“Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible in us be found.”― Pema Chodron
Hi fellow human.
I hope you are making the most of our safer-at-home instructions. Although, frankly, depending on where you are in this odyssey, it may not feel safer at home.
It may not feel safe anywhere.
This doesn’t mean you aren’t safe, it just means it doesn’t feel safe. Our feelings are true to us but that doesn’t mean they are telling us the truth. This has become a central lesson of my conscious growth: what I feel is true but what I am feeling normally isn’t the Truth of the situation. People make up stories about what they feel to justify choices.
Conscious growth has required me to remember, as Susan David, Ph.D. writes, “Feelings are data, not directives.”
Sometimes I still forget.
Of course, some relationships will be unsafe because we are unsafe or the people we betray will be unsafe or our other partner(s) will be unsafe or the people inserting themselves into the story will be unsafe.
What makes people unsafe is how they behave around infidelity. For example, unprotected sex, blaming shifting, stalking people, or spending family funds can be unsafe behavior.
The response can make other people equally unsafe.
Trying to get you fired, ambushing an unsuspecting partner with a reveal, encouraging piling on, or using children as leverage can all be forms of unsafe behaviors.
I know a thirty year old woman that needed an emergency full hysterectomy because of an STD her husband gave her. He engaged in sexual behaviors that made him unsafe. She will carry the consequences for his unsafe behavior the rest of her life.
Breaking promises, sleeping with a coworker, lying about your whereabouts, or buying matching jewelry for your other partner is not abuse. Its unskillful, selfish, self-serving, and unsafe behavior but it isn’t abuse.
As I heard a Judge say one time, “Getting your feelings hurt is not abuse.” He goes on to say, “Things happen in relationships that maybe shouldn’t happen but happen anyway.”
However, there will always be people, because of their own traumas, feelings, and imaginings that will feel all infidelity is abusive, and feel all people that cheat are abusers. They will always perceive it as abuse.
I don’t get to decide it isn’t if that is how they feel to see it.
Arguing about nuance just reinforces internal stories. Fighting about it makes a situation unsafe. To paraphrase David, “Their feelings are worthy because how they feel, feels true.” If I am trying to convince others they are wrong, that is one more way I make myself unsafe for them to share their feelings.
Although, if I care about them I should listen, but I need to avoid allowing how they feel to become my truth. I need to maintain my integrity so that their feelings don’t become my directives. I need to know my boundaries and adapt to them accordingly as new data comes into my life.
It isn’t a science, it is a practice.
All the Feels
One of the ongoing lessons of therapy is to separate what feels true versus what is true.
While betraying my Loves, lives, and self I often imagined the worst stories about myself and thereby blackmail myself emotionally into bigger lies and secrets. As I often remind myself when the Flying Monkeys creep into my life, “To one’s enemies: ‘I hate myself more than you ever could.'” (Alain de Botton). Until I could separate what felt true versus what is actually true I couldn’t make progress. Frankly, anyone beyond your partner(s), therapists, and yours are opinions that don’t matter.
I know it’s hard but ignore them to the extent you can.
The truth is you can love someone and betray them. You can love someone and leave them. You can love someone and hurt their feelings. You can love someone and abuse them. You can love someone and fail them. You can love them and have other partners. You can love them and leave them for someone else.
The question is not whether you love them, but whether you love them skillfully, consciously, and consistently? In my case, I did not. And in this way I was unsafe and in this way I hurt, and at times abused, people I loved.
The follow-up question is, if you know you love them and are emotionally unskillful, unconsciously unsafe, and inconsistently available what are you willing to do?
This is why I go to therapy: I want to detangle the safe from the unsafe, the conscious from the unconscious, and the true from the untrue. Therapy is a safe place to reveal all the secrets, lies, injuries, and fears. Therapy is a safe place to untangle your story.
Social media is not.
And contrary to the American cultural myth, revealing all the secrets and lies to your partner isn’t safe – or required – either. A complete detailed confession is a cliche colored by moralists and pop psychology.
What I’ve learned in therapy is to own only what is true and not other people’s stories. I’ve learned hurting people’s feelings is not abuse. Remembering things differently is not gaslighting. Telling your story is not triangulating. Showing love and affection is not love-bombing. Friends and family that stand with you are not groomed.
Loving you doesn’t make someone a chump.
Those are all stories people imagine to justify responses to how they feel and push their pain onto others. If they paint you as an unfeeling and unremorseful monster they can justify treating you like and unfeeling and unremorseful monster. It allows hurt people to justify hurting other people.
Sometimes it allows hurt people to justify abuse.
And as a sidebar, just because someone loves us doesn’t mean they should stay. Sometimes the hurt is so deep they will need to leave to heal. We are owed nothing. Neither are they. The only right we have with others is to leave.
