I am going to talk about something we don’t talk about that openly.
I am going to talk about my experience of infidelity. But more importantly, I am going to talk about how my experience of infidelity has led me to understand something about humanity and how we can literally change the world.
Before I get to my realisation about how we can change the world, if we see things differently, it will help if I give you some context. And before I begin, I am talking about fidelity in monogamous relationships, where two people have committed to being exclusive. I am not open relationships where people openly and honestly have sexual partners in addition to the relationship.
I met my ex-husband, Nick, in 2000 through work. I had seen him in his office, in his suit, and his smile at me, in a dream I had had before we met. 24 hours after we got together, he said to me “I think you may be The One.”. I remember not replying, but thinking “I know.”
We were inseparable. We would go to bed early most nights and just cuddle and read to each other, all cosy in bed. He called me his angel. We were seen by others to be the “perfect couple” – well, to all bar 1 of my friends, who saw something but didn’t tell me.
We got married after a couple of years. Life wasn’t easy for us, we each had other challenges in our lives outside of our relationship, but our relationship was sacrosanct. It was home. We adored each other. He still called me his angel, but also now “his wonderful wife” to me and all who’d hear him.
We never argued – we had only 2 in the first 5 1/2 years of our relationship, because we talked about everything.
But then we had a difficult year. I had supported him through nearly three years of his nursing degree studies, helped by an inheritance I had. He realised a couple of months before his final exams that he nursing wasn’t for him. So I stood by him as he explored what he would do next. He decided he wanted to be a teacher instead.
He didn’t like London, so I moved with him to Sheffield, and was happy to do so, and he signed up for his year long teacher training there. We had been together 5 1/2 years at this point. He came home from his first day at University, and he was beaming at me, as he told me that when the students were introducing themselves to each other and talking about their lives, all he could really talk about was me – his “wonderful wife”. He had left the pub social early, because he just wanted to come and be with me. We were so close.
I had wanted children for 3 years, and he had asked me to wait until his studies were nearly over, so this was the year we could start trying.
And then things fell apart. Finding a permanent home had become difficult, and I wasn’t dealing well with that. He was working all the hours he could on his teacher training, and we just didn’t see each other. We stopped having sex regularly, but I had been promised we would have a baby, and I was frustrated after all the years of waiting. We started arguing. 6 months into his teacher training, we had a difficult weekend, and realised we were in trouble. We agreed we would hold on until the course finished, and then we would go into relationship counselling to help us get back to where we were.
Except the relationship counselling never happened.
His ex-girlfriend, Louise got in touch shortly after that weekend. I knew something was wrong from the email the sent to tell me that he had passed his teacher training. There wasn’t the usual sign off, filled with love. I was in Canada, for my best friends wedding, but was on a plane home as she was getting married because when I asked him if he was leaving me, he said yes.
I watched him lie to me about whether there was anyone else involved for 4 hours straight. But I knew something was wrong. So I did something I had never done – that is uncharacteristic of me to do, and that I haven’t done since – I hacked into his emails.
And there I saw it.
There were all sorts of emails, ones where he shared his writings from trips I had paid for to visit my loved ones. The one that really got me was the one where he laid out his plans for the next year.
When you become a teacher, you have to spend a year as an NQT – a newly qualified teacher – and once you pass that year, you are a fully qualified teacher. His placement was near us in Sheffield, and Louise was in Bournemouth. He had written her an email, planning out the whole of the next year, all the weekends he could make excuses to see her, and the ones he couldn’t because we had my friends visiting, and he was sorry to her about that. He had planned, in a cold calculated way, to stay with me for that whole year, so he could finish his NQT year before moving to be with Louise in Bournemouth.
When I phoned Louise, and shaking with nerves and British politeness “erm sorry for phoning…… but can I respectfully ask if you would feel able to step back so Nick and I can have a bit of time to work out where we are at?”, she shouted at me for phoning her because, as she put it, “what if one of the kids had answered the phone”. That added a whole other level of distress. Nick’s family and friends were right – she clearly WASN’T as lovely as me. Had he left me for someone lovelier, I would have understood it. So my confusion just grew.
When we were discussing the divorce, Nick blackmailed me, telling me that he wouldn’t give me the money he had promised in the divorce settlement – less than half of what I had spent on him and his education and his life, because it was all he could afford – if I named Louise on the divorce papers. She didn’t want her partner Craig – who she cheated on with Nick – to find out quite what she had done to him.
