Why in the world would a betrayed spouse (BS) care one whit about the wayward spouse (WS)?
The situation I found myself in would make most people think I’m insane for even trying. The affair was very long term.
This is not just about me, though. It’s about every affair and its effects on both partners. It’s about how things got to where they were on the Day of Discovery (D-Day), how both feel after that day, and the search for a path to Recovery (R) and healing for both partners. This is based on my own experiences and mistakes. Some of what I learned came from many books and the help of people on Marriage Advocates. Some was through making mistakes.
I’ll start with my own experience of D-Day, which I think is the common experience: Total loss of what had been my world and my marriage. Loss of all hope. Loss of all trust in my wayward spouse. Loss of all self esteem, thinking the affair was all my fault and that I was being given what I deserved. Anger… and a desire to make the other man (OM) pay and hurt like I did. Shifting back and forth constantly between my love for my wife and wanting to fix our marriage, and despair that it was permanently over. Spinning in a vortex of blackness that kept drawing me down further. I even experienced feelings of life not being worth it anymore.
From my wife’s side were other difficult things to deal with, such as the pain of realizing of how badly she had hurt me, guilt for leaving her integrity behind, and the struggle to show those things and accept them. Wanting to hold onto her justifications – how bad I was, and why she deserved to continue the affair. The pain of withdrawal from the other man and wanting to continue her affair with him. On the fence–wanting to help me and be with me, but wanting to protect herself and her needs. Wanting both me and the OM, and the status quo before D-Day.
So here is a major traffic jam of emotions, like two cars meeting in a head-on crash on a single-lane road. There’s Nowhere to go on either side, other than for one to pull to the side and let the other pass with their needs. Yet, neither is willing to do that.
It’s at this critical juncture where decisions can shape the future of potential recovery. Some betrayed spouses get out of the car and start walking away from the marriage, because they are too hurt to try. For some, the affair is a deal breaker with insurmountable obstacles. I respect that decision, but I also know that the road away is also painful. I still loved her too much to let go. I wanted to try, but didn’t know how.
My wife could only see a future with more pain and no change in our relationship. She thought that I would forever hold the affair over her head and use it to beat her up. She could not give up the affair and having her needs met by her affair partner if I tortured her. She could only see what she needed and the road away appeared less painful. It was easier to leave. She told the marriage counselor the sessions were to prepare for permanent separation – she was done.
A Fork in the Road
After a time period of pleading with her to help me find a way, I lost all hope. Life lost its meaning. Yet, ultimately I decided to redirect my pain and anger into a last attempt to get us both in the same car headed down the road to recovery. I realized that all I could do was work on my side of the issues, drive in the right direction, and pray she found hope in my changes. I had to show her I would not be her tormentor for life.
For this to work, I could not expect her to fix me or my feelings. Only I could do that. I knew that if she didn’t turn around and get on the road to recovery with me, I could at least walk away knowing I had done everything I could. I would know it wasn’t for lack of effort. I would try to break the traffic jam by pushing her abandoned car to the side and stop sitting there, screaming and crying, and drive after her.
I also decided it would do no good – indeed, would only reinforce her beliefs – if I continued to hammer her about her deception and infidelity and remained a victim. I needed to show her compassion, and understand her feelings as well as my own. This is where some might consider me crazy. Why, after all she had done, would anyone set aside their own pain and deal with it themselves? Why would anyone have any sympathy or compassion for someone who had done them so much harm? I deserved to have her grovel at my feet and beg me to take her back – did I not? She had broken her vows; did that not release me from mine?
A Flash of Light
The answer to those questions for me came from looking at who had the strength to start. Where she was at that moment clearly told me that she did not have that strength. My determination gave me that strength. I decided that my integrity and belief in my vows, “In better or worse and till death do us part,” should be my guide. I believed that marriage was partnership and that BOTH parties had to try hard to keep it going. Yet, she was unable to, so I had to be the rock and strength. I knew that failure was a possibility. I also knew the changes in me had to be permanent – not just to woo her back. I knew it wouldn’t work if I was making changes that were not me or that I would resent and regret later.
