Telling Stories: The Lesson in the Brian Williams’ Scandal

I never watch television news.

So I had no idea who Brian Williams was until the news about his false claims about his time in Iraq. All of the tidbits I read online or heard on the radio took the position that he intentionally and willfully fabricated these stories.

Until I came across this one.

It explores the universal truth of fallible and malleable memory, citing studies where false memories have been intentionally implanted and summarizing the results of interviews with memory scientists.

The data is unambiguous – our memories are not.

The article doesn’t absolve Brian Williams of any guilt. It simply asks us to consider the alternative – that perhaps what we are interpreting as an intentional manipulation of truth may in fact be a distortion of memory.

The problem is that from an outside perspective, they are indistinguishable. And according to a study a referenced in the article, people overwhelmingly assume that someone’s twisted truth has been purposely shaped for their gain (while also assuming that their own memory is somehow immune to the errors that may influence others). And the comments in the article support that research; they alternate between people claiming that they have infallible memories and people (often aggressively) concluding that Brian Williams set out to deceive.

And maybe he was. I certainly have no idea. But I do find it strange that somebody in a prominent position in media would choose to publicly tell falsehoods that could easily be disproved. It seems not only irresponsible, but dumb.

It certainly seems plausible that he believed his stories and failed to fact-check before sharing them with the world.

Perhaps it’s because we spend so much time in a digital world, but we seem to have this idea that memory acts like a recorder, filing away experiences as they happen so that they can be retrieved later with a neural click and replayed like a video on a screen.

But it’s not that simple.

If our memories are computer files, then they are filled with encoding errors, corrupt files and sketchy rewrites. Tidbits of original code may remain and the brain borrows from other memories to fill in the gaps.

Many errors in memory happen without us ever knowing. These are the unintentional changes in memory:


I no longer remember what my ex husband really looked like. The primary image I have of him is more a caricature of the facial hair he had the past few years of our marriage rather than any true visage. Time has softened the memories, faded the edges. I could probably still pick him out of a line up, but a police artist’s rendering based upon my description would probably contain some inaccuracies.

Our memories are more like cassette tapes than digital imprints; time and use damage the recordings. They’re still there, but faded and under a layer of static.


The Brian William’s article compares the way memories change with the retelling of a story to the childhood game of “telephone.” When we have a major event in our lives, we assume that the intensity of the memory leads to its preservation. Yet, the frequent retelling of the story often changes the memory over time. It mutates.

Another way we rewrite our memories reminds me of a documentary I saw about the making of the first season of The Real World. They collected countless hours of authentic and raw footage. Then, the show’s writers were tasked with watching the tapes, sketching out the storylines and editing the footage to match the story.

Our brains do that too. We naturally create “stories” out of our experiences. And then we select the memories that fit and discard the ones that don’t. And just like with reality television, all of that happens behind the scenes.

I’ve seen this happen with my own divorce story. As it is repeated, small errors in memory replicate and carry through. I have to edit and summarize to get the gist across and so some details are left out. It all “feels” true because it’s been repeated, but it’s not quite right. I make a habit of returning to my primary documents – texts, emails, journal entries – of that time period to refresh my memory before any interview or post which requires details from that episode.

And I’m always a bit surprised at what I read.

Because I am no longer the same woman that had those experiences.

Change in Perspective

There was a hill in my childhood neighborhood that was enormous. Until I went back after several years away. I have to assume that the neighborhood pooled their resources to have that mountain shaved down to a molehill. It’s the only reasonable explanation:)

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie and revisited it 5, 10 or 20 years later? Was it the same as you remembered? Probably not. Because you’re not the same person either. We see the world through the filter of our own perceptions and we see our memories in the same way.

No memory can ever completely reflect the moment it happened because you see it through the knowledge of today. That hill in my old neighborhood is both huge and daunting (according to my early memories) and insignificant (as I see it now). Neither recollection is necessarily wrong. My perspective has shifted.

