I can feel this shift happening and I need to talk about it. In this space, with you. It never occurred to me that the chasm between who I was and who I'm becoming was growing so wide until someone recently talked with me about their troubled marriage. I could feel the expectation on the other end of the phone... But your marriage is amazing now, yes? God fixed yours and he'll fix mine too, right!? I felt frozen and useless. I knew the words she wanted to hear, but couldn't muster them. I don't want to tell anything but the truth. I don't have any promises or magic prayers, and I felt like I was letting her down. I didn't mean to trick anyone with hope. I hate the bait and switch. But above all else I want to know in the core of me that whatever my story contributes to the conversation about marriage and infidelity and healing in recovery... that it is wholly honest. I need it to be, for me.
"To tell it honestly"...that's been my guidepost from start. Even when it's uncomfortable. Even when people don't like it. Even when what was true for me then isn't true for me any longer. So I've typed and backspaced and slept on it a few times over. I think to myself, just write the next true thing. Write the truest sentence you know... And the more I change, the easier and harder that becomes. There is still plenty that I'm not ready to say because I'm still sorting it out internally. But I can offer some context surrounding what I wrote two years ago and share a bit about where I am now - namely how I've changed, what I would do differently, and what I'd say to someone just starting the journey of recovering from an affair. I want to share what these years have taught me... what they're still teaching...
Why did I blog about my marriage and do I regret it?
One reason I shared it all so publicly at the time was because I was tired of running into someone I knew at the grocery store, and trying to not lie and also not overshare when they asked "How are you?"... A question with a dozen different meanings. I was weary of relaying the story and reliving the trauma over and over each time. But I also didn't want to isolate, and knew that was my tendency. I wanted my heartbreak to fuel conversation and connection, not start a rumor mill... I decided, this is my life and I'll be the one to decide how I share it. I also had this tiny suspicion that there were others who may find comfort that they weren't the only ones. After I hit the "publish" button I panicked. I can't undo this. Then as my inbox began filling with messages I didn't want to anymore. I realized that stuff like this is happening ALL around us and we're all hurting, but hesitant to speak up. Shame told me that I had somehow failed and it kept me quiet until I named it and found my voice... and that was precisely when I found the strength to begin the process of healing.
Of course, if I were writing that initial post today it wouldn't be the same, because I'm not. What I shared fresh after the affair, I wrote from a place of honesty. The thing I didn't realize at the time was that I was still in the aftershock of trauma and in the very beginning stages of grief. My emotions were raw, but my behavior indicated that I was still in denial. Numb. Disoriented. Surviving. My belief system was the only "stable" thing I had at the time, so I clung to it like a life preserver. I was desperate for safety and security, a place to catch my breath while I tried to make sense of what had just happened. The bible and church/religious gatherings were familiar to me and comfortable... I knew the people and spoke the language. I went there seeking refuge, and that's what I found in a few relationships, but also a lot of pressure to stay and make my marriage work along with cliche explanations, insensitive declarations, and bandaids. I didn't want a bandaid. For the first time since my life shattered I realized that I had been using religion, not to heal, but to numb. To medicate, take the edge off the pain, keep from feeling it all at once. I didn't want to numb the pain anymore. I was ready to sit in it and let it teach me.
But I felt rushed and hurried along - like some people needed my story to have happy ending and as soon as possible. They needed my marriage to be a redemption story. I realize that may have been born out of good intentions, but it wasn't what I needed. I needed space and time to sit in the discomfort of it all - because that is where the transformation happens. My choice was to get quiet and start faking it again or to keep working out my grief, living in my truth as long as it took. Church had become a house of triggers. Triggers and bandaids. So I decided to break up with organized religion to explore my relationship with spirituality - something that's still messily, beautifully unfolding.
And while that first blog post was heavy on the bible and possibly even portrayed "God" and "grace" as quick fixes - all highly inaccurate representations of my current thinking and experience - I'm still proud of myself for having the courage to talk and write about it at all. Though I did it imperfectly, it is still one of the bravest things I've ever done. In spite of criticism and invasive questions and opinions and judgements and unsolicited advice, I didn't run and I didn't fight, I stood in my truth. And I got stronger.
How has this changed me?
Trauma and crisis open our eyes to things we can't unsee. In moments I wanted to shut my eyes tight (denial) - it's almost reflexive, like walking out of a dark theatre into bright sunshine. But shut eyes can't keep the bright truth away, they just keep us from seeing it. So opening my eyes and giving them time to adjust was the very beginning.
