The Tip of the Iceberg

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Only a fraction of an iceberg is visible while 80-90% remains hidden under the waterline.

The Titanic crew discovered this when frantic orders for a hard turn to veer away from an ill-fated ice mass came moments too late. While she barely missed the protruding peak, Titanic still collided with the iceberg’s enormous bulk below sea level, ripping up the side of the ship and puncturing its water-tight compartments.

Icebergs: it’s what you can’t see that can hurt you.

I remember getting a sinking feeling that something was going on with my husband of 20 years. Upon confronting him, he confessed to an affair sparked during an out-of-town business trip. I suspected that it merely scratched the surface of the truth. I knew that he’d had what he called an “emotional affair” with a different colleague 10 years previous, but he went to counselling and recommitted to our marriage. If he had been remorseful about this latest fling, I would have been willing to work it out too.

But, of course, that was just the tip of the iceberg.

What it really was (at least to the best of my knowledge) added up to numerous one night stands, short-lived flings and at least one multi-year affair, along with an online porn addiction, regular visits to a gentlemen’s club and an overall inability to remain faithful to any woman since the age of 14. He was a serial cheater and, in his own words, “not a good husband.”

I’m certain that he admitted only to an abbreviated version of events in order to appease his guilt – which makes the unedited story simply unknowable. I believe that the total iceberg is even larger, darker and more sordid. I will never get to the bottom of it. The unexplained trips, strange hours and manipulative behavior – it all remains beyond my grasp, still floating around in my subconscious like menacing chunks of ice.

The infidelity iceberg will ram your hull, buckle your equilibrium and leave you feeling foolish as you decode what was real and what was deception (“How could I have been so stupid?”). It scrapes your ego, distorts your perspective and punctures your water-tight, unconditional trust – not only in the individual who wronged you, but in almost everyone around you: past, present and especially future. And yet, you fight your way back to recover from it.

A seasoned ship captain offered his advice about avoiding disaster at sea. “The thing you need most in iceberg-infested waters is fear,” he said, adding, “and don’t talk about the fact that you’ve been lucky. When you do that, you become vulnerable.”

While I don’t believe fear should navigate our life’s voyage after infidelity, it certainly forces us to wake up and become more vigilant. Icebergs tend to sneak up on us when we fail to pay attention.

The upside to icebergs is that they prompt us to shore up our defenses – in a good way. We build stronger, more resilient vessels equipped with enhanced radar technology (our instinct) and ample life preservers (our support system). They also ensure we never allow ourselves to become complacent or lulled into a false sense of security believing that nothing and no one can ever sink us. 

Perhaps most important, we can use what we’ve learned about past icebergs to avoid future ones. I now know that icebergs make themselves look the way we want them to while being secretly composed of something entirely different. They can shape-shift over time to keep their underlying nature concealed. And they should never be underestimated; after all, you can sail alongside an iceberg for years – decades even – and have no clue about what they’re hiding.

At the same time, I don’t suspect that everything on the horizon is a threat. Just the opposite. By trusting that I am now better able to spot the dangers, I can relax, take in the scenery and appreciate the beauty that surrounds me. I also don’t need to worry about my ship capsizing, because I have been through it before. It showed me that I have the ability to tread water and stay afloat. I can keep my head above water. I can swim. I can do more than I ever knew I was capable of doing.

Even after hitting an iceberg, there is no way to guarantee it won’t ever happen again. Nor is there any way to prevent others from making the same misjudgment (Oh, if only we could plant red flags on people to give fair warning!). But what we can do is chart a new course for ourselves. After all we’ve been through, we have certainly earned a stretch of smooth sailing.

The Truth About Homewrecking Ogres

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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.