05: A Love Letter to the Betrayers – Labels and Abuse

Abuse includes:

– The use of shaming and belittling language

– Verbal abuse — name-calling 

– Punishment and threats of punishment

Andrea Mathews LPC, NCC
When Is It Emotional Abuse?

Dear Betrayer, Cheater, Abuser, Narcissist, Unfaithful, Predator, Con, and Scum.

Fucker.

Missing any other cliches? Feel free to add to the list.

So. How’s it going?

Yeah? Me too.

I always feel the need to add this disclaimer: there is no justification or excuse for our choices. We did what we wanted. We are entitled to nothing. Our behaviors injured other people and our relationships. There are consequences.

Sorry about the labels. I know you are more than a betrayer, cheater, unfaithful, scum, or whatever other bullshit label dejour hurt people toss at you to remind you how you hurt them and what a piece of shit you are.

Abuse

Just remember, when I use labels like those, know it is always with a sigh and an eye-roll. I think it is nonsense, and if years later these labels that hurt are still being used it is because hurt people aren’t dealing with their hurt. Others feel entitled to venging to try and manipulate the shame, guilt, humiliations and failures as punishment and torture. This is abuse.

As if we need the help torturing ourselves over our shitheadery. There will always be someone that thinks torturing us should be a lifelong and community project. That is them making their problem ours. Learning not to pick up the bait is part of the lesson in boundaries.

Now having said that, I do want to add one more disclaimer: We fucked up. If our Partners are not angry that speaks to a completely different problem. If they do not act angrily that is not constructive, healthy, or honest. Our behaviors injured them. What we need to do to make amends will hurt too.

And hurt people will strike back.

At some point in time, if we are embracing our truths, we will have to see things as they are and not as we want them to be. Abuse is abuse, and typically women simply abuse differently than men, but it is still abuse.

If we had a friend and watched them constantly being denigrated, shamed, humiliated, and berated, we would call it abuse. If a friend was required to turn over paychecks, cell phones, and live with tracking devices we would see it for the controlling behavior and abuse it is.

And if your friend said, “Yeah but I deserve it because xyz” we would be even more deeply concerned for our friend.

However, when infidelity comes into play I think the label “cheater” gives this type of emotional abuse a pass.

When I talk about abuse I am not talking about the natural, intelligent, and necessary anger associated with the discovery or reveal of our betrayal, secret-keeping, or escalating series of lies.

There is a clear difference between emotional grieving and emotional abuse. Learning the difference has really helped me better understand the damage my actions created and the damage created by others.

“Emotional abuse is an attempt to control, in just the same way that physical abuse is an attempt to control another person.” writes Andrea Mathews LPC, NCC in her article, When Is It Emotional Abuse? “The perpetrator of emotional abuse uses emotion as his/her weapon of choice.”

Torture is not a consequence. Torture is abuse. Because punishment is subjective and relative, punishment can be abusive too. Venging is the worst of both of these.

Nothing you have done justifies emotional or physical abuse. Nothing.

Understanding the difference has allowed me to bring compassion, understanding, and empathy to an Ugly situation. Some of which I created through my selfishness.

Venging

As such, as I’ve walked this experience I’ve found it is always helpful for me to remember as Esther Perel writes, “Venging is a lazy form of grieving.” The men and women we betrayed are grieving the loss of a fantasy and nursing their wounded pride. Our behaviors stripped the veil off of a hidden portion of our lives, and in the process it stripped the veil off a portion of the lives of others.

Our behaviors sent a message that we aren’t perfect and any other meaning is a story grafted onto it by pain and culture.

For many the trauma created in response to this message will be to kill the messenger.

The sense of entitlement to punish others under the guise of “consequences” can be just as abusive as infidelity. And although each situation is different, venging is just another form of abusive betrayal.

And frankly, regardless of what has happened, two wrongs will never make a right.

Intentionally leveraging what is possibly the lowest point in a partnership to push hurt onto others, to reinforce shame, to manipulate for benefits, to assassinate character, to poison relationships with children, family, friends, and coworkers, or to coerce concessions or conformity, is abusive.

It’s a reminder they are a victim and you did this to them. It is an attempt to control your feelings while allowing them to feel justified, safe, important, and powerful. It is trying to gain power by taking yours.