No one likes to admit this but loving other people will leave us hurt…and at times we will hurt them too.
However it unfolds, people will hurt, and hurt people are unconsciously wired to respond with aggression. I think this is why I too often interpret feelings to be directives, not simply data: “I’m in pain, I must do something.”
In reality, the majority of the time learning to sit with the feelings, express them honestly, and be patient is the most constructive path.
Also the hardest, which is why people don’t do it. If it was easy we’d all do it.
A central lesson in my life was “take the bull by the horns.”
I didn’t learn to act mindfully of my emotions. Essentially, I was taught that if you feel something do something about it. My grandmother kept a sign over her desk that read, “Patience my ass, I’m going out and killing something.” Besides the emotional scarring, it’s my only inheritance.
In my case, if I feel it is my responsibility, I will fix it. I was raised to be responsible for my actions and feelings, and responsible for the actions and feelings of others. Hurt people hurt people but how I respond will perpetuate the cycle. If I want others to stop hurting me I have to learn to own what belongs to me and stop feeding the drama.
“An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind,” says Gandhi. As such, I have to be willing to be the villain of their story.
I have to be vulnerable and open emotionally for them to bring their pain and hurt and not make it about me. You are not the stories people imagine about you and no response is required, regardless of how it feels. “Feelings are data, not directives.”
Being unable to separate the stories of what felt true versus what is actually true is essentially what made me unsafe for the people I loved and people that loved me. “The mind secrets thoughts like the body secretes enzymes,” writes Tara Brach.
The secreted thoughts are often stories built around my feelings. And those stories drive my choices. Many moments during my infidelity, secret keeping, and escalating series of lies were driven by the stories my mind secreted about how I felt, what I was taught, and taken as directives to justify my actions.
These stories, and my responses, left me struggling in the eye of a cyclone. Every day of my infidelity I was fighting for a way get unstuck without hurting myself or other people, and unable to recognize that is was my own perspectives and habitualized responses creating the pain, anxiety, and fears.
It’s taken me time but I recognize that many of the stories I imagined about my infidelity, secrets, and escalating series of lies, that other people imagine, and what culture imagines is simply more bull.
I want to take a moment and just be clear about abuse. While all abuse is unsafe, not all unsafe behavior is abuse.
I am not condoning abuse.
These reason I am talking about this is because as a man, I have spent a great deal of time in therapy trying to separate my perceptions of masculinity from my understanding of abuse (Psychology Today). A dangerous and unconscious belief I carry is that men cannot be victims of abuse.
However, as I recently read a betrayed and bitter woman write. “A real man will take whatever I dish out. He brought this on himself.”
His response, “I deserve this.”
That’s justifying abuse. Those are two very injured individuals acting out on things that have nothing to do with infidelity. That is what happens when we take feelings as directives.
All physical assault is abuse. Always. There is nothing you did in your betrayal that justifies assault or physical intimidation.
There is no such thing as honor violence, it’s just violence and violence is abusive.
Getting your pride injured is not abusive. While calling you names and hurting your feelings, spreading rumors, or piling may be abusive, it is not justification for physical intimidation. Physical intimidation is coercive and therefore is abusive.
Throwing vases or haymakers is not justification for escalation. The difficulty for men (and maybe women) according to British psychologist Elizabeth Bates in her article “Walking on Eggshells” and published in the journal Psychology of Men & Masculinities is “physical aggression, in particular, puts [men] in a difficult situation. They had no desire to hurt their partner, and yet they felt a need to protect themselves.”
“At the same time,” Bate’s study reveals, “they feared that any attempt at physically restraining their partner would be interpreted by others—especially those in the legal system—as yet another case of a man committing violence against a woman, and thus all his fault.”
Recently, I talked with a man whose wife beat him so badly upon discovery he spent weeks in the hospital with broken facial bones.
She is unsafe.
What makes it abusive is she blames him for her response. Although she admits he never touched her, her excuse is, “I was defending myself.”
I often wonder if he thinks it is his fault too, and if that is why today, when she gets angry and beats him he stays.
Psychology Today has a great summary on emotional abuse too.
In reality, in my anger I was emotionally abusive to my ex-wife as the hot-cold pattern played out between us and the divorce progressed. This fuelled a great number of shame stories further driving the cycle downward.
With my ex-wife the way I expressed my anger emotionally made me both unsafe and emotionally abusive.
I’ve always been very conscious of my anger and there were many occasions where I would tell C, “I need to get some air and when I come back we’ll talk about it.” And I would. My response was conscious and constructive.