Not all manipulations of memory are unintentional. Here are the ways that memories are deliberately changed:

To Deceive

This is your standard lie. Deliberate. Intentional. Twisting the truth for your own gain or protection. In this post, I dig down into the different types and motivations for deceptions.

Now here’s where things can get interesting. A “fact” can begin as a lie, but as it is repeated, that falsehood becomes the truth to the person reciting it. This is how researchers, therapists or others in trusted positions can either intentionally or unintentionally “plant” a false memory that grows into “truth” for the subject.

My ex stated in a text to my mother that he “started to believe his own bullshit.” It seems like he may have planted and nurtured false memories in his own mind.

To Find Peace

I stumbled across this application of deliberately changing memories accidentally. I changed the names of the people and places involved in my story to protect the identities of the innocent and not-so-innocent. Over time, I found that the fake names felt more real to me than the real ones. The shaped memories slowly suffocating the actual ones.

Once I realized the power of taking ownership of my story, I deliberately shaped other memories. These have no impact on anyone else, so their rewriting was not intended to mislead or deceive. Rather, I deliberately chose to reframe certain moments, delete others and filter some of the most painful experiences through a lens of compassion, even if it’s not fully accurate, because it brings peace to my current life and has no bearing on anyone or anything else.

When I do revisit the primary documents, this intentional rewriting is temporarily stripped away as I face the brutal reality of that period. Yet even though that is the “real” memory captured in those texts and emails, I don’t allow it to take up permanent residence in my mind. Read more about how to separate your memories from your suffering. 

As for Brian Williams, we may never know if his stories originated from an intent to deceive or if his memories mutated over time. He certainly was irresponsible for widely sharing stories that impact others without verifying the facts from other sources.

Because, as science has shown, our memories may be true to us even when they are not true.

We are not mere recorders of our experiences. We are storytellers.


The Entitled Ones

We all start out believing that we are the center of the world.

And then as we grow, our sense of our place in the world shifts.

Until we realize that we are not the center of the world. but a part of the world.

With a responsibility to step and speak with kindness and care.

Except some people never develop the understanding that they are a part of the world.

They persist in their belief that they are the sun and the rest of us are mere satellites.

And rather than stepping with kindness and care, they stomp on boundaries and crush others beneath their unfeeling feet.

And rather than speaking with kindness and care, they use words as weapons to harm and tools to manipulate.

They are the entitled ones. The self-crowned kings and queens of our realm.

Many were raised to be empowered, showered with excess and unearned praise by parents afraid of setting and maintaining boundaries. They held dominance in their families and assumed that their sway extended outside the familial home. They never learned how to hear a “no” or contend with a limit. They asked and they received.

Parents stepped in and cushioned consequences, so cause and effect was never mastered. They never received education in empathy, so they held on to a young child’s lack of understanding. And perhaps worst of all, these infant monarchs learned how to shuffle blame and avoid responsibility.

Some of the entitled ones earned their badge with an assist from genetics, given a biological limit to their abilities to empathize with and understand others.

In school, these entitled children don the label of “bully” as they use power, fear and manipulation to control the other students. In their world, the ends justify any means necessary and they are quite adept at pulling out every mean possible.

As they grow into adults, the entitled ones often find themselves successful. After all, when you’re ruthless on the ladder to success, you can leave quite a pile of bodies behind you. They can be charismatic, hiding their entitlement behind charm and practiced words. They’re just putting on a show for the benefit of their lackeys while they take what they believe they deserve.

And some of us fall for this charade. After all, it can certainly be a great show.

But these are the people that will pledge fidelity while actively pursuing another. They will set a household budget, yet feel entitled to break it. They will tell you what you want to hear while doing what they want to do.

The only reason needed for any action is,”I felt like it.”

But at some point, the curtains part.

And we see the special effects for what they are.

And we become aware of the strings tied around our own wrists.

Making us an unwilling participant in the entitled one’s play.

And for those of us that understand that we are all in this together, the realization that we were perceived as nothing but minions and pawns is a painful one.

But better to endure the pain of having the strings cut.

Than to never see them at all.