As a bitter spouse bragged on Twitter a few months ago, “When the neighbors complimented my husband on being a good father I made sure everyone knew what a horrible person he is. As long as I don’t feel good than neither will he.”

Frankly, it was manipulative, predatory, and abusive and as she was bragging about it, others patted her on the back and said “You go girlfriend! He’s not allowed to feel good!”

If he acted this way towards her the armchair psychologists would be screaming, “Narcissist” across the Twitterverse.

Your Value

If years later our Partners use an arbitrary scale to weigh the value of our contrition, attempts at amends, and our efforts at change the problem isn’t simply us or our efforts.

Of course, if years later we are still allowing our value to be based on someone else’s arbitrary scale of value that is a different problem and completely ours. Eventually, this will create a new obstacle because ultimately how we see ourselves is what drove our choices. Until I am open to seeing myself holistically I will struggle to own my truth and act accordingly.

For example, the last year I was with C I had stopped contact with K to the extent that my previous lies allowed, I pushed for counseling to address other obstacles within our relationship and not simply my betrayal et al, I returned to Al-Anon, and I openly talked to C about the need to start making some hard choices and decisions to move our relationship forward.

I did those things not out of fear or guilt, but out of a desire to love and live forward with her, and only her.

C, nor her monkeys, have ever acknowledged that truth.

However, it isn’t their responsibility to do so. Frankly, if I allow myself to be defined by those in pain, those with their own agendas, or seek the permission of the bitter and immature to move forward, how do I ever begin to embrace the entirety of the experience?

If I allow myself to be defined by the self-serving, destructive narrative peddled by hurt people looking to hurt me where do I go from there?

And this is how I got to this post.

I told my truth to a group of men and women that were betrayed by their Partners. Essentially, I said I am more than “the Unfaithful.” I am more than “the Cheater” and I dislike the label because it isn’t accurate.

I didn’t feel angry or defensive when I wrote it. I simply was stating my perspective and owning my identity. The women I was talking with didn’t seem to take offense. We traded a few light hearted gif’s on the topic and moved on.

However, not everyone could move on.

Frankly, the venom in the response by other people caught me really off guard. What was simply a few tweets, in passing, in an extensive Twitter thread left me baffled.

Essentially, their response was “I didn’t choose the label ‘betrayed’! I don’t like it either! If you don’t like the label ‘cheater’ too bad.”

Here’s the thing that confuses me: if those partners that were betrayed don’t like it why do they choose to keep using the label like a badge of honor to describe themselves?

I know the partners I betrayed are far more than simply “the betrayed” and I have tried to see them more completely as people and not caricatures of bitter betrayed bitches often presented in Social Media.

That doesn’t always go over well.

From our perspective, why do we use “cheater”, or one of the half dozen other slang and derogatory phrases, to describe ourselves? Why do we limit ourselves to labels that perpetuate the pain, misrepresent who we are and our intentions, and disregard so much about us and our lives?

The Albatross

In my situation, I acted unfaithfully, cheated, and lied. I acted selfishly and made a series of poor choices. I was unskillful, deceitful, and injured others.

Unless I allow it.

You know what else I did?

I loved. I supported. I encouraged. I contributed. I showed up. I risked. I learned. I changed. I learned more. I changed more.

Did I do this 100% of the time?

No.

But I didn’t betray my Love, life, or self 100% of the time either.

Neither did you…even if at the moment you feel like it is true. Even if that is all others are choosing to see through the lens of their pain.

People’s identities and lives are not zero sum.

I made mistakes but I am not a mistake. I have failings but I am not a failure. You aren’t either.

I will always push back on the intellectually lazy shorthand of turning an action verb into a noun to define a person’s entire identity in order to manipulate perceptions and feelings. For example, if calling someone names, demeaning their value, pushing on known wounds, and verbally ridiculing them makes someone feel powerful that is an obstacle to their healing and a sign of their fears.

There was a time I would have taken that personally but the truth of boundaries is I can allow them to vent and not internalize their pain.

If while working on healing you discover you have a self esteem or identity issue tying culturally shaming-filled labels around your neck so other people can feel comfortable blaming you for their issues, that will exacerbate an already painful moment on your life.

Learning to carry only our emotional water is skill that falls on everyone in this traumatic experience to hone.

