lie to myself about what I feel and what I am doing.
At the end the day I am gaslighting my own life.
What you feel, think and experience is equally as valid as anyone else’s feelings, thoughts, or experiences. What we feel is just as valid as what the people that love us and we betray feel. Their pain is not more important, or true, or real than ours just as ours are not more important than theirs.
I’m going to say this again, because we can be so self-absorbed in our pain we wrestle for the high ground: our pain is not more important than someone else’s. Our pain is equally valid. However, in our anguish we try to outdo another and it becomes an emotional competition.
Therefore, if your partner hurts because you lied, kept secrets, and loved another that matters. No matter how times you say, “I’m sorry” or “It didn’t mean anything” or some variation of dismissing their feelings so you can avoid feeling bad, they feel what they feel. Their feelings are neither good or bad, right or wrong, except as we think it so.
Neither are your feelings.
However, as I read and talk to those that we betrayed I realize too often what is perpetuating the drama, pain, and confusion is our stubborn desire to fix the emotional things that are unfixable. They are unfixable because the feelings aren’t broken. Feelings are simply feelings like thoughts are simply thoughts. Learning to live without judgement while honoring these feelings and thoughts is difficult even on the best days.
Of course, their pain doesn’t justify them hurting you back so you know how they feel.
For example, a revenge affair may be intellectually or emotionally understandable but it is hardly any more skillful or less damaging than yours. If they have a revenge affair that is their unskillfulness, and frankly, not your fault in anyway, shape, or form. Blaming you for their choices is the same as you blaming them for yours.
Two wrongs certainly won’t make anything right.
However, if you hurt because they are verbally abusive, repeatedly humiliate you in front of friends and family, or use shame and sarcasm to cut you emotionally in response to your vulnerability, that is a valid wound. Those too are betrayals. You aren’t being a baby or overly sensitive because it hurts.
An unkind tongue can be a broken heart’s weapon of choice. Being treated that way drives humiliation and shame. Your feelings in that situation are valid.
Of course, that doesn’t justify sleeping with you secretary or fucking a hooker in an attempt to restore your power.
In both examples, the problem isn’t that we are hurt. The problem is how we respond to the hurt. Knowing hurt people hurt people has helped me make better choices in how I respond to the people around me.
This is one of the many traps we are living in: we believe our pain and hurt is somehow deeper, more meaningful, or severe than what someone else experiences. We grade the merit of their pain based on our own pain. “My pain is 9,” we bemoan, “and yours is only a 6.” It is self-absorbed way of saying, “Your pain doesn’t matter because mine is worse.”
Or we completely dismiss someone else’s experience by declaring, “Your pain isn’t real. You are faking it for pity. You don’t mean it.”
How do we know? How do we know how deep someone else’s wound is cut?
One person’s limb loss is another’s flesh wound. I cannot know what is true about someone else until I set aside my expectations, entitlements, judgements, bias, and anger and listen to connect and not simply to respond. It is only for pride that I fight for where I think I am right while demand others cede to my perspectives.
With like so much, self-righteousness contempt and self-aggrandizing pride makes it “easy to marginalize other people’s emotional experiences,” write Antonia Dodge and Joel Mark Witt at Personality Hackers, “and act like they aren’t important until [those emotional experiences] happen to you. Then they are the most important thing in the world.”
As such, we end up comparing our emotions wounds to someone else‘s emotions and decide what we feel is just and what they are feeling must be just self-pity. “Why aren’t they over it yet?” we wonder. We wallow in our self-absorbed pains losing compassion for someone else’s.
I know culture, interlopers, and even some of our own partners and relations will say because we betrayed our Loves, lives, and selves we don’t deserve compassion or comfort for our pain, are not allowed to discuss it, or are incapable of real hurt.
After all, they argue, if we knew pain, why would we inflict pain?
Although in all fairness, if our goal was to inflict pain, we wouldn’t have tried so hard to hide our behaviors and lie about it. And although I agree with Esther Perel when she talks about some infidelity being fueled by the power of the forbidden, it doesn’t justify my lying and secret-keeping.
