I’ll run the risk of being intimate with brokenness. ~ Sleeping at Last, “Son”
There is a feeling that creeps in sometimes, when sitting with a client. I used to think it was because I was new to the work, that it was merely an issue of inexperience, something that would fade with practice. Face to face with pain, they talk, I listen, and I wonder, “Is this helping? Am I helping?”
Sometimes, the things they’re saying - or more often the things they aren’t saying, but I know from their history - all feel like too much. How can you possibly help someone who has been through this?, whispers the voice of doubt which accompanies me to every session.
As I speak with, and learn from, a greater number of therapists, counselors, and social workers, fellow students as well as those with years of experience, I am learning to quiet that voice. I am finally reaching a point where I have stopped interpreting my misgivings as an issue of incompetence.
Sometimes, this not-knowing is the best thing I can do.
Trauma is defined as an event in which the normal coping mechanisms are overwhelmed, and thus the memory is stored differently in the brain and in the body. Trauma occurs when the thing that happens is JUST TOO MUCH, when the body and the brain - and perhaps the soul? - say, “I have no idea what to do with this.”
And so I’ve come to see it as a mark of respect and validation, to sit with these clients and think, just for a little while, “I have no idea what to do with this either.” It can’t end there, but maybe it’s necessary for the beginning.
After trauma, things feel broken. It’s all too much. There is hurt and shame and a general sense that one is trying to put the pieces back together but they just aren’t fitting the way they used to, so now what? And maybe, in an effort to make things whole again, to not have to feel that brokenness any longer, we hurry up and glue the pieces back in a clumsy, haphazard way, so that nothing works quite the same anymore but at least all the pieces are there. At least we feel like we’re doing something about it.
Have you ever tried to put flowers in a cracked vase, the kind that gets smashed and glued back together right away, before anybody has a chance to see it broken? If you don’t take the time to glue the pieces just right, it leaks. Set something heavy on it, and it crumbles. Maybe it looks okay on the shelf, maybe you can turn it in such a way that you can’t even see the broken pieces in the right light. But under any kind of stress, it just can’t hold up.
My role as a social worker, as I’ve just begun to understand it, and the role of anyone who works with trauma, is to look at what's been crumbled, to confront the brokenness, and to stay the rush to crunch together mismatched pieces that don’t fit the way they used to.
It is to say, This is your brokenness and I am not afraid. It hurts so much and I am going to look at it with you anyway, until we can put the pieces together slowly and carefully and make things truly whole.
There is an intimacy in looking at such brokenness that is both necessary and terrifying. In doula work, we call it “holding space.” It refers to sitting, standing, walking, or swaying with, holding the hand of a woman in labor and saying, No one can carry this pain for you but I will stay with you in it and help you not be afraid of it. While I’m hesitant to compare the birth of a baby to the survival of a trauma, I would argue that there are elements of the pain and the transformation that are remarkably similar. More importantly, I would argue that for those of us who come alongside the people experiencing such pain, the roles in each scenario are nearly identical.
Further, I would argue that this mentality is not in any way limited to those in professional roles, and that we could all benefit from learning to be intimate with brokenness - in ourselves, in our loved ones, and in our culture. I would argue that the beauty of the Advent season is the expectation that our brokenness, individually and collectively, will find healing - and that the commercialism of the holiday season is a desperate attempt to pretend such brokenness does not exist.
Nobody wants to see brokenness. We don’t want to see it in our culture and we don’t want to see it in our friends or our kids and definitely not in our marriages (I’ve written before about how I contributed to some major problems in that regard), and under no circumstances do we want to see it in ourselves. Oh God please no not that.
We’re wired to try to get away from pain and we’re wired to turn away from brokenness. If by some chance we see our own brokenness, we typically put the pieces back together real quick, because we know nobody wants to look at that.
For as long as we refuse to acknowledge our brokenness, we miss out on opportunities for healing.
Advent is difficult for me because sometimes I feel numb to it. I want to be in the beauty and magic and love and peace of it, but it’s hard to get there.
