Stockdale Paradox

Admiral James (Jim) Stockdale. Amongst many other things – former President of the Naval War College, US Vice Presidential candidate in 1992 – Admiral Stockdale was the highest-ranking, longest held captive in the Viet Nam war’s infamous Hanoi Hilton and even worse, the prison they dubbed ‘Alcatraz.’

The infamous North Vietnamese prison was the site of incarceration, torture and interrogation of US military personnel and included a predominance of pilots shot down during bombing raids. North Vietnam had signed the Geneva Convention of 1949 which included the requirement of decent and humane treatment of any prisoners captured and held during war…yet…the prison was the site of horrific atrocities to the American servicemen: extended periods of solitary confinement. Rope bindings. Shackled in 15 pound leg-irons. Intermittent beatings. Hung by their wrists, still tied behind their backs, from a meat hook. Kept at states of near starvation – then fed watery soup laced with pebbles or feces. Forced to stand on stacked stools for days on end. Held by stocks at the ends of their beds, lying in their own excrement while rats and roaches ran freely around and on them.


Unimaginable atrocities that tore at them physically, emotionally, mentally.

Admiral Stockdale was interviewed for a book, and the author mentioned that obviously, Stockdale was an optimist, which had helped him endure his nearly 8 years of hell.  Not so, Admiral Stockdale declared. The optimists actually were some of the first to succumb, and some of the least likely to survive. He went on to explain: “They were the ones who said ‘we are going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say ‘we’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again, and Easter again. And they died of a broken heart.”

The author was puzzled…then how did you survive…through physical hell, but also through the mental and emotional devastation and torture?

Admiral Stockdale had remarkable faith in the unknowable and never stopped believing he would get out. He would be reunited with his family, return to the country he loved. He never lost site of the vision, yet ‘he faced the brutal realities along the way.’ In so doing, he set up ways to cope with whatever situation he was in in a given moment – leaving messages in the latrine, creating set times to say the Pledge of Allegiance or leaving code messages in letters home to his wife – even though he wasn’t sure his letters ever got sent.

The optimists failed to confront the reality of their situation, to face the challenges authentically and to use whatever resources they had to deal with that specific and particular moment.  They just kept hoping for the difficulties to go away – which may have made it easier in the short-term, but when again and again and again their expectations did match up with reality – they were broken and succumbed to death.

Several years prior to DDay, and my coming to find out that my 27 year marriage was really fraught with deception and betrayal, I had read about Admiral Stockdale…his Paradox of survival – even more – flourishing after the extended period of pain. It intrigued me…and I adopted this attitude, which required diametric change from my FOO. My family was filled with optimists who denied realities along the way, and always believed it would all just work out. I never saw, prior to uncovering Stockdale’s Paradox how ill-equipped this left me, and perhaps could be a reason for some of my blind acceptance, or out-of-bounds frustrations. I became committed to seeing and believing the vision for my life, my marriage, my family yet to face the brutal realities along the way. Of course…I had no idea what that would mean a few years later.

That is how I have approached betrayal, cheating and lying as it all unfolded. A vision – for me that I never stopped believing. For who I was and where I wanted to be. Did that include HUSBAND? Not so sure…because as each brutal reality unfolded, I faced it and continue to face it. I didn’t do it alone. I used the resources I could find. I dug through articles and sites and forums on the internet. I called out to a couple of therapists and spent time on their “couches.” Sometimes we, sometimes me. I reached back and reexamined memories and tried to see them for what they really were, not what my idealized mind had made them. I joined a support group with whom I am still intimately engaged, sometimes needing their help & guidance, and sometimes now, being able to offer my perspective.

I found this amazing community of bloggers who press me further and challenge and support. And care.

Slowly, I have come out of this torture more battered and bruised and broken yet more humble and grateful and whole. The Stockdale Paradox. Lived out.

