“What we want most is only to be held…and told…that everything (everything is a funny thing, is baby milk and Papa’s eyes, is roaring logs on a cold morning, is hoot-owls and the boy who makes you cry after school, is Mama’s long hair, is being afraid, and twisted faces on the bedroom wall)…everything is going to be all right.”
― Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms
When I was cheated on, one of the many things that surprised me about that trauma, was that I desperately wanted comfort from the very same person who had hurt me.
Isn’t that odd? Can you think of anything else in life where you’d do that? Would you go back to the restaurant that gave you food poisoning? Would you ask a mugger to help you find your wallet? Or invite your IRS auditor to be Facebook friends? And yet, when we’re betrayed — infidelity being one of the most intimate and traumatic kind of betrayals — chumps almost universally seek comfort from their cheater. Who, let’s face it, is usually in serious cake withdrawal and not one bit interested in your pain. In fact your pain is hugely inconvenient and mortifying to them right now (assuming they’re not sociopaths, in which case it’s only inconvenient).
We so desperately want cheaters to show us some compassion, to hold us, and say “everything is going to be all right.” But it doesn’t play out that way, does it? What usually happens is that the cheater wants compassion from the chump. Tell me you’re not going to tell anyone! Tell me you aren’t going to divorce me over this! You must understand that I am grieving too! (Grieving the affair partner.)
Chump Lady often gets taken to task for not being compassionate towards cheaters. My answer to that usually is — there are many other places on the internet that offer compassion to cheaters, and not just compassion, but in other quarters, celebration of their infidelities as sexy and risk taking. My business here is compassion for chumps. But, the argument goes — what if it were you? Can’t you imagine doing something horrible for which you need forgiveness and were being denied?
Sure. I’m not perfect. My husband and other loved ones show mercy on me for my failings — and I have a lot of failings. It’s a beautiful thing to be accepted “warts and all.” But I do not confuse that mercy with unconditional love. That I can do anything, and my family must accept it, and work harder to have me in their circle. Grown up love is conditional love. If I was a drug addict, and I stole from my family, I would expect that they distance themselves from me out of self preservation. As they say in recovery speak “detach with love.” Similarly, if I cheated on my husband, if I were truly remorseful, I would have to understand that I broke our covenant and no one owes me a second chance. My husband is not obliged to stay married to me, or forgive me.
But I see that expectation all the time! From cheaters who act entitled to as many reconciliations as it takes to Get It Right. And from chumps who think they must be the bigger person and eat this shit sandwich. That they must forgive and ask themselves what they did wrong and try harder to win their cheater back.
You can argue that people reconcile out of fear, or crappy financial consequences, or keeping it together for the kids. But I also think mixed up in there is compassion — a great big heart that is trying very hard to love someone who has grievously hurt them. That IS a virtue. A beautiful sacrificial thing.
And it’s that very compassion, chumps, that gets you played.
That may be why, to anyone who hasn’t been chumped, my posts come off to some as angry or unforgiving. In real life, I’m actually Chumpy McChumperston. Pretty trusting and gullible (ask my husband about the rattlesnake vaccination I got talked in to… or any contractor I’ve employed). But I’m not as chumpy as I used to be. I understand now the blues song that goes: “you mistook kindness for weakness/And you walked right over me.”
It’s not that it’s wrong to be compassionate. I don’t want a life in which I never trust anyone again. But recognize that disordered people will use your kindness against you, and your strength and your generosity.
“Remorse” kept me stuck. My ex was operatic in his feigned remorse. It hurt me to see him in such pain. I could not imagine a world in which someone could MAKE THAT UP to play me. Who could say things like “I swear to you on my father’s grave” or “you know how much I love you and , I would never do anything to jeopardize our relationship.” But he did say those things, and more, but his actions told a very different story. We meant nothing to him and our pain didn’t register with him one bit.
I fell into the compassion trap. I was afraid of leaving, absolutely. But I also struggled mightily with the thoughts that I had to be a good person and not quit. Not let this person down — even though he had let me down in the most intimate and humiliating of ways.
My willingness to shoulder that unfair burden kept me stuck in that marriage. I should’ve wised up sooner and realized that he saw me as a mark. My staying to him meant he got another chance at cake. The price of admission was some kabuki theater that he was “sorry” and sitting in a shrink’s chair once a week and spewing word salad about Why He Did It. (Never got an answer on that one.)
The take away from this is NOT don’t show compassion or never trust again. No, it’s that chumps need to choose better. Compassion toward someone who is appropriately humble and acts contrite is very different than compassion for someone who acts entitled to it and does the same dumb shit over and over. Hold your compassion back and watch what they do. If you must love, go ahead and love. But detach out of self preservation. Have compassion for yourself. People with self esteem have conditions to their love. That’s okay. It doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a wise one. Give that big heart of yours to someone who has demonstrated that they deserve it.
This column ran previously. Feel free to comment!