By Liz for ICN
Fight or Flight
Six years and one week ago, I overheard my husband on his cell phone. He was speaking to a woman. It was Tuesday.
I could feel and hear the blood pulsing through my neck. It was the sound of intense fear.
I thought to myself, this is it, I was right, that nagging thought for a while that there was someone else was true, I was not crazy.
When he had hung up, I went into his office, asking angrily who that was. He had some crazy answer, and I knew in that moment that despite how smart he was, at this, I was smarter than him. I knew I would find out, and SOON. I maintained my outward cool while inside was a total fight or flight response. I decided to gather information before a flight.
The next morning while he was showering for work, I quietly turned on his cell phone to check the call history. It had been cleared.
As soon as I’d gotten the kids off to school, I found some old cell phone records with a number that kept reappearing – a partial story. It took me four hours that morning that morning to register our phone bill online, download the call history, google some of the repeating numbers, and identify the owner of the most frequently-called number. So I called it, and she said I had the wrong number. At lunchtime I called again and got her voicemail. Bingo. Her full name was on the outgoing message. Now I had the information I needed…but I still did not know if I was ready for a “fight” or for my flight.
I wanted then and there to throw him out, but we had kids, I did not want to divorce their father. We were a family. So there was to be no flight. At least not yet.
I waited till Saturday. That very morning, his affair partner had left him a cell phone message and I had listened to it. She was trying to be calm while things were tense, but she loved him and would wait until they could be together. I told him then that I knew about her, and he confessed, saying it was just a few times, it did not mean anything to him. But I had proof of months of calls and her declaration of love. I asked where they had sex; he gave me hotel names. I insisted he end it immediately, and even suggested how he could do it so as to keep her husband protected. I thought myself a better person for my compassion.
We went to couples counseling, and I kept saying I believed there were many women for many years, and he denied it all. I insisted on full transparency. It never came. Now there was no fight…he simply would not talk about it.
By now, poring over cell records and hotel bills, I was getting to be a first class Private Investigator which was making me crazy. I had been in fight-or- flight mode for over 5 weeks, anxious and barely eating or sleeping. I was paying with my mental health.
After a while, I began to feel I had lived a lie. Every family event and holiday over the past 6-7 years was marred by the knowledge that he’d called various women on all those dates. Nothing felt sacred anymore. The betrayal I felt was boundless. Every special moment was spoiled. I saw myself as damaged, duped, betrayed, angry, and resentful.
I focused on his choices, and all the times he could have chosen another path but did not. I focused self-righteously on all the good I had done for others when our own marriage was disappointing.
This constant feeling of fight-or-flight made me lose my compassion and objectivity. I become a person who tried to survive day by day. I was unaccustomed to being this self-centered, angry, suspicious, jealous, snooping, distrustful person, and I did not like this new me. I knew I had to find a way to the other side, to thrive again.
For two years I was a wreck, later telling people that I’d had a nervous breakdown. At his request, I told no one other than paid professionals. I isolated myself socially, did only what I had to do, and avoided people and places that would trigger what I deemed my PTSD. Since I knew many of his affair partners, and had to drive by many of the hotels in my daily rounds of work and kids, it was hard to avoid it all. I made myself crazier by compulsive snooping, and it never helped me a bit, never made me feel safer, never made the situation better, and just perpetuated a cycle of craziness for me.
Above all, I wanted to talk to other women who had been through this, but found none. If I had to do it all over again, I would have told a select few people because not having the support was so tough for me. Later, we separated, and I told a lot of people. They all judged him harshly. And I learned that once you give someone your story, you can never un-tell them…so be careful about whom you chose to hold your intimate history. I should have told only people whom I was sure would be there for me and not judgehim. Everyone has an opinion about she/he would do in this situation, but until I had been there, I realized there is no black and white answer…only lots and lots of gray.
Six years and one week later, I am stronger and wiser. Perhaps I am not the same trusting person, but the new me is one I finally like and which took years to accomplish. I felt so bad about myself for so long; if I’d been kinder to myself, if I’d been able to release myself from that intense fight-or-flight mode, my recovery might have been faster. But I accept now that I did what I felt I had to do. Now I am a good, kind, compassionate, and wiser person. I wish I could add “trusting” to that list, but that is still a work in progress.
