What I’m Made Of

13924809_1140334416058906_3867034309846106926_n
Art inspiration from http://www.stonestories.org

“I hope you understand that I’m not leaving you for someone else,” he said with a straight face, even though we both knew it was a lie.

Perhaps it was his attempt at self-preservation, as in, don’t go run and tell your lawyer I’m leaving you for another woman so you can bleed me dry. Maybe it was to protect his still-married mistress from whatever shenanigans I, the betrayed and scorned, might try to pull. And then there was the off chance it was actually for the sake of my dignity, as if, in some twisted way, that revelation was supposed to bring me some comfort. It didn’t.

Just a week earlier, he spilled his guts about that affair plus all the ones he’d had before. Then he packed up and left. Later, he said he’d be willing to come back and give our marriage another try if I wanted save our family. He gave me another week to think it over. Then he tacked an ultimatum onto it. If I didn’t take him back before the allotted time was up, he just might be tempted to fall back into bed with her next time she was in town.

They say you don’t really know a man until you’ve divorced him. They’re so right. I never learned so much about the person I was married to for 20 years as I did in those first few days.

But truthfully, I also didn’t really know who I was until I was divorced either. In fact, here are a few things I learned about myself:

I deserve better. As someone who had her entire life planned out and fall neatly into place since high school, the unexpected end of my marriage was not only painful, it was hard to let go of a dream that would never be fully realized. However, I immediately recognized that I was deserving of a much better marriage and a much better husband than one who’d threaten me with even more cheating if I didn’t take him back by his deadline. Thanks to his unacceptable bad behavior, I was able to redraw my boundaries and told myself that “I want what I deserve and I deserve what I want.” In divorce, I reclaimed my worth.

I am not afraid anymore. While most people rank public speaking and death as their greatest fears, for me, discovering my husband’s infidelity (nightmares had plagued me for years – go figure) and subsequent divorce was at the top of my list. But then my marriage ended and I managed to survive the worst thing I could have possibly imagined. Oh, it was a dark and scary time for sure, but it was also a chance for me to grow and to gain a new perspective. I became braver and more independent because of it. If I could face what I’d been most fearful of, there really was little left to fear.

It’s okay to take time for me. The first time my kids left to visit their father, I wasn’t able to hold back tears. I couldn’t believe our life had come to this. The silence at home was deafening and I dreaded not knowing what to do with myself. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read. I didn’t have the energy to go outside. But at the same time, I felt guilty just wasting this precious time when I had the world at my disposal. I soon realized that after 16 years of being a mom, spending time alone would take practice and that it was healthy for me and the kids to be apart. While I’ve never been great at self-care, I tried to look forward to opportunities to relearn what I enjoy and get reacquainted with who Barb is. By starting to “date” myself, I realized just what a great catch I am!

I have a resilient heart. Despite the pain and sadness enveloping it, my heart has never lost its flicker of hope and compassion. Just 48 hours after he left, my ex returned home to see the kids after work. Knowing he’d be hungry, I whipped up a sandwich for him. It might have been wifely instinct, but the gesture came from a surprising place of kindness and empathy knowing we were both hurting. That is just who I am. I am grateful that my heart never gave out or gave up on me. Even while healing, it demonstrated more compassion toward others and an even greater capacity to love those who mean the most to me. My heart never once stopped believing that I would someday love and trust again.

I am my mother’s daughter. I can’t overstate how much my parents did to support me and my kids in that first year of divorce. My mother was everything. Even though she was hurting too, she scooped us up, hugged us, fed us and comforted us;  offering gentle counsel or a listening ear, holding us together and presenting us with a welcome distraction or a helping hand. She had a calming effect on me in the midst of total chaos. I have always looked up to the women in my family as remarkably strong and wise individuals and at a time I felt my weakest, it lifted me to know that I was cut from the same cloth. The love, faith, compassion and strength of my mother helped me to rediscover my own.

Looking Back on Moving Forward

wing-mirror

Recently, I was asked how someone is ever supposed to move forward when they keep getting sucked back into the heartache following betrayal and divorce.

I wish I knew what to say; I’m certainly no expert. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like I’ve moved forward until something happens that would have, at one time, caused me to downward spiral – and I realize that it doesn’t anymore. Oh, I still get sucked back in too. I feel anger and resentment. There are still times my self-confidence is shaky at best; there are still times I convince myself that I’m unlovable. But they are only temporary emotional ruts and I know I can gradually work myself out. These times come less frequently and to a far lesser degree than they once did.

But the truth is, I don’t really know how I got here – or even where “here” is.

There is no roadmap to healing after heartbreak, no marker that will let you know when you’ve finally reached your destination (“Ding! You’re now all better and ready for a new life!”). Thankfully, there are things like the five stages of grief that you can check yourself against – until you realize that you will pinball between denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance for years to come, if not the rest of your life.

I think the misnomer about “moving forward” is that you will eventually step over some magical invisible line and never have to feel it anymore. As if once you get past it, the hurt won’t catch up to you and the person who crushed your soul will never cross your mind. Wouldn’t that be nice? Instead, it’s more accurate to say that the pain never quite disappears, although it does dull into a manageable ache over time.

I was grateful to catch a TV interview with Vikki Stark, a marriage counsellor and therapist. Vikki was married more than 21 years when she was blindsided by her husband leaving her for another woman and has since turned her experience into helping women recover from similar situations. Vikki’s book Runaway Husbands: The Abandoned Wife’s Guide to Recovery and Renewal offers the following, spot-on ways to free yourself from the darkest, loneliest days and start moving forward.