Why? Because I don’t want do the part where you have to feel the pain and brokenness that makes the resolution so comforting and healing.
This year, I know that Christmas and all its silver and sparkle will stay meaningless and hollow unless I allow myself to feel the brokenness in the country, in the world, and in our spirits, in a way that gives me something to celebrate in late December.
In preparing to celebrate Christmas with its intended meaning and power, let me first face all the brokenness and resist the urge to turn away. Let me remember, when I feel afraid of it, that facing brokenness is the first and essential step on the path to healing.
I signal right, take the off ramp, steel myself as I wait at the light. Once more into the pain. Once more into the sadness. My husband, an ex-military survivalist, is fond of the quote “Once more into the fray.” I hear his whisper as I prepare to see my next client, to go once more into the fray and the sadness.
A few weeks ago, I had to testify against a former client. Only when I was seated on the witness stand and was peppered with questions did I realize how gut-wrenching the experience can be. To sit and state, for the record, truth and whole truth sworn, that this client has failed. This one can’t manage to do what they’ve been asked to do. If one cares about their work - if one cares about the people for whom one does the work - it’s nauseating. I drove home shaking. That evening I consulted with my cohort, who validated my stress.
“I cried the first time I had to do it.”
“I cry every time.”
“I can never sleep the night before.”
It was cathartic, this sharing of the sadness.
As I drove to the courthouse the second morning, I passed an older woman, ever so slowly moving down the sidewalk. “Walking” would not be an accurate term. She stood with a walker, and every footstep appeared to be agony. Each small movement lasted perhaps 20 or 25 seconds. I sat able-bodied in the car, and the slowness and the pain in her movements nearly brought me to tears. This world just hurts too much, I thought, as the light turned green and I drove past. It was only three blocks later, the image of her laborious footsteps a sad GIF playing in my head, that it occurred to me - she was not in a wheelchair. Had she been immobile and reliant on a device, I would not have given her existence a second thought. It was the struggle against the pain, not the surrender to it, that had caught my attention.
When I heard the news out of Texas on Sunday, this same sadness swept over me again. I did not bubble with anger, as I did after Sandy Hook or Las Vegas or Boston. I did not feel the despair and the disorientation that struck when I was younger, after 9/11 and Oklahoma City. This time, just sadness. Too much. This hurts too much.
This time, I did not respond with solutions, with angry declarations about necessary changes to gun control or mental health treatment - all warranted, but they felt wrong. Off. Callous. Premature.
I am a fixer of things, my husband and my best friend and my children and my family and my clients will tell you. Problem? Pain? Here, let me offer my suggestions. Here’s a band-aid. Let’s make it so we don’t have to see this sadness, m’kay? Let’s just make that go away. Quickly, please.
It’s only natural that when we see pain and suffering, we want to make it go away. This is, perhaps, one of the better parts of human nature.
But on Sunday afternoon, as the darkness descended early, the sadness felt right. The country was hurt and crying again. Children were lost to violence in a building where they came to learn about love and hope, about the someday restoration of all things. In the quiet, rainy night, allowing my heart to break open over this circumstance felt like the only appropriate response.
It would be wrong to stay there, I think. Hopes and prayers and warm thoughts and the world moving on would be just as unacceptable as offering a pat policy solution to make myself feel in control.
But - maybe - we have to mourn before we can make real change. Maybe our rush to fix rather than feel is an impediment to lasting solutions.
Personally, when I rush to fix, whether it’s for clients or loved ones, it’s an effort to maintain my safety and security. It is entirely self-motivated. I don’t like the idea of you being homeless, so let’s find you a place to live. It’s unsettling to see you so depressed. Here, take these pills. You relapsed? Let’s get you into a program today.
Don’t feel ready? Don’t care.
Do they need housing? Do they need medication, and counseling, and treatment? Unequivocally, yes. But when I try to fix too soon, so I can feel accomplished and return to my baseline of comfort and security, there are underlying problems I might miss. There are bigger issues in play, that I choose to ignore, because I feel overwhelmed and powerless to solve them.