28 thoughts on “Stockdale Paradox

  1. This really makes a lot of sense to me. I have never been called an optimist. I tend to live by Murphys’ Law. I don’t think I ever realized not expecting everything to come up roses wasn’t bad. I have been criticized for years….and I have been knocked down more times than I have stood upright….but had I been an optimist….I would probably be dead….physically.
    That war…that atrocious war. It’s difficult for me to think about it because I saw how those boys were treated, if and when they came back. The United States should be ashamed of how they treated and allowed those brave young men to be treated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My dear friend just buried her dad 2 was ago. He was riddled with cancer after years of health issues attributed to agent orange. And his return home was atrocious. Dropped an an airport 12 hrs from his hometown and had to figure out on his own how to get home. In his uniform. Very shameful.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The only life I lost in my ambulance was a man who was dying of agent orange. He was a DNR so I had to just watch him die. I will never forget him.
        I heard people yell obscenities at these young men when they would come “home.” I didn’t understand it and I hated it.
        Nobody cared about these young men. I remember being so moved (and disgusted) by the line in that song “too young to vote but not too young to kill.”
        I’m so sorry for your friends’ daddy. It was a horrible way to die…I saw it happen over and over….and what did he get? Some lame certificate from the president for his service?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I find this so interesting too. My husband and his family use their unparalleled (in their minds) optimism as a way to not deal with issues. My nephew is a drug addict, but my sister in law announces that he has stomach issues that will be taken care of! Please everyone send pity! I need pity and attention because dealing with the real issue is impossible for me! My husband recognizes this and is working on it – his escape was less optimism than burying himself in the emotionless yet so noble time-suck that is work. The mow was an employee, so she became a part of his cover – look how important and hard working we are – and so dedicated.

    As I have watched this shit unfold from the sidelines (yet being negatively and directly impacted) I’m starting to see that the optimism hides frozen, immobile, impotent inaction. They’ve decided that their decision is to not make a decision and need to show the world they are happy and cheerful with that (non)choice. It’s head spinning. Talking about how positively they handle things is the noise necessary to drown out the problem.

    Teddy Roosevelt said (I’m paraphrasing) one of my favorite things ever: when you happen upon a dilemma or problem, the best thing to do is the right thing, the second best thing to do is the wrong thing, and the worst thing to do is nothing.

    I see a pattern in cheaters who know what to do (ie, shut down sexual advances and always have boundaries which honor your marriage and family) yet are too chicken and do nothing (ie, allowing everything to escalate and not taking a stand to end either the marriage or the affair). My husband optimistically told himself no one would find out or be hurt, that all was fine, it’d all be ok.

    When the World Trade Center was attacked, some of the poor souls who calmly decided to see what would happen were killed while some of the folks who panicked and rushed out without waiting were often the ones who got out. Have you read The Gift of Fear? Deciding to do nothing can be the worst decision ever.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. This is all great stuff…and so contra to our surface-level thinking in that optimism seems healthy and good. I’m in total agreement – it is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing and I experienced exactly what you did. Nope…believing the vision, but facing brutal realities…


  3. Hmmm, I thoroughly enjoyed this perspective. I think that this describes the two different approaches that many in my own life have approached the revelation of my husband’s addiction. Those of us (mainly me) who feel it and live it and work through it, realistically though not without hope, are the ones that seem to be feeling it harder but I hope to ultimately be the one surviving and thriving. This was very thoughtfully written. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hope there is something you can identify with. This method was critical to me healing, personally. And upon deciding I wanted to consider working on the marriage, dealing with the enormous issues…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Interesting and thought provoking. My narcissistic mother in law considers herself to be the eternal optimist. Mostly her optimism is delusion and built on a incredibly faulty foundation. Good on you for keeping it real, SS! xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Omg, same with my mil. When her son had the affair, and I told him to leave, he called her as he had no where to stay. Her response was “oh great, I just bought a new duvet!” Look at her making lemonade with these lemons and being so positive. Meanwhile, she never in the last 2+ yrs has called to check in on me or the kids. Not. Once. I guess we bring negativity to her happy life, so presto, we don’t exist.

