Tuesday, April 10, 2007
How to Move On
As if our planned trip to Potsdam isn't enough of a reminder of our snarly and dark beginnings, Willem and I have also been vicariously dealing with the topics of infidelity and betrayal in a more present tense. Close friends of ours are in circumstances that are simultaneously very different and painfully similar to where we were eight years ago.

It has created a bunch of late-night conversations between us, because - and I can't decide whether this is sad or sweet - we have a bit of a reputation, now, as being a couple who was able to get through unfaithfulness and move on. Experts in the field, and all. I'll be brushing up my résumé later today.

Anyway, the basic underlying question is, "Can we get through this? And, how?" Being bereft of a crystal ball - nobody can remember whose turn it was to watch it - we can't answer the first bit, but I can talk about how we got through it. I don't know how other people do it. It's really hard - certainly harder than just breaking up - and it's difficult for me to encourage anyone to open themselves to that much more uncertainty and hurt. But the end result was worth it here, so...

What Willem Did (The Parts that Worked, Anyway)
  • He gave me a brief, and undetailed, list of his indiscretions. He was as complete as he could be - but he did not give locations, outfits, positions, etc. My imagination is keen and self-destructive: he needed to provide me with the basics because that knowledge allowed me to rein in some of my very worst fears, but sometimes he provided too much detail, and I will never, ever be able to get those images out of my head. He basically acted like he was on the witness stand in court - answered the questions, without avoiding or overelaborating.

  • He didn't treat me like a confessor. Confession feels good. I know. It's why Catholics the world over do it. It's scary at first, but then once it's out and not a deep dark secret anymore it will feel like such a weight is lifted. Fantastic. I don't know what he did with all the gory details, the your conflicted emotions, the guilt and self-flagellation. I don't care. He could have gotten a therapist, or a priest, or a (mature) friend, or a dog - anything is better than dumping that stuff on someone who is already bleeding from the heart.

  • He had to learn to own his emotions. Some days I felt okay, and his heart would lift and he would get all optimistic and bouncy and giddy. Much like a schoolgirl, without the kneesocks. Other days, something would poke a new hole in my heart, or rip open an old one that everyone thought was healed. On those days, he learned how to validate and acknowledge my feelings, without then leaping off that Cliff of Insanity right behind me. I didn't need to feel responsible for his emotions on top of everything else. He had to buck up and be supportive, and find someplace else to wallow when it got to be too much.

  • He changed his lifestyle. His previous life was structured around finding people and opportunities to act in a certain way, and that had to change - not just the actions, but the circumstances that allowed those actions. He stopped going to bars, trolling for girls; he started calling me every night when he got home from work; he just avoided potentially dangerous/stupid/tempting situations. Much like how they don't hold Alcoholics Anonymous meetings in bars.

  • He didn't grovel. Much. It was either going to work out, or it wasn't - that's a long-term situation, and we didn't know the answer right away. He offered what I felt was a sincere apology, and had done what he could to get rid of any secrets (not just the infidelity-related ones), and then he focused on building a life together - not on continuing to revisit the past.

Not a comprehensive list, true, but it's a start.

What Kate Did
  • I learned how to say, "I cannot talk about that with you," as many times as it took until he stopped trying to confess all the details and circumstances and guilt feelings and justifications. Willem felt like there was a big difference between the girls with whom he actually Did the Deed, and the girls with whom he "just fooled around," and the girls with whom he had dinner or watched movies without the exchange of bodily fluids. I did not. And his trying to clarify or distinguish between them only succeeded in making me angry or hurt or frustrated all over again.

  • I learned the difference between keeping secrets and controlling information. Keeping secrets, particularly from those who should know, is not a way to build a healthy relationship. But just because we needed to work on eradicating secrets between us, that didn't mean that we had to open the details of our relationship to the whole world. (At least, not until I got a blog and told the whole world, ha ha... ha.) I talked to a few people about it, when I thought they could handle the information and be supportive of my choices - but I did not talk to others, because they would still hold onto that knowledge and their judgments long after we had settled it and tried to move on. Or, at least, I was afraid they would.

  • The cheating? Not about me. It's a set of actions by someone who felt a need to push the boundaries and misbehave, and nothing about me caused that. (And when you figure out how to truly, deep-down-in-your-heart, steadfastly believe that, then write it down and sell it, because I still haven't gotten it down fully.)

  • Just because I decided to try and fix the relationship does not mean I had become a doormat or a masochist. It just meant that even with this new and bad information, I still felt like the positives in my relationship outweighed the negatives (though, true, by a much narrower margin). I was very comfortable with offering an ultimatum: one more indiscretion, at the time or 20 years from now, and I pack up and leave, no further discussion. I needed to feel like I had taken back some control in the relationship, and saying that if-then statement out loud helped me to feel like I wasn't just letting myself get walked on.

  • Moving on is not the same as forgiveness. I agreed to move on, to not use this as a weapon every chance I got and to start building something new. But - and this is a whole other post - I don't believe that one human being should hold enough power over another to offer forgiveness. And even if I did, I would never offer absolution for Willem's behaviors. They don't go away just because we want them to. I've said that we can be okay, but I will never say that what he did was okay.

Ugh. Enough. The longer I write, here, the more lecturey and know-it-all I sound. Which I don't much like, somehow. The thing is, this is all in retrospect - I can look back and figure out some of what helped us move on. In the moment, it was just a massive case of muddling through until something felt right, interspersed with lots of screw-ups and do-overs.

And yet, with all of this, I still don't have any regrets. If we had changed any one thing, then very likely the whole relationship would be different now. If Willem had told me right from the start that he slept with Horizonal Stripes Heather within a week of getting together with me, I'd have left him without a backward glance. If he had told me that he'd done any number of things when they happened, I'd have walked. I'm not glad that they happened, but I believe that life is an accumulation of all prior acts and decisions - and my life now is still pretty amazing.

Bah. I need a new Alanis video to lighten the mood.