The Frankel Files Part 1: On acceptance and unconditional love

"Storytime" statue in Waikiki, Hawaii.

I think Bethenny Ever After is my transformational messaging gateway drug. But I have always said that it is in the mundane, every-day spaces that we usually find something special, even transformative. That’s why you get your “Aha!” moment in the check-out line at the grocery store. That’s why you have so many good ideas in the shower!

On tonight’s episode, we found Bethenny Frankel on vacation in Mexico with her family and her work crew. It was also her birthday, which is always a touchy subject because she share’s her birthday with her (estranged) mother (but we’ll get to that). In this episode, as in many this season, we saw Bethenny and her husband Jason Hoppy fighting. The tone has been ominous but the couple seemed to have some rallying moments, too.

So, as usual, I don’t really want to hash out the gossipy threads. I want to use this as a launch pad to talk about the really important themes that Bethenny’s show brings up, in good ways and bad ways. (Someday I should really send her a thank you card for giving me so many opportunities to talk about things that are so important. Thanks, Bethenny, for being so willing to share the warts part of life!) But I found it hard to decide on just one theme tonight, so that’s why we’re doing a two-parter!

Part One: Mr. Fix-it

A major theme of the night was Bethenny’s on-going marital problems, which are described as a lot of fights about trivial things but also deeply hurtful and potentially game-changing. Maybe this is the “terrible twos” of marriage. Maybe it’s more. Hard to know, since we’re not in their marriage.

What was interesting to me was that Bethenny and Jason had what could be a pivotal conversation, but I wonder if either of them were really listening. After a morning of fighting, they meet on the beach for lunch. Bethenny says something about how maybe you have to just accept that things happen (in this case, she was referring to her long-time assistant Julie leaving). Jason was surprised by her drama-free and relatively healthy way of handling this situation. Then Bethenny says, maybe that’s what they have to do in their marriage, too. But it’s almost an aside. And both of them comment on it and then it’s almost like a thrown-away bit of conversation that goes nowhere.

And I’m screaming at the TV: Wait, wait! You’re missing it! You’re missing a Eureka! moment!

Next month I’ll celebrate 15 years of marriage to my high school sweetheart. Since I married him, my husband and I have both changed a lot. We went through all the struggles and growth of our 20s, not to mention all the time I was in the trenches to heal from childhood trauma and sexual abuse. And now we’re deep in our 30s (and all the mid-life crisis that brings) and raising our daughter together. I love my husband very much. He’s my best friend. But that doesn’t mean that marriage is easy. And there are annoying and even (sometimes) hurtful things that you or your partner might do over time. It’s a partnership that has to be maintained and it will go through trials and tribulations, like every other part of your life experience.

But when Bethenny and Jason were talking about acceptance, I kept waiting for them to stop joking or brushing it aside. Get the epiphany! Let it soak in!

Or to put it another way, my husband and I have a saying, “You married me!” As in, you knew what you were getting when you signed on for this gig.

Now, I’m not saying that we have to accept everything about our spouses/partners without question or comment. I’ve known my husband for 21 years. He is an accomplished mechanical engineer and an amazing father. But damn it if he doesn’t know how to use a hamper! And I mean I find dirty laundry of his stashed away, like he was saving it for winter. Now, I know dirty laundry sounds like a little thing. And in the grand scheme it is. But 15 years of finding dirty duds under the bed, behind the dresser, on the stairs, between the couch cushions…? This type-A neat-freak snaps every now and then!

Okay, okay. We need to go a bit deeper than dirty laundry… My husband was by my side all the way as I worked to heal after so much trauma. And as difficult as it is to be the survivor of sexual violence, it is another kind of hell to be the person who loves the survivor. I watched as my husband had his own journey filled with emotions, including rage (at my abuser), sadness, depression, worry, and hurt. I have no doubt that all he wanted to do was erase the pain from my heart. But, as any survivor knows, it’s not that easy. (Although, here are some tips that might help.) There were so many times along the way that he lifted me up when I felt so low. But he wasn’t perfect. There were times when his emotional cup ran dry or he just plain didn’t know how to help or what to say. And let’s face it, we survivors of trauma… we don’t always know how to express our needs. Hell, sometimes we don’t even know what it is we need. We’re just humans, muddling through.