That is what separates simply acting out of hurt and being emotionally abusive. I walked away and came back for the conversation: I was hurt. Being emotionally abusive would be coming back and treating her with contempt, disgust, and silence or some other passive aggressive tactic.
However, for a relationship to thrive the other partner has to be able and willing to participate in transforming the conflict. Some people don’t have those skills and aren’t interesting in learning them.
What I have learned is vengefully and systematically recruiting flying monkeys, responding with the silent treatment while rumor mongering and taking money, and making false accusations intended to control, manipulate, and punish others is bullying.
Bullying is just bravado for hurt people avoiding their own injuries. Bullying is abusive.
Also, revenge fucking is also abuse. I just am not sure if it is emotional or physical but the labels don’t matter.
As the great and mighty Zorak reminds me: “Vengeance is the refuge of the weak.” And when I recognize this, it is easier to have compassion for other people and let go of the abusive stories they imagine and project onto me.
As I’ve said infidelity doesn’t automatically make people abusive. Although it may feel like abuse to some people.
It has taken a lot of therapy, tears, and writing to see my infidelity and the supporting choices for what they are and not what culture, bitter people, haters, and outsiders imagine they are. Unfortunately, there is no lack of real and imagined stories around infidelity. What often lacks is perspective.
For example, one of only promises to C was to keep her safe from hurt.
This specific promise was one of the central roles defined for me based on my toxic misunderstanding of masculinity and my place in our relationship. It was a vow made out loud to her and to her family when they lectured me on how men have treated her in the past. That vow is what drove so many secrets and lies. That vow is why I didn’t ask for help. That vow was how I defined my role in my relationship with C.
That vow was a prison for both of us.
Every single time I thought about talking about what was happening, I remembered this vow and thought “I can fix this without hurting her.”
“A promise is a prison. Do not make yourself another’s jailer,” says Zani in StarTrek: Picard, when her ward asks for a promise from Picard. It is a prison I checked myself into. A prison C silently, and willfully managed. For over a year before the reveal I began asking C to renegotiate the terms of our relationship.
Instead she fell silent, sought attention elsewhere, and sulked away.
This vow is why I have struggled to cut the ties with her and why I was so willing to throw myself on the sword. I bound myself to a lost cause. And in the prideful attempt to honor my vows I made unsafe choices and made myself, in that moment, and in that chapter of the relationship, unsafe too.
It is a promise I will never make again. It was built on the central story of my life: I am responsible for the well-being of other people even if I have to sacrifice myself.
It was a central lie of our relationship: I am responsible for the emotional and physical well-being of another adult. I am the Hero.
The last things C said to me as we were standing in the kitchen on the last morning, “You didn’t keep me safe.” It was the last conversation we had. It was the last time I ever saw her.
That promise was a story of the relationship we imagined.
Suffer or Explore
No one that cheats expects the best and I seriously doubt anyone actually gets it. This is true whether we end up alone, reconciling, or moving on with a new partner. With such great emotional charge and energy directed towards being safe and feeling safe many people will often burn down their own house, or someone else’s.
Which makes sense.
The pain and injuries visited upon ourselves and others feel real and sometimes getting to what is behind the hurt and anger requires revisiting old traumas and pain. People are biologically wired to avoid pain so sitting with pain and hurt is counter-intuitive to how we are taught and wired. We are encouraged to chase safety instead of embracing the risks and uncertainty inherent to vulnerability, intimacy, and learning.
In the process people avoid change that would make their lives better and chase the status quo. Instead of exploring the possibilities and new stories many people suffer as they try to recapture or reinvent the status quo and chase the safety of what they know. Suffers and Explorers, as Esther Perel describes them, each motivated by a different strategy to hurt.
“Compared to Sufferers, who conceive of the betrayal in moral absolutes, the viewpoint of Explorers is more fluid,” writes Esther Perel in The State of Affairs, “Explorers more readily distinguish wrong from hurtful, paving a smoother road for clemency.“
Only the most righteous and prideful will waste time fighting over whether the chicken or the egg came first. I think people fight to avoid confronting what is actually under all the hurt. Ceaseless arguments over who did what, when, and why in an attempt to validate stories around their feelings.
I’ve learned I will often act out habitually to avoid the immediate feelings of anxiety, jealousy, pain, fear, anger, humiliation, shame, and the cornucopia of other thoughts and feelings that radiate out of the mythologies I imagined and created around infidelity. In that response I suffer.
I too often confused safety with a lack if pain. If something hurts it must be bad. It never occured to me that the hurt was me learning a lesson. Instead I ran away trying to avoid more hurt. Hurt people hurt people and with infidelity there is old and new, real and imagined hurt.
“We are all addicted to avoiding pain,” writes the Buddhist Nun, Pema Chödrön.
