Q&A With The Chump Lady

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Lemonade, anyone? A new research study by Binghamton University reveals that women betrayed by unfaithful partners end up in stronger relationships later in life.

After surveying more than 5,000 women in 96 different countries, researchers found that although a woman may “lose” her mate, she actually ends up the winner in the long run. Not only will she experience personal growth, she overcomes being cheated on with a higher mating intelligence that allows her to make better decisions in the future.

That “winning” is the foundation for an empowering new book called Leave a Cheater, Gain a Life by journalist, cartoonist and relationship blogger Tracy Schorn, aka The Chump Lady. Chump Lady is a wildly successful blog that combines sass and satire with solid advice that champions self-respect. Think about it. Much attention is focused on serial cheaters’ unmet needs or their challenges with monogamy. Chump Lady has changed the conversation by lampooning such blameshifting and putting the focus squarely on the cheated upon (“chumps”) and their needs.

I was thrilled to have an opportunity to interview Tracy about the origins of her blog and her new book – a fresh voice for “chumps” seeking a new message about infidelity as they find the courage to start all over again.

How did “Chump Lady” begin? Was it a way of dealing with your own betrayal and if so, what was the turning point for you in deciding to turn pain into something positive that could help others?
Chump Lady: My experience with infidelity was in 2006. I’d been married six months. Eighteen months and several more D-days (the ugly surprises known as Discovery Days), separations and false reconciliations later, we were divorced. When I went through it, online support was hugely important to me, however, it was unfocused. The blind leading the blind, really. The happiest and sanest people I found were divorced. Even when I was healed up and remarried (in 2010, to a fellow chump) — I was still out there trying to give advice to other chumps. The why isn’t my own making sense of it (I had made sense of it – he sucks), but more from a sense of injustice that the advice for infidelity out there was so universally AWFUL and assumed reconciliation.

chumplady_400x400My husband said, “You should write a book.” That seemed like too much of a commitment, so I thought, I’ll start a blog. Just a brain dump of everything I learned about infidelity and chumpdom, so other people wouldn’t repeat my mistakes. I initially thought of it as a clearinghouse. Hey, I’m done with this crap, but please skip ahead. Hope it helps you. The blog became very popular quite quickly. Within 3 months, I was invited to write for Huffington Post Divorce and that in turn, brought more readers. People wrote to say how much it helped them, so I kept at it.

Do you think “Chump Lady” comes from a place of anger or acceptance? 
CL: Both. Anger at the Reconciliation Industrial Complex, which assumes entitlement as natural and that chumps’ default position must be winning back cheaters and Making the Marriage a Good Place to Be – AND acceptance. I had a MUCH happier life after I left a cheater. I’m very happily remarried. Yes, as a squidgy, middle-aged, twice-divorced, uber-chumpy woman in her 40s. If I can get to the other side and have a good life, anyone can.

I wouldn’t have thought being a “chump” was a badge of honor. How do you define it?
CL: “Chumped” is how it FEELS. You feel stupid, conned, played for a fool. The term “wayward partner” is offensive to me – cheaters do not lose their way; their manipulations are deliberate and chosen. Adults have agency. “Chump” is also a way of taking language back; to take a slur and make it a term of empowerment. Okay, I got played. I was a chump. And now I’m mighty.

Chump Lady is very funny – is it important to get over betrayal with a sense of humor?
CL: I don’t know how to write about infidelity any other way. It IS absurd and comically pathetic. Also, humor is a way of asserting power; of turning things on their head and looking at them differently and laughing.

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You have a colorful vocabulary, like “cake” for instance. What does “cake” mean?
CL: Cake-eating or cake means having the marriage AND the affair, and trying to maintain that position of advantage. But I didn’t make up “cake” – that one is on all the infidelity boards. I do have other terms that are uniquely Chump Lady — kibbles, untangling the skein of fuckupedness, etc.

One of your most popular features is the UBT (Universal Bullshit Translator) which debunks articles about infidelity. Why do we still buy into myths like “he cheated because you didn’t give him what he wanted?”
CL: Because it gives chumps a sense of control. When your world has fallen apart, control is a very seductive commodity. If I did something wrong, then I can FIX it and stop that terrible thing from ever happening again! It’s much harder to feel vulnerable and powerless because you trusted someone and got played.