At one point in the conversations that followed, Nick explained to me that once, about 4 years after we met, he had told me that he felt I didn’t listen to him. I remembered the conversation. “I decided that you would never change and to go along with it” he said. I explained that very rarely can people look to change on being told something once, that it was duty to communicate with me, to tell me he hadn’t been happy again until I had heard. Maybe I didn’t know how to change, but I am and have always been open to feedback to doing the best I can – it was his responsibility to make sure I heard him properly, so telling someone once and giving up doesn’t give them a chance to understand. Despite this, he always treated me adoringly, so I had no sense whatsoever that anything could be wrong. On reflection, my sense was he was trying to come up with an excuse to justify what he had done.
At one point, Nick asked me if I wanted to try again. He said “I will try again if you want to. But can I ask you to make a decision quickly, because it’s not fair to keep Louise hanging on.” So it was clear to me who he cared about and and wanted to be with, that it wasn’t me, so I said no.
No-one could understand it. His friends and family all knew Louise from years before, she was an ex of his, and almost every single one of them said to me “we just don’t know why he’s left you – for HER?” None of them liked her. He nearly lost all of his schoolfriends because of it.
When they married, he took Louise’s name and became double-barrelled. He was no longer just Nick Hanlon. He became Nick Hanlon-Brooks.
It took me more than 10 years to realise that I had spent all those years living with post-traumatic stress because of that email, seeing how I had being lied to, and how we had finished – of how I had seen my dreams and the life and relationship I loved – literally vanish in a painful puff of smoke.
The impact of all of that – the shockwaves – it sent through me and my life are impossible to describe. I had money, and no commitments, and when friends suggested I go travelling, I couldn’t do it. I had nothing to hold on to. My whole life – all my dreams – had crashed and burned. But most of all, my ability to trust myself had gone too.
Some people when they are cheated on lose trust in men or women, depending on who they date. I didn’t lose trust in people. I lost trust in myself. And that had a serious impact on my ability to choose healthy relationships. I spent 7 years dealing with an abusive and aggressive ex, in the end applying to the Courts for an injunction to stop his behaviour – someone I would not have chosen if I had trusted myself to chose wisely. But my radar, which had been highly attuned to spot aggressive men (and avoid them), turned itself off after we separated. If I had got it so wrong with Nick, I wondered, then I must get it wrong with everyone.
Nick didn’t just lose my trust in him – he took with him my trust in my ability to choose wisely. Had we lovingly reached a point of letting each other go, respectfully – however painful that would have been – I would have continued to believe in myself, and my ability to choose well. I would have stayed strong in my belief in myself as a valuable and loveable human being.
Instead he blocked me on all social media, which I found out only by accident, which made me feel like there was something wrong with me for a decade, because why would he behave in that way but then refuse to talk to me – surely I should be the one blocking HIM? I contacted him 4 or 5 times asking for just one meeting – one question had remained unresolved and I just wanted to understand something so I could move on and have closure. He has consistently refused, so I didn’t know for a whole decade how to find a final closure around it all, despite trying a gazillion healing, coaching, NLP, and psychological techniques to do so. It had stopped me finding a peace and being able to fully move on.
And here’s the thing.
When we talk about the reasons why relationships break up, it’s just accepted that one reason is infidelity.
If, however, someone came and burned your house down, and your partner died in it, that would be seen a criminal matter. But we do this to each other emotionally – and it is ACCEPTED that we do. We have normalised the emotional equivalent of this behaviour in our world.
And what we are doing each other a disservice in this world. Because we are saying to each other “you’re just human. Go ahead. You don’t need to be bigger than this. You don’t need to do the right thing. He or she’ll just get over it.”
We stop ourselves and each other from stepping up into being the very greatest we can be. We don’t hold each other to account, we don’t remind ourselves that we can have courage, that we can be strong, that we are POWERFUL and able to love and respect others, and how actually, being kind and loving FEELS GOOD.
We think it’s in human nature to hurt one another. When kids are horrible to each other, we say “Oh that’s just kids being kids.”. When businesses behave unethically we say “oh that’s just what corporates do.”. And so they just carry on because we don’t remind them of how much more wonderful they can be, how well they can behave, and how GOOD it feels to do so.
But I actually think there is a more powerful aspect to our nature that we could do with celebrating all the more.
Twice I have seen people collapse on the tube, and in both of those instances, I was amazed by what I saw.
Immediately – INSTINCTIVELY – people rushed forward to support and help the stranger who had fallen. Both incidences happened at rush hour, I didn’t see anyone check their watch and wonder if they would be late for work. In that moment all that mattered was whether this person, right here in front of them, was OK.
I really believe it is a natural instinct to be kind – to want to help – for most people. I think instinctively we know we are in this together, and would want someone to help us too if we needed it.
But here’s the thing. The more kindness we show to others, the more we inspire others to do the same.
