To Leave Or Not To Leave? Now, That IS The F***ing Question!
Before this happened to me, I was definitely in a very black and white camp about cheating. Because of my experiences growing up, it was definitely without a doubt my deal breaker. Lying, cheating or betraying me was a definite fast track to singledom and low betide anyone who was foolish enough to try it.
Looking back now, I feel quite foolish myself for being so rigid in my ideas. After everything I experienced from watching my parents deal with my dad's infidelity, I always said if anyone did that to me, that would be it. I couldn't understand why people stayed. I couldn't understand why my mum stayed, although they did divorce eventually. I saw cheaters as absolute lowlifes. Pathetic excuses of men who deserved to lose their families and the respect of their children. In fact I didn't really have much of a relationship with my dad for about ten years because of what he did. Well, what a turn around, hey? Hindsight and personal experiences are wonderful things, and to be honest, I could have done without the lesson, but here we are. It is what it is!
I now see what an incredibly grey area it is and for me, it has been a pendulum that has swung back and forth so consistently it's been like living with a biological trapeze in my gut, as I grip with white knuckles, legs flaying underneath me. Reliably gliding backwards and forwards hourly, to begin with, then a few times a day, then at least once a day without fail. I can honestly say there has been a point every single day, since this episode began, where I decide to leave. At times, it has felt like the only way to escape this life sentence and give us both reprieve from the torture of my pain and his shame is to split up. It really wasn't as easy as the "if someone ever cheated on me, I'd be gone" narrative I had had in my head since my teens. There is so much to consider, no two situations are the same and no one can comment on what is right or wrong for you. I will explain my chain of thought, on this very subject, and my very own journey over the last 14 months and hopefully, if you are stuck for an answer to this million dollar question, it might help in some way. It's so difficult to know where to start, so I will just go right back to the beginning as it seems the most logical place. There were three things that were immediate.
Firstly, believe it or not, I loved my husband. When D-Day hit me like a freight train, of course I was devastated, angry, hurt and everything in between. I spent hours on end, curled up on my bed crying absolutely unconsolably. Everything was so overwhelming and shocking that my logical thinking brain was in overload. However, my internal compass was still functioning and my gut instinct was to protect my family, not leave. No matter how upset I got, I always came back to a feeling of love for my husband and family. I was completely and utterly heartbroken. I loved my husband, very much. I didn't want to not be with him. I wasn't ready to be pushed into making that type of decision. This was my whole life and the life of my kids. Everything we had created and worked towards for 12 years. I was all in and wasn't ready to walk away and change everything so dramatically. I was married and in my head, that was for life. Yes, there were issues within the marriage, but in my view, no more than anybody else and I definitely wasn't thinking about leaving. No relationship is perfect, but I thought we were solid. We were not on the verge of divorce, we did not argue constantly, we got on, we like each other, we had a good life and a lot that was great about us. As I said, when my husband moved abroad, I was of the mindset that our relationship could deal with it. That it would be difficult, but we were stable enough. I wasn't concerned, in the slightest, that it would cause the end of us. That never even entered my head. The prospect of suddenly considering not being married, was way too much to take in.
Secondly, in my sporadic moments of strength, I had no intention of handing over my husband to someone he'd known for a few weeks. That was certainly not going to happen. If we did get to the point where we decided to split, it would be on my terms. Absolutely NOT because someone else was involved. I was adamant about that. I was not going to be pushed into losing my family because of someone who had no respect for it. I didn't know how or if we were going to be able to work through this, but no one was worth my family. She was no where near worth my family, especially not for a six week bullshit holiday romance.
Finally there were my kids. Those precious, innocent souls did not deserve any of this. My heart broke for them a thousand times over. I was not about to make a decision that affected their whole life without some kind of consideration. If there was only a 1% chance we could work it out, then I owed it to my kids to try, and by that I don't mean stay because of the kids. I don't believe in living a life of misery for your kids. I watched my mum do that for years. I am a massive advocate for if I'm not happy then, my kids won't be either. It just meant that if there was a way we were able to overcome this and stay together as a happy family, then I owed it to them to try. This wasn't just my life being ripped from underneath me, this was theirs too. Their sense of family, their sense of normalcy, their sense of security and safety. This was their dad. This was all they'd ever known. If I was going to sit them down and look in their little faces and explain their family was changing irreversibly, I wanted to know I had tried absolutely everything else and it was hands down the right thing to do for all of us. That takes time and I was in no fit state to make any kind of monumental decisions. My emotions were so unstable I couldn't trust myself to make such an important judgement call. I was feeling so much love it bust out of me through tears, texts and twenty minute speeches one minute, then raging like a crazed animal wanting to smash things up the next. In between I was asleep exhausted or wandering round in such a daze I couldn't remember what I entered a room for. Everything I knew and trusted was not what I thought it was, my sense of North was gone, I was floating in no man's land. There's no way I could make a decision that affected all of our lives in such a long term and permanent way.
And so the battle began, as the pendulum swung and my marriage hung in the balance. And, my God it has been a battle. Every. Single. Day.