      Truth is, she puts up a front, but she is a miserable wretch. She has no sincere, authentic, deep relationships in her life. My favorite example of this was during the affair (unbeknownst to me, but I’m not alone in thinking she had something to do with the mow being with my husband – even my husband wonders how she manipulated it – although he knows he alone is to blame for proceeding), she took my 3 kids out for lunch (preteen and teen) and spent the whole meal telling the waitress what an awesome grandma she was – how she spent money, always bought books for them to push them intellectually, took them to shows – but she never interacted with the actual kids sitting there. They never wanted to go out with her again, they could see through how she wanted to look good to a complete stranger by using them.

      Today she says she has no relationship with them because I’ve kept them from her. So she looks good and appears to be trying so hard. My husband has pointed out to her, firmly, that she has not in fact even tried to contact them via text, mail, email. She either leaves the room or changes the subject, or cries and rages.

      And she’s a therapist and marriage counsellor, so she brags about how she helps people’s lives all day. You can’t make this stuff up. I’m over 2 yrs no contact with her, and even husband says his relationship with her is empty without me in it – they made me the enemy, and since I left the triangle, there’s nothing left them to struggle over. Without her shitty daughter in law keeping her son from her, she’s accountable to him and isn’t capable. Total cuckoo pants. Every Easter she sends hollow chocolate bunnies which we call “Grandmas” since she is an empty (and very unhappy) soul who looks appealing from the outside but somehow always disappoints, lol.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So glad you are away from her. I am also grateful my husband has no contact with his family any more. The whole lot of them are a swirling pit of miserable wretchedness. I love the idea of the hollow Easter bunny Grandmas. LOL. Since my mil is Jewish, no Easter bunnies, but lots of checks. She believes her money buys everything, love, loyalty, respect, yada yada. Again, she is delusional. She has never liked me and both my husband’s parents lack basic human emotions like empathy and compassion. I’m sure my mil would be thrilled if she knew her son cheated on me… no doubt she would say something to the effect of, I have let myself go, or I must be frigid (since that is what she said about her other daughter in laws… my husband’s brother, before he took his own life, had a string of wives). One thing I bet we would have in common though, if she saw the woman my husband actually did have a relationship with, she would be as shocked as I am at the older, alcoholic, smoking, hoarding, unattractive, uneducated divorcee who buys her clothes at Goodwill and lives in the slums. I would actually like to see my mil’s face on that one. No doubt she would not believe it. On the very day the OW called my mobile phone and I realized who she was, and what she was about, I told my husband his punishment should be having to take this OW down to his parents and introduce her as his new “lady” friend. It still makes me smile a kind of evil smile thinking about it, just a little bit. I think it is progress that we can have some humor about all this at this point. xx

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Oh my. I so wonder if there is a parallel with this type of relationship and cheaters…you have written much of what my MIL looks like…and her relationship with our children…and on and on. It is uncanny. And so incredibly hurtful. I look back now and have no earthy idea why I stayed in the triangle (love that term) for as long as I did? But no longer…HUGS to you.


        1. I know why I stayed in the triangle: mil was so optimistic and happy, husband’s relationship with her was the only mother/son dynamic he has never known, and I was the uncomfortable one. When I voiced my concerns, I was shot down and invalidated (you’re so mean! She loves you! You clearly misunderstood her!) so I was riddled with guilt – why didn’t I trust this woman? Maybe I’m hateful (her term), everyone tells me how fun and awesome she is! I felt horrible for feeling the way I did about her. I still have that guilt in flashes. Like during the affair, I didn’t trust my instincts. Like during the affair, they were spot on and ridiculed.