Taking emotional ownership of other people’s pain will result in you taking responsibility for the well-being of other adults instead of your own. It denies others the the dignity of their pain and locks you in a cycle of constant caretaking. We end up playing hot potato with the injury, passing the pain back and forth.

Throwing myself on the sword is not making amends and neither is it taking responsibility. I’m not a Goddamn Hero. I’m responsible to the adults in my life and the relationships. I am not responsible for the adults in my life and the relationships.

I failed once by trying to be everything to one person. I took responsibility for the adults and for the relationships. I arrogantly believed everything wrong was my job to fix and I didn’t ask for help…and none was offered.

My doctor reminds me regularly that throwing myself on the sword over and over is just another form of lying. At some point in time, I have to really dig into what is, and was, true about my life if I want to have integrity.

For example, for some sleeping at the foot of their Partner’s bed until they leave or throw us out is always an option but it isn’t sustainable. My Good Doctor had to remind me often early on, I’m not a whipped puppy, or a little boy, trying to get a mother’s approval. How long do I beat on myself until I can find some compassion and kindness for myself?

And if others cannot, or will not, see me with compassion or kindness, why do I pursue them? Just as the behavior of others is not grounds for my betrayal et al, my betrayal et al is not justification for abuse.

I know some people are annoyed when I say out loud I am more than someone that cheated. Perhaps they feel I am mocking their experience or being defensive. Of course, just because we feel something doesn’t make it true. I am not mocking anyone or judging them. Instead, I am owning my whole identity and rejecting the ones grafted onto me.

For example, although I loathe saying, “I betrayed my Love, life, and self. I lied. I cheated. I was selfish. I injured loved ones,” I say it anyway.

I don’t loathe saying it because of what people think, I loathe saying it because it is a constant reminder of the grief I carry and I would like to avoid grief.

I say it anyway.

I also, know everytime I say it out loud it loses power over my life. This is perhaps why Esther Perel talks about the one that did the betraying being responsible for carrying the weight of the betrayal as opposed to hiding it. As the one that betrayed our Loves, lives, and selves, it is our responsibility to be open about it, talk about it, and face it so that our partner doesn’t need to carry it alone.

Working through the grief requires I give it a voice and will talk about my shitheadery where it is appropriate, and sometimes where it isn’t appropriate, because it’s true.

Every time I talk about it I remove the dead albatross hung about my neck.

Of course, no one is offended when I state these things about my shitheadery and betrayal because they already agree and we all know it is true.

However, the moment I start to openly acknowledge “I am more than the worst thing I did” many of the most hurt and bitter partners will hear them as fighting words.

A few toss out nonsense about my intentions, call into questions my value as a person and my worthiness for redemption, and use cliches like “cheaters handbook” or narcissism.

When someone asked me recently, “Why are you raging against the term betrayer and unfaithful?” I had no idea what she was talking about. I was asked a question and I answered.

I really didn’t think my answer was a big deal. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: “I am more than the worse thing I have ever done.”

It doesn’t matter if no one else sees it or acknowledges that truth. There is nothing to prove. Trying to prove something requires the acknowledgement and approval of others. If I want a better relationship I have to change for myself and not simply to prove something.

It is impossible for people that never walked in our shoes to know what is true about our behaviors, why we did what we did, or what it means. I barely understand and others certainly never will.

Labels are reductionist and will put a spike into the heart of intimacy. “The intricacies of love and desire don’t yield to simple categorization of good and bad, victim and culprit.” writes Esther Perel. “When we reduce the conversation to simply passing judgement, we are left with no conversation at all.”

Unfortunately, C and others met my behavior with ghosting, labels and accusations right out of the gate and in the process spiked any conversations. I responded with defensiveness which was met with contempt by trolls and interlopers and used to justify rumormongering, splitting, ghost stories, and the silent treatment.

If you think about how you, or others, respond to name calling, you will see it is true. If we are relying on labeling, anonymity, and strangers to communicate know how we feel we are choosing to limit options and avoiding intimacy.

Jello Boundaries

Reducing our identity to a caricature foster the healing environment provided through intimacy and vulnerability. I cannot make other people see me, but if I want to see myself I have to look. If I don’t take ownership and responsibility for my good, bad, and Ugly someone else will use them to define me to their needs and wants and I become an afterthought.

If you cannot say anything kind about yourself why should anyone else?

