DARON : Fredo, 38 years old – particle accelerator
DARONNE: Liesbet, 35 years old – community school coordinator and part-time independent mediator
FAMILY SITUATION : Together since 2003, married for 7 years, parents of Gloria (6) and Otis (4)
“It’s pretty fucking dramatically busy, when I think of it. But it’s the same story every year during this period. With our debate series GentM, our podcast, our jobs, the kids and all the other things we do. Currently Fredo can easily keep on working until 2 or 3am while I’m out for evening consultations … The consolation prize is the moment I feel him crawl into bed next to me. It sometimes maddens me, while I also think it’s actually cute and admirable that he’s so diligent. (smiles) During busy periods like this, we have a drink together to feel fully recharged. We take time to have a talk or exchange some thoughts. 15 minutes to focus on each other, and nothing else. That’s essential now.”
For many, there is no greater taboo, no greater source of shame than to have cheated or being cheated on in a relationship. Especially when you decide to stick together afterwards. At least that is how Fredo and Liesbet feel about it. “There are so few people who give us a chance. And so many opinions such as ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’ you’re confronted with. Or the the common thought that those cheated on are always victims.”
A talk about growing apart and its impact, honesty towards yourself and your friends, the ugliness and the beauty of having an affair. But also on how to raise children with a social conscience and in the Digital age. And about Sinterklaas (a Santa Claus like persona that is popular in Belgium, The Netherlands, Switzerland, France and many other European countries, although traditions can vary per region…) the biggest conspiracy of their youth.
“When lies come in, relationships get ill. Everything you think about your relationship, the bubble that you have created, bursts. The self-image you have built, is under severe pressure. You have to part from the image you had from the couple you thought you were. Suddenly you’re part of a statistic and everything is so banal. Like it or not, you’re being pushed in that ‘being cheated on’ role. You get a label and have no control over your own identity anymore. It was like I was struck by lightning, because in my eyes nothing had fundamentally changed between us. The worst moment happened two or three days after I confronted him with what I had heard. I just couldn’t take it anymore and had to get away. Take some distance from the situation. First I’d said to Fredo: ‘it’s your fault, you go’. Until I realised that I would be left behind with the children, which I really couldn’t handle physically at that time. But when I wanted to leave, I realised that the whole situation pushed me in to leaving my children. A heartbreaking time… Eventually I left and went to my parents and slept for 15h before I could think clearly again. Shortly thereafter, we saw each other again in a coffeehouse. I see that moment as the first date of our ‘new’ life. It was nerve-racking. But I also immediately felt he really was the love of my life. It felt so good seeing him while I was obviously still so angry …”
It’s like chemo, you destroy everything to rescue the essence.
“Fredo has given me a lot of space to be angry. When one passionately reacts to a situation whereby he or she asks a lot of questions, becomes mad or begins to cry and the other only reacts to the form of the emotion rather than to the emotion itself, you understand each other even less. I could lose my mind in the middle of the night, he endured. There were no limits for all the shit that I felt. It’s like chemo, you destroy everything to rescue the essence. He never said it was time to get myself together. It was exhausting, but also a great merit. He saved a lot by acting like that. The ‘other woman’ helped me in a way, just like my family did by supporting me when I said I didn’t want to give up our relationship. My mum for example, advised me to take my time to really think everything through. She was the one who really kept her cool and constantly repeated what was positive about our relationship. My sister swept me away furiously, made me drink three whiskeys and take two valiums. I then slept for two days, which helped a lot, too. (laughs) Everyone around me was very open, caring and comforting in his or her own way. My grandfather is the only one who still doesn’t trust him. He’s hundred years old now, and convinced that Fredo is a drugs dealer, because he’s away so much for his job.”(smiles)
I think it’s important children know that an argument or discussion doesn’t necessarily imply the end of a relationship.
