One of the most difficult aspects of a second marriage is not inviting your first spouse into the union.
Not literally, unless you're into that sort of thing and you have a California king filling your master bedroom, but emotionally. My ex-husband committed literal bigamy. I have been guilty in my new marriage of practicing emotional bigamy, of listening to the past and allowing its whispers to drive my responses in the present.
Early last fall, my new husband and I purchased a home. From the beginning, he expressed an interest in converting the partial basement to a small home theater. His intention? A space for us to enjoy together and share with friends. My reaction? Complete and utter panic. Rational? Not in the least. But based on experience and rooted in fear.
My ex-husband's hidden life gained traction upon the completion of his basement home office many years ago. At least I thought it was his office. In reality, it became his mission control center where he destroyed his life and our marriage. So, in my betrayed and traumatized brain, the dominos are set: marriage > finished basements > bigamy. So my new husband's innocent desire for a home theater triggered the pain and fear that sprouted from a basement across town and across time.
Of course, that reaction is not fair to my new partner or my new marriage. If I react from the past, I will repeat the past. I wish it were as simple as disconnecting one party from a three-way call, hanging up on the fears and responses from the past. But it's not.
Of course, we all respond from our pasts at times. The patterns established with our parents in childhood repeat in our adult relationships. The roles we played with our peers and our siblings as youth are replayed as we age, with new members recast to fill established positions. The experiences of earlier romances continue to color new ones, past incidents setting up expectations in the present and future. All of us are made up of the sum of our experiences, our pasts creating our perspectives.
But for those of us who have been betrayed, the past has a tendency to scream rather than whisper. It is an especially persistent voice, telling you that you were a fool to be played and warning you away from being taken again. It's a narrator with malicious intent, rewriting the story to match the assumptions.
Betrayal changes you. It teaches you that nothing is safe and every embrace may end with a knife to the back. It primes you to always be on the hunt, looking for the attack before it strikes. It makes you fearful and anxious and makes trusting again feel like an impossible dream.
But betrayal also lies. It presents the past as present and memories as reality. The trick is separating its lies from the wisdom of intuition. Of learning what is noise from the past and what presents a real danger in the now. The hardest part of recovering from betrayal is learning how to trust yourself and believe in your own perceptions.
Cesar Millan, the gifted dog behavioral specialist, views every bad moment as an opportunity for rehabilitation. He doesn't panic when a dog lunges. He doesn't get angry when they try to bite. He doesn't give up when the dog snaps. He simply sees the moment as an opportunity. A moment to show the dog another choice. A different way of responding. A different way of being.
And I've come to take his perspective in my own life for when my past tries to bite me. Every time I get upset, every time I react from the past, it is an opportunity to choose to respond differently.
And life continues to present me with opportunities to retrain my brain. Potential triggers are everywhere, life mines buried beneath the most innocuous matters. I have become adept at recognizing when I am reacting from the past; there is a particular feeling in my chest as my emotions begin to flood my system, shutting down the more rational systems. I've learned to acknowledge the response, sift through the facts to make sure there isn't something to attend to, and then work to release the excess energy. And every time, it gets a little easier. The voice of the past, a little softer.
I cannot change the past. But I can change how I respond. When the past interrupts, I can acknowledge the call but I do not have to listen or respond to what it says.
A second marriage always contains remnants of the first; there is no tabula rasa of relationships. And the hardest part of a second marriage is keeping the first firmly in its place in the history books and to not punish the new spouse for the sins of the old.
And as for that home theater? It is now a wonderful space that I enjoy with my new husband and our friends. The past is not invited.
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