This is the fifth installment of guest blogger Valerie’s series chronicling her marriage’s healing from an affair. I am grateful for her honesty and openness in discussing the pain and turmoil her husband’s infidelity caused, and also the ways the two of them later came together to do the hard work of healing their marriage.
I hope Valerie’s insights lend a useful perspective to those of you experiencing the incredibly painful fallout of infidelity.
Dr. Rich Nicastro
Affair recovery: The path to trust isn’t a straight line
One day after Tim had moved back into the house and we were in couples counseling, my friend Rheann was over for coffee.
“So when did you reach the point of no return?” she asked me.
“What do you mean?”
When did you decide to start trusting him again?” she clarified.
It was no secret that after the affair she had stopped being a fan of Tim’s (understatement). It seemed that no matter what he did (or didn’t do), he wouldn’t be able to prove himself to her.
“Good thing she’s not the one I have to prove myself to,” Tim told me one night. I had to agree.
Rheann’s animosity—borne of her love for and protectiveness over me, as well as the fact that she had broken off an engagement in her 20s when she found out her fiancé was cheating—didn’t need to be pointed out to Tim. It was loudly apparent without her having to name it.
Questions about trust in marriage/long-term relationships
The way she asked that question made me think not only about my marriage in particular, but also about long-term commitments, how infidelity can tear them apart, and the nature of trust itself. Was trust/mistrust a conscious decision? Had I made the decision to start trusting Tim again, rather than merely intuitively trusting without a decisive turning point?
And was it true that I’d passed some metaphoric mile-marker, as if I were making a pilgrimage or running a race, and now that I reached this “point of no return,” there was no turning back?
What if Tim hurt me again? Was Rheann implying that I would no longer be able to protect myself? That I wouldn’t be able to ask for a separation like I did the first time he cheated?
Trust: easily broken, not easily repaired
Of course once I decided to let Tim move back in, I must have at least hoped he was telling the truth when he swore he wouldn’t be unfaithful again.
(And I should add here that I only let him move back in after months of living apart, only after I felt like I was past the knee-jerk reaction of taking him back only because I missed him, which, despite being tempting on a many a lonely night, I suspected wouldn’t have been the healthiest reason for opening the door to him, which is why I worked hard to resist it.)
From what I’ve learned from my own experience, as well as from what other betrayed wives/girlfriends have said in support groups, even when we try to loan ourselves extra steel by saying we half-assume our men will be unfaithful again (in other words, when we try not to be vulnerable through hoping for the best), we don’t attempt to heal a marriage from an affair while expecting him to cheat at the same time.
Still, hoping for the best and trusting the man are two very different things.
For me, the journey back to trusting was not linear. It wasn’t quantifiable. It wasn’t like: “Okay, Tim, you’ve come home from work exactly on time for three weeks now, and you’ve always answered the phone when I called. I’m 40% of the way into trusting you again. Keep it up and I’ll be at 60% by Valentine’s Day.”
It wasn’t at all like that.
After the affair: My mistrust bordered on paranoia
When Tim and I were in couples counseling, we learned that my feelings of mistrustful vigilance (sometimes to the point of feeling like paranoia) were normal for someone in my position. My heart had been broken (my chest literally hurt in the weeks after I discovered the affair, as if my heart had physically been wounded), my trust had been smashed. After that kind of pain, anyone would be wary, reticent, guarded, disbelieving. It’s how we protect our wounded hearts.
Just like I had the choice about whether or not to let Tim move back in so we could see if we could heal the marriage after the affair, Tim had a choice to be patient in the face of my frantic, relentless watchfulness (i.e., me checking his phone, his email, demanding that he let me know if he was going to be home late…once I even trailed him—yes, like a P.I.—when he said he was meeting his brother for a beer! It turned out he was doing exactly what he said he was doing…).
He had a choice to try to understand why I was so anxious about rebuilding the marriage and rebuilding the broken trust between us, and also why I was so conflicted about putting my trust in him again. He could choose to be as patient as humanly possible with me, or he could choose to move back out and decide nothing was worth the level of microscopic scrutiny I was applying to his every move.
And I know that there were times in the healing process, months after he’d moved back, when we both felt like I was truly trusting Tim so much more and where suddenly something would trigger me (for example, a song would come on the radio that I remember playing when I discovered the affair, or someone would mention Ireland and it brought me back to the moment I learned about my husband’s infidelity since the discovery caused us to cancel our anniversary trip to the Emerald Isle), and I’d seemingly backslide to a thin degree of trust, or worse—to a level of mistrust I’d experienced months earlier.
If he had left no room for my mistrust, I wouldn’t have learned to trust him again…and our marriage probably would have ended
As much as those backsliding times gave Tim whiplash, he didn’t move back out. I’m not putting him on a pedestal here; I realize it was his affair that smashed the trust I’d always had in him! I’m just observing that my journey toward trusting him again was more of a spiral than a line, and if he were stuck on witnessing linear, logical, quantifiable progress in me, he might not have hung around. Or at the very least, he might have thrown up his hands and given up taking the small, steady, ongoing steps (over and over and over) to show me that I wasn’t a fool to trust him with my heart again.
I am glad he chose to try to be patient (and he didn’t always succeed; sometimes he let his frustration that I was “still in that place” get the best of him, which usually resulted in arguments between us). If those instances had been the norm rather than the exception, however, we may not have made it. And you know what? I still would have ultimately survived. The marriage wouldn’t have, but I would have.
I don’t use the word “epiphany” lightly, or often, but it’s relevant here. When I realized that—that I would survive on my own, no matter what—it felt like for the first time, I realized I could trust myself. That may seem obvious to people reading this, but I’d been so used to placing trust outside of me—and not even considering it within me—that it was something I had to come to learn.
Just like you can’t fully love someone else unless you love yourself, perhaps you can’t fully trust someone else unless you trust yourself (not just in the sense that you won’t deceive yourself, but that you can rely upon your own self more than on anyone else). And since Tim had broken my trust, I first needed to trust myself, and then I needed to fully experience what it felt like not to trust Tim before we could rebuild the trust he’d forsaken when he cheated.
As I said, I’m glad Tim chose to make the decision to do whatever it took to prove himself trustworthy to me again. I love him and I deeply value our marriage. But something that our months apart showed me: I do have the strength to survive without the relationship, too. And that’s where/how I learned that I can trust myself far more than I ever imagined.
Thank you for reading.
Wishing you a healed heart,
(Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash)