Transforming Your Past
If you have behaved badly in the past, if you have been destructive, you can do something about it. By touching the present deeply, you can transform the past. The wounds and injuries of the past are still there–they are within your reach. All you have to do is come back to the present moment, and you will recognize the wounds and injuries that you have caused in the past and those others have caused you.
You should be here for these wounds and injuries. You can say to them, “I am here for you,” with your mindful breathing, your deep looking, and your determination not to do the same thing again. Then transformation is possible.Thich Nhat Hanh
Happy Isolation Day Fellow Travelers,
What a peculiar moment in the world. I am once again reminded we are in this together. Among other things the coronavirus reminds me that what I do affects others and the actions of others affect me.
I get to choose the effect on me.
In reality, the effect of my choices has had a significant affect on my life.
Often the impact of a choice is not obvious or immediate. Sometimes the impact is simply imagined.
To this point, everything other people think about my decision and actions in the betrayal of my Loves, lives, and self is a story they imagine, and then judge.
Everything I tell myself about my decision and actions in the betrayal of my Loves, lives, and self is a story I imagine, and then judge.
It’s easy to judge.
Almost everything someone has said about infidelity is a story they are making up based on a personal Mythology taught to them by someone else. A Mythology that is self-serving and self-gratifying.
A Mythology we project onto other people’s lives.
I am the only one that knows my story, mostly. I know when I did things, mostly. I know what things I did, mostly. I know where I was and with who, mostly. I know what secrets I kept and what lies I told, mostly.
I may not have known The Thing beneath the Way of the Thing, but I know how I got to this place.
And yes, I often panicked and took what appears to be the easiest, least painful, and safest path in the moment. A path that would allow me to remain safe and loveable. I took these actions based in a charged, anxious, and disorganized neurological state where I imagined hurtful and painful outcomes for myself and for others. Outcomes I wanted to avoid because it is human to want to avoid pain.
And to the splitters, haters, interlopers, and monkeys, I echo Alain de Botton’s statement, “To one’s enemies: ‘I hate myself more than you ever could’.”
In talking and listening to men and women that have cheated, there is little an outsider can say to most of us navigating our own betrayal we haven’t already said to ourselves. Only the most hard-hearted — and hard-headed — prideful person can maintain the self-righteous justification for choices in the face of the injuries our lies and secrets created in other people’s lives.
That doesn’t mean we should stay in what has been our primary relationship. If you need to leave, leave quickly and respectfully. Let’s not drag out the drama and pain.
I would leave a particular compartmentalized moment and hate myself for avoiding the adulting to build the life I want, with the Partner I wanted, while being the person I wanted to be for myself and others. Afterwards I would spend two days driving back to Wisconsin cursing myself every mile, and swear I would “fix” this and make it “right.”
Which in my mind was defined as “not doing anything to make it worse and not causing C or K any pain or hurt.” For this reason, and other manipulative motivations, it is why I worked so hard to keep the two of them apart. I naively believed K would eventually leave as I failed to meet her needs over an over….that woman has a high threshold for emotional pain.
Almost as high as mine.
Naturally, my actions created new shames and anxieties.
In the moment I imagined it was less painful to cheat than it was to confront the Things behind my cheating. In the moment I imagined hiding behind a mask of bravado and secrets was less painful than confronting the Obstacles to my lack of vulnerability. In the moment I imagined telling an escalating series of lies was less painful than being transparent and truthful about my needs and wants. None of that is about wanting to hurt other people or not caring about them.
As a result there was a great deal of shitheadery and fuckery in my choices that injured good people when my house of 1,000 pound cards fell on them. I own what is true.
As I wrote earlier, Lisa Arends is one of the many betrayed and abandoned partners that are doing her own inner work, owning her own part, and trying to meet her pain with curiosity. She is worth following and reading.
However, that doesn’t mean I always agree with her take on men and women that have betrayed their Loves, lives, and selves.
If you betrayed your Loves, lives, and self, this video from Lisa Arends offers insight into how many people impacted by infidelity perceive and judge our character, mental health, motives, and actions. I disagree with how she states our intentions but I’m not the audience. I’m the Peeping Tom looking into her world’s window.
However, after rewatching the video, I thought of something I heard recently, “We’re all experts on other people’s choices and pain and are willfully ignorant of our own.”
Don’t misunderstand, I know every situation is different. I recognize Arend’s story is smeared with layers and layers of crap piled on by an ex-husband whose infidelity was simply icing on an already deeply disturbing cake.
However, if we get bogged down in comparing situations and details we never get to the things that matter. If I’m committed to growth and change I have to recognize infidelity is the Way of The Thing and not the actual Thing. As Thich Nhat Hanh encourages, I maintain a determination not to do the same things again.
As such, I treat infidelity as the salt on an old and deep wound.
The central question around Arend’s video is, “can someone cheat on someone they love?”
I’ve been considering Arend’s question since I read a similar one from Brene Brown’s book six months prior to the reveal of my betrayal, secret-keeping, and escalating series of lies.
Brown asks, “Can you love someone and betray them?”
Of course, we can.
We all betray people we love. As Rick Reynolds at Affair Recovery writes, “We have all been betrayed and we have all betrayed. What you’ve done may not be the same magnitude as infidelity, but we’ve all wounded others.”
Regardless of which Partner(s) you love, in many ways we betrayed everyone involved in many ways. We love them and we betray them is an inelegant truth.
Frankly, I’ve answered this question elsewhere in my writing. I even presented on this question and the issue of “The Nature of Love and Betrayal” at Toastmasters a month before C and I split. I’ve struggled with this since the moment I started lying to C and K months before I sexually betrayed anyone.
I’ve confronted this question in therapy asking the Good Doctor on more than one occasion, “How could I love her and betray her too?”
The conversation was essentially:
Doc: Did you love her?
Doc: Did you betray her?
Doc: Then I guess you can. Let’s move on.
Unfortunately, there is no litmus test for feelings. If you’ve betrayed your Loves, lives, and self, (and depending on the situation) many people will have an opinion about what is happening on your insides. They will imagine stories and say, “If you love/care for me you wouldn’t have cheated.”
Which frankly, is a lie people tell themselves and a narrative reinforced by the disingenuous. Only you know what is true about your choices. If you don’t care leave. If you do care, state it plainly but there is nuance to infidelity that matters. Own what is true even if others never hear it.
In my opinion even if you work on it every day it will be a deep dig to get to the main taproot giving it life in your life. Even then, knowing doesn’t ensure you won’t make the same mistake differently. We can know something and not know what to do about something.
The meaningful question from my Good Doctor, and other good doctors, is “if you love/care for others why have you lied and kept secrets that has harmed and injured your Loves, lives, and self?”
Mostly Dead Cats
People will guess at our motives, and even an educated guess is still a guess. It is the Schrodinger’s Cat Paradox applied to matters of the heart.
Schrodinger’s Cat Paradox is a thought experiment offered up in response to the certain and predictable Laws of Newtonian physics when confronted with the uncertainties of Quantum Mechanics.
Stay with me here.
Essentially, Schrodinger suggests when a cat is placed in a specially equipped Box designed to kill the cat under precise but random conditions, until the Box is opened it is impossible to know whether the cat is alive or dead. The only reasonable response is to assume the cat to exist both as living and as dead.
Make infidelity the Box, substitute relationships for the cat, and love as the precise but random occurrence, and we have what I generally refer to as the Schrodinger’s Box of Cat Love Paradox.
When I was living with this Box I lived as if my relationships were both alive and dead at the same time. The status of my relationships was always uncertain. It was only when the lid came off could I finally embrace reality and separate what was alive from dead.
In my situation, upon reveal it feels like it was all dead. My betrayal killed both my friendship and history with K and contributed to the end of my Partnership and life with C.
I grieve them both still…or at least I grieve the Mythology .
As a friend suggested to me, perhaps it is Survivor’s Guilt?
After all, as a Hero, I failed at a role I imagined was mine, didn’t save the relationships I loved, and didn’t protect the people I care about from my mistakes.
And in my old Mythology, I imagined, and others imagined too, it makes me a failure as a Partner, weak as a man, and unloveable as a human being.
It’s All Uncertain
What remains in your Box of Infidelity still might reveal a life worth living or grieving but you won’t know until you look in the Box. And frankly, no one likes looking in the Box because it is easier to live in the Mythology of the Relationship than the reality.
Ignorance of what was hidden inside my personal Box of Infidelity makes it easier to rationalize my choices, whatever those choices were.
I think it is a double edged sword: vulnerability is required to open the Box and opening the Box makes us vulnerable. Vulnerability makes us open to Sorrow, Loneliness, and Grief. The Cat might be dead, so we leave the box closed to avoid the pain.
However, the Cat of Joy, Love, and Belonging might still be alive too.
But we will never know because we remain ignorant of the Box.
Avoiding the Box of Possibly Dead or Alive Cats leaves us to live in a Quantum State of Emotional and Mental Uncertainty while chasing the Safety and Security of Consistency and Predictability described in Newton’s Laws.
In Daring Greatly, Brene Brown states “Love is uncertain. It’s incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed. Yes, it’s scary, and yes, we’re open to being hurt.” She then asks, “but can you imagine your life without loving or being loved?”
Can you imagine a Box where love lives and dies at the same time? Oh wait, you can if you are living in the the shadow of infidelity.
Perhaps this is why men and women often believe our behaviors were malicious and imagine our behaviors are about them. Their love for us makes them vulnerable. It forces them to look in their own Box or imagine what is in ours. It will be more comfortable to imagine the worst of ours.
Which makes perfect sense because pain is always personal and fleeing pain is biological and neurological. Through our behaviors we injure ourselves and create, contribute, reanimate, or reimagine injuries to the people closest to us.
Of my many mistakes, one was trying to manipulate what my Loved ones imagined was happening in our lives by lying and keeping secrets from them. I created the environment they imagined to be true. And it was true…but it was also a lie. The truth living and dying side-by-side with lies in the Box I refused to open.
As I watch couples and individuals over the last few years I realize everything that happens after discovery or reveal will be determined by how willing people are to look in their own Box and stay out of their Partner’s.
I don’t think most people are willing to self-examine their Box. If they did, maybe they would be able to see what they need and want more clearly instead of continuing to believe other people are the solution or the problem.
It’s more convenient to assume the Cat is dead than to open the Box and discover for ourselves and as a result we throw away something hidden, but possibly very much alive.
Cat Scratch Fever
Frankly, what is in our Box is hardly as Ugly as outsiders imagine but humans don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.
In truth, how our Partners are neurologically wired and have addressed past traumas will help define their choices in the face of our dishonesty, deceptions, and manipulations. In my opinion, if in the moment our Partners imagine it will be less painful to leave, they will leave. If in the moment they imagine it will be less painful to stay, they will stay. We are evolutionarily wired to minimize uncertainty, risk, and pain. Vulnerability is a conscious choice of conscious beings. Intimacy is more than biology and sexuality.
Frankly, it took me a long time to recognize that I cannot convince people to do anything they don’t want to do. We imagine solutions to problems that don’t exist and ignore the problems that do exist. We claim to want vulnerability and intimacy but expect others to go first.
Brown, and others have taught me, to get to the place I want with others, I have to be willing to offer intimacy and vulnerability first, knowing I may be rejected, abandoned, and injured.
As such, it will not be unusual for the people we betrayed, and the opinionated and ill-informed around us, to imagine an explanation, action, or choice post-reveal as some emotional or mental conspiracy that justifies their responses. Most of the layman opinions are bastardizations of psychology, confirmation bias, entitlement, self-righteousness, and bitterness. Most of it is nonsense; it is the tail wagging the dog.
For example, one of the lies floated about immediately after C and I split was that I ran off to North Dakota to be with another woman. I’m not sure where this lie started but I can make an “educated guess” how it was imagined.
The truth is, I went exactly where C asked me to go, when she asked me to go, and I said this publically somewhere early on this blog.
About four months later one of the Splitters wrote to me and accused me of lying about why I went to North Dakota. He announced with much grandiosity, C never asked me to go to Et Als and I was covering pathological behaviors with another grand lie.
