I will never, ever tell you that I’m glad my husband had an affair. Nor would you ever expect me to. When I tell you though that so much good has come from it, that is in effect what I’m telling you and I just cannot wrap my brain around this bittersweet irony.
My body revolts if I even come close to declaring his betrayal was at all good for our marriage. Discomfort presents low in my gut, works its way up my spine and lodges like a two-ton boulder right between my shoulder blades. Then I involuntarily convulse once or twice, as if attempting to shake off the malaise. This adverse reaction makes me want to abandon this ludicrous thought and leave it for dead, like a frat house couch tossed out on the roadside. It’s just too repugnant.
But it keeps coming back. The notion that ultimately the affair was a good thing. And each time, my body responds to this threatening thought like it’s a virus and tries to eradicate it the second it takes hold. Because being betrayed wasn’t a good thing. Adultery is never a good thing. This train of thought runs on an endless loop in my brain. But I am the conductor of this line of thinking, and I just don’t want to say infidelity in my marriage was a good thing, so I won’t.
I do affirm that good has come from it though, and even saying that is risky. I can feel my antibodies raise their fists and declare, “we are William Wallace!,” and fall into formation, readying themselves to defend against that assessment too. But the reality is, it’s true.
The good is that in choosing to stay in this marriage, that choice was paired with a mutual desire and understanding that our marriage had to be completely remade; cut from new cloth and thoroughly redesigned. The good is that in the long overdue reconstitution, we have begun to learn how to love each other in a way that will sustain us.
In the post-apocalyptic union my husband and I are forging, love has come to mean something very different to me. I’m an eager student of love now, whereas I recognize I really wasn’t before, and the lessons are each and every one profoundly broadening my view of the horizon.
We all need good teachers, and we need them always, not just during our tours of duty in the halls of academia. We need wise instructors to help us navigate the real and messy life that comes after we’ve earned our certificates, diplomas, or degrees. Great teachers who are great thinkers help us see our own myopic views for what they are and present to us instead a kaleidoscope of thoughts and ideas that help us see better, more beautiful ways of interacting with one another. And with ourselves. When we know better is when we can begin to do better.
Excellent mentors have been incredibly plentiful for me these past several months, continually popping up, like a seemingly endless supply of Dutch tulips on parade in a field. And the circumstances are such that I’m paying rapt attention now; I’m no longer doing the bare minimum just to get by. I’m all systems go for the continuing education. My ears are listening, my brain is absorbent, my heart is pliable and thus my understanding of love is expanding.
I just listened to A.R. Bernard (founder of the largest church in New York City) regal Oprah during an episode of her SuperSoul Conversations podcast with his description of the kind of redemptive, sacrificial and unconditional love he and is wife have learned (the hard way) to offer each other. My mind was blown as he relayed, “if you have reasons to love someone, you have conditions, and when the conditions aren’t met, the relationship is in trouble. So today, we love each other for no reason. THAT, is unconditional love. It takes courage to love like that, it takes selflessness.” This enlightening and exciting paradigm for love captivates me and I’m swooning. Seriously, catch me please.
Love, especially love for no reason, was not my go-to mode during past difficulties with my husband. When hurt, I hurt back. When let down, I would shut down and seal off the damaged compartment of my heart. Eventually, my heart was on total lockdown. Nothing got in or out.
The impact of the affair broke my heart wide open. The pain, heavier than what I could lift off my chest by myself, was literally breath-taking at first. The air had suddenly become too thick and polluted to take in and my lungs protested the exertion. But soon, or soonish, or just eventually, (time became warped and remains a foggy detail) in what I consider to be a nothing short of miraculous turn of events, I realized light was seeping in through the heaps of wreckage.
That light was love and it illuminated my way back into the classroom. This time I sat front row, center. And in response to my willingness to dive into the curriculum, the universe responded with the right stuff.