In the beginning, and for a good few months, everything felt very fake. I felt like I was pretending at being in a relationship. As more of what was involved in the affair came to light I was disgusted and despairing at my husband's behaviour. No matter how you try to work through things, the details don't change and they're never, ever, EVER going to be ok. I found this incredibly difficult and agonising. I can't find the words to do the pain justice. His actions were appalling and astonishingly disrespectful. This was by far the most common and persistent reason for wanting to leave. The one that gave me the most anguish. Pendulum swung leave a million times over. Then the admissions of how weak and foolish he felt, how naive and selfish. What a complete load of "ridiculous nonsense" fantasy it all was. Pendulum swung stay. The sheepish, mouse of a man I saw before me when faced with his own lies, arrogant actions and the reality of the woman he was involved with. Pendulum swung leave. The admittance of her being "the worst mistake of his life, he just wanted to forget", familiar enveloping embraces lying next to me as I cried. Pendulum swung stay. The bubbling anger at being treated so badly, being given this life sentence without my consent and having to deal with the monumentally stupid thing my own husband did. Pendulum swung leave. The genuine love I still felt for him, the compassion I had for him and the sadness and disappointment of where we'd ended up. Pendulum swung stay. The realisation of how absolutely pathetic the affair actually was, the resulting desire to just leave them to their stupidity and simply look after myself and my kids, head held high. Pendulum swung leave. The instinct to honour my vows, protect my family's legacy and triumph as a mumma warrior, pendulum swung stay.
Back and forth, back and forth and while this incessant swinging persisted, I had to work through the layers of all-consuming emotions that came with it. I was overwhelmed with feelings of guilt and stupidity for staying. Like I was betraying the female sisterhood of strong examples of women standing up for themselves. I have always prided myself in being one of those women. I've never been the type to always need a man or accept any disrespectful behaviour. I am fiercely independent and capable, but as the pendulum swung, I felt like a doormat. Every time the affair details bore at my flesh, making me shudder and wince with nausea, then swung to me wailing "but, I love him", I felt like I was shrivelling up into a love blind teenager rebelling against her parents, refusing to see the wood for the trees. I felt like the expectation of everyone was to leave. I should leave. I'm letting him get away with it. He'll just do it again. I can't trust him. I don't deserve to be treated this way and do not want this for my life. Because of this I felt guilty about and very aware of what example I was setting for my daughter. What would she see and learn about how men treat women and how women behave in return? And God, I felt stupid. Stupid for being so smug and convinced this would never happen to me. I was swamped with jealously for couples who didn't have this in their story. I felt stupid for believing my husband the week of disclosure, for letting him return on his own. I felt stupid for trusting him and not questioning more. I felt stupid for being kind, compassionate and opening myself up to the spiteful antics and in light of all this I felt stupid for staying. Stupid for loving someone who could be so despicable to me, even if it was just for a short period of time. Stupid, stupid, just fucking stupid.
Then there's the issue of who my husband was to me now. This affected the pendulum greatly and was, again, another extremely difficult aspect to overcome. During the numerous disclosure conversations we had, it was like looking at a stranger. I didn't know this man. I didn't know him as a liar. I didn't know this weak little boy in front of me, cowering at the exposure of his disgraceful conduct, embarrassed and ashamed about who he was risking his entire family for. It's very hard when your perspective of someone changes completely. I had no idea if it was going to go back. The man I knew was strong, trustworthy and protecting. He was kind, thoughtful and looked after me. I genuinely didn't know who was standing in front of me. It made me question everything. Did I marry the right person? Have I been a complete fool all these years? How could I have got this so wrong? On the other side of this, watching someone you love in so much pain and turmoil themselves was also very hard. Seeing this strong, protective man look so meek and small was tough. I would not want to be on his side of this at all. He now has to reconcile living with the permanent label of adulterer. He is now and forever the man who cheated on his wife. In order to get my head around the chaos, I had put a lot of effort into seeing things from his point of view and finding out what it was actually like from the unfaithful partner's side of things (see Humanise not Demonise). It's super hard because there's a part of you thinking "Well, not a lot of sympathy mate. What did you fucking expect?" and the other part dying inside to watch someone you care about grapple with their own conscience and sense of self. When watching the pain he is in, I found it incredibly difficult to understand why he didn't just stop. Why didn't something kick in before it went too far? Why do this to yourself and your family? I just don't get it, even taking "affair fog" into consideration I still don't get it, I'm afraid, especially now I'm experiencing the unimaginable devastation created by the aftermath.
Also during this time, every now and again within our more heated moments, the arrogance and resentment would shine through. I saw fleeting glimpses of the man who had had the affair. It was a very hard realisation and quite frightening. We all have flaws and aspects of our personality that demonstrate the very worst of who we are. Most of the time, they are dormant however, in order to start and continue an illicit relationship they have to be upfront and centre on a more permanent basis. I had now seen it and knew this was part of who he was and, quite obviously, I didn't like it. It was definitely not qualities I would have chosen to marry. The question of whether we had gone past the point of no return weighed on me greatly. Everything I was so certain of before, was now so blurred I wasn't sure of anything. I remember, about six months in, we had gone on a date for the whole afternoon and into the evening. It was a nice day, we got on well, as we always did. As I said before, we didn't dislike each other, we still got on, had lots to talk about and enjoyed each other's company. However, there was a point in the day where I looked over and stared at him, quietly asked myself if did I still love him in the way I did before, or was this just someone I knew really well and cared about deeply. Could I get past things?