The more we are honest with those who love us, who have given us their trust, the more courageous and kind we are with the people around us, the more we inspire those around to be the same, and it sends ripples through people as we help each other step up to being bigger and better in ways that help not just us, but eventually all of humanity.
The world needs us to bring kindness into all we do. We then help others bring kindness to all they do. Social scientists are proving that emotional states spread to people we don’t even know. There is a model called the 3 degrees of influence.
When we make another person unhappy, we are spreading unhappiness, because they will take and share how bad they feel and share it with someone else, whose mood will drop, who will also feel unhappy, who will then take that happiness to someone else. Social scientists have named this phenomenon The 3 Degrees of Influence. Happiness and positive emotion spread in this way too.
So spread kindness. And have the COURAGE and LOVE to start by spreading it at home. If things aren’t working out with someone who loves you and has given you their trust (in my case also my wallet), then do the right thing. Be the amazing person you are. Love them enough to tell them with love, and resolve this stuff completely first.
You can do it. You are big enough. And wonderful enough.
And if your friend is cheating on someone, love them enough to tell them to stop. To face the challenges in the relationship first. To be honourable to all the people involved, including themselves? Think that’s impossible? Husbands beating their wives was normal once, so was rape in marriage. I think this is the next social norm to tackle and make unacceptable.
Two people who get together at the expense of anyone else will never ever be truly happy. They might think they are, but deep down, their foundations have formed in a bedrock of destruction and pain and unhappiness and brokenness and shame and deceit and the loss of trust. No amount of double-barrelling will be a strong enough glue to stop that destruction and pain and unhappiness from finding its way out again eventually. And that will lead to yet more destruction and pain and unhappiness elsewhere. A relationship built like that will always be broken at it’s core because it was built on breaking others.
Would you wish that for yourself, or for someone you love?
I wouldn’t either. No one wins. Not ever, not truly.
Had Nick done the right thing, and resolved things with me first, had we decided to separate and only after THAT had he met Louise and got together with her, the foundations of their relationship would be built on love, not misery, pain, betrayal, deceit.
We need to stop staying silent when we see our loved ones hurt other people. This is a psychological concept called bystander apathy – where we will stand by and watch horrible things happen without stepping in.
Funnily enough it was Nick, who ironically trained to be a citizenship teacher, who would say to me “we are our brother’s keeper.”. And he was right. We need to look out for each and help each other be the best we can be. We have to make a stand for honesty and respect and loving open communication, for having the courage to do the right thing. And to bring kindness into all we do.
Being honest, courageous, strong and kind isn’t always easy. We ARE human. None of us is perfect. We are all constantly learning and growing and evolving. We fuck up.
When you fuck up, apologise. From the heart. And mean it. Sit in your discomfort, look the person in the eye and let them share their pain of what they have been through because of your actions. That is what heals, it’s what enables everyone to move on peacefully. Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu showed us all how to do that with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa.
When we fall, the best way we can help each other is to remind each other of why we are brilliant and how awesome we can be. Loving each other and being compassionate when we fall, but not saying “it’s OK, you’re human, we fall.” Saying “we fall, but here – let me help you up again, because I’ve seen you walk, and you’ve got a pretty special walk, especially when you walk tall and with that big bold honest loving heart and that massive kind smile you have.”
And in the process we show others how to walk tall, with a big bold honest loving heart and a massively infectious kind smile too.
And that feels good right? Can you all feel it in the room right now? Can you all feel that desire to walk tall, with a big bold honest loving heart and a massively infectious kind smile too?
As you leave here tonight, take that with you and spread the vibe of standing tall, with big bold honest loving hearts and big kind smiles, and spread it to the people you meet, and they will spread it to the people they meet.
And then when enough of us spread that to others, we see the world change, because everyone else has remembered how GOOD it feels to be kind, and wants to do more of the same.
Do the right thing. Be the big person you can be. Shine your light, with love wherever you go, especially with all of those who love and trust you. Help others do the same.
Stop unkindness in all its forms, and revel in how wonderful kindness feels.
I write and talk about many many issues. My perspective on this is the first time more friends than not have said “you can’t about that”. Because of how many of them have cheated or been the “other woman” or “other man”.
I spoke to one friend who was “the other woman”, who despite her discomfort told me she was the other woman, and we just talked about what this meant for her and why, and all I felt was love for her because she could sit with it and be with it. And work through it. She – despite her discomfort – knew I was right. And wanted to use this as an opportunity to honour herself and others and grow.
We have to talk about this. Humanity needs it right now. We need to start believing the best in each other – especially given the way the world is right now – and drawing boundaries around what is and isn’t acceptable. We need to stop normalising a lack of kindness, respect and love in all it’s forms – and that starts with our personal relationships.
Imagine how much in world could change if we did that?