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August 21, 2016
Late summer cleaning: Decluttering my room brings me to well-traveled roads. Everything I touch feels or smells like time: last week, month, year or decade. My room aggregates time.
But not just this room. I’ve inhabited rooms all my life, fortunate as I am to have had roofs over my head. Only by choice have I slept outside a room–from camping under the stars, backpacking across the country or passed out drunk on a stranger’s couch.
My first room–one of my own–had tan shorn short carpet covered in down feathers slowly de-fluffed from my down comforter through small growing holes. I shared an apartment with my older sister after I left the home I shared with my husband for nearly 9 years. We were on hiatus. Six years of separation. And this room was the first I called my own, having shared all my other rooms from birth to age 29.
Though the circumstances of my landing in this room in an apartment complex settled below the hump of a freeway on ramp dampened the excitement of this first time experience, still I marveled at the possibilities: stamp my own identify into the fabric. Finally, I could fill a space with me, pieces of me in art, furnishings, bed sheets and comforters, knick knacks–all my choices.
As it turned out, however, I’d only half live in that space and the only addition to the bland, bare tan room, bed and dresser I unloaded moving in was the escaped goose down feather floor covering. Between obsessive work hours and mad dash dating, I hardly spent time in that room I slept in for two years before I bought a house, where I lived for another three or four years before moving back into my marital home, where now, 21 years later, I have my own room–sort of, mostly–to clean.
The reels we’ve spun can replay for decades to come, still
If we have them, for the lottery winnings pile in daily, you,
Me and this old house, decaying like two old yard cats, long
After the children have sought their own, riches strewn to
The wind of fates, our progeny spinning their own records.
So let us look in the eyes of cheer and sound a resounding
Reidel clink to another year’s pantomime time bound 37th
(Hurry home; the Insignia’s in the cooler heavy-breathing).
I’m sure this is true.
She told me so herself.
She said, “I get the best of you. The rest your wife gets.”
I cannot deny it.
That I love our secret love,
safe like the internet.
Everyone hides in the safety of their slippers and screen
to enact who they believe they are
and do their best selves because no one really checks,
no one wants to call bullshit,
end the game so
just go with the make believe.
For us too when we are together,
we two for a few,
a cherished time between us to live high just a while.
I mean, who does not want to be loved like crazy?
To meet up in the imagination’s room and lie for a while.
I am not hers,
and she is not mine,
but I can be sure she keeps me
close in her dreams,
so that upon awakening in warmth and quiet
soft pillows under her head
and silken comfort between her thighs
she feels me beneath the sheets as good as there
from so much practiced production
the fantasy we inhabit
every time we meet.
Oh yes, but she is mine.
How many relationship “experts”, writers and doctors preach honesty and openness? How many times in 20 years have I opened my heart to her, told her my hopes and dreams, listened to hers, answered her most probing questions about what turned me on or off, what she needed in bed…I tried. It was so hard to be honest, despite her insisting. I didn’t want to hurt her. I knew my words would hurt her. The truth hurts.
What she didn’t tell me, probably didn’t know herself was that she couldn’t handle hearing what she wanted to know. Early in our marriage she would ask me about my fantasies, first like it was a game, like she was being cute about it. And when I refused to tell her, she got irritated and moody.
But I was embarrassed and it was hard to talk about. It was extremely uncomfortable and felt a little dangerous, like exposing my weaknesses. After a while I think she was driven by this thing, this idea of something I was holding back from her, and demanded to know what I fantasized about–she wanted it in the name of honesty. While it was important to be honest, I also knew some things just needed to be kept to myself. I resisted hard.
But she was clearly disturbed about me keeping something from her, so I gave in. When I told her some of the things I got off on masturbating in my younger days…and occasionally afterward, she got quiet, then distant and then hurt. I watched it happen, the changes cross over her face like a quick moving time-lapsed eclipse.
She wouldn’t talk about it for a long time. And when she did, she tearfully confessed she couldn’t do what I wanted. She didn’t like anything that might be painful and then it got so messy because I told her I didn’t actually want these things from her, which was the right thing to say but she took it wrong like I wanted it from someone else or didn’t think her capable; it broke down from there into silence and brooding anger.
Just one of the many breakdowns and resentments that collect and heap up over time.