Are you interested in knowing the answer?
Well, from about four months in I had been receiving coaching from an amazing man called Richi Watson, who I will talk about in much more detail in a later blog. I absolutely credit him with guiding me through the last 10 months and not only saving my marriage, but saving my life as well. He helped me see that in these moments, I didn't have to decide indefinitely. I just had to acknowledge that's what I was thinking and feeling. He pointed out that I probably wasn't ever going to feel how I used to about my husband, and that was ok, it didn't have to mean the end. We'd been through an immense dislocation of our relationship and reality as we knew it. Things simply weren't the same as they were and never would be. I had to accept that and understand that it was now about exploring the possibilities of moving forwards into something new, whether that would be together or alone. I didn't have to decide now, I just had to explore and discover along the way, focusing on my feelings. So gradually I learnt to be friends with the pendulum and not battle so much. To just sit on the trapeze and ride its fluctuating peaks and troughs, observing where I was at that time, allowing my emotions to swing in unison, accepting that that's how it was going to be for however long it was going to be like that. I can't say I enjoyed the friendship and I still battled with it at times, fighting back with terrible two like tantrums, as it was fucking shit, exhausting and felt like groundhog day, but we managed to co-exist. I eventually stopped beating myself up for thinking I "should" be leaving.
I realised that, in my situation, staying was actually much harder than leaving. I remember my husband saying, in that first D-Day conversation that staying was the easy option and leaving was much harder and I totally disagreed with him. Staying and dealing with the aftermath of pain, chaos and devastation, I felt, was by far harder. Please note here, I stress I felt, in my situation, from my perspective it was harder. Staying being harder than leaving is not a generalised comment. Every situation is very different and how that feels to each individual is also very different. To me, leaving was clearly awful, upsetting and devastating in itself, plus would come with lots of logistical, physical and financial challenges, but the thought of doing it gave me some reprieve. Whenever I had those moments where I decided that's what I was going to do, such a sense of calm and relief came over me. It would enable me to escape quite a lot of the pain. I could blame and shame him, quite justifiably and separate myself from the daily torture I was living in. I didn't have to rely on anyone else to be the guardian of my emotions, I could just look after myself. It felt like an easier option (and by that, I don't mean easy, just easier than what I was doing.) By focusing on how I was feeling, I was able to differentiate between what was actually right for me and what just felt easier. Richi explained that in situations of extreme trauma and pain my brain will be in protection mode, desperately scanning for more potential threats and trying to keep me safe, especially from any more pain. My brain just wanted me to be safe, yet every single day I was faced with what my husband had done and the extreme torment that brought with it. For me, staying and facing the agony, the struggle to forgive, opening myself up to vulnerability again in order to save my family, felt so much harder than walking away because it was the more dangerous of the two. But sometimes, the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.
Through Richi's feeling focused process, rather than reacting to any feelings, or feeling that I had to react to them (if that makes sense!), I learnt to see my love for my husband as a strength and not a weakness. It was the only thing that actually stayed constant throughout all that swinging and it was pretty solid. It may have been periodically and temporarily overshadowed, as I had to repeatedly touch the pain created by having so much love for someone betrayed, but it never truly left me. I always found myself back at the same point. I also gained increasing strength from consistently touching the intense pain I was in. The body and mind does something weird when you stand before and face what you've been telling yourself to run from and avoid all your life. I'll explain more when I talk about Richi. Eventually I realised that my desire to honour my marriage did not make me a doormat and I had married the right person. If I hadn't then the pain would never have been so unbearable and the shock wouldn't have thrown me into such turmoil. The realisation of this in itself created a lot of sadness, but, and I know it sounds cheesy, that unwavering love also created an anchor point for when I was lost in no man's land wondering WTF just happened. I MUST stress though, my husband was very remorseful and he actively wanted to work things out too. His level of shame, embarrassment and regret lead to some defensive and difficult behaviour for quite some time, but on the whole he was working towards rebuilding trust and being more open and honest with me. This is ESSENTIAL if you're wanting to stay and work things out. I am not an expert in this at all, but without the betrayer's cooperation, compassion and an acceptance of accountability, staying would be virtually impossible.
I'm not going to sugarcoat it in the slightest, it has been horrific. The trapeze still swings and the tears still flow, albeit more weekly rather than daily, and now I just accept it as a part of this ongoing process instead of thinking I have to act or do anything about it. The physical sensations are still present, just not as intensely, it's still on my mind pretty much all the time, but not as loud and there are some days I trudge about feeling like I am dragging a chain and anchor around my neck, so we are not out of the woods completely, but we are much much closer than we were. Now I am able to speak with 15 months of hindsight and I have stayed. I'm glad I did but it is incredibly difficult living with this. It has, without a doubt, been the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life so far. It's hard, really fucking hard, but sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same (and the most worth it.)