40: Coping with the Stories

My loyalty has never wavered. I was always there. I am so sorry. I never meant to hurt you. But when you measure my allegiance only by where I stick my dick, it’s as if the rest doesn’t count for a thing.

Esther Perel, The State of Affair
Dawson to his wife, Amelia

In his article, Why Conventional Marriage Wisdom Is Wrong, John Gottman writes about affairs and loneliness. According to Gottman’s research, “there were already serious if subtle, problems in the marriage before the affair occurred.” 

Suppose I take this as a statement supported by research (and anyone who appreciates the decades of relationship research by the Gottman’s will). In that case, I have to stop seeing infidelity for what I imagine it communicates but rather what it says. 

Today I recognize my infidelities as a coping mechanism.

Any other perspective is a story.

Frankly, my opinion, approval, or acceptance of Gottman’s research doesn’t change the research outcomes. I may not like the emotional realities driving another person’s choice to have an affair, but my liking or disliking does not alter the intentions even as the choice impacts me. 

Blaming character, morality, addiction, Hollywood, pathology, or the dozens of other relationship and social bugaboos gets conversations no closer to the truth. We can argue about how much influence these bugaboos carry, but our opinions are stories projected onto other people’s lives. 

These bugaboos thoughtlessly and reactively pain shift the shallowest of stories away from what is happening. In reality, infidelity, and all the behaviors supporting it, remains a coping mechanism used by 40% to 50% of the population to address life’s discomforts.

I am not excusing the choices or minimizing the impact on people. I could have done better. I didn’t. The choices I made at the moment made sense in the moments.

Entirely too often, the stories I imagine about other people’s motivations are stories. I can only speak authoritatively on what I experience. I am an expert only on what I imagine about other people’s intentions. 

For example, I know I can love someone and betray them. I know this because it is what I felt and what I did. 

More specifically, more often than not, I acted lovingly in a hundred ways while I was also behaving selfishly in this area where I was struggling with boundaries, insecurities, and idiot compassion.

To paraphrase Dawson’s response to Amelia, “My loyalty to Painter never wavered. I was always there. I am so sorry. I never meant to hurt her. But when she measures my allegiance only by where I stick my dick, it’s as if the rest doesn’t count for a thing.”

More than one person has tossed that statement aside because it doesn’t fit the narrative they imagine about choices they have never made. I have learned over the last decade that emotional maturity is recognizing that more than one thing can be true at the same time. 

And frankly, what I have learned is Painter didn’t care where I stuck my dick. My betrayal gave her the excuse she wanted.

If Painter wanted something different, she would have done something different.

Like my infidelity, her decision to end the relationship made sense the moment she made a choice. However, just as neither Painter nor Beatrix are responsible for my choices, I am not responsible for theirs. We all cope with the skills we have.

Once I recognize my choices around betraying Beatrix and Painter made sense within the context of the moment, the Shame stories cease. In the moment of recognition, I stood beside Shame and did not flee from the discomfort. At that moment, I began to grow. When I stood still long enough to listen, I recognize Shame as a defense mechanism.

People imagine some dark triad of motivations around infidelities. They imagine some malevolence. Today I recognize the stories people imagine about my affairs reveal more about their approach to life than mine. 

My betrayals were never about keeping score or getting even. They were never motivated about getting more or proving my masculinity. My secrets and lies were always emotional fawning or fleeing as I responded to my own shame stories. Painter and Beatrix were witnesses to my war on myself just as I was a witness to theirs.

Any story that paints infidelity with dark intentions perpetuates the suffering of the one betrayed and the one that did the betraying. 

That also means there is no such thing as a chump; that is a shame story too.

“Your marriage is not the betrayal,” writes Elle Grant. 

“What so many don’t understand about those of us who choose to stay in a marriage with someone who cheated on us is that our marriage is made up of a zillion moments,” adds Grant. “The vast majority of which had nothing to do with the affair.”

In that paragraph Grant argues the same point that Dawson argues in defense of his life with Amelia. 

Amelia may choose never to see it that way. 

We are all more than the worse thing we have ever done, even if no one else sees it. Holding onto the truth of our identity against the tide of informed and ill-informed opinions is work. It is as much work as navigating the distance between intent and impact. 

Being able to recognize infidelity for what it is freed me from defending myself against my own shame-filled opinions. Even though I occasionally still do.

However, as I grow forward, I recognize my actions were responses to emotions I was experiencing in the moment. Actions driven in response to the stories about what I imagined I was feeling.

If I am serious about growth, I have to confront the roots of abandonment and the stories behind the pain and shame. The reality is nothing changes until people take responsibility, and not blame. If I am serious, I need to use my feelings as data, not directives (Dr. Susan David). 

It would be great if I could simply not do it again. If the wounds, trauma, pain, and anxiety hiding behind infidelity would simply go away. Disappear as if they never existed or as if they belonged to someone else. If I only focused on the blue skies, the positive, and the things that made me happy, I wouldn’t have to experience the muck.

However, I’ve tried that my whole life. In many ways lying and secrets are about only focusing on the positive things. It is way to avoid the discomfort, the loss, the loneliness, and the pain. It is gaslighting my selves.

Secrets and lies are what happens when positivity becomes a personal religion.

However, I have learned the wounds, trauma, pain, and anxiety never go away.

All that happens is how I respond to those wounds, trauma, pain, and anxiety changes because I have grown more conscious. In those moments when I grasp this concept I recognize the growth in my skills to living. 

Some trauma responses are obvious such as how I respond to cope with to what feels like too much attention. I fall back to self- deprecating humor, avoidance, and break out in sweats.

Others are deep and there will always be an echo in my life showing up in my approach to intimacy and vulnerability. Some are still hidden, and I remain unconscious of how they impact my life, but I know now they are there casting shadows onto shadows.

In any case the only choice is to own what is true today as I understand it today. What I do with what I know today matters most.

I recognize the possibilities. I recognize the opportunities.