All of my intentions were built around avoiding conflict, maintaining my relationship with Partner, and keeping my reputation intact. My behaviors were motivated by a desire to avoid the pain and discomfort of living so out of sync with my values and intentions. It was an attempt to silence the feelings my Ugly was creating. It as an attempt to ignore current relationship conflicts fueled by unskillful lifelong patterns.
Inflicting pain on others or myself was never part of my strategy. Strategy implies long term planning and objectives. What little strategy I did have was built solely around avoiding pain for myself and others. It was on most days purely reactionary damming up of the hard thing.
It was about minimizing my shame and hurt.
Our healing requires time and intention. Our time, our intentions. It won’t eliminate the storms but owning my unskillfulness and learning new skills will create new strengths and confidence to sail the storms that life brings everyone in their own time.
This change in skills doesn’t happen at once. It isn’t spontaneous. Change is a result of effort and sacrifice. Change happens one funeral at a time. Sometimes the funeral is for people and other times the funeral is for ideas, bias, prejudices, entitlements, and often for relationships.
If you decide to read what professionals write about healing you will see not one of the professionals that spend time working with couples or individuals say, “You caused the problem so shut up!” or “Man up and stop being a baby!” or “Suck it up buttercup!”
No professional says to someone seeking help, “You deserve worse.” No responsible professional is going to encourage a revenge affair.
Instead, the knowledgeable professionals all say essentially the same thing: only by talking about it in a vulnerable way can we work through the grieving and get to the heart of the matter. Think of it as physical therapy for the heart. “More vulnerability,” Mark Nepo writes, “not less is the way to heal a broken heart.”
Don’t let hurt people tell you what you do and don’t feel, how you should and shouldn’t act. Don’t be defined by the opinion of the ill-informed trolls on social media. Stop relying on click bait articles offering self-serving diagnosis of what is “wrong” with you.
Find! A! Professional! Experienced! Therapist!
A knowledgeable professional, over a period of time, will help a willing client learn the skills to accept what is true about themselves, their behaviors, and the patterns in their lives and relationships. Lasting change requires an understanding of who we are and why we do things coupled to improved skills. People change by seeing their options. Climbing the Conscious Competence Ladder requires time, intention, and effort.
Which is why it is essential to invest in a good doctor that will help you out of the emotional silo and broaden your perspectives.
I wrote earlier, that you can learn, but you have to confront the shame to do so. Shame is the obstacle to change. A good doctor will help you separate the hurt from the shame. They will help us separate the inherent guilt, remorse, and grief we experience from the lies shame tells us.
Shame keeps us stuck in the place where lies and secrets make sense. While admitting hurt is a healthy response to our self-inflicted injuries, shame leverages our pain to corrupt our identity, choices, and perception.
A professional wants you to live without shame while many people in our dynamic will try and leverage it power and control. Not out of maliciousness but because it’s how they know to communicate their experience and deal with their pain. Shame is a powerful tool to hurt others. It is easily projected and weaponized. I have to constantly remind myself, hurt people hurt people, and my shame makes it easy.
Shaming simply drives behaviors further underground, eliminating options. After all, “Who wants to be around someone who tries to make them feel ashamed?” asks Melissa Kirk in her Psychology Today article, Shame on You! Do You Use Shame to Control Others? In reality, professionals don’t leverage shame for points or a weapon.
In Brene Brown’s book I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power, she defines shame as “the intense painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”
We cannot address the Thing that is damaging our lives if we allow ourselves, or allow others, to seed the weed of Shame over and over in our life’s garden. Shame won’t get people to change. If they use shame as leveragel no amount of arguing or fighting back is going to get them to stop. Shaming others is an attempt to avoid their own pain and issues. By shaming we transfer our unskillful relationship with pain and grief to others.