Be stronger than your pain.

Build your boundaries with your entitled one and enforce them with everything you have.

Let them be the center of their world.

But refuse to let them be the center of yours.

After the Affair: Are You Focusing in the Wrong Direction?

You discovered your partner is cheating.

Driven by a mixed fuel of rage and pain, you begin a background check on the affair partner that would do the FBI proud.

Who are they? Why was my spouse drawn to them? What do they have to offer that I do not?

We’re looking for information that would protect our bruised and battered egos. That would support the rejection and lessen its agony.

But even if you discover that your partner’s dalliances were with Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt (both seemingly the epitome of good looks, good character and good standing and well out of the realm of mere mortals like the rest of us), you will still feel the dismissal just as strongly.

Because the pain isn’t about the affair partner.

It’s about the rejection by your partner.

You’re focusing in the wrong direction.

I know. I did it too. My situation was different than many in the fact that the other wife didn’t know he has married (although I have to assume that the other “other women” did); she was conned as much as I was. Still, I grew obsessed with dissecting her, trying to understand the pull, as though she was some super magnet that emitted a force too powerful to resist that sucked him out of the marriage.

But that’s not the case, is it? If someone doesn’t want to be pulled from a marriage, nobody can have that power of attraction over them.

I was focusing in the wrong direction.

(For the sake of brevity and fairness (and my personal aversion to the repeated use of the term “affair partner”), I am going to refer to the other man/woman as the mister(ess). Because there isn’t an equivalent male-gendered term. Yet.)

I can hear you already. But in my case, the mister(ess)…

My reply?

It. Doesn’t. Matter.

I’ll prove it to you.

The situation with a spouse and another can be broken down into four main categories based upon the intention for reconciliation between the partners and if the mister(ess) is known to the betrayed spouse.

No Reconciliation; Unknown Mister(ess)

You and/or your spouse have decided that reconciliation isn’t possible. You’re grieving the loss of your marriage and harboring anger over how it collapsed. It’s easy to place the blame of mister(ess). Safe. It means you can avoid the painful realization that your partner was not the person you thought and it keeps you distracted from the very difficult responsibility of healing yourself.

The other person does not matter. The marriage is over. The “how” and “why” can provide some useful learning. But the “who”? The “who” is just noise.

I often compare the drive to know more about the mister(ess) to the obsession with scratching a scab. It can an all-consuming itch. A need that builds until you fill it. And then once scratched, the drive fades until it begins to build again. As long as you keep scratching that itch, the wound remains open. Leave it, and with time it will heal.

So unless you want the affair partner to be a part of your life moving forward, shift your focus to your future.

If you have kids, the situation is obviously more complicated if and when the mister(ess) becomes part of their lives.

It increases the pain for the betrayed spouse because it’s easy to feel usurped as both a partner and a parent. And often, that pain comes out in an attack on the mister(ess), sometimes even using the kids as weapons.

It’s a nuclear warhead of emotions, which makes it nearly impossible to be pragmatic.

So I offer you a litmus test.

Over the years, your kids have had (or will have) a handful of teachers that they do not bond with. If you run crying to the principal every time your child mutters, “The teacher doesn’t like me,” you’re doing your kid a disservice. If, however, the teacher is truly abusive and inappropriate, if you do not step in and protect your child, you’re doing your kid a disservice.

And it’s the same with the mister(ess) (or, in fact, anyone your ex is seeing). If your kids are in emotional or physical danger, do everything you can to save them. Otherwise, back off.

Refrain from badmouthing the mister(ess) to your children. If he/she is a bad person or has selfish motivations, your kids will figure it out on their own and will withdraw from the person (and grow some grit in the process). Good.

And if your kids happen to bond with the mister(ess)?

Well that’s good too.

The more people a kid has in his or her corner, the better. No matter how they came to stand there.

No Reconciliation; Known Mister(ess)

It is a much more difficult situation when you know the mister(ess). In fact, that is one of the criteria for compound-complex infidelity. The affair partner may be a friend of yours, an acquaintance, or even family. You’re betrayal is twofold – from your spouse and from your friend/family member.

