Welcome to a newish heart to heart series of posts meant for those who need someone to talk to about experiencing betrayal.
I have permission to post this private message I received, along with my response. Together, the sender and I are hoping our collective words reach the hearts that need them.
Hi Jodie, I came across your blog five months after discovering my husband’s infidelity. Our stories are similar in that I was emotionally disconnected within my marriage. For many reasons but mainly because I felt I wasn’t getting fed emotionally by him. I felt alone in my marriage as my husband always and only put work first.
My husband is very remorseful and regretful for what he did. He is focused on rebuilding our marriage and shows up every day ready to take on whatever I will throw his way (emotionally, of course, not physically). We love each other – but I’m so broken. I’m so incredibly sad. I’m in shock still, too. The trauma of all this has stopped me dead in my tracks. Some days it’s all I can think about.
I do want to work on my marriage and try to save it but some days (to quote you) … I don’t want to leave but I don’t know how to stay either. At the moment I can’t see ever feeling whole again or happy. My young adult children are equally saddened and devastated, but we are working together to find some normalcy.
Jodie, is it truly possible to feel whole again? To feel happiness from my core? How did you explain things to your kids? This is so very isolating, it’s hard to turn to people as I’m generally a very private person. You (and your husband) have been a tremendous source of strength for me. I re-read your posts daily just to get through the day, or sometimes, just the hour. I wanted to thank you for putting yourself out there and doing what you do. Spreading hope.
(which is not her name, rather how I think of her now)
Heart to heart, I’m so sorry to hear you’re navigating infidelity in your marriage along with the aftermath of betrayal. That some days this trauma is all you can think about is so understandable and normal. Especially under these incredibly abnormal—though come to find out, not really—circumstances. Even the timing and tone of your email are spot on from what I’ve gathered in talking with hundreds of women (and a few men) who’re walking in shoes similar to ours.
There’s something sinister about the six months post affair mark that sets people back or makes them feel stuck.
I think at first we presume we’ll die from the heartache of infidelity. Then when we realize we’re not actually going to die we think we should hurry up and heal faster. But “should” is a despicable and dirty word and quick healing from infidelity just doesn’t exist, in my experience. Our couples therapist told us that on average it takes a couple two years to heal from infidelity. To truly begin to move forward from the devastation it causes. And that’s whether they decide to stay together or not. For either way there’s major healing to do—both individually and as a couple, or as two people uncoupling.
Heart to heart—the good news is you don’t have to know how to stay right now.
You just have to do the next right thing for you each time a moment presents a decision or choice to make. I learned this from Glennon Doyle in her book Love Warrior—if you haven’t read it yet I’m calling it a must-read. Her story won’t read exactly like yours, or anyone else’s for that matter, but there’s enough similarity in the human condition—in being a woman, a wife, a mom, a daughter, or a friend—that you’ll begin to find your way forward by reading how Glennon found hers. Her memoir (the second of three she penned) doesn’t even detail how she proceeded in the end and still, it helped me find my own way. It’s magic, her story, you’ll see.
I chose to stay with my husband but I needed to learn how.
Esther Perel’s body of work was instrumental in helping me learn how to stay. Esther is a world-renowned couples therapist credited with creating multiple resources for couples and individuals endeavoring to recover from betrayal. I was introduced to her via her interview on the Dear Sugars podcast’s 4-part series on infidelity.
After listening, I was thirsty for more of her incredible insight and guidance and thus sourced her TED talk called, Rethinking Infidelity, as well as her book, The State of Affairs. I found both tobe highly informative and thought-provoking, which for me translated into healing. To date, her perspective on long-term monogamy and marriage longevity has been one of the most soothing salves I’ve found. Before discovering Glennon and Esther though, Erik and I looked to God for healing.
God was both the reason I chose to stay after the affair and a large part of how I was able to.
Erik will tell you drawing nearer to God was the means by which he gave our decimated marriage everything I needed him to in order to be able to move forward with him instead of without him. We didn’t stay in our broken, dysfunctional marriage though. Instead, we stayed with each other and began a brand new kind of marriage together.
We put God at the center of our marriage and followed his plan for love and forgiveness—things we sorely wish we’d done all along in the 20 years we’d been married—and finally learned how important it is to give each other our first and our best. Not what’s leftover after first giving to ourselves and others.