Rather, I am powerless to solve them.
What I have learned, in the aftermath of nauseating court testimony and the image of that woman on the sidewalk, is that this sense of powerlessness can be appropriate and necessary. That tears and silence are, for a brief time, just the response that’s needed.
I do believe in the someday restoration of all things. I do not believe that restoration, and love and hope, became any less true for children in Texas this weekend, though it certainly feels a long way off. I believe, to my core, that we are responsible for bringing about that restoration, in partnership with Something / Someone larger and more powerful and more capable of restoration than any of us could be on our own.
And in the meantime, I do believe in policy reforms. This was, clearly, a preventable tragedy. The anger is justified. But let me not rush through the process to a half-assed restoration and a handful of policy changes without first being in the sadness. As the pain comes in, real and undeniable, let that motivate us for change.
Let us start by going into the fray.
“Should I post it?” I ask him almost every time. One, because if I reveal anything about him I figure he has a right to say whether it goes on the internet. Two, because writing deeply personal material skews my normally very private filter. I lose perspective, by necessity.
So, why write at all? Why would a private, introverted individual put their personal life on blast for everyone from closest family to loose acquaintances or maybe even strangers?
Because, the night he told me, I had two thoughts, one immediately after the other:
We agreed, it would be a secret. No one else’s business. And so we kept it that way. And every day I dreaded someone finding out.
The irony is, all the pain had started because of secrets. Jake’s went back to when he was seven years old, at least, with a young man I still struggle to forgive, who ordered him to keep everything a secret. And then the infidelity, of course, all secret.
We learned, in the most painful way possible, that for as long as you keep your pain a secret, it can control you. It can blind you. It can keep hurting you.
In the aftermath, I looked for support, and I discovered most of it was provided anonymously. Women changed their names when they told their stories. The covers of the self-help books were dark and shadowy. One day, I started to post an introduction on a support group site, but I was worried the IP address would give me away. Someone would figure it out. I closed the site and never looked at it again.
And so, for the most part, we kept quiet. A few close friends were on a “need to know” basis. There was a crisis, or there was an awkward social connection, and we agreed, “Shit we need to tell them.” And so we did, cringing, hoping they wouldn’t judge too harshly.
No one ever did.
And then one sunny summer afternoon, the secret a few years old, I received a tearful and entirely surprising phone call. The news shocked me. And yet I was able to inhale deeply and say, “Me too. I get it.” The relief in the voice on the other end of the phone was profound. We had solidarity now, we two survivors of deeply imperfect marriages.
Six months later, over coffee with a friend, I said it again. “Me too. I get it.”
I was met with the same shock, the same surprise, the same solidarity.
And with this: “But you guys? Not you guys. You’re like the perfect couple.”
And that, right there, is when I began to consider this ridiculous idea of writing it all down.
Because there are no perfect couples, and zero perfect marriages in the history of the world. There are only flawed marriages composed of flawed people. The best you can hope for is that deep down, you and that other deeply flawed person really like each other. And in the moments when you don’t really like them, you need to love them until you start liking them again.
The morning after he told me, I sent Jake a short text: I refuse to let this define us.
(But maybe in five years I’ll create a blog devoted to talking about it? Oh, yes, I see the irony.)
It still doesn’t define us. But it shaped us.
A funny thing happened, after my first post on the subject. My expectations and goals in writing about it were two-fold. First, I wanted to take control of the story – to share on my terms and shed the burden of “what if someone finds out.” Second, I wanted to create safe space where others who had shared my experience – that is, those who had been cheated on – could find solidarity, understanding, and healing.
In the week after I first posted, I received several deeply personal, heartfelt messages.
Most of them weren’t from people who had been cheated on.
Most were from people who had cheated.
Some had told, some hadn’t. Some had stayed married, others had split up. Many had childhood trauma, though not all. Many were in what outsiders looking in considered a perfect relationship.