You must receive a lot of mail. Have you heard it all or are you still surprised by things people tell you?
CL: I’m still surprised. I do get a ton of mail, but certain telling details still catch me up. Like the cheater who took his mistress to Disney World instead of his kids; and the chump had to spend the Disney savings in the money jar to buy groceries. I still get pissed off at those things. Which keeps me writing and lampooning narcissists.

What would you say you’ve learned most since becoming the Chump Lady?
CL: That people are very, very resilient. I’ve read tens of thousands of stories, and people bounce back from the most horrific stuff. I think the saddest stories I read are from people who were cheated on while pregnant, and divorced cheaters with infants or high-risk pregnancies, or toddlers at home, who are physically and financially vulnerable on top of everything else. When those people make it, I cheer. I LOVE the “tell me how you’re mighty” stories.

holly_petraeusI’d say my other takeaway is that no one should ever be a stay-at-home mother unless they have a trust fund. I hate to come down on the mommy wars; I worked part-time when my son was little. I just think to take yourself out of the workplace is a terrible risk. The odds of divorce are 50/50. Now factor in disease, disability, early death? You should always have a way of supporting yourself. (And before the Men’s Rights people beat me up — I think stay-at-home parenthood sucks for men too: she cheats and gets alimony because she was out of the workplace.) Chumps who are financially vulnerable have fewer good choices. I want everyone to have good choices. Infidelity and divorce can still be overcome, but in my opinion, it’s much harder without a safety net. You gotta be very scrappy in court.

What do you hope readers get from reading your book?
CL: I hope my book is exactly what it advertises itself to be — a survival guide to infidelity. I want chumps to protect themselves after infidelity and focus on THEIR needs over those of cheaters.

Lastly, what are your thoughts on monogamy? Is it achievable?
CL: Of course it is. Cheating isn’t a monogamy problem, it’s a character problem. The reason people feign monogamy and then cheat is to maintain an unfair advantage — you invest all your resources in THEM, you play by the rules, and they keep their options open (cake!). That’s a character issue. Don’t use and abuse people. We are created to bond with one another, and trust is the social glue that holds us all together. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. And I think it will always be aberrant and painful when people violate those norms.lovemonkey

I think everyone should love again after infidelity. I don’t necessarily mean being coupled up again in the traditional sense; I mean don’t let a cheater be the last person you ever invest in. Go engage with the world, give of yourself and “gain a life.”

 

Tracy Schorn’s book Leave a Cheater, Gain a Life: The Chump Lady’s Survival Guide (Running Press) is available now. 

When The World Ends

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Facebook just reminded me that five years ago today, I wrote this on my wall:

“But don’t you worry ‘bout a thing.”

…I was echoing lyrics to a Dave Matthews Band song called When the World Ends.

The irony in this is ridiculous because 72 hours after posting it came the annihilation of my 20-year marriage.

At first, I was mad that Facebook threw that tidbit back at me. I don’t need a reminder of my naïveté in the finals hours leading up to Destruction Day. Especially not this weekend. I remember all too vividly how things unfolded, thank you very much.

But a few hours later, I realize maybe there was a serendipitous reason I needed to see that message today.

As the 5th anniversary of that milestone circles around once again, I must remember that while my relationship ended, my world did not. Sometimes, the universe just has to shake you up to wake you up. It may have felt like free-falling at the time, but I’d eventually land on my feet and everything would be okay. Better, in fact.

Five years ago this week, I survived the end of my marriage. And really, I didn’t have to worry ‘bout a thing.

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The Zen of Walking

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I wish I could meditate, I really do. I’d love to be able to slow my heart rate and still my multitasking mind long enough to find tranquility. But I can’t. So I walk.

Walking has been my form of meditation for the past several years. I can get away from my desk, the overflowing laundry hamper and the dishes in the sink and just take time for me. It’s been my therapy, my relief, my way of managing the physical and mental tension that comes with divorce.

I suppose that’s why so many people recommend exercise as a coping mechanism when going through the stress of divorce. Moving your body helps to work out the bad stuff in your head, just as the release of warm and fuzzy endorphins, our built-in painkillers, helps pull you away from dark corners that hover on the edge of depression. I’ve found that going for a brisk 30-minute walk a few times a week is enough to provide the happy buzz I need to boost my mood. Not to mention that the fresh air and a shot of vitamin D from feeling the sun on my face pretty much guarantees a good night’s sleep.