Once they adjusted to the light I began surveying the damage, and in the wreckage of my marriage I found a gift: my own dysfunction coming from old wounds and trauma and with them, the opportunity to begin healing. ACA has been the greatest catalyst for that healing work for me. Hard, beautiful, ugly, messy work. It's as if a lot of true things were woven together with lies to create the fabric of my thinking. I'm taking it apart strand by strand and starting over, deciding what to discard and what's worth keeping. This arduous, tedious task has ushered in a season of reevaluating and questioning. I haven't been to church in a long while and it's been refreshing - hushing the voices telling me who I'm supposed to be as a "christian", as a wife, as a mother, as a woman... telling me what to do what to think what to say what not to say what to wear what to feel what not to feel. Hush... I answer to the voice within me.
I'm learning to listen. I'm carving out a safe space for myself to heal. That choice has opened up a lot of room for healthy spirituality, starting with self-care which, for me, looks like this:
I am setting boundaries, as uncomfortable, awkward, and strange as they may feel.
I am painting.
I am listening to the music I enjoy.
I am feeling uncomfortable feelings without numbing them or denying them.
I am meditating.
I am openly and honestly looking and asking questions, even - especially - those without clear answers.
I am moving my body and thanking it for all it is and all it does.
I am spending time with my recovery community and working my program.
I am abandoning false beliefs and naming them.
I am taking baths, using oils, burning incense.
I am writing.
I am writing.
I am going to therapy.
I am being as gentle, encouraging and patient with myself as I would a close friend or my own children.
I am practicing yoga.
I am focusing on healing for myself rather than fixing or rescuing others.
I am learning to live untethered from both what has already happened and what hasn't happened yet, fully in the present.
And I need to own something here. When I talk about self-care, and especially when I practice it, I brace myself for criticism and judgement. My model for how to love was this: Give to the point of the complete depletion, exhaustion, and burn out. Give until you have nothing left. Others over self... all things to all people. Like the book, The Giving Tree. Irresponsible giving. It led me straight into depression and resentment; repetitively over the course of my entire life. And I'm not only talking about irresponsible giving to the church, I did it in my marriage too. I've often wondered, why is it so uncomfortable for me to acknowledge my needs and ask for what I want? Why does giving feel superior to needing? What is it that compels me to do all, do it perfectly, and do it with a smile disregarding that my insides feel simultaneously desperate and dead? Do men feel this the way women do? I think part of it for me is perfectionism, to shield me from feeling the old messages of "not enough"... maybe if I do it all and do perfectly I can avoid the criticism and disappointment... I'll never let anyone down.
I tried on all the expectations like clothes. Don't feel. Don't need. Keep quiet. Be happy. Make others happy. I put them layer after layer and when they didn't fit I felt like something was wrong with me. Since these are the clothes I've been handed and they don't fit I'll just change myself... maybe I can grow into them. It never occurred to me that those costumey, overwhelming, suffocating expectations were the problem to begin with. Still, taking them off feels scary... naked, exposed, vulnerable... but also lighter. How else can I feel warm sun and cool wind on my skin... maybe this is how I learn to feel human. And living fully human is to feel more than hollow happy. I'm no longer interested in divorcing parts of myself to keep others comfortable... so I keep practicing letting my soul speak up. Maybe this is I how to learn to stop apologizing for the shape of me. I never dreamed that loving and caring for myself would feel like such an act of defiance! But that's exactly what it is.
Self-Care: Caring for my body, mind, and soul.
Not fixing them up to be presentable to other people. Getting to know them, listening to them, and loving them as they are because they are mine.
Do I regret staying with him?
You guys, healing wounds is hard and it happens really slowly... Like the way a tree grows, or how a stream of water carves out rock. I think maybe I was hoping back then that God would just make J new then our life would be new... but the tools for newness turned out to be twelve step programs and lots of therapy ...and that work is life long work. He may choose sobriety, but the old wounds, the family stuff and personal choices took years and years to shape him and I can't rescue him from those things. That's his work. His journey. Though sincere, I think I was sincerely misguided as I focused outside of myself on what I hoped I could fix, oblivious to the ways I was broken.
I made a lot of choices then in the name of "grace" or "forgiveness" that make me cringe. What I know now is that those words by true definition can and will look different for different people and they could have looked different for me as well... and that would have been okay too. It would still be okay. I don't know if we'll stay married or not, but the lack of certainty is no longer paralyzing. I am whole and loved with or without my marriage.
One of my greatest concerns from all I've written is that someone may read my words and feel that there is only one "right" choice, when that isn't the case at all. Please hear this: Sometimes grace can look like divorce. Sometimes forgiveness looks like strong boundaries and distance from an unsafe person. Sometimes love looks like protecting yourself and/or your children so you can actually begin a process of healing. Only you can decide what is right for you, and what is right for you today may not be what is right for you tomorrow. That is for you, and you alone, to decide. Whatever you choose, whatever the voice within you whispers, I hope you find the courage to listen. I'm still learning how one moment at a time over here.
