The Beginning of Something Else

On June 1, 2007 I found out my husband and partner of almost two decades had been unfaithful to me since before our marriage, and had been having intercourse with prostitutes for 3 1/2 years. This is what happened next.

Friday, August 6, 2010

What to do with the things I can't change

When I met Husband in 1988, Mom and I were renting an apartment together. After Husband and I became a couple, he moved in with us and we three have lived together ever since, through 22 years, 2 more apartments and a house.

If Husband is my greatest teacher in the spiritual sense, my mother is his. This translates into a very difficult relationship between them. Not very pleasant for me, but, especially over the last 3 years, I've tried to stay out of it.

Husband had told me that he felt trapped, because he knows I'd never be able to ask my mom to move out. I empathize with him, but he's right. It's a cost to me to have her here, but the cost to me of asking her to leave would be greater. And Husband has been compassionate in not asking me to make that choice. But it's important to him that I know how stressful it is for him, that I know his feelings.

The other day as I listened to Husband complain about mom, I could see clearly how he could relieve a lot of the pressure himself.

My mother isn't malicious. At her worst she's passive aggressive, but many times she's just doing her codependent best to be helpful. Mom doesn't have a good set of tools for self-expression, and she's not aware of what an absolutist she is. She rejects anything that starts to feel like an authority figure (even her own decisions) and frequently undermines us as parents by siding with my son on subjects such as bedtime, consumption of sweets and treats, second helpings, etc... She generally focuses on the worst that could possibly happen. And she is very self-righteous, while at the same time vehemently declaring her disdain for self-righteous people. In short, mom lacks self-awareness on many levels. But she tries to be helpful, and she does the best she can. (I'm really trying to cultivate compassion in my relationship with her, to let go of what I think she should be and appreciate the best of who she is. I have varying degrees of success.)

If one gets frustrated with a cat for meowing instead of mooing, who is causing the problem?

I understand many of Husband's problems with my mother. I share some of them, and I also have my own. But something I know that both Husband and I recognize is that there is little if any chance that the things that bother us about mom will change. For all intents and purposes, my mother is an immobile object.

As I listen to his complaints, I see all the things he could do from his own side to alleviate his suffering - for example, not taking her behavior personally, not expecting her to put our son to bed on time when she babysits, not getting upset when she draws our attention to the latest child kidnapping or tragic death, etc. (I don't tell him any of this, of course, because thanks to therapy I'm trying to practice listening without offering solutions.)

"It's like there's this thing in my life that I really, really wish wasn't there, but there's nothing I can do about it," he said. "You know what I mean?"

I felt like a light switch flipped on in my brain.

"Yes! Yes I do!" I said to both of us. "I know exactly what you're talking about."

I realized in that moment that this was how Husband could begin to understand how I feel about his lies and infidelity.

And in the next moment I began to wonder if all the clarity I had about how he could alleviate his own suffering could be applied to me when something triggers me into thinking about the past, or when I have uninvited thoughts and images come into my head.

Husband patted my leg. "I know you do," he said. "I know what you're talking about."

So I've been thinking it through. When there is something in my path that is beyond my control, the thing I can do is decide how I respond. I can get angry with the cat or feel hurt because it doesn't moo, I can feel disrespected when I ask the cat to moo and it meows, or I can say "That is a cat, and it meows." In other words, here is something that I don't have the power to change, and there is nothing for me to gain by wishing it to be anything other that what it is.

Or very specifically, the events of my past are what they are. Triggers and invasive thoughts are an opportunity for me to practice bringing myself back into the present moment, where I do have the power to have an impact.

What is going on in the present moment? Is Husband treating me the way I want and need to be treated? Is something bothering me that I need to address or express?

If things are good in the present moment, I can take a deep breath, surrender to the past that I have that will never be any other way, and enjoy the happiness of the present moment.

I think if one wants to try to change something that can't be changed (like the past) or that doesn't think it needs to be changed (like my mom) one must consider whether the cost of trying to change that thing (or wishing one could) is worth it, or if there is a more productive action that could be taken. I think there is a lot of truth to the saying "What you resist persists."

The trick is to figure out how to grow so that I'm not stopped by immobile objects in my path. Maybe it's finding compassion, maybe it's having a difficult conversation, maybe it's surrendering to my lack of control over something, or maybe it's something else.

I believe it's possible to progress without resisting that which I have no power to change.

It was a nice opening for me. I could feel the space created by seeing this parallel between Husband's situation and my own, and I could feel the peace that came with my willingness to surrender.