We learned how to decide to love each other for no reason and without conditions. For if we lose reason to love or our conditions aren’t met and so we stop loving, that’s not really love. That’s emotion and ego and together, unchecked, they’re ruinous.
Each of us owned our own role in the decline of our marriage, but not the other’s role.
We didn’t point fingers or assign blame. We focused on uncovering what went wrong and how to build the kind of marriage where when things go wrong we work through them. In ways that strengthen us, bringing us closer together. Instead of dysfunctional ways that drive us further apart and cause more harm.
Encouragingly, we finished couples counseling in a year. Mutually concluding we’d done the hard work of sifting through the debris and detritus of the affair. As well as our individual upbringing, outside influences, and decades of learned dysfunction. Agreeing we just needed to keep employing all that we’d learned in therapy. We weren’t out of the woods yet though for Erik still hadn’t found a way to forgive himself. Nor had I done much personal healing.
Laser-focused on saving our marriage and our family and surviving financially, as Erik lost his career due to his affair, we didn’t realize how much personal healing was required. But today, at four years beyond the trauma, we feel healed. Mostly.
Miraculously, we’ll both tell you we like our marriage better today than we ever have. Though we hate how we got here, we’re not sure how we would have if not via the hard way. I’ll never condone or excuse his choice to be unfaithful. But neither does it define us or mark the end of our story together. More so, it denotes the beginning of the marriage we both always wanted but didn’t have the skills to create and maintain.
Our story was first told for us, maliciously and without care for our family or the fallout the publicity would cause.
As such, we had no choice but to sit down with our kids and tell them the truth. Erik’s name and photo were broadcast across all forms of news and media in our community for weeks on end, as his indiscretion was used against him to force him out of his career. Over the years, the story was re-aired from time to time, for no good or productive reason at all.
If we’d had the choice, we’d never have disclosed to our kids how careless we’d been with our marriage. Causing them this kind of public embarrassment and emotional suffering was in turn one of the most acute pain points of my life. The flip side though is they’ve also been able to observe our hard work to recover and heal together.
Goodness and purpose can always be found in even the most unthinkable circumstances.
Our kids saw that our mistakes didn’t define us, more so what we did after has. They watched us cling to love and work toward forgiveness as a means of building the kind of marriage that doesn’t allow room for other people to wedge in between us.
Our kids got to see ownership—without blame—of poor choices and behavior as well as humility and accountability to the utmost degree. They got to observe our willingness to be vulnerable and honest about our shortcomings along with our resilience and recommitment to each other. The gifts of imperfection just kept coming and our kids witnessed them all.
Heart to heart—don’t be discouraged that happiness is elusive at just a few months into your healing.
Pain and heartache rule the days in the beginning of healing from emotional trauma and they do so for a reason. They’re both great teachers and they stick around until we finally learn what they came to teach us. You don’t have to embrace your pain and suffering, but if you choose to learn to use them for good purpose, they won’t lay waste to your soul.
I’m currently taking Yale’s most popular course in the history of the school for free online—along with nearly 3 million others so far during this pandemic. It’s a course on happiness called, The Science of Well-Being. I’m finding it phenomenally helpful and insightful. Mainly because it debunks all the myths about happiness we’ve created as a society—including how to achieve it and make it last—and gives practical, science-based steps for creating more happiness in our lives.
We’re more in control of our happiness than our life circumstances are. As such, the course provides tangible ways to apply principles and engage in tactics that will increase happiness for anyone willing to take the steps. I can’t recommend the class enough.
Beyond that, a few years ago I learned something about happiness that put me at ease with this oh-so-desired state of being once and for all. I read a line in a book that made me close the cover and stare at the wall for an indeterminable amount of time. It remains my favorite line from any book ever. In, All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, at the end of the novel the embattled heroine is asked if she’s found a way to be happy after all she’d been through in her remarkably tragic life. She replied, “I am happy for moments of every day.”
It struck me then—I think that’s all there ever is for any of us.
To expect more than moments of happiness every day is something akin to greed or futility.
To me, anything more than moments of happiness each day seems unrealistic, unattainable, and unsustainable. This realization provides me with peace and acceptance when happiness is absent because I know it will always return. Learning how to help its return along, coupled with the understanding that happiness must be free to come and go, has helped me do the individual healing that I put off for too long.