We cannot be true to ourselves if we are constantly listening to Shame’s siren call to prove our value or deny it. “Shame, in whatever form it takes, is a way to control the other person by using their deeply ingrained need for connection to threaten them with disconnection,” writes Kirk. “It’s genius. And nefarious.” It lacks integrity.
As such, it is best for me to recognize shame for what it is if I hope to recover my integrity and power. Shame is a lie.
There are lots of free resources available for you that will provide a positive and encouraging perspective on your injury. Use the time you were playing your your Partners wisely. Focus the energy you showered on others onto your own life.
Read a book by professional. Read lots of them: Esther Perel, Caroline Madden, The Gottmans, Stan Tatkin, Alain de Botton, Brene Brown, Rick Reynolds and his team at Affair Recovery, and Tara Brach to name a few.
Listen to podcasts. Personality Hacker, Therapist Uncensored, On Being, The One You Feed, or Where Should We Begin? all offer insight into our feeling, thinking, loving, and living selves. Meet yourself with curiosity.
You will find these all say essentially the same thing: even the self-inflicted wound is still a wound and needs time, air and light to heal.
As I’ve dug, I’ve slowly come to appreciate that if my heart was whole and I embraced a consistent vulnerability I would not have placed myself and my loved ones in this position.
Contrary to the rumors, I do have a heart and so do you. If you step back, look at your life and experiences, what you did makes complete sense and is the natural outcome of not addressing our conditioning, attitudes, biases, and wounds.
Do not deny your feelings because of your own bravado or anxiety over the angry pride of others. Do not allow Shame to simply move it to a new box in your life. You are secret free now, use the reprieve to learn the skills of vulnerability and practice speaking your truth. Only by learning the skills of vulnerability can we hope to not repeat our mistakes.
And to be clear, don’t use the excuse you don’t have the time or money. You made time to fuck someone else. You can make a few hours a week to take care for yourself. Love yourself enough to get care.
If you are serious about healing, that means you have got to stop screwing yourself out of knowledgeable and experienced help. Twitter, social media, and first person journals are no substitute for professional, knowledgeable, trained, professional help.
Also, your Partners may love you, but they aren’t giving you sound relationship advice either. They too have an agenda. Your Partners are not qualified to diagnose you and are just as likely to project their own issues onto you while inserting their damage into the relationship.
All of this being said, here is the other part of the puzzle: I don’t think we should prioritize our pain over the pain and hurt of the people we betrayed. Just because our pain is equally valid doesn’t make it more important.
After all, we are the ones that consciously made these choices. It wasn’t an accident. And to be fair, in my opinion, if I simply dismiss my behavior as an accident or mistake I’m not really taking full responsibility for my decisions. I did not fall down a flight of stairs and find my dick wedged in my former Wife’s pussy.
For example, my betrayal didn’t start the moment I copulated with K. My betrayal started nearly a year before as I started to take on responsibility for K’s emotional well-being. It started when I began to reconnect intimately with K as we negotiated the terms of the divorce. It started when I allowed Shame to write the checks. Shame encouraged me to throw myself on the sword.
With K, I didn’t clearly communicate. I took responsibility for things that were hers. I maintained poor boundaries. I avoided conflict and tried to caretake. I avoided fights. I went along to get along. I minimized and excused her behaviors towards C. I wasn’t vulnerable. I overlooked her unskillfulness. I feigned emotions trying to make her happy and minimize conflict.
Looking back on those moments I recognize that it wasn’t just a betrayal of C, but also one more betrayal of K. With both of these human beings I made my hurt and fears more important than them or our relationship. Even if my actions were below the line of consciousness, I still made decisions that opened the door to the possibilities. In that moment when I acted unconsciously and unskillfully, I set the stage to betray my Love of loves, our lives, and myself.
We are ultimately responsible for our choices. No matter how justified we believe our actions and motives are, we cheated, kept secrets, and told an escalating series of lies. That alone should be enough to motivate us to seek self-understanding. Emotionally skillful people do not behave this way.