“It was without doubt the hardest time ever with Gloria. I had a lot of stress and very little patience. A one year old son, a three year old daughter and a relationship that was far from certain. Two little persons that are totally depending and a partner you consider as a stranger or an enemy. I couldn’t take anything and she certainly sensed that. Whether that was the cause of her anger and her tantrums, her difficulties to go to bed and the many nightmares? Could be, who knows… I certainly tried to protect her as much as possible from all the negative but I didn’t succeed as I had hoped. I couldn’t turn off the tension back then. Nobody can do that, otherwise you’re a robot … Mama is a human being. That’s my credo. There were quarrels, I really couldn’t avoid. She’s also seen a lot of sadness because it took such a long time before I heard the whole story. Today, Gloria is much calmer and more balanced, but she quickly makes a comment when we have a discussion. ‘Don’t argue!’ she says. I think it’s important children know that an argument or discussion doesn’t necessarily imply the end of a relationship. Of course it is different when you are effectively going through a break up, but in our case, they can see that we can fight one day and be very happy and cheerful together the next day. Life isn’t a bed of roses. “
“I am pleased that we have experienced this, without complimenting myself for it. On the contrary, I feel very much ashamed. But, paradoxically, it has brought us to where we are now. You agree upon trusting each other and it was that trust that I abused to exploit. In essence, it’s about identity. The identity that I’ve built was the identity I thought I should have or deserved at the least. The other woman in the story was my audience. Now I don’t have an audience anymore because … I don’t give a fuck. Today I am what I am, and I don’t give a fuck how I’m perceived by the people around me. We tackled this crisis together in an almost professional way. Liesbet asked me for a plan. Something we could both hang on to. I had no idea how to start. My gut feelings were conflicting. You think it’s safe to rely on your gut feelings because they’re authentic and close to who you are, but actually they turn you more into a rudderless ship. So, I started making lists. Like a roadmap. To get myself together again and to understand me. A plan of what I was going to do and who could help me with that. Because it was obvious that I wasn’t going to succeed on my own. A couple of friends have played a major role in finding back the person I was and had lost on the way. They were the ones who made me feel good about myself and not about the identity I had created. Friends who didn’t experience a similar situation.” Sounds like a business plan. Liesbet: “Absolutely! (smiles) I wanted a plan with a high return, deadlines, goals, a clear view of the return on investment, if I were to invest again. I just wanted to know if there was a commitment, whether there was still something to build on. I needed ratio because emotionally I was a wreck.”
The pain and the emotions are obviously not going away. But the amount of time between bad moments increases.
Fredo: “We were both very honest to each other. It was an intense conversation with confessions on both sides. We realised what we’d been up to all these years. When you’re together for a while, you take so much for granted … After that day, we kept on talking for months, especially at night. When we felt we had said everything, we decided to start over again. We took a physical break from the past, sold our house and bought another one. The pain and the emotions are obviously not going away. But the amount of time between bad moments increases.”
Liesbet: “We examined our relationship and noticed that we had left out a few things. We were just alienating from each other, as many people do. You want to say something, but ultimately the conversation turns into something completely else, you know? It’s like you’re always absent and play a role according to the expectations of the other, or to the expectations you think he or she has. It’s amazing how big the gap can be between what you really think and feel and what you say and do with your partner. It’s like a dream you’re trying to maintain at home, and only can discuss the reality with friends or family. In the end, it’s a very classic story, although the end – or the present stage – isn’t classic at all. Now we are together. Again. Because that’s what we were previously. We do things together again, we talk about our fears. Through therapy, we have learned to also pronounce certain things together.”
Many people seem to think that the way they got to know each other is static.
Do you think that growing apart is mainly caused by having kids? Fredo: “Our children have nothing to do with it. Everything that happened, is my own fault and I won’t use external reasons such as my upbringing, my children, the fact that I stutter or that my business wasn’t running well at the time to explain my behaviour. If I would do that, it would make it sound as I had an excuse, which I didn’t.” Liesbet: “Children aren’t the reason people alienate from each other, they just make it more complicated. If you don’t talk, if you can’t express whether you’re struggling with something, when you can’t explain what you feel, then children can turn a relationship into a challenging situation. That’s what happened to us.” Fredo: “I didn’t have the mental and psychological skills, I was not sufficiently trained in self-criticism, in reflection at that time …” Liesbet: “And I simply didn’t know that. What our crisis made us understand is how often I walked over him from a kind of cynical positivism. How little I asked what he meant. Like I just didn’t want to hear anything. Many people seem to think that the way they got to know each other is static. Twenty years later, they have no idea who the person is that stands in front of them. Being interested in one another, that’s what it’s all about.”