I remember my counsellor commending me for going for a walk on a semi-regular basis. I have a very hard time putting myself first, but by going for a walk, she said, I am making myself a priority. She went so far as to call my walks a form of self-love. Hard to deny yourself something as important as love.

While some people prefer listening to music while they work out, I like being aware of my surroundings. The crunch of pavement under my feet, the rhythm of my breathing, the whistle of wind in my ears. Hitting my stride makes me feel alive. Freed from distractions, I can lose myself in my thoughts. It’s the best time for me to sort through the complex web of thoughts and emotions I’ve left the house with or to make a creative breakthrough if I’ve hit a wall.

I’m not really a “devout” anything anymore, but walking is also when I feel the most centered spiritually. In the wake of my divorce, I began to pray more often and I would find myself engaged in silent conversation with God, my dearly departed grandparents and other guardian angels I felt guiding me through the difficult transition. This includes a friend who died from a malicious, fast-moving cancer in 2009. Dan was only 36. In many ways, he was the soul brother I never had and to this day, I still feel the world is a lesser place without him in it.

During my walks, I’d often turn to Dan for some sage advice from the great beyond, especially around the time I returned to dating. With its nuanced moves and strategic plays, dating is an exhaustive game of mental chess where you never quite know what the person across the table (or on the other end of the text message) is thinking. I’d met a string of nice-enough fellows and enjoyed a pleasant outing or two with them but had not felt anything remotely meaningful. I began to wonder if I’d ever experience that kind of connection again.

I asked Dan for help – help not only to navigate the dating quagmire but to find someone truly special with a good heart, a good sense of humor and a good approach to life. Oh, and if it wasn’t asking too much, could he possibly send me a really obvious, billboard-sized neon sign to let me know when I’ve met the right one?

Five months later, I did meet someone special. I was impressed by him from the start and on our first date, he won me over with his good heart, good sense of humor and good approach to life. His name? Dan.

Of course, that’s only one story (albeit my favorite) that has come out of walking a few thousand miles. My Fitbit tracker says I’ve logged over 5 million steps totalling the distance of the monarch migration – and that’s only been since 2014. Factor in the three years that came before that and I’m probably within reach of the 5,500-mile mark, roughly the length of the Great Wall of China. Sweet!

No, I don’t always feel like going for a walk. Some days, I’m too bogged down with work, too tired or too sore (or as my son says, my “hinges” ache). I stare at my well-worn running shoes and then gaze at the couch with a heavy sigh. The shoes don’t always win. But when they do, I am proud of the fact that I’m doing something positive that benefits me physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Through the years, walking has taught me that there is much healing to be found in taking care of myself. All I need to do is just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

The Monogamous Bird isn’t an Odd Duck

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“Do you think it’s possible to stay monogamous?” a friend asked over lunch. His question stunned me on two fronts – one, he knew the painful reason my marriage ended; and two, he was in a long and presumably happy relationship. I’d never questioned his fidelity.

“Of course I do,” I gasped, nearly dropping my fork. “I mean, if monogamy is not possible, what’s the point of being in a committed relationship?”

“Children. Security. Companionship, maybe,” he replied. “But monogamy doesn’t come naturally to us as a species. Biologically, aren’t we hard-wired to seek out a variety of sexual partners?”

Frankly, I find biology to be a lazy defence for not staying true to one partner. I only need to look out my window to see that monogamy is not against all nature. Take geese, for example. They mate for life. Every spring, geese couples return to our neighborhood ponds to lay, hatch and raise their young’uns. It is charming, romantic even, to see them waddling side by side, the chivalrous males defending their womenfolk and vigilantly protecting the precious family nests.

Geese not only raise and protect their brood together, they look out for one another faithfully throughout their lives and beyond. My partner told me about passing the heartbreaking sight of a goose on the side of the road sitting beside her mate, who had been struck dead by a car. It makes me tear up thinking about it even now. Upon doing some research, I learned that if one of the pair dies, the surviving goose will eventually move on and find another mate but she will likely not breed again for at least a year.

(I also discovered that it’s rare, but waterfowl can divorce, if you can believe it. Pairs will separate if they have not been successful in laying or hatching eggs, although this tends to happen mostly among mates who form bonds too early in the life cycle. Once geese are mature enough to commit to coupling, the divorce rate drops off significantly. Go figure.)