What I learned was that we were not so different. Over and over, I found myself saying, yet again, “Me too.”
Once or twice a week, I remember: Everybody knows now, and I have a moment of panic. Who does that? And why? What was I thinking?
It’s Jake (of course) who brings me back. “Because,” he says, “if you hadn’t, then it would still be a secret.”
And we would be another polished, sanitized version of ourselves, a fairytale couple who never struggled to stay together, never wonders if the choice was the right one, never wrestles with the idea of choosing each other daily.
That couple doesn’t even exist, unless they just got married this past weekend.
You guys: We have to start saying marriage is hard. We have to start admitting it isn’t fun all the time, but that it can still be so, so good. We have to own that a strong marriage between two dedicated people can withstand a whole lot of pain. Because that is inspiring and encouraging. That is aspirational.
That is a story that deserves to be told.
Some days I think I run for the conviction.
It doesn’t start that way. When I start, it’s to alleviate the restlessness, to quiet the noise in my head. On a low day, it’s purely for the endorphins.
But inevitably, when the noise quiets, and I am left with nothing but myself, sweaty and stinky and out of breath, there is a bit of space for a voice other than my own.
Sometimes it’s a whisper out of nowhere, an idea without an obvious source. Sometimes it seems to come from rustling in the trees or it rides on a rare and welcome breeze through the city streets.
Sometimes it comes from a few lines of Florence and the Machine through my headphones.
Hey, look up
You don't have to be a ghost
Hidden amongst the living
You are flesh and blood
And you deserve to be loved
And you deserve what you are given
Deserving. Ha, yeah, right.
We've been fighting this week, a little more than usual. Two nights ago we said cold, courtesy "I love you"s and I went to sleep curled up in a ball of self-loathing. I never know when to shut up. God I am such a bitch. What is my problem.
Last night we were headed for it again. And then, almost imperceptibly, something shifted. One of us softened, or maybe we both did. And Jake asked, What happened to you, that you do this to yourself? He knows, and I know, it predates anything that happened between us. I’ve been this way for as long as we’ve known each other.
But last night, to my own surprise and through intermittent tears, I was able to answer him. I told him that, however subconsciously, I believe that my worth is dependent on achievement. That to deserve his love, or anyone else’s, I need to be smarter, nicer, prettier, stronger, thinner, and generally just better.
Years ago, when Jake told me he had cheated, it reinforced every false belief I already held. It must have happened because I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t thin enough. I wasn’t fun enough.
I must have deserved it.
And now that things are good, I had better keep achieving or improving, or all this could go away again.
And by that I mean, if I don’t keep up the ruse that I have it together, it’s all going to crumble, any second now.
I caught my reflection this morning, running along with Florence’s words in my head. A strong-looking woman. Good posture. Decent stride.
Must be a weird curve in the window, I thought. Optical illusion.
That couldn’t possibly be what I look like, because I am just not that good at this.
“Four kids?” people say. “You look amazing.”
I smile, I say thank you, and I think, You haven’t seen me in a bathing suit. You haven’t seen me naked. You’re only complimenting me because you don’t know what I really look like.
I spend my work hours telling clients they are deserving of love. That their worth is innate, irrevocably tied to their humanity. I remind them we don’t need to earn love, we just need to accept it. I tell them shame is a liar and that we need to have compassion for ourselves. I remind them we need to see ourselves for how wonderful we are.
Jake said, “You need to find a way to work on this.”
I responded, “What do you want me to do, use some bullshit hippie affirmations or something?”
In my inner world, there is no such thing as enough. There is no smart enough or pretty enough or thin enough or strong enough or fast enough. There is no good enough. Even though I know there should be. In my inner world, I am not so wonderful.
So what, my choice, right? If I want to make myself miserable with such an outlook, so be it.
Except, every time I choose this viewpoint, I’m slapping God in the face.