And how do you show interest in each other now? Liesbet: “Literally. By asking where the other dreams of or by asking for some context, like: ‘Are you saying that because you’re afraid?’ Today we hardly quarrel, instead we discuss everything quite openly. Before, I could quickly get angry or sad because I couldn’t express certain things. He interpreted it his way and things could escalate quickly. And vice-versa. By being able to say ‘what you are saying or what you are doing now, makes me feel so and so’ out loud makes things much clearer for everyone. That’s really crucial.” Is it easy to express everything? Fredo: “She gets away with it, I don’t. But now we know that we are different on that level.” Liesbet: “Deep down, there is still a wound that can start bleeding again by the most meaningless things. Of course, I’m still afraid that it might happen again. You need to articulate some things to be able to sort things out.”
We were never secretive about what happened between us. I wanted to keep my head high and the rest of the world could just kiss my ass.
Liesbet: “We were never secretive about what happened between us. I wanted to keep my head high and the rest of the world could just kiss my ass. There were people who avoided me, just like it was contagious. I really wanted to make an end to that taboo, that social thinking. I was the last in line who knew about his affair. Don’t underestimate the power of being fooled like that. People know each other, there is gossip, everyone knew about it. Plus, people enjoy seeing each other fail. You don’t have to be cynic to realise that. Anyway, we quickly dared to go out again in each other’s company.” Did you felt the power of overcoming what happened more strongly than the power of being fooled? Fredo: “No, because it wasn’t item anymore. There were no more spectators. The show was over, the stage was dismantled, …” Liesbet: “When you break up it makes sense, when you stay together, no one is willing to give it a chance. You’re a loser when you decide not to leave. They assume you stay because of the kids … Which is crazy, as I never would have stayed only for the children.” For what did you stay? Liesbet: “Before my world collapsed, before I broke down in tears and anger I had one clear feeling: that I really didn’t want to lose him. And that remained during the whole process.”
Liesbet: “I can’t imagine that it would have turned out differently. We’d never break up without a fight. We aren’t the kind of people that would grow apart and then would agree on breaking up. I’ve always had the idea that if we were to break up, it would be because of another person. I can really fall head over heels for someone.” Fredo: “Can you?” Liesbet: “Yes. There were times I really felt a connection with someone, close to the connection I have with you. Not identical, but close. When it happens, I make sure to get out of there as quickly as I can and avoid that person in every way I can.” But those moments just make it all a bit more exciting? Liesbet: “No … (smiles) Look, I’m no saint, of course. Sure it’s exciting, but once it gets dangerous, I’m gone.” It’s more like surfing on a tsunami, then. Liesbet: “Hmm. I just know how far I can go in such cases. When it’s getting difficult or too much of a mind fuck, or when it threatens what is important to me, I lose my interest.”
Fredo, you’re intensely engaged in digital innovation, both in your job as in your free time. How do you involve your children in that digital story? Fredo: “We are both very aware of digital technology, but not as a kind of project or something. Gloria and Otis aren’t impressed by VR glasses anymore, they know exactly what Virtual Reality is. We play together a lot on the iPad and we invest a lot of time in finding good games.” Liesbet: “We feel it’s important they play with those kind of things. As long as it’s in a moderate way. We use an alarm to make sure they do something else after half an hour. It’s important to make time for analog play as well.”
We try to educate them both in the spirit of the Internet.
