Dear Imperfect Human Being,
I’m sitting on the deck watching the neighbor’s dog play fetch and the thought occurred to me, the family dog probably knows more about our betrayal than our partners. The dog knows every time. The dog can smell the act of betrayal on us.
I think that is the root of the humiliation. Too often, strangers, friends, family, coworkers, and the bartender know more than the people we betrayed. I know everytime I go home to Wisconsin I wonder who heard what rumors and when I think about it too much, my spirit cowers.
As I said, even the dog knows more, and when the truth comes out there is no covering up the shit we’ve done.
For example, I talked with a friend recently and he told me about Matt, a guy outside of a small town whose mistress called his wife six months after he broke off the affair. His mistress called his wife under the guise of coming clean and wanting the wife to know what a snake her husband is.
His mistress didn’t know he was married when she started up with him.
To his credit he had been in treatment for nearly six months trying to address his alcoholism, shame, and old damage when his former mistress called his wife.
A week later he blew his head off. Apparently the suicide note included a letter from his wife telling him to kill himself.
First of all, don’t be that guy. You might think the pain will never end. I know it feels like you will never recover your life.
You will, but it takes time and intention.
Secondly, hurt people hurt people and the people that we hurt will do and say things to hurt us. Don’t make them responsible for your pain and try to hurt them back. It creates an ugly dynamic that can last decades regardless of how it ends.
Lastly, pride is the root of so many lies we tell ourselves about our behaviors and it conspires with Shame to blind us to options, and bind us to pain. What we’ve done is horrible, selfish, and life altering…for some us it is also necessary.
Necessary because, as many professionals such as Esther Perel and others discuss, the path we have chosen is the only path out of the situation we created. Perhaps the affair was the path out of the relationship we want out of or an attempt to recover our identity, power, or sense of sovereignty over our lives.
Perhaps infidelity is necessary because it forces us to own the truth of who we are and our lives. It can be the catalyst to a deeper and more intimate relationship as we re-pair to repair with our Partner or an engine driving us towards the life we want.
The ideal, adulting solution?
Of course not, but everyone copes with emotional experiences with the tools they have to work with. It isn’t an excuse but the sooner I find compassion for myself and my choices, the sooner I can embrace better choices. Shame is not an engine for sustaining change.
If we had different experiences perhaps we would have chosen differently but once the bell is struck it cannot be unstruck.
Frankly, Matt’s suicide wasn’t necessary…but I understand feeling like suicide is a viable option to recover dignity and honor, avoid pain and shame. I also realize there is no way of knowing the weight of the other injuries Matt carried every day or for how long.
Perhaps this moment in his life was simply the last straw, and the pain broke his willingness to keep trying.
I hope you keep trying. The pain is temporary.
A woman I knew texted me today and apologized for joining Team C, piling on, mobbing up, and being a judgemental, entitled bitch when she learned about my betrayal, secrets, and escalating series of lies.
She wasn’t even in my acquaintance circle.
Today she finds herself five months into an affair she doesn’t want to give up, but knows something needs to end. “I see now how your anxiety caused you to double down on secrets and lies,” she wrote. “How did you live like this?”
“Knowing something is not the same as knowing what to do about something,” I replied.
She is writing me because she cannot go to any of her friends or family because she saw how they self-righteously reacted to me. She was part of C’s social media circus. She knows they are unsafe, judgemental, and invested in drama.
“Duh,” I thought.
As I read what she wrote I thought of Brene Brown’s discussion of Common Enemy Intimacy.
“Common Enemy Intimacy is counterfeit connection and the opposite of true belonging,” write Brene Brown, “If the bond we share with others is simply that we hate the same people, the intimacy we experience is often intense, immediately gratifying, and an easy way to discharge outrage and pain. It is not, however, fuel for real connection.”
She’s afraid of what people will think and what people will say. “If you decide to tell anyone,” I replied, “you will know very quickly what relationships are real and what are fairweather. It took a long time to see the benefit, but the loss of those relationships is a gift.”
She asked me what she should do.
“It’s your path, your pain, and your choices,” I said, “Go to counseling. Get an experienced, knowledgeable, and independent third party perspective that can help navigate the minefield you laid. Just remember, you are responsible for your choices, you did what you wanted.”
I reminded her that the sooner we own the truth, the sooner we can start getting to the Thing under the Way of the Thing.
I referred her to my Good Doctor, and the work of people like Dr. Caroline Madden, Dr. Esther Perel, Affair Recovery, the Gottmans, Dr. Brene Brown, Dr. Stan Tatkin, Pema Chodron, Tara Brach, Mark Nepo, and a few others and wished her well.