I developed a plan to let her see there was hope. My plan would NOT be to change her. It would be to try to motivate her to want to change.
I also developed a plan to protect myself. I needed some self-provided security for the massive amount of it I’d lost over the affair. The plan to protect myself was twofold. I put plans for legal and financial protections in place, in case I failed. I didn’t execute those plans, but they were ready to go on a moment’s notice and a self-imposed deadline was in place to enact them. I also contacted my lawyer and found out how a divorce would likely go, the possible ways it could be done, and the cost of each option. I could stop worrying about those details, having eliminated the misconceptions, fears, and questions surrounding the process.
The second self protection I put in place was to eliminate the uncertainty being injected into my decisions by people who said they had my best interests at heart but were telling me I was wrong to try. Some told me she wasn’t worth it, that I deserved better. She was called a whore and worse. I was told to protect myself, divorce her and move on with life. I would NEVER find happiness and she would surely do this to me again. I should not change for someone who had no love for me, and never would. Look what she did, how could she have love for me? I was blind. I was being stupid.
These words hurt me and made me angry, because I still loved my wife. No one had a right to call her names. They caused me to question myself and my motives. When I decided I knew what I wanted and what I was going to do, I tuned those people out. I followed my plan. “Find your own way,” I told myself, “Only you have to live with the outcome.” My good friends and mentors helped me to understand the missteps I made and gently guided me, always ending their advice with, “Only you know what you want and what you can take.” I listened to what was helpful.
Understanding My Wife
My plan to get her to want to come back focused on me and what I could change in myself to make it possible for the marriage to survive long term. I knew I did things during arguments that left them unresolved and were eating away at the marriage. I didn’t listen to her or understand her feelings and needs when we hit an issue. I also didn’t listen when she just needed to be heard and understood in daily life. The combination of these had left her feeling like there was no hope that she could ever be happy with me. I always debated an issue to my satisfaction, and I was damn good at it. Whenever she needed to just be heard and understood, I offered fixes and solutions to her problems. My behavior left her feeling degraded, like I thought she was stupid and incapable of solving her own problems. She also believed that I did not – and would not – understand her or her feelings.
She was right, and I knew it. There was her side to this issue, too, but I couldn’t fix that. She was in no position to try at that time. I could, however, fix myself and my mistakes. I learned how to actively listen (Google it) by shutting up and listening carefully. I learned how to understand the feelings and not throw up my own self-protective, justifying shields in defense. She noticed immediately and had hope that the mountain of issues we had could be resolved, because I was no longer the roadblock. She questioned whether I would stay this way or revert back. She had to take a leap of faith that I could, but hope made that leap much easier to take.
My anger and focusing on my pain and telling her about it? I had to stop that. I had to realize that my feelings were mine to contend with and work through. Work through, not ignore. She could help and support, but the feelings were mine. Without remorse and desire in her to help, I would feel all alone, but I wouldn’t later when she decided to try. For now, I had to show her I could and would face my own responsibilities and not make them hers, and I did.
Finally, I had to let her know – by showing her – that I was not going to punish her and make the affair a lifelong nightmare for her. She had every reason to believe and expect that I would. I accomplished this by promising to not do that and by demonstrating to her how I would control myself.
I told her I would have triggers. I explained I was experiencing a type of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome) from the affair. The littlest things caused mind movies of her and the other man, which caused me to spiral and let my fears control me. I taught myself to take 10 minutes, or however long it took, to calm down before I said anything to her, so I wouldn’t attack and spew venom. She learned to recognize when this was happening and let me pull back without feeling rejected. I also made it very clear that I knew I was doing this to myself and had to confront and deal with it as my responsibility. She could only support me.