Which games would you recommend? Liesbet: “Monument Valley for instance, a game where they really need to think and learn to deal with optical illusions. An iPad is very banal for us, it’s a tool, a medium.” Fredo: “For us, it’s not different from putting a record on or reading a book. It’s a part of their lives. It wouldn’t surprise me if Gloria would ask for her own YouTube channel soon. We try to educate them both in the spirit of the Internet.” And that is … Fredo: “Freedom and boundlessness. No one has the ability to exercise control over the veracity of your framework, eventually everyone keeps an eye on you. Like in the unified system of Wikipedia in which no one controls anything and yet it still continues to grow. It’s almost anti-human.” But how do you do that exactly? Fredo: “By indicating that the rules we impose her – because we simply are her parents and we have to set those rules – are not written in stone. In other words, they still have the ability and freedom to question the set of rules we impose.” Liesbet: “Which is a challenge. Especially with a child like Gloria who wonders and senses a lot. But we actively let her question everything. Daily. Which doesn’t mean that we never brush her off with a ‘because I said so’.”
Liesbet: “Gloria and I have created something like ‘the question of the day’ because she likes to chat a bit before sleeping. She can ask me anything and I promised to always answer, whatever the question is. It can really be about anything. It’s great to see how she enjoys the process of imagining a question.” Love the idea! Liesbet: “She asked how the world was created, so I told her about different cultures and their philosophy about it. As far as possible, of course, because her topics often spark endless conversations. We find it important to give our children a great feeling of freedom of choice. In terms of religion for example. I grew up in a fairly compelling atheistic atmosphere, my parents were strongly opposed to the Church and religion in general. What our children ultimately choose to believe in is their choice. We might feel reluctant about their choice, or question them, but that freedom is important. Search, search, search. Go, go, go. And see for yourself how you want to live your life. That’s something I strongly believe in.” What is the most difficult or the most absurd question you already got so far? Liesbet: “The origin of space, the earth or mankind. Or what is most important for me: the world or food? Meanwhile, I’m really becoming skilled at answering in a brief way. For example, I explain that there is science and faith, and that in my opinion faith tries to give answers about what science fails to explain, while science claims to be able to explain everything.” And a six year old is able to understand that? Liesbet: “I believe so. I see her listen attentively and she asks other question while I’m explaining which makes me believe she really understands the big picture of what I’m trying to tell her. They often hear about other cultures and religions. For instance, our babysitter did the Ramadan last summer and then we talked about it, too. I keep it really simple but I never use baby talk. Although I might filter the truth sometimes. The very first question Gloria asked was: how does our heart work and why did her grandfather’s heart suddenly stopped beating. That’s an issue I find difficult to talk about, so I somewhat glossed it over. Now she believes her own heart can fail at any time … In that respect, I do sometimes fuck up, too.” (smiles)
What do you pass on from your own upbringing to your children? Liesbet: “Activism. Marching and protesting, explain why we do it and give them the opportunity to ask questions about our motives. I don’t want to be a moralising parent, but when the children complain about the food they are served or the clothes they are wearing, I find it important to confront them with what is going on around them. I won’t use famine in Africa, but the fact that there are children I closely work with – and that they often know personally – that have to grow up with much less than they do. For example, I tell them that instead of a third slice of bread with chocolate sprinkles these kids get cold fries in their lunch box. Then I ask them if they know how it tastes and how it must feel to be in that situation… I want them to be aware of that.” When our daughter complained about her room, I showed her a photo series by James Mollison, that I bumped into via Facebook. In ‘Where Children Sleep’ you get to see the space where children from all over the world sleep. Both rich American or Chinese children, as poverty-stricken kids in the slums. I wondered where she saw herself on that scale. I had warned her that there are children who have no more than a piece of cardboard and that the images weren’t always as fun to watch. Of course, she still wanted to look at the pictures … She responded very emotionally. She felt very ashamed of what she had said. She really couldn’t keep the tears from falling … Which wasn’t my intention at all. Do you think children should be kept in their carefree bubble as long as possible? Liesbet: “Isn’t it incredibly positive that she reacts that way? Of course it shouldn’t happen every week but such a breakthrough once in while contributes to the construction of her identity. It helps her develop a social conscience. That there is more than just good or bad.”
We realised it’s something we can’t turn off like a switch under the hood of a car. So, we do the best we can to keep it nice and cozy and bedtime keeps on being a challenge.