Here’s a cram session with some of my best learning from my courses in Advanced Hard Shit and Pick Yourself Up Off The Floor 401:
Brené Brown taught me the value in staying in our stories; to resist the urge to flee and how to show up vulnerable and lean in to the hard stuff. That, ‘when we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write the ending.’ Leo Babauta tutored me in sitting still and allowing myself to feel the hurt and how to drop right out of fear and stop running from it. Anne Lamott professed to me that grace, mercy and radical self-care can and should rule the day; they are much better long-term methods of coping than any kind of numbing is. I learned from Glennon Doyle that we can’t avoid pain or get around it, we have to army crawl right through the muddy middle of it. But pain has a purpose and we can use every bit of it to rise up, and doing so earns us freedom from its chains. Collectively, all four trained me to square up to shame and stare it down until it slinks away. We can beat shame handily because it’s a bully and we all know how cowardly that makes it.
Sheryl Sandberg imparted to me that we can in fact find our way out of the trauma induced void in which we cannot think straight or even breathe and once we do, we can decide that although we want Option A so very badly, when it’s not available, we can kick the shit out of Option B instead. Cheryl Strayed illustrated for me that none of us are our mistakes, that redemption is always a possibility. Paul David Tripp explained how to nurture and strengthen love by giving our spouse our first and our best, and vice versa. Bob Goff showed me that love does; it’s not a feeling or something we fall in or out of, love is action. He pointed out that yes, uncertainty chases us out into the open, where we feel too exposed and vulnerable, but God awaits us there. He convinced me we can begin the journey back to love even though we do not know how it will all end.
Before the affair, I had only subscribed to a smallish version of love. It wasn’t an archetype that was going to help us wade through the mess of a marriage we’d arrived at after my husband’s transgression. My initial and still unwavering instinct was to stay, I just didn’t know how to stay. I wasn’t well versed in leaning in to pain and suffering, and certainly not in loving my way through it. So I needed good instruction, better methods, solid models, and new doctrines. I got exactly what I needed from all of the above professors, each one fully vested and tenured in the Department of Moving Onward, via the routes of forward and upward.
I commingled all of this new insight with some knowledge I already possessed: that forgiveness is key to moving forward in life, and forgiveness is for the aggrieved and not the aggressor. Forgiving my husband is what allowed me to feel the most impervious to the pain, fear and paralyzing uncertainty, and it did so without excusing his behavior that caused the turmoil.
Subsequently, I’m using what feels like a PhD in Your Heart Will Go On Studies, from the University of You Will Get Hurt In This Life, by converting all that knowledge into action, into staying. Because what good is a hard-earned degree if we don’t use it? Especially if we paid dearly for it.
The good from my heart breaking wide open was that the reverberations broke my husband’s heart wide open too, and two wide-open hearts can do all kinds of things two shutdown hearts cannot. Each heart can forgive the other and see the error of its own ways, and practice forgiveness there too. Each heart can learn from the past and hope for the future. Each heart can wring out the horrible and unthinkable, all the rotten and regret, until what remains is mostly good.
The kind of good that can only come from wading through the bad. Bittersweet good. Some won’t want that kind of good, some will have trouble believing in its existence, some won’t want to endure the uncertainty of whether this good will ever outweigh the bad. And I get that.
After my husband told me he had been unfaithful, I remember feeling like I had no reason to stay, to love. Just valid reason to leave. But I never once wanted to leave and I couldn’t divine why. After hearing Pastor Bernard expound on a better way to love, the best way to love I have ever heard, I realized I didn’t need a reason to stay and to love. Because love that needs reasons is conditional love and that’s not the kind of love I want to fill my wide-open heart back up with as it heals.
In this new season, I’m choosing to love for no reason.
Featured Image: by Aaron Burden on Unsplash.com
Image 1: Old Couch: by Kirrin on Flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Image 2: by Jason Eppink: world’s largest kaleidoscope (Kaatskill Kaleidoscope) (CC BY 2.0)
Image 3: by JJ Thompson on Unsplash.com
Image 4: by Jilbert Ebrahimi on Unsplash.com