Then I remembered, how people choose to see me is based on how they perceive their experiences. Morally rigid people are going to see my behaviors as falling to temptation and a sin. People trapped in the duality of ethics will see it through the lens of weak or strong character. Psychology will see it as a emotional damage, attachments and skills.

The Buddhist might take the perspective that hurt people hurt people to deflect the arrows onto someone else.

People still struggling through the temporary pain of this impermanent experience will never hear what I say or see what I am doing but only what they think I am saying or doing. When they perceive I am saying something challenging their entitlement to their self-righteousness they push back from their self-declared high-ground of fear.

Their response isn’t personal except when I make it so. It is what people living in contempt and pain do.

This reactionary approach to pain is what I am trying to stop doing.

Meaningful change only begin once I own what is true about me, and disregard what others think is true about me.

And this why it matters.

Recently I read a blog by a sex addict and years later, nearly everyday, whether true or not, he hears a variation of “you are a fucking failure as a husband, man, and person.”

And after making a mistake recently he went to his online journal and writes, “I’m a piece of shit and failure and I know she is waiting for me to fail again so she can say ‘I told you so!’ and leave.”

I read this and my heart breaks for him.

Which isn’t the infidelity correct thing to say, but he is just a person. Some will read that and not be moved by his pain or they think, “Good! He’s a cheater getting what he deserves.” Although, that thinking reveals a great deal about the heart of the person thinking that.

Until I recognized how labels are used to abuse, shame and control me, and how I allow what others think about my choices to control my choices, I remain trapped. If I cannot emotionally disregard the input of near strangers and interlopers or disengage from someone else’s pain, how can I maintain appropriate boundaries with those closest to me. Until I place a Jello Boundary down I will continue to absorb arrow after arrow in this abusive loop.

Of course, it isn’t that I don’t care about the pain of others. I’m not insensitive but if others aren’t willing to put the effort into dealing with their issues, I’m not going to put any effort into paying attention. You and I are not the enemies of their lives, except their thinking makes it so.

In reality, everytime I try and define my life and choices on someone else’s experience and opinions I am avoiding looking at my own Truth.

Here is the thing, I want a life based on my Truths even if it destroys everything else in my life. As my poet friend Miriam said to me once, “If it can be destroyed by the truth let it be destroyed.”

I know even some people that have interacted with me for a long time will be put off by what I write.

In reality, through the help of professionals and friends, time and intention, I’m changing, and as such, what I have to say based on my experiences and skill development has changed me in deeply personal and fundamental ways.

My behaviors and writing reflect this truth.

Of course, this isn’t permission to be an ass. Instead, this growth reminds me to maintain empathy for the pain of others but restricted to a more appropriate and skillfully deployed set of boundaries. It is why I reject the oversimplified and reductionist labels.

We get to choose who we are. We decide what defines us.

You get to chose your life.

If no one else tells you this today. You matter. You are important. Your life matters. You are equally as valuable to your friends, family, and community as everyone else. You have something to contribute.

You are loved.

See you around fucker.

Cheers,
Sean

5 thoughts on “05: A Love Letter to the Betrayers – Labels and Abuse

  1. Sean, you know I love you and I’ve said numerous times that we are all more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. I agree with 98% of what you’ve said here. I do, however, take issue with “If a friend was required to turn over paychecks, cell phones, and live with tracking devices we would see it for the controlling behavior and abuse it is.” That’s the old saw about us partners being codependent/ complicit in the cheating and evidencing it by our behavior post-discovery. More recent research ties it to our responses to trauma and our search for our own safety (which, upon discovery, seems to have vanished). I think maybe, just maybe, your views on this are shaped by C’s choice not to heal with you. If she had chosen to try to reconcile with you, wouldn’t it have been reasonable for you to have to work to rebuild trust? Yes, you could tell her where you were spending your money and how you were using your phone, but the reality is that would require her to give you full faith on issues you had just been proven to have lied about. That kind of blind faith is why Chump Lady exists. I’m not saying that kind of scrutiny should exist in perpetuity, but rebuilding trust isn’t instantaneous. It’s proven behavior over time that builds trust. Not blind faith over time.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi BA.
      You could be right. IDK. I only have my experience. I would have done anything she asked…even sleep at the foot of her bed but in the long run I don’t think change coerced is sustainable. It’s fear, not value, based. My change needed to be skill based and not simply because I was afraid of losing it all.
      I hesitate to make comparisons between AA/Al-Anon and SA, because the idea of codependent appears to be kind of maligned within the SA spouse community.
      Within Al-Anon a core lesson is the family member did not cause the alcoholic to drink, cannot cure the alcoholic of their alcoholism, and cannot control whether they drink or not. Which means the idea of checking the phones or putting tracking devices on phone to make sure they aren’t at the bar would be seen as controlling behaviors. There are plenty of stories of men and women casing bars looking for their spouses, parents, or kids.
      However, as a family member we can ultimately cope and then change how we respond to the chaos. I cannot help but apply that model to this situation. If the alcoholic decides to drink hopefully the family member has the tools to detach and maintain boundaries. I know it’s not exactly the same, but it’s hard to see trust issues as unaddressed control issues…and the need to control the behaviors of people is part of the unconstructive coping mechanisms.
      But I do think there is a difference between the issues confronted by the partners of a sex addict and those that aren’t sex addicts but my perspective is informed by AA’s 12 Steps…but treatment for alcoholism and drug addiction is often based on a family model of the disease.