Who’s the good cop between the two of you? Liesbet: “I’m more strict than Fredo. When I’m alone with Gloria for a week, she really listens well after a few days. That will probably also be the case when Fredo is alone with her. Because then, she can concentrate and expect input from only one person. It certainly isn’t just my approach, but when you constantly contradict each other – I say one thing, he says another – you make it really hard for everyone. But it’s never been any different here. And in one way or another we still draw a clear line together.” Did you ever take the time to discuss and agree on how you would raise the children? Or does it all just happen while you’re at it? Liesbet: “We agree relatively well on many things. His ways of handling the kids has often saved the day. I sometimes hold on too much to my principles. That doesn’t work so well with Gloria, on the contrary, it makes her even more stubborn and hard. He can hug her in a way that she melts again.” How do you handle the fact that she doesn’t want to go to bed at night? Liesbet: “Had I been less tired, I would have shown more patience. Repeatedly go upstairs with her. Stand in her room, say nothing and just wait for her to fall asleep. Go back every 10 minutes to have a look …” Fredo: “She can be really agitated from the inside. She doesn’t even need us for that. It’s like she wants to claim control over every situation. I used to wait outside her room and I held the door locked with broken door handles as a result. Now I have learned to sit in her room, on the floor, with my back against the door. If she wants to go outside, she automatically runs into my arms and I hold her. With lots of love and endless patience. To absurdity.”
Did you ask for advice or turn to somebody for help? Liesbet: “We went to the local Education Store (A Belgian initiative where you can get free professional advice on raising children) when she really began to be too aggressive. It was around her fourth year. We also asked ourselves if there was a problem, or a behavioural disorder. Meanwhile, we noticed that there are good and lesser periods. Going to bed continues to be a problem, but we have abandoned the urge of fixing it. We realised it’s something we can’t turn off like a switch under the hood of a car. So, we do the best we can to keep it nice and cozy and bedtime keeps on being a challenge. Still we all really feel well together and also express that feeling to each other. It’s also something that we do more consciously than before.”
I find it more interesting to turn love into acts instead of words. In absurd acts, I mean.
And what about Otis? Liesbet: “We talk very little about Otis. We do talk about how cute and cuddly he is. But we don’t have fundamental issues with him as we do with Gloria.” Fredo: “Gloria just manifests herself in a very visible way. She challenges us much more. Otis is an incredible cuddly, very musical kid. While Gloria can really bang on a piano as if it were a percussion instrument, he will try to put more emphasis on melody.” Liesbet: “On the other hand, he has boundless tantrums. He behaves like a real pasha and his sister serves him at his beck and call. Otis just screams ‘Water!’ instead of asking for water. Then I answer ‘euhm, sea!’. Or ‘uh, faucet?’ ‘blue?’ Fredo then turns into a robot that only responds to commands. (laughs). Otis’ anger is straightforward, he’s just angry and that’s it. Gloria is more complicated.”
Fredo: “The love, the friendship between our children is unbelievable. I really don’t know how we deserve this. They also complement each other very well. It is truly one of the finest and most vulnerable things I’ve ever seen in my life.” Liesbet: “When we have breakfast Gloria can sometimes stand up four times just to give Otis a hug because she loves him so much. They can really cuddle under a blanket … Well, at least one thing that we have done well. (smiles) From the moment he was born, they connected. The fact that he was carrying a gift for his sister in his crib, ensured a good start. Today he can’t hurt her with nothing more than by saying ‘I never want to play again with you’. It breaks her heart. The idea that he wouldn’t love her anymore, torments her tremendously.” Because love is so intangible? Or a moment in time maybe? Liesbet: “We say very often how much we love her. We both come from a family where love was often pronounced.” Fredo: “I find it more interesting to turn love into acts instead of words. In absurd acts, I mean.” How? Fredo: “By saying that I love them more than all the marbles on the floor. And then I throw – with a lot of noise – all the marbles I can hold in my hands on the floor. First they’re clueless. Then, their eyes start to sparkle and then we dive into the marbles and play together. It’s really awesome.”