But let’s get back to human nature. I just don’t buy that the way we’re hard-wired is an excuse to abandon monogamy. Yes, our species may have started out as polygamous as we set out to populate an empty planet, but we had to evolve from that lifestyle for health’s sake. Because of that, love became something of an ancient survival code.

That might explain why we have a compelling drive to seek out and settle down with one irreplaceable mate (just look at the $2.4-billion online dating industry that has grown ridiculously wealthy off the promise of finding true love). Physiologically speaking, we are actually built for coupledom. Sex is a bonding behavior in mammals – we mate face to face, kissing and touching, as our brains flood with oxytocin, aka “the cuddle hormone” that ensures we form emotional attachments to partners.

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According to Ottawa-based author, clinical psychologist and researcher Dr. Sue Johnson, scientific evidence suggests that when couples are emotionally connected, their sex life improves. On the other hand, one night stands and short-term casual encounters are way overrated. “It’s like a dance without music. Flat. One dimensional,” she says.

Dr. Johnson points out that people who want recreational sex are “usually into avoidant bonding strategies. They tend to be phobic about depending on or being vulnerable to others.” (Which leads to the question, do they shy away from monogamy because they want greater sexual options – or because it preempts the pain of experiencing sexual betrayal?)

On top of this, bed-hoppers actually enjoy sex less frequently than more involved, emotionally-invested partners. “The evidence is, securely attached, fully-engaged lovers are happier and more caring,” Dr. Johnson says. “They also have better sex lives. They dance in a more attuned and responsive way, in bed and out of it.”

I really wish I’d been better prepared to respond to my friend’s lunchtime query. Had I not been caught off guard, my response to whether or not I believed in monogamy could’ve been so much better than just a squeak of hopeful optimism. I would have told him that we are all capable of monogamy because it’s a choice just as much as cheating is a choice. But because remaining faithful is not always the easier pick of the two options, making the deliberate decision to be true to only one person at a time makes the connection you share deeper, more meaningful and yes, sexier too.

“Monogamy is not about deprivation or delusion – it’s delicious. You just have to know how to do it right,” Dr. Johnson says. And when it’s good for the goose, you know it’s gonna be good for the gander.

6 Things I Got Right For My Daughter After the Divorce

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With Mother’s Day this week, my heart is telling me to write about daughters. Specifically, my own.

I worried how both of the kids would fare upon getting the news of our divorce. My son N., who has Asperger’s and gets flustered by disruption in his routine, had just turned 13. He adjusted surprisingly well (he was more concerned that it meant we’d have to move, which we didn’t). But my daughter D. was at a precarious age. At 16, she was “not a girl, not yet a woman,” as Britney famously put it – and I feared the irreparable damage that our breakup might have on her.

I was anxious about the potential fallout when D.’s dad told her that he was moving out that same day. The first male object of love in our lives, our fathers set the standard of how a relationship with man should be. The way dad loves shapes and colors our perceptions of love and commitment, and as a result, that has a big influence on our expectations of our future intimate relationships.

It broke my heart that this devastation was not something I could prepare her for or protect her from. Despite her age, she was still our strong-willed yet sensitive little girl, the same one who used to write little notes and slide them under our door.

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At first, D. was angry at her dad, and it didn’t help matters that his only reassurance was that she’d get over it with time. As I was grappling with my own rage and resentment, it would have been very easy for me to feed into her teenage angst and attempt to punish my ex by driving a bigger wedge between them – but I didn’t.

Instead, I saw my role as one of peacemaker. Strange, I know. But I believe that wounded girls can become wounded women with trust issues unless they have an opportunity to heal that all-important relationship with their fathers. I couldn’t do the healing for them, but I wouldn’t stand in their way. Heaven knows it wasn’t always easy, but I tried my best to encourage D.’s connection with her dad.

The main reason I chose to take the high road is because I understand how much daughters need their daddies. I am fortunate to have a strong bond with my father, who has been married to my mother for nearly 50 years and in love with her for 55 years. So, yes, I do know how important that relationship is to building healthy self-esteem and having the confidence to love and be loved.