          There’s power in the triangle and it’s the only power my mil has: manipulating people and only having transactional relationships is all she knows. When I stepped back and stopped being the villain, it made her look bad. Picture a Jesus- like scenario with all her family at her feet looking up adoringly at her – it’s what she sees herself as. She does what she does to cultivate her image and never look bad, so this wasn’t going to work for her. Having to fight me for her son’s attention and love was how she controlled her image, oddly. When I left the 2 of them to have at it without me, there was nothing of substance in their relationship. My husband realized that I was never the reason he was caught in the middle – he had in fact placed himself comfortably in the middle because that’s where his mother was able to control him and have him feel guilty and pity her. One either worships and adores her or is replaced. It was as if she needed to believe that the reason she couldn’t be his life partner was because I’d come between them. Remove me, remove the problem – except I’m not the problem in this scenario. The problem is she’s bat shit crazy and toxic. She’s hurt a lot of people.

          Husband sees that this was exactly how he behaved during the affair. “Happy, happy, in control, everything’s great, you’re seeing things that aren’t there because of your bad attitude and mental instability, if I’m happy, it means I’m doing nothing wrong so Ill convince myself I’m happy and that everything’s great!” It becomes manic – the plastered on smile with the cuckoo- pants look in the eyes. It’s why she thought nothing of his horrific behaviour, in fact encouraged it. It was doing nothing and calling it making positive decisions and ignoring the pain it inflicted.

          I’m obsessed with dissecting her because I still have guilt about my hatred for her. She held me and hugged me for 28 yrs and told me she loved me and I believed her, and I’m very conflicted about the fact that I’ve cut her out completely even though I know it is ok that I did it. Manipulators are sooooo good at what they do.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. We have many things in common here…and it is a dreadful and painful way to live. I stayed sucked in for so long, and seeing your reasons helps me see mine. THank you for that. Have you ever heard of covert incest? HUSBAND now sees that this played a role in his dysfunctional relationship with MIL, and with me…

          Liked by 1 person

  5. The covert incest has come up a lot in our therapies. Apparently common when a son is born to a very young mother (18). She spends her life convincing people that the teenage pregnancy was anything but a mistake, she gave birth to a gift to humankind. And once that train left the station, it was never going to slow down. Her daughter, born a few years later was never treated like that. And hated being in her brother’s shadow. And then went and became an unwed mother at a young age, had a son, and has raised him identically. He has unfortunately become a 22 yr old addict who has never worked, finished school, and she defends him and supports him while he manipulates and uses her. My h has pointed out gently that nephew’s behavior is very much like h’s behaviour during the affair. She shut that shit down and refuses to acknowledge he needs an intervention. He is fine! He’s gluten free! Stomach issues, not drugs! I’m terrified for him, and fir her lest something happen. He’s caused accidents and almost killed 2 people and they get the charges dropped and blame the victims. My in laws are a hot mess.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh my. How dreadful…the whole situation. Thankful that you (and I) have been able to dig into the issues…hopefully we are stopping the bleeding for our future generations. You think it is possible?


  6. Also, savingshards, for what it’s worth, more than 1 psychiatrist has told us that husband was unable to escape the mom vortex until we met – that I was the strength/personality/dynamic he needed to get him out of the toxic covert incest and start a fresh healthier family. Amazing how common it is, yet I’d never heard of such a thing and I’m about to kiss 50. Interesting how much shame and discomfort I’ve carried around for years and accepted it as what I deserved.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you. I re read what I wrote and it makes me sound like I rescued my husband and I’m superwoman. Oh goodness no. I was looking for a match and partner too – I needed a partner to make the family I craved so desperately, and he needed a mate to give him the balls to do the same. In no way do I think I was the only person who could do that for him, there are a lot of strong awesome women, just as I could have found and been happy with another man. Hell, maybe I could have found a faithful one. We all seek what we are missing and in that search we look past what that partner lacks. Until 28 yrs later when all the stuffing down of emotions erupts and destroys. And then we realize we have in fact been replaying our early family life in spite of running away from it.

        I appreciate your comment, but I’m as average as they come, and I cringed when I read what I wrote lol!!

        Liked by 1 person

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