What follows is the fourth installment of a guest blogger’s series about recovering from infidelity. I appreciate Valerie’s honesty and openness as she discusses what it was like for her to learn of her husband’s affair and then much later to decide to work with him to attempt to heal their marriage.
I hope Valerie’s insights offer a helpful perspective to those of you in a similar situation.
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Recovery or Goodbye? No one Can Decide that for You
I’ve been told that going through a divorce causes a grief response in humans, that it feels like a death of sorts. I can see why. Something you loved and nurtured and relied upon, something that gave shape to your life, is just gone (sometimes suddenly, sometimes after a long struggle).
Although Tim and I ultimately didn’t split up, there was a period of time where I thought we would. We did live apart for many months after I discovered his affair; I had assumed divorce was inevitable. And although I have been fortunate enough that I have not yet experienced the intense grief of losing a loved one (both my parents are living), I can see why the dissolution of a marriage—especially when it begins with the wrecking-ball of an affair—would stir emotions painful enough and, at times, out-of-control enough, that they become raw grief.
I’ve also been told that grief is intensely personal. Although you might have lots of support around you, people who love you and who are invested in your healing, you must get through the grief on your own (on the inside, which is where you feel broken).
It’s my opinion that being on the brink of divorce, whether or not you were brought there because of the betrayal of an affair, also requires the individual to push and heave and muddle through on his/her own, even with the support of family and friends in place.
This may sound bleak or solipsistic, and that’s not my intent. I just want to share something that I learned through getting to my own brink, and through the thousands (maybe millions) of tiny steps away from the brink and back to feeling at home … at home with myself and with my husband.
Shame kept the news hidden
I mentioned in an earlier post how hard it was for me to share the news of the affair with people close to me. I felt ashamed, even though I hadn’t been the one who betrayed my spouse, my vows. Still, despite it feeling irrational, I felt ashamed. Embarrassed. As if admitting my husband had strayed was akin to me announcing I’d been an inadequate lover. That might not make any sense to you if you haven’t been the victim of an affair, and I wish I could do a better job of describing it.
Like any couple, Tim and I had had our share of ups-and-downs in our marriage, but we were solid, I had always thought. An affair was something that happened to other couples (I had always thought). Couples who neglected their marriage. Couples who didn’t have common interests. Couples who didn’t communicate regularly or authentically. At least that’s what I had always thought…until it happened to me. And the admission that I couldn’t inoculate my marriage against the same fate that had befallen so many others was a hard truth to look at.
It took me a while to tell important others in my life what was going on between me and Tim. (I say “important” others because not everyone needed to know; being the victim of infidelity didn’t mean I suddenly owed absolutely everyone an explanation about the workings of my personal life!)
And to this day, we haven’t told the kids. They of course knew when we were living apart, and I was honest with them at the time about not being sure whether Tim and I would live under the same roof again. But I didn’t need to tell them what the precipitating event was. They’re kids, after all. The separation was hard enough on them. We made the decision to spare them the grownup details that couldn’t have possibly helped them.
But one of my oldest and dearest friends, Rheann, learned about the affair soon after I did. I just needed someone to help me shoulder this, and I was too ashamed to go to my parents (as if I’d somehow be indicted for choosing Tim in the first place!), and many of my other friends had become friends after my marriage, so I assumed they’d be loyal to Tim and therefore not helpful to me.
“You have to leave him, Val.”
Rheann gave me exactly the kind of support I thought I needed at the time. While I was sobbing my eyes out, she remained dry-eyed and furious. I felt too shattered to be truly angry. I rose to anger much later in my journey, but at the beginning I just felt broken and despairing.
So Rheann’s perspective was witnessing my suffering and wanting to ameliorate it. She knew who had caused my tears, and she felt pure rage toward him. Although nothing really felt “good” those weeks when I’d thought I’d be in Ireland celebrating my anniversary and instead was at home with the shades drawn and a litany of my own unanswered, looping questions, it felt good to hear Rheann excoriate Tim. It was a relief to know that she could occupy the place—justified anger—that I was too weakened by shock and confusion to occupy at the time.
The problem is, Rheann never left that place. And eventually, after a long while, I did.
It may sound overly obvious and even painfully simplistic to say that leaving or staying in a marriage is a deeply personal choice that can only be made by the people in the marriage, but I feel like I need to say it anyway. When you are recovering from the shock and betrayal of an affair, your brain might feel addled. You might feel weak and indecisive. You might feel hopeless about the future, helpless about the here and now.
Those feelings are normal, and for me (and for everyone I know who was the victim of an affair), they eventually fade. But before they do, it can be so comforting to have someone around you who feels strong and decisive, who can muster the big sweeping pronouncements that you can’t.
Someone else emphatically knowing what you should do can feel like a relief…
Rheann told me I needed to leave Tim. Though she was furious with and disgusted by Tim, she said the part about me leaving him matter-of-factly, as if she’d decided it and she didn’t need my input on the matter.
For months I thought I would leave Tim. I’m not blaming this on Rheann, mind you. That came from me. But when I decided I wanted to try to work on my marriage, Rheann was horrified, thought I was under some spell, tried to remind me of how much Tim had hurt me.
Also, “blame” is the wrong word…Rheann only had my best intentions in her heart. She loves me, she wanted to help me. Whereas I have a long history with Tim, and I share kids with him, she had no such allegiance with him, no reason he should stay in the picture. So I understand why she kept yelling into the “leave him!” megaphone, even when I started quietly and calmly considering attempts at healing the marriage.
I think it would have been easy to be swayed by Rheann’s vehemence. I think it’s really difficult to get still and get quiet and find out what your heart is telling you. I would bet that many of you reading these posts have experienced a well-meaning friend or family member telling you what you needed to do (either leave or stay), and then throwing their energies into helping you achieve that, maybe without stopping to consider what you want, or consider that what you want may change as the weeks and months progress.
There’s something so comforting about allowing someone else to make a difficult decision for us, especially when that other person seems invested in and energized by making the decision anyway! But I truly believe that abdicating our decision-making responsibility can only bring us heartache down the road.
Things between me and Rheann were rocky for awhile after I decided to work on my marriage. She thought I was signing myself up for more hurt and couldn’t bear to watch (and for all I knew, I could have been, but Tim seemed remorseful and we both felt motivated to at least try to recover).
I am glad to report that my friendship with Rheann is whole again, though I suspect in many similar cases it doesn’t end that well. Still, I think the cost of being passive in making one of the most important decisions of your life is too high to justify handing off the choice to someone else.
Wishing you strength on this journey,
(Featured photo by Paul Rysz on Unsplash)