My entire belief system, my entire relationship with a Higher Power – the pieces of the relationship that are intact, anyway – hinges on an understanding that love is not earned, because it is by nature un-earnable. That mercy and grace are the only way, our one remaining option for connecting with a Being greater than ourselves.
If I have not love, I am nothing.
When I allow myself to be convinced that I can earn love – when I believe that my worth is tied to achieving this elusive “enough-ness” – I am living in defiance of my Creator. I’m blatantly contradicting the Source of every ounce of love I’ve ever given or experienced.
Traditional evangelicalism would call this sin.
Because it’s an entirely cocky and self-centered mindset, to think that somehow I can earn the love and affection of the Creator of the universe.
High stakes. Geeze, don’t screw it up.
But, that’s totally okay, because I already have it. I get to be loved and connected if I’m smart and strong and pretty, or if I’m dumb and weak and ugly. Or, as is the case most days, if I am a confused and jumbled ball of all of the above.
In marriage, I used to think I was committing to love him even if there were moments a part of me found him dumb or weak or ugly. Or at least, you know, kind of annoying.
And yeah, maybe that’s a part of it, staying by someone’s side when they piss you off.
But even more, it’s a willingness to accept from another human being the kind of love we get from God – arguably, the only kind of real love that exists. It’s letting someone see you as more than dumb and weak and ugly, even when you can’t see it in yourself. It’s accepting love you haven’t earned, and choosing to believe you deserve it anyway. It’s being loved by somebody who knows how you really think and what you really look like.
It’s a willingness to become, undeservedly, the Beloved.
There is one (no bullshit, non-hippie) affirmation I love. It’s arguably trite. You probably already know it. But consider it again anyway.
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God."
I used to read this passage as a comfort. Today, I read it as a challenge. If I believe myself to be a created being, if I believe it’s possible to personally connect with One who is greater than I am, I don’t get to have a negative view of myself. It’s contradictory and illogical. It’s self-centered and damaging. Who am I, Who gave me the right, to see myself in such a negative manner? Nobody.
To do so defies the gift of grace.
Because grace says I will never be enough alone, but that I’m more than enough already.
You want to say I’m brave, telling this story? Okay, fine, for this one post I’ll go along with it.
Brace yourselves, because shit is about to get crazy sexist and totally un-PC up in here. You can call me brave. . . NOW.
I believe I bear partial responsibility for my husband’s infidelity.
It was normal day when he called, midweek. The big kids were still little kids then. It was cloudy, a little drizzly, not unlike today. I was home for the morning, and had just been thinking how much I hated our floors. Seriously, they were so ugly.
His voice was tense, a little needy. He hesitated, and when he spoke, he sounded . . . weak. “I think I need to talk to someone about my anxiety. Do you think -- Can you help me find a therapist or something?”
A need expressed, clearly, humbly, from the person to whom I’d committed the very best of me.
I said sure. Yeah, okay. Fine. I then suggested he take a deep breath, get over it, and get back to work. Oh, but I tacked on an “I love you” at the end. No need to be callous, right?
Bear in mind, professionally I had directed multiple people to therapists. I had reassured them there was no judgment, no stigma, nothing to feel bad about. He was asking not just because I was his wife, but because I knew how to handle a concern like this one.
Not when it was my husband I didn’t.
There was another time, when I told him he didn’t care about his kids because he wanted to make cookies, and they’d already had a lot of sugar that day.
Then there was the time he’d had a bad day at work, and vented about a harsh comment on a review until I changed the subject. He sounded so weak, talking about the things that hurt him. Whining that it was unfair. I hated weakness in a man. Oh, somebody hurt your feelings? Dude, just no. Don’t. Get over it.
And there was the time he finally told me everything, in the middle of night, in a whisper. “I’m sorry I’m such an asshole.” Then he cried.
If I had held him before like I was finally able to hold him then, our story might have been different.
Before, I only wanted his strong side.
If you know my husband personally, you know he is a strong man. He has strong muscles and bones, with an equally strong personality. In a word, Jake is a force. If he is in the room, you know it.
