Since starting this blog, I’ve been asked several times in various different ways how I transformed into a happily married person after infidelity. Hey, you were such an epic chump — how did you ever trust anyone again? Did you fix your picker? Are you just stupid lucky? Where did you meet your husband? How did you know he was a good one? Are there any left?
I’ll start with the last question first — are there any good people left? HELL YES! We chumps are legion! For every freaky narcissist out there is some good, able-bodied person who’s been propping an egomaniac up without reward… until that shit fails (as it must). So the chump is back on the market. And then there are the ordinary, decent people who fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum of toxic taker and codependent giver. The world is full of millions of potential partners — not all of them personality disorders — take heart!
I’ve never understood why people chase the elusive reconciliation unicorn, thinking the odds of THAT working out are far greater than the odds of finding a new partner. Seriously? You could swing a cat in a bar and hit a stranger better than your cheater — just by virtue of the fact that person has not already cheated on you. Not that I recommend cat swinging as a selection method (more on refining your picker in a minute), but it’s totally likely you will find love again IMO, and far less likely that you can transform a hard-core cheater into a good life partner.
It should go without saying, you don’t have to remarry to be happy. But if you want to partner up again, don’t settle. There are so many ways to be happy — just escaping the orbit of a toxic relationship will improve your life dramatically.
But back to how did Chump Lady arrive in the Promised Land O’ Healthy Relationships?
Stupid dumb luck, really — but also the wisdom to recognize an opportunity and be open to it.
How did I meet my husband? New Orleans. But if I told you I met him on an elevator, I would not recommend to you standing on elevators in pursuit of a good, life partner. Elevator populations are random things. I don’t know specifically where to tell you to meet good people — they’re everywhere, but check places you especially like to be (like New Orleans!) If you like polkas, hang out in polka halls. If you like hiking, join a group. If you’re helpful, volunteer somewhere. You’re bound to stumble over someone like-minded eventually. While you cannot improve your luck in these matters, you can improve your wisdom, so that when you find a good person you recognize them as such.
What does a good person look like? I feel very chumpy telling you this, but after you’ve been with a really crappy partner, the differences are glaringly obvious. How did I not see that the cheater was ATROCIOUS? OMG… it’s mortifying.
So, here are a few things I’ve learned about choosing better and what good relationships look like. There’s a part 2 (I can run more tomorrow if you want, vote in the comments). There are more than a few lessons here, but let’s start with the biggie, RECIPROCITY.
Good people want to reciprocate. Takers, over time, are very transparent in their selfishness. Sure, they often love bomb you in the beginning, but it’s always quid pro quo — they’re looking for the payoff. They want something in return for their efforts — and it’s never a fair trade. They get petulant if the kibbles are not immediately forthcoming. With crappy people, the entitlement is often pretty out there, but we’re so dazzled by their sparkle, we want to be of service to them. Bad dynamic! Good partners delight in pleasing you. They get honest pleasure from doing for you. And while they can receive graciously, however, taking too much does not sit well with them.
I’ve found this in other parts of my life too, in friendships and good neighbors. Good folks want to return the favor. You lent me your casserole dish? I’m going to return it with cookies. You invited me to dinner? I’m going to invite you to a concert. If you make a generous overture to a good person, and the equation becomes temporarily lopsided? They’re vocally appreciative and they look for an opportunity to give back. Bad people don’t do this. Bad people are VERY comfortable with things being lopsided. (Really they prefer that, but they’re artful about not letting on, or diminishing your gifts as Not All That Valuable, so what’s the big deal?)
I paid off thousands of dollars of my ex-husband’s debts when we married to get a better mortgage rate. I paid for all sorts of things I should not have. (The chump title is mine, do not challenge me.) And in retrospect, it appalls me now how comfortable that fat, six-figure salaried patent attorney was at letting single mother me finance things. I’m appalled at myself mostly. But I told myself, well, of course he’d do the same for me. But that was spackle. He didn’t. He wouldn’t.
When I met my husband, I was totally struck at not only how generous he was, but how mutual everything was. If he wrote to me, I would write back, and then he wrote me back something more, something funnier. I never had to guess about his level of interest, there was always more conversation to be had. I was on the lookout for character — and the smallest gestures made a big impression on me.
Once in New Orleans, I lost my voice. Just got a chest cold thing and he leapt into action — are you okay? And took the initiative to order an over priced cup of tea via room service. It’s the kind of motherly thing I would do, but a guy? I knew then that he was a Good Person. I was paying attention and the good things just started adding up. We joke about that cup of tea — he says, boy, that cup of tea was sure worth it, for the impression it made!
When you’re with a narcissist, they aren’t noticing you in any care taking sort of way. They aren’t checking in. They aren’t looking for opportunities to do for you in small ways. It’s all about them. If they make a gesture, it’s a grand gesture that reflects well on them some way. Other people must notice it and remark, but I doubt a cup of tea would be on their radar. The balance is always off with a narcissist. Good people want to DO. That was my first clue that this relationship was different.
Tomorrow — I’ll get into not falling into the “Well, they look good on paper…” trap. Good people ARE good. They’re more than a bundle of attributes you should like, or others would find enviable.
But suffice it to say — if you learn nothing else about relationships — hold out for reciprocity. Good people give AND take in pretty equal measure, but it genuinely pleases them to please you.
This column ran previously.