Some of us were abusive and relied on gaslighting. Many of us spent family resources on people that are not family. Some of us still are.
There is more than one betrayal layered onto other betrayals. We contain multitudes. We are walking, talking contradictions.
Some of us want to pretend the men and women we betrayed are overreacting or we minimize our behaviors or selfishly beg for forgiveness or make others somehow at fault. Still other men and women that cheated will decide to spend the money and resources to take them to Disney World to reconnect.
Those are distractions from our feelings and not solutions. Running off to Disney is only a variation to running off to the thrilling carnival rides infidelity promises.
That thinking won’t help your cause if your cause is reconciliation. It certainly won’t help your cause in divorce court or therapy, or whatever consequences you are forced, or choose, to face.
As the people we betray heal, there will be consequences. There will be a change.
I have said before, your old relationships is dead. Rob the grave of the things of value. Let go of the rot. Let its death have meaning. Give it dignity knowing that the death of the partnerships could be divorce, reconciliation, moving on alone or with a newer Partner.
Do not tie your healing to expectations of others.
While we’ve had time to compartmentalize and digest our hurt and fears across time, the people we betrayed don’t have that luxury. Regardless of when or how they find out, our betrayal is akin to dropping an asteroid into their living room and setting their lives on fire.
There is no sugar coating our choices: we hurt them and hurt people hurt people. And as I said earlier, wounded people will either fight, flee, or freeze. None of those choices are wrong and stepping out of the immediacy of the situation their reactions make perfect sense. Learning the skills to step out of the immediacy will allow us to react to their pain with an empathetic, compassionate, and understanding response.
Understanding will allow us to not be dragged down into the hurt places as they emotionally flood. It creates the possibility we can hold their hand emotionally, and sometimes physically, when they are their worse without reacting in kind. It allows them the dignity of their pain without making out pain the focus.
Like our responses, their responses to us, and towards themselves, are not simply choices, but rather instincts. It takes an extremely emotionally intelligent person to breathe through the moment and not react to fear of pain. It takes an unconsciously skillful person to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff as the emotional threshing is happening.
I’m clearly not the person yet…but I won’t be in this situation again and I will not do this to another person.
In my case, my betrayal went on for years. As such, I don’t think C asking me to leave or ending the relationship is an overreaction.
An overreaction on her part? Probably not.
Not understanding my own feelings and being unconscious of my unskillfulness I fell into pursuing C. As a result I made my pain more important than hers. It scared her more and she did what she does, and fled even further.
I tried for nearly eight months to demonstrate my fidelity and commitment to our relationship. Tragically, we cannot convince someone to turn towards us once the heart turns away. They have to choose to turn back. Our only right with other people is to leave.
C chose to leave.
In light of what I am guessing C thinks and feels, and imagines is true about my behaviors and choices, her venging makes sense through the lens of hurt people hurt people and fighting, fleeing, or freezing. I know where that comes from so I’m more patient about that than some others might be. I have tried to meet her with compassion and clemency. After all that is what I was seeking from her. We hurt these people, as such consequences happen. Venging happens.
It still hurts but my pain is not her fault, or her responsibility.
My betray of K went on for much longer. I don’t think K calling C is an overreaction either. It was a natural consequence of my ghosting and the simmering I subjected her too.
That too is hurtful but for different reasons.
But I keep coming back to the simple truth: these are the consequences I chose the moment I started down the path of living dishonestly. Maybe not the specific consequences but, as AA reminds me, “we step on the toes of our fellows and they retaliate.” Retaliation is an attempt to “repay (an injury or insult) in kind” and my behaviors injured others. Knowing this I can see my Partners’ acts of retaliation and revenge are not personal but unskillful responses to their own pain.
As such, I am trying to make space for their pain and not making mine more important than theirs.
I am not a victim of Partners’ revenging. Instead I am the willing recipient of their hurt. I’m not talking about being a martyr.