. . . . .
I just found out my spouse/significant other has been having an affair. Now what?
These are things I found helpful for me during that time of crisis. Your journey is going to be your own. Please don't rush it or tidy it up. It doesn't need to look the same as mine or anyone else's. These suggestion won't make the pain go away, but they may help you find purpose in it.
This is trauma and you are in emotional ICU and need a support team. Surround yourself with the handful of people who have proven themselves trustworthy. I'm talking speed-dial friends. Ask a few friends if you can check in with them regularly and get brutally honest about how you are with them. Not everyone you know has to know every detail. If you don't have the emotional energy to maintain superficial or unsupportive relationships for a while, that's okay. It might just be one the most refreshing and liberating choices you could make. I also can't emphasize strongly enough the value of finding a twelve step community and working your own program. After that initial post about my marriage, someone contacted me and suggested Al-ANON.. and I was so confused because I thought twelve step programs were just for alcoholics. Then someone else recommended ACA and I thought she too was confused because I didn't grow up with alcoholics. As it turns out, "not-an-alcoholic" isn't the same thing as healthy, and I'm so proud of myself for going to that first meeting. I've never belonged somewhere more in my life. There are so many amazing twelve step fellowships that offer an opportunity to heal in a way that you and I simply cannot in isolation. I'm so thankful that I found my own fellowship and started working my own program.
Find a therapist. If you were in a wreck and had a physical injury or trauma you'd go to a doctor. Your emotional health is just as important. Maybe you're lucky to have some great friends or wise mentor type folk in your life.. Awesome! That's your friend or mentor, not your therapist. Maybe even have a pastor or some other spiritual leader you can turn to. Wonderful! That's your pastor or spiritual leader, not your therapist. In the same way if you needed surgery it wouldn't be enough to just webmd it or call your nurse neighbor, you'd need an actual licensed surgeon, the same is true in this case. You need an actual licensed therapist. If the first therapist you try isn't a good fit, try another one! The first person I talked with was an out of towner I spoke with on the phone a few times and she was so helpful! The second person I talked with was a local "counselor" from a prominent church that offered free counseling services. Her advise was so poor and damaging it was part laughable part scary. My friends and I still shake our heads and joke about some the of the unbelievably misguided things she said. (Remember that part about credentials? Yeah.) The third person was great for a season, then I needed someone else to help me work through some specific trauma, which led me to my current therapist. The work with that person has been invaluable.
You don't have to decide if you're going to leave or stay right now. You don't have to make that decision tomorrow or this week or this month. What you need most of all is a safe space to heal and take care of YOU. Create that safe space and guard it fiercely. Stay or leave, the relationship with yourself is one you'll have forever, so invest in it - especially right now. Practice some really good self care. As tempting as it may be to numb and check out, those only delay the inevitable. I know this is painful and it's so hard to sit in the feelings. When they began to creep up my immediate reaction was to escape them with planning and busy and distraction. But they didn't go away. Being intentional about time alone was helpful for me... to journal, feel, scream, cry, grieve. I know it's uncomfortable, but this part is important and I've learned it doesn't last forever. It's like cleaning out a wound. Is it going to hurt? Hell yes. But if you don't do it now and just slap a bandaid over the top. it's going to get infected and hurt so much worse later. It's also possible that you don't feel anything right now, and that's okay too. It's normal to be in shock and that can be a gift. I was in shock for a while. It gave me the clarity to make practical logistical choices for myself (I separated from Jason, found a therapist, purchased some books and a new journal, gathered my support team). Look up the stages of grief. Just as if someone close to you died, you have to grieve your way through this and there aren't any shortcuts to true healing and it takes a long time... And by long time I don't mean weeks or months, I mean years. But you don't have to do it alone.
I highly, HIGHLY recommend these reads: I read through a LOT of good and bad and lots in between and out of everything these had the greatest impact on my life and healing/recovery.
Rising Strong by Brene Brown (youtube her tedtalks)
The Voice of the Heart by Chip Dodd
If you have gone through or are going through something similar, I'm so sorry... With all my heart... I hate it for you and my gut response is to wish it away. I don't want you to have to experience the pain. Yet, from my own experience, I've learned that the discomfort that feels like it may kill you can birth something new inside you if you let it - stay with it, don't run from it, rush through it, or numb it. I've finally reached a place in my own journey that, though I would love to erase the circumstances that brought me here, I wouldn't dare trade the healing and growth for the world. Truly. It's been a TON of work to get to a place where I can say that honestly, but I'm beginning to view it less as a "getting through this" and more evaluating how I want to live and who I want to be, then actively taking steps daily to make that happen as an ongoing practice. I'm paying attention - learning to honor my still small voice. Learning to love the shape of me.
Wishing you love and light on your journey,