They are two distinct betrayals.

Treat them as such.

You’re not reconciling with your spouse, so the advice above still applies.

And as for the other?

That’s up to you.

If you want to try to keep him or her in your life, you will have to move past the anger and work towards forgiveness. If you always see them as the mister(ess), they can never again be your friend.

If you decide the betrayal is too great to maintain the relationship, you will have to move past the anger and work towards forgiveness. If you carry that venom, it will only serve to poison your future.

Either way, releasing the fixation on the mister(ess) is key to your freedom.

photo 2-108

Reconciliation; Unknown Mister(ess)

So you and your partner have decided to try to make the marriage work. Yet you’re still consumed by thoughts and questions about the mister(ess).

You would surely be upset if your partner was focused on the mister(ess) after an intention of reconciliation had been agreed upon (and if that is your case, are you sure they really want reconciliation?). Why is it any different for you to focus on the other person? If you are holding on to the ruminations about the mister(ess), you are holding the marriage back.

Whatever you nurture, grows. If you want to save your marriage, that’s where your focus must lie. Not on what helped tear it apart.

Reconciliation; Known Mister(ess)

Hat’s off to you. You’re in perhaps the most difficult position of all. Remember, you have decided to try to salvage and repair your marriage. Focus on restoration rather than the storm.

It’s natural after an affair to want to blame. It’s natural to want to paint the mister(ess) as a vile, evil homewrecker intentionally alienating your innocent (or at least naive) spouse. It’s natural after an affair to become consumed by the questions, driven to uncover the sordid details of what happened behind our backs.

But all of that energy is focused in the wrong direction.

It’s turned to what hurt us rather than what can help us move forward. 

The mister(ess) only matters if you make them matter.

The Faux Commute

In the book I’m reading right now, the main character continues her weekday commute into London months after she was terminated from her job. Part of her motivation seemed to be habit and a lack of purpose and direction. But the main reason she continued the act is because she was too ashamed to tell her landlord/flatmate that she was no longer employed.

When I drove to work Friday morning, the book fresh on my mind, I peered at my fellow commuters, wondering if any of them were burning fuel and hours on a faux commute to a job that no longer existed. If any of them were keeping up the pretense while using up the savings. I pondered spouses back home, blindly secure in the belief that their partner was gainfully employed and unaware of the daily play-act.

It seems like something meant for fiction.

But it’s not.

My ex husband did it too.

He was too ashamed to concede that he could not find work. So he pretended that he could.
For years, he simulated a job. He invented clients and projects. He manufactured payments from lines of credit. I’m pretty sure he even falsified an award. Apparently, he was the best at his pretend job.

And he’s not the only one.

A friend’s first husband pretended to be enrolled in school full time while spending time in bars.

A coworker’s husband fabricated a start-up business while engaging in an affair.

And there’s a woman in my periphery who spent her time shopping while maintaining the facade of employment.

Here is a related piece I wrote for The Good Men Project that explores how this shame around employment can grow and spread through families.

But the problem isn’t just that the secret is kept from the partners.

Often the person can’t even admit it to themselves.

Continuing the faux commute and maintaining pretense even for themselves.

Now obviously most of us will never hold down a pretend job and engage in a daily trip of make-believe.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t engage in our own faux commutes.

That there aren’t truths we’d rather not face and so we keep us the pretense, even for ourselves.

That we don’t catch a ride going nowhere because we’re afraid to admit that it’s a dead-end run.

That we don’t pretend that something is still working for even when we no longer work for it.

So take an honest look at your life.

And make sure all of your commutes are authentic.

The book is called The Girl on the Train and it is a great thriller, especially for anyone who has experienced gaslighting.

The Part of the Betrayed

You’ve been betrayed.

The one who promised to have and hold instead lied and stole.

Leaving you broken and questioning.

It’s not right. It’s not fair. And it’s not okay.

But it happens nonetheless.