It’s hot. And it’s endearing. I love it, always have.
He’s also a human being, with the full range of emotions human beings can have. Oh, and he cries when animals die in movies.
Actually he cries at most movies. Deadpool was the most recent.
When we were engaged, the movie-crying thing was a weird little slightly uncomfortable quirk I decided I could tolerate. Because, tears. On a man’s face. <cringe>
If you were at our wedding you will remember I sobbed uncontrollably through my vows, by the way.
See, what I really wanted was my idea of Jake. I wanted his sensitivity when it suited me, like when I needed to be listened to, or when my feelings were hurt, or when I felt afraid. I was the woman, so I got to have hurt feelings and moments when I was scared. He was the man. He didn’t get the luxury of uncomfortable emotions.
Oh, and it’s not just me. In Daring Greatly, which every single person on the planet should be reading, author Brené Brown writes about our cultural attitude toward men and vulnerability, with this unsettling quote from a one-time lecture attendee:
“[Men] have shame. Deep shame. But when we reach out and share our stories, we get the emotional shit beat out of us. . . My wife and daughters . . . they’d rather see me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall off. You say you want us to be vulnerable and real, but c’mon. You can’t stand it. It makes you sick to see us like that.” (Brown, 2015, p. 85)
Of course, when you marry someone, you don’t actually get to marry just the parts you like. I had committed to living the depth and breadth of the human experience with this man, fears and hurts included. There was no contingency for picking out the parts that didn’t suit my (completely antifeminist, fairytale, painfully limited) notions of what a man should be.
I constructed our marriage until he fit – or I thought he fit – my ideas of what a good man was.
That, I believe, made it infinitely harder for him to be a “good man” when the choice was set in front of him.
Choosing to accept emotional availability, or any other form of intimacy, when it’s offered is a personal choice, and I do believe we are all individually accountable. I don’t blame myself, nor do I take responsibility for, Jake's actions. Yes, those choices were wrong; no, he shouldn’t have made them. I do not offer and he certainly has never offered an excuse for any of it. But I believe my attitude towards him, my preconceived notions of what I was supposed to have in a husband, made it far easier for him to make the choices he did.
I wasn’t there for him, for the first ten years of our relationship. I made it look like I was, even to myself. But I was only there for the aspects of his fully human experience with which I was comfortable. As far as the rest was concerned, he was on his own. Or, preferably, not experiencing them at all.
And no, I don’t believe anyone else was there, ever, to love him unconditionally and without judgment in his most vulnerable moments. I certainly don’t think he found that elsewhere.
In fact, I don’t believe he found it anywhere, ever, until we were able to surrender the weight of our preconceived ideas and find genuine acceptance in each other.
Finding someone who knows you – even the worst and weakest parts of you – and loves you fully anyway: That’s everything.
Too late, perhaps, but not too little.
Brown, B. (2015). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Avery.
There is a scene at the beginning of Wild in which Cheryl Strayed first realizes the gravity of her undertaking. Her pack is too heavy, she is ill-equipped, and only steps into a 1000-mile hike her face begins to betray anxiety and self-doubt. What have I committed myself to? What was I thinking? She trudges on, dropping F-bombs with every heavy step.
I watched the movie with a couple of friends last night, after a brief but cathartic review, if you will, of my recent revelations. And found parallels that weren’t supposed to be there.
Truth be told, that’s kind of where I am right now, a few miles in from the trailhead, questioning my wisdom and possibly my sanity.
I guess I knew, maybe, probably, that sharing this story would include moments of doubt. I just didn’t expect them yet. I imagined them surfacing when the first harsh, judgmental comment came. When someone was disappointed, when friends and family were something other than supportive. I did not brace myself to wake up less than 48 hours after posting, Jake and I both having received nothing but warmth and love and positivity, and still think, Well, THAT was a terrible idea.