Be open and honest. Right. How much is too much honesty? Not enough? This is the person I chose to share everything with, who I counted on to build me up not tear me down for what I think or say. I always felt she was on my side and wanted what was best for me. I still do. But there is a slow but steady growing crack widening in us we can’t seem to repair.
There were other misunderstandings that ended in injured feelings, both of us shut down and protective of our own. She casually mentioned one too many times that the company should give me more time off, more pay, more respect, just more of… what? What SHE wanted? Was she defending me or looking out for her own interest?
It’s degrading to be reminded you don’t make as much as you should or have as much as you deserve. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t work there. There’s a sense of how things operate, something she couldn’t know. And for someone so sensitive, it’s downright insensitive not to know how that burns.
Now I sound like her with the mindreading. She should know…I should know…No, I should have told her how that humiliated me. Not angrily but calmly. But then…I’d been burned so many times by that whole honesty thing before.
My head just spins with this shit. No wonder so many of my college buddies weren’t too keen on getting married any time soon, preferring sex, partying and freedom. Funny, how I judged them then as shallow. Maybe they in their blind denial intuited the danger, all the pitfalls of relationships going long, going stale, expecting too much, tolerating too little…I just chalked them up to chickenshits. But maybe they were right.
And yet I couldn’t imagine life without her. Too painful. The struggles you suffer and overcome, my dad described as the ups and downs of marriage: “it ain’t easy but it ain’t that hard either.” Yeah? Seems pretty damned difficult sometimes. It’s fucking hard!
Then again, it’s harder to give up…until there’s nothing to give up, like knowing when you’re bested or outdone, checkmated. There’s no point in trying. Until then, you just keep figuring it out.
There is a photograph of you and me, our heads are contorted from sleeping upright in the back of a car, your face clearly lost to sleep, my long neck extended bent as far back as humanly possible without losing the head–only my head is actually cut off. My face stops at the chin; only the widely exposed distorted neck, almost serpentinely composed, and your sleeping face suggests that I have surrendered to what I could no longer fight.
Your haircut reflects the 80s, mullets being the fashion, which you sported briefly. I had one too, though straight hair does more justice to outline the do than my curly hair. We were young, maybe our mid-twenties and traveling, exhausted with too much caffeine and too little sleep. Our clothing suggests spring time or fall, light half sleeved unjacketed shirts and jeans.
I cannot place the specific occasion of our sleeping in the back of a car or who took the picture. Our sister in law gave it to us this past holiday season and laughed, saying she had meant to give this picture to us for years, each time she came across it in her belongings. And this year was the year, though I don’t know why. The randomness of things stuns me slightly.
You and I share so much history, large and small, remembered and forgotten, largely the latter, and not for lack of significance so much as sheer length of time, the innumerable moments we have lived together. We grew ourselves from teenagers til these current waning years of our youth, of our lives.
And we have suffered and joyed in measure to most, all of life’s gifts and trials. We have fared well you and I, though you would look askance on that affirmation. And then I would remind you about the synaptic net you form in your brain with such negativity.
Thus it is with us, we who co-exist inhaling the dust of our pasts every day, lugging it inside us like weightless trunks of paperless snapshots and report cards and love letters we never kept or even wrote except in the air, in the doing and being of us, so that when life folds up neatly to square off a life lived, we’ll have nothing left to us but shared time, the illusion of being.
Lord knows, I cannot imagine having shared illusions with anyone else.
“I feel that the biggest benefit to having a relationship that allows for others is that you never have to worry about being everything for someone,” said Skye. “We get to love each other and be with each other, and we get to love other people who are special and important to us in other ways.”
Salon’s article “How Open Marriages Really Work” is refreshingly candid about choice and the nature of relationships–that monogamy is not for everyone. Though polyamory is tossed about quite a bit, I think that label imposes a false sheen over the article that aims to shatter the accepted notion that people who do not do monogamy fall into another label, namely polyamory.
Always one to shun labels, I felt a little compartmentalized by that term, even while the article indulged many scenarios where open marriages were either fallen into after initial monogamy or chosen at the outset. In all cases, the catchwords are honesty, openness and love. However, brave is the overall impression I get.
