A lot of my Chump Lady mail can be divided into two categories, “I got chumped… what are people going to think?” and “I got chumped… and my cheater is telling people terrible things about me.” Both followed with “And what can I do about that?”
Nothing. Sorry, chumps. You can’t do anything about what people think of you, and what people say about you.
Look, I know it’s unjust having your cheater telling bald-faced lies about how controlling, sexless, abusive, hairy-legged, and insane you are. Worse, I know some people whom you once thought cared about you (such as your in-laws) are inclined to believe it. This infidelity crap is a one-two punch — betrayal, and then more lies.
Okay, maybe it’s more like a continuous thug-kicking by a motorcycle gang than a one-two punch. Betrayal, lies, character assassination, gaslighting, alienation, and alimony. Anyway, my point is, leave the impression management to the crazies. You just keep being your mighty self.
1.) Never let what people might think of you get in the way of protecting yourself. That especially goes for what the cheater thinks. Oh, I might antagonize him if I see a lawyer/move half the money/run a credit report. Hey, your cheater didn’t worry about antagonizing you when he/she cheated on you, so just go ahead and protect yourself. Stop caring about how you’ll be perceived (i.e., bitter, vindictive, selfish, churlish, hasty, etc.) Start caring about reality (i.e., this person is fucking me over).
2.) Speak the truth, but stop at defensiveness. There’s no good way to answer set-up questions like “How long have you been beating your wife?” I don’t beat my wife. “Oh you would say that. Six months? A year? Ever since you met?” The temptation is to raise your voice and really get stroppy. I DON’T BEAT MY WIFE! Stop. You just missed an important clue — your questioner is fully invested in that narrative. You answered the question. They either believe it, or they don’t believe it. In the case of infidelity (and not fictitious wife-beating), the truth is you were chumped. That’s what happened. You don’t need to defend yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong here. Frankly, you don’t have to answer any personal question you don’t want to.
3.) Speak the truth, and realize that your cheater probably got to the narrative first. One way chumps get chumped is when they agree to the “we just grew apart” story, and keeping “private matters private,” they think the cheater is going to play by the same set of rules. You won’t talk smack about them, they won’t talk smack about you. Oh chumps, your cheater has probably been talking smack about you all along. Shaming you into being quiet ensures that their narrative stays on top. That’s why cheaters get so ugly when you do start speaking up — you’re tilting at that balance of power. Disordered people need their impression management so their manipulations (and Sad Sausage story lines) keep working on everyone.
4.) People who believe the worst about you don’t know you. Not really. This might be one of the single most awful things about life post-discovery. People who you thought knew you, really don’t. Their attachments were shallow. It’s hard enough to realize this about a spouse or partner, it’s even more gobsmacking to realize it about your social circle. Well, of course Dorothy got cheated on. She’s frigid. Unlike me. I have sex with my husband! This person doesn’t know the inner workings of your bedroom. Maybe the lie makes them feel superior. Maybe the lie gives them some weird false comfort. Who knows? What matters are the people who do know you, and have your back. Invest your energies there.
5.) People who believe the worst about you probably have a vested interest in believing that crap. You don’t control that. Your in-laws turned on you? Better you be the monster than believe their son or daughter is a lousy person. Not their special Pookykins! Maybe they’ve been believing all the crap said about you for years, and now that the affair has been revealed, they’d have to admit they were mistaken. Why be wrong? Who are you again?
6.) Character is revealed over time. Who we are is revealed every day in every little action and decision. No one is perfect, but the arc of someone’s character — how giving they are of themselves, how considerate, how reciprocal — is perceptible. The people who matter aren’t swayed by your ex’s gossip and trash talk. The shallow people who are? Please, stop caring what they think today.
This column ran previously.