Because I had convinced myself, sharing our story was not a part of the healing process for me. No, Jake and I, we’ve done our healing already. In our story, this is not a new chapter; it’s nothing more than an epilogue.
The healing process now was supposed to be for other people. Not us. We’re done with that part. Friends have messaged to check in, and I respond, Oh, no, don’t worry about me, I’m fine. I’m good. I feel great.
That’s what this was supposed to be. A story from years past, shared for the benefit of others. The account of a wound received and how it healed. A story of a scar.
No matter how intact and healthy it’s become over time, if you keep a scar covered up for years, it’s still going to be sensitive to sunlight when you first expose it.
And yet – I know this feeling, these moments of confidence and surety interwoven with nagging self-doubt and what-ifs. Knowing the right choice for our family, but letting fear creep in at the most unexpected times. Questioning my inner wisdom when it defies my understanding of societal convention.
Yep, because our first year after the affair was, well, exactly that. Confidence with doubt. Wisdom occasionally overpowered by anxiety. A constant steeling of the will bolstered by a prayer that we might be guided by love and not by fear.
I thought I was going to tell you all about what that was like, then.
Turns out, to some extent, we might just wind up living through it together.
A few points worth clarifying, before we continue:
• This is a story from the past. Not the distant past, however you care to define it. Other than the fact that I imagine making the information public will change the dynamic somewhat, this is not something with which we’re currently coping.
• The only names that will be used are mine and Jake’s. In this context, those are the only stories I’m interested in, and the only stories I have the right to tell.
• Don’t come here looking for sordid details or gossip tidbits; you won’t find them. This is a story of healing, in hopes of helping other people find the same.
• Everything I share is with Jake’s explicit permission. As much as I appreciated the compliments yesterday, he’s the brave one.
• Vilification of either party in any marriage will not be tolerated. There are no good guys and bad guys in this equation; this is not a story just for the spouses who were cheated on. If you’re reading with any intent of casting judgments, probably wise to just unfollow this story now.
• Some content may be triggering. I can’t tell this story without also discussing, however briefly, childhood sexual abuse. What happened to Jake as a child and what happened to us as adults is fundamentally connected, and there is no avoiding that fact.
• This is not a how-to guide for saving a marriage. We had one counseling session together. We’ve screamed at each other. I’ve said terrible things, and I don’t recommend that. My idea, rather, is to make this a safe place for sharing, for me and for anyone else. But please don’t do as I did. The fact that we “worked out” strikes me as somewhat improbable.
• Most important of all: This is not a story of infidelity. Yes, that’s a part of the story, and a fundamental one. But what I’m really interested in discussing is getting honest about what marriage is. Recovering from infidelity taught us a lot about that, but not everything, and that part of the story will be in the context of something bigger (and infinitely better) than a single issue.
• If you are interested, at any point in time, I invite you to share your story. For me, it was important to use real names, but that’s a personal choice. You are welcome to comment or share in whatever way suits you, with or without identifiers.
• We don’t have a perfect marriage now. Never will. What we have is a really, really good marriage, one based on honesty, candor, vulnerability, and faith. That’s the only way it can work for us.
And lastly, I don’t really know, yet, the direction this will take. Writing this story is something I’ve pondered for years, from very early on in the recovery process. All the same, I woke up this morning and thought, Well, shit, guess I just committed myself to talking about that. Now what? Your patience, as well as your feedback, will always be welcome and appreciated.
Now then. Let’s see where this goes.
“Every love story is beautiful, but ours is my favorite.”
Good lord how I hate that meme.
It’s like opening the card that speaks to you so personally, then remembering it’s been mass produced. Because everybody likes that sentiment. Everybody want to be the special one.
(This thought process, incidentally, is probably one of the reasons everyone in my family now refuses to go near the card aisle of Target with me.)
Pretty hypocritical for someone who just titled her new blog inspired by one of like the top five wedding readings ever, right?
Pretty hypocritical for someone who read posts on one, or two, or maybe five popular blogs this past week, and thought, repeatedly, Dammit she just told my story before I got a chance to tell it.