I am saying, I recognize that my choices created damage to our lives and I will not run out of shame or humiliation. I would always sit with either of these women, without expectations, under and terms and conditions, and try to listen to them and talk with them like they are people that once loved me and that I love.
Would I do it perfectly?
Of course not…but healing is more art than science. Healing requires an inner creativity and curiosity about ourselves melded through an alchemical formula to time and intention. What it looks like at the end for the willing will be different for each of us.
Although there is nuance, I’ve grown into a willingness to see C’s silence, rumor mongering, and using of other people to carry her anger to me as the only way she knows how to express her hurt. She hurts because she cared. She lashes out still because she carries her own bugaboos.
I see K’s actions in the light of someone trying to fight for Us, afraid of abandonment, and struggling against her own shames. She too hurt because she cared.
These are perhaps both generous interpretations on their actions but once I own what is true about my choices and pain it is easier to find empathy and compassion for their pain too.
I’ve come to accept that just as my Partners are not responsible for my choices and how I unskillfully acted on my hurt, I am not responsible for how they respond unskillfully either. Although, that is hardly ever the narrative cobbled together by the sanctimonious and righteous.
And this is where I invite more contempt from outsiders: I hurt because I cared about these people too.
We both know the responses: If you cared you wouldn’t have cheated; If you loved them you wouldn’t have been so selfish; If you cared why would you do what you did?
In response, I defer to Lisa Arends at Lessons from the End of a Marriage when she writes, “While cheating highlights many flaws in someone’s character or coping mechanisms, I don’t think that it necessarily indicates that a person is incapable of love…Sometimes people act in opposition to their feelings…”
Her writings are worth more readings.
That doesn’t mean I allow myself to be abused, but I have on more than one occasion made myself open to their vengeance. That is one of the ways I made amends. It is indirect but they are still amends. On my best days I can see how what they intend as bards on arrows can be received as flowers. Although, not every day can be the best day.
In the long run, their choices do far more damage to themselves than it does to me. I have a choices once I embrace my hurt and pain and listen to them as friends. As such, I am not looking to hurt them back even as I suss through my own choices and consequences.
Even as I grieve my losses and tend my own wounds.
I’m going to beseech you one more time: go to counseling.
So much of our behaviors are driven by old unaddressed injuries and how we respond to our feelings and thoughts about those injuries. Many of these injuries predate our current partnerships. We are ill-prepared to address them ourselves.
Counseling doesn’t make the wounds magically disappear but rather creates awareness of the wounds and how we respond when in relationship with others. Once we start to recognize how we respond we can start to make other choices and learn more skillful ways to address those wounds. That is the root of skill development.
Once we can see our choices for what they are, we can practice with our Partners in moving towards what we need and want. We help each other to see ourselves more clearly. This leads to more secure, loving, and compassionate attachments.
“We have so many messages in our culture that makes it difficult to maintain relationships, friendships, and intimate relationships,” writes Tatkin. “Like ‘you have to love yourself before you can love another person’ or ‘you have to know yourself before you can know another.’ These ideas are not true, yet we take these ideas and we justify a lot of behaviors.”
“As counselors we need to recognize that Partners are in each other’s care, not their own.”
Tragically, in so many ways I thought I was responsible for my care and I refused to let others help. I thought a man goes it alone. This is perhaps the single greatest lie in my life resulting in a hidden sorrow and deep loneliness.
Upon reflection, I think the lies and secrets were a tourniquet choking off love from my life. A tourniquet I wrapped around my acts of betrayal in an attempt to stem the bleeding of my heart, and the hearts of the people around me. Putting the tourniquet on hurt. Taking it off will hurt too. There is no avoiding consequences.
What we have done cannot be undone. Living with pain is required to heal. As physical therapy is exhausting, painful, and take time, emotional therapy will be too. There will be long stretches where we are sore, want to quit, and our effort will be directed only through an internal compass. That is life but with effort, we will discover a life worth living full of self-respect. confidence, integrity, and power.
With or without our partners we can build a life worth living.