Like all of you, I am hunkered down in my home, limiting my human-to-human contact to family members and the occasional friend or neighbor that I see and speak to from a distance. I am also connecting with many friends and family through text, Zoom, and FaceTime. In many ways, digital connectivity has taken on a new sort of life as we all reach for connection and send memes and gifs and videos that keep laughter and joy alive in the midst of uncertainty and fear.
As the pandemic came to the US and then my state and county, and the ramifications of what we were dealing with became clearer, life began to narrow. As this happened, I felt a weird echo inside myself. It was like muscle memory that was starting to stir, a reaching back to something that was familiar but at the same time foreign and far away. This feeling came and went and then came back even more strongly. Over time, it has grown and begun to take shape and form inside of me, and it is only this week that I have become able to put words to what is happening.
I am back in it.
I haven’t been in this place for a long time. Despite many years of adulting, a cross-country move, relationship ups and downs, starting several businesses with all the challenges and risks that brings, moving locally twice, welcoming new life into the family, experiencing the deaths of close friends, watching parents and siblings and myself age, and feeling loss, joy, pain, love, heartbreak, delight, contentment, stress, and more stress, I have not been here in a very long time.
I have not been in a crisis that alters every aspect of life. Not since I experienced relationship betrayal and started to walk through a process of recovery. Since that time, nothing has altered so much of my life and thinking at one time. Nothing has created this level of uncertainty about how life will unfold in the future.
This pandemic is bringing me back, reminding me of the crisis of betrayal, the enormous sense of uncertainty and fear that I felt as I healed and found my way forward. I’m remembering all that was required from me as I walked through that crisis in a way that allowed me to not just survive, but to thrive and flourish afterward.
So here I am again. Here we are again.
And this has led me to think about what I learned when I went through the crisis of betrayal that I can draw on today as I learn and live through the coronavirus pandemic. Even though sexual betrayal and a pandemic are quite different in their specifics, they are similar in the level of crisis they create and the personal transformation, for better or worse, that always accompanies crisis.
Any big crisis brings transformation. The changes can be good or bad, but there will be change. Because crisis disrupts normal life and introduces uncertainty, it automatically shakes the status quo and requires the development or acquisition of new approaches, thinking, resources, and tools.
The crisis of betrayal alters the entire landscape of life, impacting not just your relationship with your significant other but all your relationships, including the one with yourself. It introduces fear, uncertainty, pain, and anguish. The future you thought you had is wiped out and a new future must somehow be constructed from the rubble of the life you thought you had.
The crisis of COVID-19 is also altering the landscape of life. We are feeling it on every level, from the global plane to the personal sphere of our homes, minds, and emotions. We are experiencing it collectively and we are experiencing it individually. One way or another, we will all be changed. As a world, as a nation, as a town, as a family, as a couple, as a person.
Crisis, regardless of its specific shape and details, changes us.
The question is, will it change us for the better or for the worse? It can only go one of two directions. We aren’t staying the same. So, will it be positive or negative change?
This is a tricky question.
We can easily get caught up in thinking that the answer to this question has to do with what happens to us circumstantially. In terms of betrayal we can ask, “Will I be able to stay married to the person I love? When the truth about the cheating gets told, will I find out that the thing I feared most happened? Will my kids be OK? Will I survive financially if I leave? Will I ever feel safe again?”
The pandemic has us wondering, “Will I have a job tomorrow? Will I be OK financially at the end of all this? What happens if my parents get sick and I can’t say goodbye? What if I get sick and die? How can I best manage my kids’ schooling and daily life in quarantine? How do I help those who need help when I am stuck at home?”
It is easy to get caught in evaluating better or worse based on whether our circumstances are positively or negatively impacted. And it’s not like these are insignificant questions. In fact, they are huge and very important questions. But they are about what is happening, not how you will handle what is happening.