Fredo: “Gloria can’t part from a mini Playmobil catalog. Everyday she has to go through it. Maybe because it’s almost Christmas. I find it really hard to not tell her the truth…” Liesbet: “Yes, it’s something we urgently need to talk about. For I want to wait another year, Fredo wants to confess.” Are you serious? I hope our daughter will keep on believing in those fairy tales for a very long time. Were you maybe disappointed when you heard the truth about Santa Claus? Fredo: “Very.” Liesbet: “I felt hugely betrayed by my parents and my sister, yes. The biggest conspiracy of my youth. I really felt so incredibly ridiculous and hurt. I thought everyone saw me as an idiot for I believed in him. I really wondered why they had done that to me. And the fact that my sister was an active member of the hoax for two years… Yes it really hurt.” Then why do you want to wait? Liesbet: “Because it’s too close now. Gloria is already in the mind-set of the festivities, she has already tried to lure Santa, and I just played along …” It reminds me of the letter we wrote in his name. After all the compliments on our daughter’s good behaviour, he also wrote that her great and loving parents also deserved a treat, as in a romantic weekend with just the two of them. Fredo: “That’s the reason I want to stop it. I don’t want to install some kind of magic realism in my kids’ heads. If they crave for some magic, they can read Alice in Wonderland, and I will be happy to jump into the rabbit’s hole with them.”
The biggest conspiracy of my youth.
What’s the difference between Santa Claus and Alice in Wonderland? Liesbet: “Everyone knows Alice in Wonderland is a character in a book and doesn’t exist. The Tooth Fairy for instance. We immediately renounced to play along and told Gloria that we are the ones putting money underneath her pillow. And that’s ok – that’s great… If it were up to us we’d ignore all these stories. But it’s impossible… The society, television, shops, nursery, school, friends … when you don’t play along you get the dirty look. Talking about peer pressure! At my job, 76% of the children are of foreign origin and have absolutely no idea who the hell Santa is. As a community school, we have installed this make-believe tradition in their heads. Meanwhile, it has become the biggest party of the year. Unbelievable, isn’t it?” Isn’t it just a sign that – regardless of faith – Santa, the Tooth Fairy or the Easter Bunny create incredible joy? Liesbet: “For us, they symbolise childlike innocence. Who says kids experience it as such? Admit it, in most cases, those characters are used as a means of pressuring kids. They’d be better be good, or they won’t come. It is mainly about opportunism. Amongst children, and their parents.”
Liesbet: “We released ourselves from the will to be perfect. Not that there was really an urge. Fredo once gave me a card that said ‘Fuck Perfect’. It hangs framed above our bed. It’s like pact. Now we no longer pretend everything is fantastic and amazing.” Fredo: “It’s about more than that, I think. Doing the best you can, is enough. That’s it. For me, Liesbet is the perfect mother, even though she loses her patience faster than me, for example. There’s no need to feel guilty about raising your voice. She does the best she can, and that’s the most important thing.” Liesbet: “It’s incredible how far one can go to respond to that picture perfect image. In the past, I went really far in setting the perfect breakfast table. Because then, I felt I excelled in my role. I thought Fredo expected that from a perfect mother. I was stressed about whether it was cozy enough. It’s crazy how fast you start to pressure yourself, because you don’t talk about those expectation you just assume them.”
Despite the challenges we faced and we’re really – again – a fine and loving family.
Fredo: “Let me illustrate. When I have the opportunity to stay in bed in the morning, I’m really relaxed. But when I get up and I open the door to a kitchen that looks like something exploded and a living room that has more of a battle field, I find it difficult to hang on to the relaxed state-of-mind I felt 15 seconds before opening that door. Liesbet tried to prevent this, but it stressed her enormously. It finally took her 12 years to be able to say – in a fit of egocentric honesty – that she’d rather read her newspaper in this chaos than to clean up. And that if I couldn’t handle that chaos, I just had to sleep longer, take a bath or start tidying up myself.” So it’s all about communication and expressing your thoughts. Because, when you always keep it to yourself, it’s difficult to build something together. Liesbet: “The big difference today, is that when he comes down and I see that he is irritated by the chaos I will suggest to first have coffee before we start cleaning up together. We’re not acting all tough and pushy to have it our way. Despite the challenges we faced and we’re really – again – a fine and loving family.”