Why People Cheat

Regardless of your feelings about monogamy or someone’s right to seek attention elsewhere if they are not receiving it at home, an affair is a breach of a contract. And many believe, a breach of character. It is an act of selfishness at best and an act of malice at worst.

But let’s forget for a minute about the betrayer. The act itself. And let us even set aside the pain for a moment or two.

Now that it’s happened, what’s your part?

What can you learn from the experience?

Don’t Internalize the Affair You didn’t cause it. You didn’t make your spouse cheat (even if they try to convince you that you did). Let go of that thought. This was their choice and their choice alone. It shows where they’re lacking, not you.

Take a Look at the Bigger Picture Sometimes an affair happens solely because of a person’s own issues. Other times, it’s a perfect storm of nature and nurture, the marital environment also playing a role. Are there areas where the marriage can be improved or where you can respond differently in a new relationship?

Add a Dash of Understanding to Your Judgment It’s natural to blame your spouse. To lash out in anger. I get it. Try also to find some understanding of why he or she responded the way they did. Just proclaiming it as wrong doesn’t help you. Understanding some of why it happened does.

Watch Your Triggers An affair can trigger earlier memories of abandonment or it can certainly be what future triggers will be about. The affair is not your part; healing its impact on you is.

Consider Alternatives Is your marriage the right fit for both of you at this time? Have you or your partner changed and now need a different option?

Protect Your Children You know how piercing and scary betrayal is for an adult. Imagine it through a child’s eyes. Shelter them from the affair when they’re young. If there are truths they need to discover (like a personality disorder, etc.) let them reveal themselves in time.

Consider the Balance of Comfort and Passion We often ask too much of our partners. We want them to be our best friends, our lovers, our dependable partner, the children’s parent and sometimes even a business partner. And all this for 50+ years til death knocks on the marital home. You can maintain passion, but too much comfort is the death of excitement. Find the balance.

You can address the above despite what your straying partner does or doesn’t do. You can learn from the experience if it ends in divorce or becomes a renewal of your marriage. You can choose how you look at the affair and how you respond.

An affair is a wake-up call. Don’t sleep though it.

I read an interesting interview with Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity, which looks at the challenges facing modern marriages. Take a look at the article; it’s thought-provoking.

Oh, and for those of you that set your pain aside for a few moments, it’s okay to let it talk again. Just don’t allow it to filibuster.


I know I was shocked when I first heard the news.

I’ll bet you were too.

We trusted him. We respected him.

We felt like we knew him.

And then when the stories about his impropriety began to surface, we started to question.

Not only his authenticity, but also our own judgment.

Like so many that lead lives of misconduct, Bill Cosby hid behind an illusion of perfection. He played the father we all wished we had, and his off-screen demeanor paralleled his on screen performance. He always seemed kind. And patient. Making us laugh and making us learn.

And also making us look away from his behavior behind the scenes.

Causing those that heard of his behavior to question the veracity of the claims.

And perhaps even making those subject to his offenses question their own memories.

Because in so many ways, he was so good.

Too good to be true.

I never realized that my ex was also too good to be true in many ways.  I thought I was lucky to have a husband that I got along with so well that we never seemed to have areas of friction. I felt blessed that he was so patient with me and would strive to temper any anxiety I felt. I was in awe of his ability to solve any problem and I delighted at the fact that he always had an answer.

I trusted him. I respected him.

I felt like we knew him.

And then when the stories about his impropriety began to surface, I started to question.

Not only his authenticity, but also my own judgment.

And all too often, that’s how it is. Sometimes the wolves walk among us unshielded. But much of the time, the wolves are dressed in the finest wool, revered as the ideal lamb.

And who suspects a lamb?

Watch out for those who overcompensate. Those who seem too good to be true. Be wary when tensions never rise and irritation rarely shows. Be cautious around people who never sweat and never seem fazed.

Because all of us are a blend of both wolf and sheep.

And those who pretend otherwise are hiding something.

Related: Covert Abuse

Covert Abuse

I’ve never thought of my ex as abusive.