I know how isolating it can be to experience infidelity. Not because I felt isolated, as I had no sense of a gag order to adhere to. But because I heard from so many others who did. The subject is still so taboo and thus largely unspoken; judgment and opinions abound and not in good or helpful ways.
It can feel like a breach of confidence to disclose our spouse’s betrayal to friends and family. But if we keep it private it can feel like we’re slowly dying inside from a poison we don’t have the antidote for. It can feel like in our silence we’re protecting our partner when they themselves chose not to protect the sanctity of our marriage. Or our mental and emotional health, and that irony can be maddening. To combat this, I created a private, closed group on Facebook for women who’re healing from any kind of emotional or experienced trauma.
There are too many women fighting for their marriages, families, and/or friendships, along with their mental and physical health, who lack a support system—or even someone to merely tell their story to.
Sometimes, simply telling our story can be the biggest catalyst to healing. I don’t want even one more woman (or man) to experience the pain of infidelity. Sadly, I know this will never come to pass. So I at least don’t want even one more woman to feel alone and isolated in her circumstance of betrayal. That’s where I can help.
In the group, each woman’s story and way forward in it are welcome. It’s a soft place to land for those who’ve found out first-hand just how harsh and hurtful the world can be. Please let me know if you think this private and protected (as protected as can be on a social media platform) space would be helpful. If so, I’ll help you access it.
Here’s what I know about hope and why it’s so easy to spread—hope never dies.
Hope is inextinguishable. You can’t kill it. Hope is independent of circumstances, it’s of the heavens and is supernatural. Even the smallest bit of hope can get you where you want to go. There’s nothing that exists within the human condition that hope cannot prevail against and conquer—if you want it to.
IF you want to heal, you will.
IF you do the work to recover, you’ll reap the rewards.
I can prove to you you’re healing, even on the days you feel stuck or set back by triggers. Remember how you felt the moment your husband confessed, or the moment you discovered the affair? Remember how your heart raced to a dangerous pace at the same time all the air left your lungs? Or how you couldn’t breathe and then you choked on your tears to boot? What about how you couldn’t sleep or eat or parent well or function in the slightest?
Remember how you thought you’d never survive the pain? The anger, the resentment, the shock, the eviscerating qualities of this brand of heartache? That you don’t still feel that precise way today is proof you’re healing. No matter how slow or ineffective the process feels sometimes.
No matter that it’s been five or six months, such an arbitrary and meaningless amount of time. That you don’t feel the same level of pain today you did on day one is proof you’re moving forward. All you have to do is keep at it.
When it comes to healing from emotional trauma, try all the things. Keep what works and jettison the rest.
Read, listen, write, move your body, rest, expose yourself to light and love and laughter. Express yourself. Stand up for yourself and state what you need. Seek professional help. Pursue happiness and joy like it’s your job. Allow sadness and pain to teach you what they will. Observe all the negative emotions that flow through you because you’re human and so they will. Just don’t invite them to stay.
Work toward forgiveness—to release yourself from a lifetime of bitterness. Not to release another from accountability or the need to atone and change their poor behavior. And remember that we are not our mistakes, not any of us. We’re more so what we do after and I’m telling you from first-hand experience that what comes after a betrayal isn’t as bad as we think and it’s better than what we expect, no matter the final outcome.
When we make up our minds ahead of time what the outcome of any hardship will be, we’re selling ourselves and our ability to take what we learn and use it for good in this world so very short.
There are untold numbers of things and people and concepts and good learning that helped me heal. But what got me all the way there was turning around to help the next one in line heal, too. You are going to heal—because you want to. You’re going to begin to welcome happiness back home because you need to. You’ll come out of this experience stronger and softer in all the best ways, replete with stories of how you did so because the rest of us need you to.
God doesn’t promise us a life free of pain and suffering. But he does promise none of our difficulties need be wasted.
Heart to heart, he promised our hardships can serve good purpose. In time and by design. Once you align yourself with his plan for what can follow pain and suffering, the moving forward takes care of itself. Think of the process as a people mover in an airport concourse. Just be willing to keep moving, to step on, and he’ll make it easier once you do.
I’m always on the other end of an email. So you don’t need to feel alone in your circumstance or isolated in your suffering anymore. I’m glad you reached out, Hope. You and your story land softly with me. Bravo! for taking a step to ease how hard it’s all been. And huzzah! for when you take the next one and then the next one after that.