They say that the two best gifts a mother can give her daughter is 1) the opportunity to have a relationship with her father and 2) encouraging her independence. I honor the fact that D. has her own identity; that she must make her own decisions and learn from her own mistakes, but at the same time, I hope that she has learned from my mistakes too. That includes embracing her right to recognize what she will not tolerate in a relationship and finding the courage to speak up when faced with unacceptable behavior. In other words, believing in her own strength and truth.

Looking back on the past five years, I may have made a few missteps, but I’m glad I was able to get these six things right especially for D.’s benefit:

1. Be honest with her from the start. There is heated debate over telling the kids why the marriage ended. In my case, I not only believed they were old enough to handle a carefully-worded version of the truth, but that they deserved to know why our once “unbreakable” family had been suddenly smashed into a thousand pieces. Psychiatrist and author Scott Haltzman says: “When an affair happens, it cheats the spouse and the family of the love and commitment of a partner and parent. Telling the child may put an ugly name on why a parent has pulled away from the family, but it is, ultimately, naming a truth. And if there is one thing that affairs teach us, it is how devastating lies can be.”

2. Not prolonging the “Pick Me Dance.” A natural response to discovering infidelity in your marriage is attempting to salvage the relationship. Wanting to bargain, to fix it, to try harder, to seek counselling, to take up the other person’s hobbies, to have more frequent, non-vanilla sex, and to otherwise turn your life upside down to “win” a partner back is a process known as the “Pick Me Dance.” This is a very painful and humiliating stage that can cause confusion and false expectations in a family situation. While it can go on for months, I mercifully ripped off that Band-Aid in less than a week, thus saving my kids from harboring false hope of a reconciliation or from having D. see me devalue my personal worth.

3. Not badmouthing her father (or man-bashing anyone else). I tried to be careful in how I talked about their dad in front of them because I didn’t want them to feel guilty for continuing to love him, nor to feel conflicted in their loyalties. Children of divorce can struggle with their own identities (if someone says mom/dad is bad, does that mean I’m bad too?) and I wouldn’t want them to think they are genetically predispositioned to disappoint. I also didn’t bash men in front of D. It would have been grossly unfair to cynically reduce the entire male population to a handful of negative stereotypes.

4. Continue to offer her stability and consistency. After the shake-up of divorce, I wanted to quickly upright our world so that D. and her brother could feel surefooted again. We were all stressed, but I reassured them that we would be fine, and that they would continue to be provided with all the love and basic necessities they needed. With help from my immediate family, I re-established our home as a refuge of stability and consistency and more importantly, did my best to assure the kids that they could always count on me to be there for them.

5. Be an example of what love looks like. D. is in a long-term relationship; she and her boyfriend were together two years before her father and I split up and they are engaged to be married next year. I am grateful that she had someone to help her through this traumatic time and was already in a committed relationship with a foundation strong enough to withstand the impact of her parents’ divorce. All the same, I’m glad that D. is still living at home so that she can witness how happy I am in my new relationship. Psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington, who studied 1,400 divorced and remarried families, found that a successful remarriage, competent parenting and low conflict in the home can counteract the negative effects of parental divorce. I hope my partner and I model a healthy and respectful relationship and that D. sees us as an example of why it is important to never close your heart to the possibility of love.

6. Show her what a strong woman can do. Actress Valerie Bertinelli said that one of the keys to a happy life after divorce is to “Love your children more than you hate your ex.” While I have been far from perfect in my divorce recovery, one thing I have always been good at is putting my kids above everything else – even how I felt about their father. 

Two years ago, my ex got engaged. That Christmas, I sent him a card expressing my best wishes. This did not come easily, considering that this summer he is marrying the woman he was seeing when our marriage ended, but I thought it was an important gesture to make in front of the kids. I was proud of myself for displaying that level of generosity and for making a move to start bridging the great divide, a gap that hurts no one more than it does our children.

Then last fall, I took it one step further by initiating a family dinner for the six of us at a local restaurant while the kids’ father and his fiancée were in town. It was the first time she and I met face to face, and I knew D. and N. were apprehensive about potential fireworks (believe me, I was a nervous wreck inside). By putting the kids’ best interests first, it assured that the atmosphere around the table was not only civil but friendly. That dinner paved the way for our family’s future by forging a cordial relationship with the kids’ father and soon-to-be stepmother, regardless of our past history.

I think that evening went a long way in showing D., and the rest of us, that even after something as ugly as divorce, love always wins.