Then readers tell me they recognize their (very much abusive) spouses in my descriptions of my ex.

And I wonder.

I read a story in the paper about a domestic murder in the county where my ex and I lived and I always half expect to see his name.

And I wonder.

Then I discover that security procedures were altered at my old school during my divorce.

And I wonder.

He certainly was never overtly abusive. There were no strikes or shoves and never any threat of physical harm. He never belittled or yelled or uttered lines designed to wound. I was not discouraged from seeing friends or enjoying excursions without him. He didn’t exhibit excess jealousy and always demonstrated respect. He was the same man in public with me as he was behind closed doors – attentive, affectionate, loving. I never feared him while we were together.

So then why was I afraid for my life when he left?

I inquired about a restraining order, but since there was no history of abuse and no threats of physical harm, I was denied. However, the police were concerned enough that they performed drive-bys at the house where I was living as well as the house where he was staying. The chief of police told me I was lucky; he related that many cases of marital fraud he encountered resulted in a murder/suicide.

I couldn’t imagine the man that had always touched me so lovingly intending to harm me. But then again, I couldn’t have imagined the rest of it either.

I didn’t know the man I was married to.

Was he abusive?

Domestic abuse, also known as spousal abuse, occurs when one person in an intimate relationship or marriage tries to dominate and control the other person. From HelpGuide

When I read descriptions like that, it seems clear. He certainly was controlling me through his deceptions.

But then I see this:

Domestic violence and abuse are used for one purpose and one purpose only: to gain and maintain total control over you. An abuser doesn’t “play fair.” Abusers use fear, guilt, shame, and intimidation to wear you down and keep you under his or her thumb. Your abuser may also threaten you, hurt you, or hurt those around you. From HelpGuide

Control? Check.

Doesn’t “play fair”? Check.

Fear, guilt, shame and intimidation? No.

At least not until he left.

And that’s when I realized I was terrified of him.

I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that he was abusive. Not overtly, but undercover. His was a clandestine abuse, hidden even to me until the covers were ripped back when he left, revealing the buried machinations.

His abuse was financial, embezzling from the marital funds while covering his tracks with ever-shifting balances, hidden credit cards and fabricated stories.

His abuse took the form of gaslighting, altering my reality to match his goals. He took it a step further by assassinating my character through lies told behind my back to those around us.

His abuse didn’t use whips; it used a gentle leader of manipulation. Velvet trimmed lies whispered into trusting ears. No need to threaten when I easily followed along.

His abuse gained in cruelty when he abruptly abandoned me with no money and no explanation, refusing all contact. Protector turned persecutor.

During the divorce, he upped the ante, painting me as the controlling one. Falling right in line with the favored “You made me do it” excuse of the textbook abuser.

He never hit. He never yelled. He never isolated.

But behind the scenes, he was pulling the strings I didn’t even know existed.

Virtual Reality

He noticed her as soon as her entered. An older woman, well dressed, standing at the counter watching the gemologist examine a rather large stone under magnification.

As my husband completed his transaction, paying for the new battery and taking possession of his watch, he couldn’t help but overhear the exchange between the woman and the expert.

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to tell you. The stone isn’t real.”

“The bastard!, she exclaimed,”The other one wasn’t real either.”

Through the remaining conversation, my husband was able to glean that the woman had recently been divorced and the jewelry was awarded to her in the proceedings with an assumption as to its value. Only now she was learning that part (or maybe even all) of what she thought she had to her name was worthless. And a lie.

Perhaps she was spoiled, and looking for more than her substantial settlement, but my husband read her as more panicky than pampered.

When Brock recounted this story to me, my first thought was to the duration of the deception. Did her ex husband gift her that jewelry twenty years ago with false stones in place from the beginning? Or, as I was afraid my ex may have done, were the real stones replaced at some point with lookalikes so that the husband could surreptitiously withdraw from the marital funds?

My heart ached for the woman. Not only does it hurt terribly to discover you’ve been living in a virtual reality, it is disorienting beyond belief once those goggles come off and you have to decide what is real. And what is illusion.