There should be a Facebook button for “Jinx, I was just gonna say that!”
This morning, that silly little meme of master bedroom wall decals and painted wood pieces over the couch, the one that makes everybody and therefore nobody feel special, slapped me in the face and scolded, “No, jackass, nobody else told your story. They told their stories. If they have similarities, so much the better.” And then it whispered, gentle but insistent. “You tell your story.”
My story, our story, my favorite one, is the one I’ve wanted to write for years. It runs deep under the current of what I have written, in my braver moments, and what I have had the courage to say. It’s the story that otherwise stays pushed off to the side in my heart, a little too heavy, a little too soon. It’s a beautiful story, really (but aren’t they all). And it’s a good story. It’s also ugly at times, and raw, and painful.
Again, aren’t they all.
So, why tell another love story? Does the 21st century really need one more myopic, self-indulgent blog devoted to exploring the day-to-day ups and downs of a stuffy and outdated social institution?
Yes, I believe it does.
(Oh, great, and now she’s gonna tell us why, isn’t she.)
Yes, I believe I am.
One, I would argue, in an entirely biased manner, that marriage is neither self-indulgent, nor stuffy, nor outdated, if you’re doing it right. And two, hell yes, you can absolutely do marriage wrong. It’s not like the trite anti-mommy-war parenting sentiments where we pat each other on the back and say there’s no wrong way to do parenting. Nope, there’s a hell of a lot of wrong ways to do marriage. Like, a LOT. (More to come, that part of this beautiful love story.)
And three. Which, to be honest, is everything: Our story is the story I needed, when it wasn’t there. It isn’t the kind of story that gets shared often, not the kind that’s easy to find, because it’s too personal. It’s too private. Too painful. Oh, and what will people think?
It’s the kind of story you learn about a couple long after the fact, when it’s a part of their history. Even then it’s the kind learned entirely in whispers, raised eyebrows, quiet nods. Them?
It’s the kind of story a woman writes, but she changes her name and identifying details. I know this, because I have books full of anonymous stories lodged in the bottom drawer of my nightstand, unread to this day. Unread probably forever. I glanced through once; they weren’t the stories I needed. Don’t tell me there’s no shame in it then change your name.
Here’s what Jake and I learned, together, even without the books we were supposed to be reading: You can’t heal what you won’t talk about, or what you won’t own. You can get past it, in time. But healing doesn’t happen for as long as you keep a cloak of shame over your pain. For as long as you let the pain define the story, it will hold you captive.
I will always wonder if my own healing process would have been faster, or felt safer, if more women and men before me had thrown off the Shame Cloak, exposed the pain, and owned their love stories.
There’s freedom in telling, and owning, a good story.
We’re working so hard in this country, finally, to undo shame and stigma. From addiction, to mental illness, to eating disorders, to childhood trauma, we tell people recovery is possible, that shame is unnecessary and damaging. And yet. We struggle to say that about < spoiler alert, only not really because you’ve probably figured it out by now > infidelity. I know we still struggle to say it, because I can count on my fingers the number of people to whom I’ve ever told our story.
Until I decided, my marriage is stronger than some preconceived, ill-advised need for anonymity.
If our story is one I needed, maybe it’s a story someone else needs, too. Maybe if we all told our stories, they wouldn’t seem so scary, and those of us who find ourselves mired in the ugliness wouldn’t have to confront those horrible, self-esteem destroying myths that only compound the pain: Strong women leave. Once a cheater, always a cheater. Your relationship is ruined.
So let me state, unequivocally, what no one could tell me when it happened (because I refused to let anyone know I needed to hear it): Sometimes, strong women stay. Cheaters can change, if they want to. And your relationship can heal, I promise. (Will it? I don’t know. But it can.)
The night he told me, I never thought I would be able to say it again. There were times it seemed impossibly far-fetched. However – healing happens. I know it does. Because our love story is beautiful. And it’s still my favorite.
And it’s time to tell it.