Surviving or thriving in the aftermath of infidelity will be determined by our approach to pain. Our angle of approach will determine how we navigate the path forward. And that path will be defined by the stories we carry forward.
Think of yourself as a miserable piece of shit unworthy of love and you will be. Believe all your injuries are someone else’s burden to take responsibility for and you will always act out of entitlement.
In either case, you will live an unsafe life in unsafe relationships. Everyone trying to get someone else to carry the weight of their emotions.
Even trying to prove people wrong is still living someone else’s story and makes you unsafe. Proving people wrong is trading our integrity for someone else’s acceptance. We trade belonging to self for attempting to fit in. There is nothing safe about fitting in because the mob is fickle.
Spend your resources where can make a difference in your own life, spend it where it matters: on yourself and the people that stand with you. As Brene Brown writes, “Don’t try to win over the haters; you are not a jackass whisperer.”
Safety versus Vulnerability
As the Coronavirus reminds me, outside of living in a bubble there is no safe way to live among other people without being vulnerable…and even living in a bubble makes me vulnerable in other ways to people and things.
I’ve talked elsewhere that safety and vulnerability are opposites. I’m not going to talk about that much here, but essentially, I cannot be safe and vulnerable. Brene Brown defines vulnerability as (risk + uncertainty + emotional openness) (Daring Greatly). Safety and risk are opposites by definition.
“Safety, stability–it’s an illusion.” writes author Rainbow Rowell in her book Carry On, “It’s a false god. It’s like clinging to a sinking raft instead of learning to swim.”
Continually reacting to what I feel is why I was unsafe, my relationships were unsafe, and my partners were unsafe.
I thought safe equated to stable and secure and spent my entire self in the pursuit of proving I was safe, even if I had to lie and keep secrets. Instead of learning to swim the changing tides and currents of my life I held onto my relationships like it was a raft, afraid to let go.
If I want stability and security in my relationships I have to avoid pursuing a feeling of safety. Safety in a relationship doesn’t exist. Relationships are just a different kind of bubble. Oftentimes bubbles inside of bubbles.
I can build stability and security by my choices but I cannot build safety unless I am willing to give up vulnerability, intimacy, and passion.
Frankly, even that safety is an illusion. A car accident, change in the economy, and global pandemic can wipe out the safe raft I made my prison and toss me into the sea.
This is the consequence of infidelity, it has shattered the raft and forced me to swim. I may not feel safe but I am living.
With the pandemic I often am concerned about my my ex-wife, sometimes I even think about C. Before I would have interpreted those feelings as a directive to check on them, to help, and to reach out to them. “Cause that’s what men do! We take care of the women folk!”
Several times in the last week I’ve contemplated sending money to C for her and the boys but she isn’t my burden – and frankly, I realize her safety was never my burden. When I think too much about it I go run four miles or whatever distance I need until the feeling passes.
I love C but as my Good Doctor reminded me this week, “C did X,Y,Z before, during, and after your relationship. See it for what was. Own the story or the story will own you.” I volunteered once to care for C because that is what I thought my feelings told me to do. I’ll not make that mistake again. I’m going to care about myself for awhile and see how that goes.
Things are a bit more complicated with K. I made a commitment to myself not to talk to her for a year and to see if we can break this emotionally abusive cycle. I hope we can. I’d like to find a way to be friends.
I want you to know, as hard as things might seem at the moment they will change. You can either explore the change or suffer through it, but it is coming if it isn’t already here.
If you are stuck in a house where infidelity is fresh and raw I can only imagine the constant traumas and feelings swirling about your life. Every breath might feel like your last. In those moments it helps me to remember that pain is temporary. This situation won’t last. It is simply a moment.
Before you look to your feelings as a directive, stop long enough to see if it is simply a story. Take a breathe and listen. I have found Susan David’s work on emotional agility helpful in sussing out feelings from the anxieties. Once I recognize the story I can choose better for myself and the people I love.
I realize nearly 30 months after the discovery, I like where my life is. I like my choices. I like how I’ve responded to the chaos. I like how I’ve responded to other people.
For the first time since my infidelities started with my ex-wife, in most moments, I like myself.
Give your life energy and intention and you will see a change over time. It will never be safe but it can be yours. Suit up, show up. Remember that learning requires making mistakes. Mistakes are not failures but opportunities to try again.
If know one tells you this today, you are worthy of being loved. It doesn’t matter what you did or who. “Each morning you are born again,” taught the Buddha, “What we do today is what matters most.”
If it doesn’t go well today, try again tomorrow. This is all temporary.
Most importantly find some outlet for your pain that doesn’t use or hurt other people. I’ve discovered when I do that, the safety I was chasing was simply a mirage.
Love ya. See you around.