I made time to hear her out today, more than she ever made for me. I can empathize but I’m not spending emotional resources bonding over wounds. I have my own. There are plenty of professionals to help if she is willing to do the work.
Interestingly, she is the second person in twenty months to write me a similar message.
In reality, like her, maybe your actions are still hidden and you are up to your neck in deception, covering behaviors, and lies. You’re keeping secrets from partners, children, family, friends, your boss, clients, and that one parent from your kid’s hockey team that saw you at the dive bar up the street.
Your keeping secrets from everyone but the dog.
Your self-loathing, anxiety, anger, fear, and attempts at controlling the situation is perhaps oozing out of every corner of your life. Perhaps it is more a hot geyser burning everyone it touches.
Perhaps your partner suspects, and you are paddling against the current, trying to keep from tipping and drowning…or being forcibly drowned.
Or perhaps like me, the damage is done and you are living in your van down by the river.
Regardless, your life has value and matters. The decision to betray our Loves, lives, and selves, and the supporting actions, doesn’t make you a worthless human being. Everyone has equal value.
Infidelity doesn’t make you an unfit parent. Betrayal doesn’t mean you need to give up a career, money, house, or relationships. Whether you have cheated once or fifty times, cheating doesn’t mean you will cheat again.
However, infidelity, like all betrayals, will demand change if you want something different in your life. Making the necessary changes may require us to redefine how we parent. Change may demand we give up a career, money, property, or relationships. Change may mean you separate, divorce, or sleep on your parent’s couch until you get back up, dust yourself off, and start again.
Change may mean leaving one relationship to go to another.
There is no wrong path to change, some paths are just less traveled than others.
Of course, we don’t get to make these decisions in a vacuum. Some of the decision may be made for us. I never wanted to leave C but she has sovereignty over who she lets into her heart and life. The only right we have with others is to leave.
We don’t even need a reason to end a relationship.
She chose to leave. I chose to wait while I dig through the Things that matter to me. Twenty one months later I have reached the point where I’m finally leaving too.
Regardless of how we move forward, where, and with which partner(s), change is coming. With change will come an opportunity to embrace the risk, uncertainty, and openness our betrayal, secret-keeping, and lies we’re attempting to avoid. Change that needed to happen for us to find the life we crave.
In reality, if you are online reading this, trying to figure out how not to hurt anyone you love and that loves you, how to save your partnership, avoid the humiliation to you and your family, and not destroy your life the tragic news is I don’t think you can. The bell cannot be unrung. The energy is already reverberating across your life, and the lives of people around you, it’s currently at a frequency just beyond their range of hearing.
This is why I encourage people to go to counseling.
Conventional wisdom is not always wisdom. Your partner’s understandable anger is intelligent, necessary, and healthy but their emotions belong to them. We cannot fix them. All we can do is sit, listen, and talk with them like they are someone we love. Even when they cannot love us or hear us.
Statistically it is highly unlikely you are a predator, abuser, narcissist, or pathological. You didn’t invent infidelity. You are unlikely to have invented a new way of cheating. You did not invent a better infidelity mousetrap. You weren’t the first person to cheat. You won’t be the last one either.
However, you can choose, with time and intention to do things to ensure this is your last betrayal of this type.
Dependency on clickbait psychology to determine what is “wrong” with cheaters is a first world problem. There is nothing “wrong” with you. We made Ugly decisions and acted selfishly based on our experiences, wounds, needs, and wants. None of us got up planning on making a bad situation worse even when we did.
Welcome to the human race. You can do better next time.
Statistically, we are one of the forty to sixty percent of people that admit to have engaged in inappropriate sexual or emotional relationships with another. That doesn’t make it okay but it certainly helps keep things in perspective. Our betrayal, secret-keeping, and escalating series of lies is simply the Way of the Thing and not the actual Thing.
A Thing many people struggle with.
In reality, for many of us changing our approach to living will feel like the end of the world. It isn’t.
You may think you have no options. You do.
It’s just our world and options aren’t what they were before. With the proper perspective, counseling, and adulting your choices may actually be better in the long run but that takes an investment in resources to get to that place. It doesn’t happen overnight. The best research says it takes seven months of sustained therapy to start seeing changes. Unfortunately, people often quit long before then thinking good enough is good enough. For some it will be.
Regardless, I encourage you to turn towards the pain. Give it a try. Embrace it. Listen to it. Make it your friend. Introduce to a professional that wants to help you decode the real story and not the ones the people we hurt imagine. Do not be a slave to your past or the fear of others.
Lastly, if you haven’t heard this today, you are loved. You matter. You simply failed in this place and in this moment. Learn. Grow. Change.
Your failure is feedback not a prophecy.
See you around,