Ultimately, the most important question that any crisis poses is not about the what, it’s about the how. How are you going to handle what comes as the uncertainty unfolds into concrete challenges and circumstances? But because the what questions (financial security, food security, relationship security) are often such significant issues, we can at times miss the importance of how. That said, taking time to answer the how question is the single most important factor in terms of how we travel through and out of a crisis. Any crisis.
When I was in the thick of dealing with my spouse’s sexual addiction and reeling from the ongoing betrayals, I somehow, by the grace of God, realized that the single biggest thing I had control of was also the most important factor in how my future was going to unfold. When I realized that, I prayed a prayer that became a mantra for me, and it went something like this, “OK God, if I have to go through this mind-bendingly shitty experience anyway, then please use it to grow me and change me and free me to be who I am supposed to be.”
I decided to answer the how question with a commitment to learn and grow from what was happening. This didn’t mean I liked what was happening (I did not like what was happening). This didn’t mean I wasn’t angry (I was livid). This didn’t mean I wasn’t in pain (I was in so much pain). This didn’t mean I wasn’t confused and scared (I was terrified). But I somehow knew that I was going to be angry, in pain, confused, and terrified no matter what. I also knew the only thing I could actually control was how I responded to what was happening. Would I commit to a process of growth and healing, allowing the negative experiences of anger, pain, confusion, and terror to change me in positive ways? Could I use betrayal as the impetus to know myself better and grow stronger?
I have clients tell me every day how their experience of social distancing and staying at home is forcing them to evaluate how they were doing life before the pandemic. They are questioning whether they want to go back to operating exactly as they were or whether there are things they want to change. They are noticing their responses to the fear and uncertainty, and they are working to manage difficult emotions as best they can. They are asking questions, being curious, and staying open to the best of their abilities. These clients can’t help but look at the what of their lives, but they’re doing it with a focus on how they handle their circumstances and who they want to be both now and moving forward. They are mining for hidden gifts in the crisis that will lead to positive changes in their lives and relationships.
Other clients are locked in a survival mentality. They are emotionally hunkered down and waiting for the pandemic to end. They want to go back to how it was before as soon as possible. They are impatient and angry about the changes that have been forced on them. Instead of grieving the losses the pandemic has brought to them (as it has to all of us), they are ignoring their grief while stamping their emotional feet and waiting for it to all be over.
This approach to pain, crisis, loss, and uncertainty blocks productive growth and change. It blocks opportunities to learn and evolve that painful and difficult circumstances often create. In refusing to look at the how and focusing only on the awful what, growth, learning, empathy, compassion, love, and connection are stunted, never fully flowering into the full strength of their potential.
This week, as I’ve realized this is the lesson that has been awakening and stirring to life inside me, I have started to look around and to listen to the quiet voice inside myself. I am asking the how question and listening for the answers.
I do not know what is to come. What I do know is that I sit in a place of incredible privilege where I have the luxury of writing this type of blog post and asking the deeper question of how. I am blessed and lucky. I have not yet experienced severe financial loss. No one I love has died. I am not hungry, or homeless, or in a nursing home. I am not a healthcare worker (though I have family members who are on the front lines).
I am aware, however, that this could all change. Because of that, I want and need to remember the muscle that I developed when I walked through betrayal. I need to flex that muscle and exercise it again by focusing on the how question as I walk through more days of quarantine and more fear and uncertainty about the future. I hope you will join me in this, because one thing I know for sure, it’s the only path to a positive, hopeful future for us all.
About the Author:
Michelle Mays, LPC, CSAT-S is the Founder of PartnerHope.com and the Center for Relational Recovery, an outpatient treatment center located in Northern Virginia. She has helped hundreds of betrayed partners and sexually addicted clients transform their lives and relationships. Michelle is the author of The Aftermath of Betrayal and When It All Breaks Bad and leads the field in identifying and crafting effective treatment strategies for betrayed partners.
Braving Hope is a ground-breaking coaching intensive for betrayed partners around the world. Working with Michelle will help you to move out of the devastation of betrayal, relieve your trauma symptoms and reclaim your life.