It ain’t easy being the survivor of trauma. But it’s also no picnic being the one who loves them, either.

And I think that’s where we find Bethenny and Jason. She has talked about experiencing some pretty hard things in her formative years and having to build everything she has through very hard work. I admire her success, because I think it’s important that survivors of childhood trauma have success stories. We can do it! Go, powerful woman!

But my husband always says, when things start going well and you get some calm after the storm, that’s when shit goes down. It’s why you get sick three days after a huge project (or finals in college). It’s why getting the house in the suburbs when you lived in more than a dozen places by age 18 can seem terrifying. And it’s why you fall apart when you finally get everything you ever wanted. You don’t have the struggle to define you anymore. You don’t have “more pressing problems” to worry about. No. Now you have nowhere to out-run the bogeyman from the past you haven’t dealt with yet.

The hard truth is: There is no way to get through your feelings without feeling them. There is no way to process the pain without feeling it. There is no out-running. There is no higher-level rationalizing. There is no compartmentalizing. All of that is bullshit. All of that is a stop-gap. Eventually, time is up. Ding! Now you have to deal.

My guess is that after getting married and having a baby in quick succession. Then having a huge career boom and financial gain (read: never have to worry about paying the rent again)… Yep. Bethenny is just about due to have her clock ding. And from what we’re seeing on her show, it’s ringing loud as a bell! But I wonder if she’s listening. I know I hit the snooze on my emotional alarms for a long time.

Something she said made me think that she’s not quite ready to surrender to the process of healing. In an interview segment she said something about when she married Jason, that she thought he would fix her (implied: because he comes from a good home and is such a put-together person). That’s a huge red-flag to me! Other people can be allies and partners on our healing walk, but they can’t do it for us. My husband loves me, but he couldn’t heal me for me. Nobody can do the work for you.

I don’t envy Bethenny (or Jason) the work she has to do to heal herself. Having been on this walk for a long time (hey, I’m only five years younger than Bethenny), I know how hard it is. At times it feels impossible! I can’t tell Bethenny, or anyone else, exactly how to heal what hurts. Every person is different. But what I do know is that it is worth it, and more.

The joy — and I mean real, sustained, feel it in your bones joy — I have in my life today seemed impossible to me five years ago.

I used to feel like I had to lock away a piece of my heart and protect it. I felt like I had so much taken away from me as a child that it hurt to share even a little thing, like some food off my plate at dinner. I felt like it was impossible for anyone to love me unconditionally, even my husband. In my head, the only way to steel myself for the inevitable (that my husband would one day wake up and realize he had made a horrible mistake in marrying me because I was not worthy), was to always be ready for that bad day to come.

Holy shit! That is a terrible way to live!

I was so scared to lose the love of others, that I was actually cutting myself off from receiving love! It was only after I opened my heart up completely, that I finally received the love I had been wishing for! And that only happened when I accepted that the risk of vulnerability — even the risk of getting hurt — was dwarfed by the powerful feeling of unconditional love. Maybe this sounds simple. And if it is simple for you, awesome for you. But for a lot of us, it’s the hardest equation on the planet.

Maybe this is way off base when it comes to Bethenny. I don’t know her (and, let’s face it, probably never will). Maybe Jason is a total asshole. But if the point of the show is to show some of the warts of life, then that is the trajectory of this post, too. Maybe this doesn’t match up to Bethenny’s life, but maybe it makes some sense to you in yours. We can’t all be fabulous housewives on TV, after all. But we can all feel the beauty of unconditional love in our lives. We can all dare to hope, believe, nurture, and love.

Stay tuned for Part 2, where I delve into the Bethenny birthday thing and her mommy issues!

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