The mystery of the woman and the ring mirror the one question about my first marriage that still haunts me – did I marry a false man or did I marry a real man who was replaced at some point with a counterfeit? 

That’s one mystery that will never be solved. All I know is what he was at the end was certainly no diamond, despite how he acted.

And when I went to sell my ring at the conclusion of the divorce, my stone was still real. I guess he wasn’t clever enough to squeeze that stone for cash. Thank goodness for small blessings:)

What Happens To the Ones Who Leave?

What happens to the ones who leave?

The ones who lie and deceive and then walk out the door into their next chapter without so much as a glance behind.

Do they feel pain? Guilt? Remorse?

Are they happy with their decisions and in their new lives?

Or do they regret the choices that ended their marriages?

For many of us, we will never know. Even if you still have contact with your ex (or keep tabs on his or her whereabouts), the life they put on display for the world may well be a front. And even if they do come back, crying about how upset they are, do you believe the tears? Or are they of the crocodile variety?

It’s common to wonder how your ex is doing. After all, they were once your partner in life, and how they felt directly impacted you. And now that they’re gone, your mind still seeks that information. Perhaps your mind even seeks retribution, wanting to see them face the consequences of their choices.

For a long time (longer than I like to admit), I needed my ex to be in pain. It was almost as though I saw it as some sort of tug-of-war with only a limited amount of happiness to share between us. And so I had to pull his away to ensure that there was enough for me.

photo 1-102

But that’s not really how it works, is it? It’s not as though his okay and my okay were mutually exclusive. I could be okay on my own regardless of how he was feeling.

photo 2-100

So why do we have such a strong drive to see those that hurt us be hurt in kind? Does it mean that we’re somehow malevolent if we harbor feelings of vengeance and pray for karma to hurry up and do her job?

I don’t believe so. In fact, I see these feelings of revenge as coming from a basic human need.

The need to be understood.

Intimate betrayal and deception is one of the most acute pains that one can be subjected to. It’s a deliberate act, carried out by the one you trust the most, that leaves residual tenderness for a lifetime.

And we desperately want someone, anyone, but especially the one responsible, to understand the depths and quality of that pain. We want them to feel it so that we can be understood and, in turn that they can know what devastation their actions have caused.

In even the most mundane of circumstances, it is beyond frustrating and isolating to not be understood. In fact, I’m feeling this way now after a day of attempting to teach math and interact with my colleagues with absolutely no voice. All day, I wrote commands on the board and tried to pantomime how to find the slope of a line only to be greeted with puzzled expressions. I would spot behavior across the room and be unable to do anything about it until I finished with the current student and navigated through the maze of desks. All I wanted was to be able to get my points across.

To be understood.

But not being able to talk for a day or two in a middle school is nothing compared to not being understood by the spouse that caused those feelings in the first place.

That goes way beyond frustrating and isolating.

In fact, for me it went into rage.

I was angry for a long time. And that anger feeds upon itself. I not only felt an immense need to be understood, I also wanted him to face punishment for his actions (it seemed only fair) and I wanted find some pleasure in knowing that I was doing better than him. Petty? Yeah. None of this was pretty.

I didn’t care where he was or what he was doing. I just wanted him to hurt. To feel guilty. Maybe even a little remorseful.

And it was my now-husband who made it clear to me that I had to learn to let the anger go. That it wasn’t hurting my ex, it was hurting me and, in turn, my new relationship. Releasing that anger was a process. I had to enlist some mental choreography to shape conclusions that let me find peace. It was a process. A slow process.

I have an advantage in this over many of you; I don’t have children. And I can’t even imagine what it feels like to see your ex hurting your child. It’s one thing to let go when you were the one who was hurt. It’s quite another when it’s your child. In fact, I see this with my mother, who can still be brought to tears when talking about my past even when I’m smiling because of my present. For you parents, all I can say is do everything you can to teach your kids to be resilient while taking care of yourself. Practice modeling for them what you want for them. And be willing to learn from them; kids often have wisdom that we overlook.

