Jen Waite is the author of A Beautiful, Terrible Thing: A Memoir of Marriage and Betrayal. In 2016 Jen was living in New York City with her husband of five years. Jen had just given birth to their daughter when she found out her husband was having an affair. This was the tip of the iceberg to a whole different man she did not know—whose true self came to light once this affair (of many) was uncovered. A Beautiful, Terrible Thing chronicles Jen’s experience of her relationship with a man who fit the textbook definition of a psychopath, and how she recovered. We spoke about how healing from trauma, what she gained from her experience, and being brave enough to use your voice.
“In my own experience, being honest about what happened, writing about what happened, was part of my healing. At the time it felt like there was something poisonous inside of me—a disease or a sickness. Something physical that I had to get out. As soon as I started writing, I started to release it. My other coping mechanism was researching. I was so blindsided that I had an urgent need to understand what had happened. It was terrifying to think that there might be no rhyme or reason behind it, and was much less scary for me to understand that this person was on the psychopathy spectrum. The more information I uncovered that corroborated this, the more I was able to say, ‘This is what he is, this is how it happened, and this is how I protect myself in the future.’ That was really freeing.
If you are dealing with someone who has an absolute lack of empathy, who is a pathological liar, who shows time and time again that they have no conscience and their words and actions are constantly betraying each other, and then seeing their personality change as soon as the mask drops—that is more than ‘just a cheater’. And yet it’s still an argument that people like to have: is he/she disordered or just an asshole? But when you are married to someone, and they are one person for five years and then morph into a completely different person overnight, and you have a newborn baby—it’s absolutely terrifying. There are so many women who are ashamed and belittled by the ‘he’s just a cheater, lots of men cheat’ argument—and therefore struggle to recognize or admit that they are dealing with something more than that. It goes back to the fact that women are inherently disbelieved, and are assumed to be over-reactive and dramatic. That is something I’m trying to confront in a very dispassionate way. I would say there are many, many, many cheating assholes that are not psychopaths, but I would also say that all psychopaths are cheating assholes. It’s extremely difficult to diagnose a psychopath or sociopath because of their charm and inherently manipulative personalities. My ex-husband, for example, seems like such an innocent, sweet and funny guy on the surface.
I definitely wish I would have ripped off the Band-Aid sooner and understood that he was having an affair, that he was lying, that he was not the person that I thought he was. There was a limbo period when my head and my heart were totally at war. For months, my heart could not believe what my head was trying to tell me. I also wish I could have said, “fuck it” and not looked at social media. But I’ve accepted that going through those motions was a part of my process, all of which I own. As soon as I saw him for who he really was, and he knew that I could see that, he wanted nothing to do with me. Now, we have absolutely no contact. It’s as if we (my daughter and I) don’t exist, and I’m grateful for that, but initially that was quite shocking. In that first stage it is like mourning a death. The good thing about the fact that it’s not a real death, is that when you eventually do become completely resolved, you don’t feel anything. You are not grieving this wonderful person for the rest of your life. Now when I think of him, I feel nothing. I think of him in clinical terms now, not really being a person, but of being an entity.
Something that I’m grateful for is that this experience forced me to rebuild my sense of self-worth and boundaries from the ground up. That has been the most important part of my personal process—building myself up again and re-forming my view of the world. When this happened, I wasn’t just heartbroken—my entire reality shattered completely, and I looked at everything differently. For the first time, I was able to observe what I actually believed and found to be true, that had nothing to do with what society was telling me or how my parents had raised me. I learned that if something doesn’t feel right, I can trust myself. It sounds so simple, but it’s not always easy to just blindly trust your instincts. We are at the very beginning of seeing what happens when women start speaking their truth and unleashing their voices. Women are finally angry enough to be transparent about what they have had to endure—whether it’s assault, emotional abuse, or betrayal. There is this instinctive disbelief of women that is not at all directed at men, and an insidious sexism that permeates all aspects of our culture. Something happens also when you become a mother, in that you have to defend your right to exist as a woman as well. You have to defend the fact that you are a human being in your own right, that you exist outside of your relationships with your children.
For someone going through something similar, it’s easy to get into trouble by repressing feelings or trying to move forward too quickly. Feel whatever you need to feel and don’t judge your feelings. The second important part for me was figuring out where my own insecurities were and how to re-build my self-worth. That was the most important work I did and also the scariest, because I had to look inward and figure out how I was drawn to someone like this. It’s different from taking responsibility for what’s happened, because I do not think that anyone is to blame when in a relationship with someone so manipulative and so masterful at what they do. But looking at why you were drawn to someone like that in the first place. At least for me, I was definitely blinding myself to some things along the way because I wanted validation and that fairytale romance. I was filtering out a lot of the data to fit the story that I wanted to tell myself. Those are things that I’m still working through on a day to day basis.
At the end of the day, all the research I did on psychopathy and all the time I spent trying to uncover my ex-husband’s double life, while helpful and most certainly part of my process, was not what freed me. What freed me was examining myself—my own insecurities and vulnerabilities and rebuilding my reality and belief system from the ground up, piece by piece. In the memoir I speak to a woman who has gone through something very similar and at the end of our conversation, she says to me something like ‘When you get to the other side of this, the power you walk away with is going to blow your fucking mind.’ In the moment I heard her and felt hopeful but had no idea what she was talking about—but now I understand—that power stems from a place of finally being able to move through life from a place of self trust. I always used to look to other people for affirmation and now I look to myself.”