Cheating is no joke!

In celebrity circles infidelity may seem funny, but it's no laughing matter when you've been the victim of it

Published August 29, 2010 11:01PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I'm writing for validation, and for a very specific problem to do with suffering.

I got out of a horribly emotionally abusive long-term relationship about eight months ago. I was young and stupid and didn't know what I got myself into, and I'm a lot wiser now. One of the worst aspects? The discovery, a few weeks after I'd left my ex and cut off all contact, that a good friend of mine -- whom I'd introduced to him -- had been having an emotionally charged affair with him for several months. She confessed to me over e-mail, after they broke up.

All our mutual friends knew. He sent me desperate e-mails telling me he regretted it and still loved me for a good five months after I left. I didn't answer.

Since then, I've done damn well, if I say so myself. (And I do. There aren't many resources around to congratulate people who manage to deal with the nuclear aftermath of these experiences, and be OK with themselves, and build anew. It's hard. We need some applause.) I didn't talk to him. I didn't talk to her. I didn't blast about his behavior to his friends, or his colleagues, or his parents. I didn't insist that friends choose sides, and I didn't fantasize about revenge, or hope for his imminent downfall and impotence.

I moved to another country. I made new friends, got into one of the world's best universities, quietly went to therapy, read an awful lot of Anna Akhmatova ("but I warn you I am living for the last time"), baked, succeeded professionally, had a lot of fantastic sex, traveled to glorious places on my own, met the famous and the wise, took risks, and have, in general, built myself an utterly brilliant life, not out of proving a point but out of wanting to be OK. I also learnt a lot of things about living a life with integrity. You know, Adult Shit.

To which I say to myself: well done. You did it.

There's one problem. We live in a cheating-rife culture. My job means that I'm exposed to a lot of celebrity news, and lately it's been pocked and rotted through with talk of affairs.

Time heals all wounds, given a certain definition of "heals." The saying should more correctly state that time lays a thin covering over wounds, until something negates that protection.

It doesn't happen all the time -- indeed, it's rare -- but talk of cheating, particularly flippant talk, as if it's not a matter of importance, can reach a deep pulse point under my skin. It gets to it, and it presses, and I am completely ravaged. Cary, I spent a lot of time trying to convince people I was suffering during my eight months underwater, and I still don't feel completely as if my claims to it are believed, but when that pulse point is hit, I suffer. I suffer in an acute sense -- in the wolves-down-the-hill, sun-exploding, bone-crushing, empire-falling way that innocent people suffer when evils are visited upon them without provocation or reason. I feel all the injustice and betrayal of their act rushing through my skin. It's bad. Sometimes I lie still and can't move.

What do I do? Unfaithfulness is, regretfully, a part of modern life, and I'm going to have to deal with that. How do I pad the pulse point so that it doesn't bring me right back to the moment when I first read the e-mail and entered a state of physical, hyperventilating shock? How do I live, I suppose is the question, with what has been done to me?

Still Pulsing

Dear Still Pulsing,

Eight months may be long enough to find some distractions and gain some accomplishments, but not long enough to heal from what you went through. Maybe you need more time.

You have been hurt but also you have come to new knowledge about yourself. This knowledge will take time to feel like a natural part of you.

Now you know how it feels to be on the receiving end of the cruelty we dismiss as "human nature" or "the way things are," and you see that "the way things are" really does wreck people. But you do not yet know how to square this knowledge with the glib and edgy style that passes for wit in the social and professional circles of celebrity media.

You're supposed to laugh but you wince.

It's not funny to you anymore.

Of course it isn't.

You can speak up but you may not be heard. Worse, you may invite ridicule. It's your right to speak up when stupid or insensitive people perpetuate social victimization by making light of it. But there are risks for the person who speaks up. Things get really awkward and people go back to their desks.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. I personally love an uncomfortable scene, when uncomfortable truth is spoken. Social progress does not happen until the victims speak and make the perps squirm.

But I'm thinking of you. There's no reason you have to make yourself the butt of scorn. You don't have to be a martyr to the cause. You can bear the callousness of others with quiet dignity, while you make slow changes in whom you choose to associate with.

Sure, your blood boils. If you choose to speak you could say, in a level tone of voice, that you no longer find infidelity funny. You could. It's all a matter of what you choose to do. Take heed of what you feel and put it to good use.

And if you're looking for validation, I can certainly offer you that. There is nothing wrong with you. You still feel the pain for a reason. You were hurt. It is not just in your head. And you are re-experiencing the trauma. It is being triggered. If you go in for psychological help, you might seek out some help in the area of desensitizing yourself to prior trauma; perhaps someone who specializes in PTSD, or who practices EMDR, may be able to help.

One final thing. When new knowledge comes, we have to make room for it; we have to part with old knowledge; that means admitting that we were wrong about certain things. Part of this new knowledge may involve seeing how you were taught to allow people to treat you badly and not to speak up for yourself. I am not saying that you deserve what happened. I am saying that all of us are taught disempowering habits of cultural accommodation, and as we grow and get knocked around we have to examine them and learn how to protect ourselves. If you examine the social behaviors you were taught as a young child, and the belief system you carried into adulthood, you may find the cruel habits of those around you mirrored in your own psyche. That can be painful. But it is one of the only sure routes to change.

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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