      I have difficulty with the narrative that trauma of infidelity beyrayal being so special that someone living with the trauma of alcoholism betrayal can’t understand the issues of abandonment, trust, safety, or any of the other nuance of betrayal.

      I do see some therapists believe trauma treatment demands full disclosure and others don’t. I really don’t know the best practices…but I do believe that what is best for a person’s recovery in the long run may not always be what is best for the relationship in the short run.
      You also know, I think it is bullshit that partners are in anyway held to task to for the choices of their partner’s that cheat.
      I’m not saying that kind of scrutiny shouldn’t exist either, but I don’t believe it is sustainable over an extended period of time.
      C left because that is what she wanted. If she wanted something else she would l have done something different. It was a reasonable choice. I would have done the same in her shoes…maybe.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Having been in 2 relationships the first being a sadist sex addicted sociopath and my current relationship of 7 years with an alcoholic (3 years of sobriety) I feel I may be able to shed some light on the topic since both cheated on me.

    I needed to go to both SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) and S-Anon following the discard from my narcopath sex addict. I found both helpful in different ways. The first discard by the narcopath was not the end of our relationshit. I learned about sex addiction in the halls, simultaneously online I was learning about malignant narcissism, and I was also going to S-anon to learn to set boundaries. The first boundary which I placed was no more sex. Period.

    I have an eating disorder and have abused alcohol throughout my life. The narcopath made me attend AA. There I learned I had major codependency issues.

    For the victim of infidelity it is not readily apparent if their partner was engaged in an affair, multiple affairs, swinging, or red light district activity, or full blown sex addiction. Hence betrayal, trust, and major physical safety issues come into play. The old “trickle truth,” which happened to me. First he went to a gang bang but just watched. Then a month later he was there but just fisted her while gloved. 2 months later he did her with a condom at said gang bang . In the end there were hookers, Craigslist hookups, AA hookups, sex site hook ups, swinging, neighbors, rest stops, women and men, transsexuals, I ran not walked to my OB/GYN. Rare is the person who hands over a full disclosure of all their previously private activities carte blanche. There is usually much shame operating and additionally fear of both hurting and/or losing the partner which prevent a full disclosure.

    I agree with blackacre02631 that research suggests that asking for these listed behaviors are a trauma response: (phone records, paychecks, bank statements) Behaviors designed to bring back a feeling of safety to the betrayed.

    However, I agree 100% that the analogy to the alcoholic family casing the bar is a good one. Once the immediate trauma response has been adequately addressed by a professional, having unchecked controls placed on the unfaithful for an undetermined amount of time is insane. If that scenario were in play, it would be seen as controlling and abusive behavior. It would depend entirely upon how long post-discovery this was continuing. It would also depend on whether the couple were in counseling, if each were in individual and couples. How committed are they both wellness? Or is one or both just committed to having it all blow over and then hoping returning to status quo? Or hoping to implement real and meaningful change.

    Adversity can bring opportunity but not everyone snaps it up.

    At the end of the day, we are all responsible for our own happiness. It’s an inside job baby! I’ve learned this the hardest way, still got miles to go..

    Love you Sean,
    Good stuff
    ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

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