Yes, it takes honesty and ability to articulate jealousies, desires and needs. Some couples felt jealous of the outsiders but later located the source as something missing in the primary relationship that caused the jealousy. If they spent quality time together, either or both were okay to go off on a date with others. But speaking up and facing fears–of loss, jealousy–takes guts.
I was pleased about the mention of some open marriages that are not acknowledged but known by both parties as well as all shades in between complete openness and shadowy closeted. Having enjoyed monogamy for many years before my relationship opened up, I appreciated the nod to necessity as well as choice. Some couples cannot complete one another intimately and so rely on others to do so. And if both agree to any given arrangement, it works, for however long it works. I suspect child rearing years are different from before and after those times. Once again, fluidity.
Monogamy is tough. It is what most of us believe we want, but in truth, most of us do not, not always. I love the options open to the mature who can agree on their relationships from phase to phase, time to time. We are not static beings and neither are our relationships. But more importantly, it is rare to find someone who can be all things at all times for another. Not even the Stepford Wives worked out so well.
Now, if people could just stop being threatened by others doing it differently than they do…what a wonderful world.
What do I think about the Ashley Madison come Josh Duggar (a name I first heard yesterday) “scandal”? Not too much. Surprising coming from someone whose blog is themed on the mistress in that word’s narrowest and broadest sense. But I have written a lot on the subject of infidelity from all sides, and much boils down to the same recurring ideas:
People get hurt–are hurt–and that saddens me. Luckily, counseling resources for the infidelity-wounded exist. Some have called those hurt by infidelity, victims, like the wife of this Duggar, publicly humiliated by someone who apparently spoke out in defense of “family values.” A shame, but the story often unfolds as more complicated than good guys and bad guys, abusers and victims.
People are not honest. Relationships survive on honesty, an ongoing practice that most are not dedicated to but expect from others.
America’s hypocrisy and sexual dysfunction fosters dysfunctional relationships. It is no secret that what we say what we want is not what we want–or do. I featured this article from The Daily Beast before, but it reports the unsurprising facts and bears repeating:
As Pew reports, extramarital affairs are generally condemned worldwide but the U.S. still seems to be uniquely moralistic about them. In fact, most major developed nations in the world are more accepting of infidelity than the U.S., including Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, Spain, and Japan.
In France, a mere 47 percent of adults find extramarital affairs unacceptable, which is less an endorsement of their practice and more a reflection of a widespread refusal to think of it as “a moral issue.” In America, sex is a moral language by default; abroad, less so…
All this being said, Americans’ sexual words do match up with their sexual actions in some special cases. Fifty-seven percent of men and 65 percent of women approve of having babies outside of marriage, although CDC estimates show that only 40 percent of all births are to unmarried women. Divorce rates appear to be on their way down in the 21st century while acceptance of divorce has been steadily increasing.
But these are some of the only realistic moral attitudes in a country where sexual attitudes and sexual behavior tend to be dissonant. And although this mismatch might be mystifying in and of itself, the probable reasons behind it are not: the United States has the largest population of Christians of any country and is one of the only deeply religious wealthy nations in the world. That math—like most Americans—does itself.
Ashley Madison? Only in America.
This time by Salon.com’s Anna Pulley in the article 4 Reasons Humans are so Bad at Sexual Monogamy, which faults our natural proclivities and our ancestors. According to Pulley’s resources, we humans crave variety, get bored easily (especially women with sex) and hear the call of our collectivist primal ancestors who lived, parented and copulated communally. Her cited resources are a few notable books on the topic, including Chris Ryan’s Sex at Dawn, a synopsis of which you can find at Ryan’s site among other of his projects, to bolster her brief scan of the huge monogamy balliwick.
In the end she echoes a call to action I myself have made on this site–more tolerance and less dysfunctional belief when it comes to sex and marraige.
To say we are bad at monogamy isn’t an indictment of monogamy in general. Of course, people can and do succeed at life-long monogamous arrangements. Non-monogamous arrangements aren’t inherently better or worse than monogamous ones. And yet, just because we are monogamous with one person doesn’t negate the fact that many of us are still and always will be attracted to other people. As German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it: “One can choose what to do, but not what to want.” We’d do better as a culture if we could exercise a little more tolerance, acceptance and honest discussions around sex, desire and marriage, and try to be less rigid in our idealistic views of monogamy.