This reveals one of the current intellectually lazy narratives in our culture: cheaters are all pathological liars (and those that stay in a relationship with us are self-loathing and weak victims). This unfortunate narrative is often painted by the perpetually angry and the armchair psychologists justifying their own abusive behaviors instead of examining their own Box of Potentially Dead Cats.
Like so much of this Splitters’ repeated behaviors, I recognize the arrogant ignorance behind his accusation. It fit a narrative imagining C a victim and me a villain. Writing to me and accusing me of something he imagined allowed him to pretend to be a Hero and imagined some ongoing drama between C and I.
His accusations were made in light of righting some wrong he imagined. As the Good Doctor reminded me, “When we insert ourselves into someone else’s life we are pursuing relevancy.”
Setting aside his attempts at gaslighting the truth, his accusations does raise an issue many of our betrayed partners such as Arends are constantly confronting. And frankly, it’s the major questions I struggle with too: “I cheated. What does that mean about me? About the relationship? The past? The present? The future?”
In other words, what is in the Box? And in that echo of questions welling up as a result of this internal chaos I created external chaos. At the moment of pain, it was easier to ignore what was in the Box. Infidelity is a distraction.
I don’t think Arends provides a definitive answer to her question.
Actually, I don’t think she can answer a hypothetical question as she is looking at the outside of someone else’s Box and trying to understand if what is contained is alive or dead. Her experiences and choices have never led her down the path more than 40% of people in relationships make: to carry a Box of Uncertainty where the relationship is living and dead at the same time.
Frankly, Arend’s Box is different.
Two years and a few months after the reveal of my secret life and web of lies, five years after I first regretfully slept with my ex-wife permanently scarring our history, six years after shame began fueling the secrets that set the stage, I realized how many times I could have made a different choice that would have created a different outcome. I will always wish I had taken a different off-ramp from my highway to hell.
From a betrayer’s perspective, and after much therapy, I realize if I had compassion and cared about myself I would never have created a Box of a Potentially Dead and Alive Relationship to begin with.
Reflecting on her husband’s betrayal, Rosie Jo wrote on her Making This Better, “I know he will remind himself of what he has achieved, but that he will always dislike himself for what he did to me all those years ago.”
If you read her journal, you can hear her husband already disliked himself long before he cheated. Infidelity was just a conclusion to one chapter before the next one could begin. His leaving her opened a Schrodinger’s Box of Love Paradox for both of them. If his infidelity hadn’t forced them to look in the box they might never have discovered which parts of their Love was still alive and which parts were dead.
She adds that nearly twenty years later, “I just wish I could help take his pain away.”
No one can take away my pain just as I cannot take away the pain my exes have experienced with me and with life. The benefit of making Pain my friend and not the the enemy is I have options I didn’t have before. Pain is life leaving the door open for other possibilities.
In every attempt I make to mitigate, control, fix, or deflect away my pain or someone else’s pain I deny us the opportunity to grow, mature, and choose. I deny myslef a change to grow. I deny them the support they need to open their own Box of Potentially Dead and Alive Relationship Cats.
As Dr. Shefali often discusses, if we want a different life we have to be willing to open the box and shed what is dead and lost, to leave behind what isn’t serving us and our lives. Only then can we embrace the moment more clearly.
That isn’t simple.
Frankly, for most people the imagined pain is worse than the actual pain, myself included. Pain and loneliness can become the status quo we know and we become comfortable with the discomfort even when the options are obvious.
For example, some people prefer living in the Box of a loveless or sexless marriage for decades than confronting the couple of years of pain and life a divorce would bring. Others will dismiss examining alternative and open approaches to relationships. They become trapped, not by the lack of imagination but by a stubborn unwillingness to imagine anything else.
If no one else has said this to you today: I love you. You are perfectly exactly as you are. You don’t need to prove your value or worth to be valuable or worthy. You matter. Suit up. Show up. Be yourself and it will work out.
This moment we are currently experiencing individually, as a family, and as a community is temporary. Everything is impermanent, including pain, fear, and this idiotic presidency.
Lastly, we all have boxes, don’t let it be your casket.
See you around.