For the most part, I’m past the anger now. In fact, at this point, I want him to be okay. Partly for him, because regardless of everything else, this was a man I loved deeply for many years. Partly for me, because I feel better knowing that I’m not putting any more bad energy out into the world. But mainly for the others that will cross his path. I want him to be okay so that others will be okay. When I saw him and (I think) the other wife hand-in-hand at a festival a couple years ago, I really did hope they were happy. Goodness knows, I was happy I wasn’t the one holding his hand.

But want I want has nothing to do with reality. If he is a narcissist or sociopath, he is incapable of feeling guilt or remorse and most likely will never change. If he has compartmentalized his actions and his past to the point where he no longer remembers the truth, he will not feel pain but may continue to inflict it upon others. If he has spent so long living in a house of lies that he can no longer find the door, he will remain forever trapped.

Even though I no longer harbor a secret desire to fill his car with fire ants, I don’t really worry about how he’s doing. Because I trust that if he has been able to feel the pain from his choices, he will change how he responds in the world. And if he has not felt the anguish, then the negativity he spreads will come right back to him.

And as for me? I no longer have a need to feel understood by him. I think if he was able to understand how it felt, he wouldn’t have done it in the first place. I no longer care to see him punished; I put my faith in karma. And I no longer need to feel superior that I’m doing better than him because my okay is now completely and totally independent of him.

Besides, I’m just happy to be happy.

And I’ll be even happier when I have my voice back:)

When Would You Want to Know?

Brock and I have been talking a lot about marriage lately – our own, others and just marriages in general. Last night, on the drive home from the last holiday party of the season, he asked, “If your ex had come to you and admitted he screwed up, would you have wanted to stay and work on the marriage?”

“It depends,” was my initial response. “If he came to me towards the end, after years of lies and betrayal, it would have been too late.”

“Yeah,” Brock uttered in agreement.

“But if he had come to me early on, before it went on too long, then I would have tried to make it work.”

“Makes sense. I know I would do anything I could to save our marriage if there was a problem.”

And I believe he would; he’s not the type to try to hide from a problem.

But then the conversation took a different turn, discussing what happens when a spouse screws up once. We both agreed that in that case, we would not want to know as long as the offending party accepted responsibility, addressed the underlying issues that led to the infidelity and ensured it never happened again.

In other words, if the spouse made a mistake in judgment rather than possessed an error in character, we wouldn’t want to know about the situation as long as it could be remedied and a repeat avoided.

I feel weird even writing those words. After all, the secrecy and lies are what ultimately tore apart my first marriage. And the thought of my spouse withholding such sensitive information causes me some distress.

But knowing it wouldn’t be any better.

These mind exercises are challenging for me. I’m one of those people absolutely built for monogamy. Hell, I even turned my cheek the first time Brock tried to kiss me because there was another man in the picture. When I am in a relationship, I develop a sort of tunnel vision where I don’t even recognize other men as potential partners and, if I ever feel an attraction to somebody, I make sure that I am never in a situation that could lead to making a bad decision.

So I struggle to even imagine how someone who has overall good character can make a mistake that leads to infidelity. But I know it happens. Even good people can make bad decisions.

It’s what you do after that defines you.

It was a strange conversation to have with my husband, essentially laying out a roadmap of what to do in case of infidelity:

1) Set yourself up to be successful; avoid potentially dangerous situations.

2) If you screw up, take responsibility and fix it (STD testing, counseling, etc.).

3) Don’t reveal to simply alleviate guilt. And never, ever shift the blame to your partner.

4) If you need help, get it.

It felt odd to talk openly about these worst-case situations, especially because in my first marriage, any talk of infidelity was simply, “Don’t do it.” (And we see how well that turned out!) But we’re all human and humans can make mistakes.

It’s what you do after that matters.

That doesn’t change the fact that I desperately hope this remains nothing but a thought exercise!

How about you? Are there situations where you would rather not know?

The Good Men Project has a new Facebook page that is all about relationships. Check it out!