So to my friend reaching out for a lifeline of advice, I really couldn’t say it any better than this – in fact, Vikki’s list might be the most solid bit of post-divorce advice I have read yet, and looking back, I can see my own journey in her valid, valuable points. So take a deep breath and…

  • Recognize that the chaos won’t last forever.
  • Accept that the marriage is really over.
  • Integrate the fact that your partner has changed irrevocably and is beyond caring for your welfare.
  • Understand why he/she needs to justify their actions any way possible – including rewriting history, lying or attacking you.
  • Give up trying to get the acknowledgement and apology that you deserve.
  • Revise your beliefs in human nature. You now have learned that some people are capable of deception.
  • Believe in your self-worth. You must stop feeling discarded, empty and less valuable than the woman (or man) who has taken your place or than married women in general.
  • Get accustomed to being self-reliant and independent.
  • Expect good things in your future. Don’t assume that you will always be alone or miserable.
  • Stay positive! Stop yourself from becoming bitter or developing a victim mentality.

Incidentally, Vikki is happy, successful and enjoying a new healthy, long-term relationship. She has moved forward. And so will you.

The Truth About Homewrecking Ogres

hayley_troll

I have often wondered what kind of person knowingly goes to bed with someone who is married. Is it a power trip to seduce a taken man (or woman), or is it simply about the thrill of no-strings sex (though there are always strings attached)?

A good friend’s wife announced that she was in love with someone she’d been having an affair with at work. She made the decision for them both to end their 15-year marriage, move out of the home they shared with their children and start a new life with her lover. My friend was angry and had every right to be. Although he had never personally met the lover, he despised this individual for ripping their family apart and referred to them as “Shrek” – a slur against their perceived nastiness, yes, but also their selfish, ogre-like behavior.

According to mythology, an ogre is a hideous, clumsy creature that takes what it wants without regard and, horrifically, feeds on the flesh of its victims. So really, my friend wasn’t all that far off base. In both of our cases, ogres deliberately pursued and pounced on our spouses in the workplace, despite their being in a marital fortress clearly surrounded by a moat of family photos and clad in gold-banded armor signifying ineligibility.

Come on. It isn’t like they didn’t know our spouses were married with kids. They knew and didn’t care.

Unbeknownst to each other, my friend and I had separately contacted our homewrecking ogres once we discovered their existence, emailing them photos of our sweet children’s faces in an attempt to shame them into realizing that this affair wasn’t a game. There were real consequences to their actions, with real families with real hearts as collateral damage.

The only responses we got back? Silence. Shrugs.

Going forward, we directed a lot of our bitterness and resentment toward our respective ogres. We villainized them for intruding on our fairy tale existences and callously stomping all over our happily ever afters. Worse, when an ogre plays the innocent victim, telling your 16-year old that “you can’t help who you fall in love with” (which might be true, but you are certainly in control of whether or not you act on it), it makes it very easy to detest them.

If you’ve been cheated on, you know how deep the trauma of betrayal goes. It gnaws at your sense of security and self-worth. You begin to suspect that ogres are lurking all around, because they are. I know that’s true because at least half a dozen of them (that I’m aware of) were able to penetrate and plague my marriage. Naturally, it erodes your trust in people, more specifically, women without boundaries or acceptance of the moral girl code that says to leave other women’s husbands alone.

It took some time, but I eventually realized that it’s easier to make the affair partners out to be monsters because we don’t know them. On the other hand, we know our spouses better than anyone; we love them and we trust them. We share a history, children and a life together. We know that they would never cheat or lie to us so surely, they were coerced by some evil entity into leaving their senses and breaking their vows, right? Wrong.

Villainizing the other woman/man is merely a distraction from the truth. The person who broke their vows is truly the guilty party – they allowed the ogre into the marriage fortress. Ultimately, I came to the realization that for healing to take place, the focus should not be on the outsider. Instead, the rage and blame should be on the person who decided to ruin your marriage long before they took their pants off. It doesn’t matter if they were happy or unhappy, lonely or fulfilled, drunk or sober. When it comes to infidelity, the responsibility always lies with the person in the committed relationship.

No, it’s not easy questioning whether your marriage was a sham and if you’ve been clueless about who you’ve spent the past two decades of your life with. It certainly forced me to stop seeing my spouse as who I thought he was or wanted him to be and start looking at the ugly truth after he showed his true self.

Hey, don’t get me wrong, ogres still need to own up to the deplorable part they played in the affair; they are the desperate creatures willing to jump into bed with a married person. They made their choice; they are not a victim of the heart (or any other body part). Yes, I know that there is a school of thought that says berating the other woman is akin to “slut shaming” but I like what Chump Lady has to say about that that: “You shouldn’t ever be ashamed of your sexuality. You should be ashamed of treating people like shit.”

My anger toward the other woman has somewhat softened into empathy. I have met her on a few occasions and she is, in fact, quite unmonsterlike. She seems to be an intelligent, level-headed, and dare I say, good person. I have little reason to believe she intentionally set out to inflict pain on me and my children. Of course, that does not excuse what she did. But let’s face it, if she hadn’t been one of my ogres, another would have been right around the corner to snatch away my happiness.

I really don’t know what damage in her past would cause her to choose the destructive path that she did, but her selfish decision will always define her presence in my life. I feel bad for her in that way. I also feel bad that she is now married to a man she knows is unable to stay monogamous, but once again, that was her decision. While I do not wish her ill will, I do wish her luck.