Eventually when we were working on recovery, I let her know I needed her to hold me as soon as I calmed down, no matter how stiff I was so I could move away from the pain faster and feel secure and safe. These things helped her believe she was not in for a lifetime of torture.
I showed compassion for her feelings once she started to try. I knew she was going through withdrawal from the other man and did not abandon her to deal with it on her own. As would be expected, this was extremely hard for me, but it reinforced that we were a team. We were there to support each other, and this let her know I wasn’t going to punish her.
To summarize what I think is critical to recovering from the head-on crash of infidelity and breaking the emotional road block:
- One of you has to be strong and take the lead toward recovery.
- Decisions early on must not be rash and must be made with an eye toward what you truly want. Let no one dissuade you.
- Since the wayward (or walkaway) spouse is often not capable of having the strength to lead toward recovery, it falls on the betrayed or left behind spouse.
- Make up your mind to get through this terrible crash and destruction.
- Redirect your pain and anger into action.
- Protect yourself, but don’t bury yourself in protection.
- Focus on what YOU can do with YOU to make recovery possible and help your spouse believe it is possible. You can’t expect a wayward or walk away spouse to do this. They must see hope in order to try. Your hard work can provide that hope.
- Recognize that only you can control yourself and your feelings. The same applies to your spouse. Focus on showing that you can control yourself, that you will not punish, and that you will have compassion towards him/her and his/her feelings.
Someone has to take the lead and try to break that roadblock. Do you have what it takes?
These excerpts from the book Intimacy and Desire by David Schnarch spoke to me. They show how to overcome fears and reservations. I calmed myself and took the initiative to create the changes we needed to begin recovery. I strongly recommend this book for its basic relationship concepts.
The Four Points of Balance:
(These couples) lacked the necessary Four Points of Balance. You can’t forgive or accept if you can’t:
• Maintain a solid flexible self. (Instead you need your partner to be continually wrong and perpetually asking for forgiveness.)
• Have a quiet mind and calm heart. (You never get over your “emotional wounds.”)
• Make grounded responses. (You’re at your partner’s throat when he points out your transgressions.)
• Endure meaningful pain. (You hold grudges and see your partner as the enemy.) Poorly differentiated people can’t practice acceptance and forgiveness because they lack these Four Points of Balance. There is nothing wrong with partners trying to accept and forgive each other. Try it, and if it works, your problem is over. If you can’t, or it doesn’t accomplish what you thought, buckle down and use the approach you’re learning here. 1
Regarding critical mass:
Critical mass is the anxiety and pressure required to trigger fundamental change… The lower your Four Points of Balance, the more anxiety and pressure it will take to mobilize you.
… when your integrity stands up and you can’t buy your own bullshit anymore, things happen. For lots of couples, things don’t have to get worse. All it takes is someone’s integrity finally standing up. That’s it. Suddenly, they’ve reached critical mass, because by this point they are already in over their heads.
You can’t fake getting to this point, because your partner’s radar is on full alert. Any inconsistencies tell him you’re just pretending. That’s why shouting, “I’ve had enough!” doesn’t always create critical mass. No words inherently create critical mass (not even “I’m having an affair”). Your partner has to map your mind and see you’re serious about not accepting the status quo. 2
Suggestions for going through critical mass:
Whether you’re the HDP or the LDP, here are some suggestions for when you’re approaching critical mass. These suggestions have different applications depending on which role you’re in.
• How you go through critical mass determines how you come out.
• Quicker is better. The MFHC Intensive Therapy Program and Passionate Marriage® Couples Retreats help couples reach critical mass and get through gridlock as rapidly as possible in a productive manner.
• Forget about your partner being there for you. Partners are often a major source of anxiety, rather than a source of security. This is especially true when things reach critical mass. When this happens, your best move always involves maintaining your integrity, calling on your resilience, and operating from the best in you. In other words, being there for yourself.
• Stop thinking marriage can’t work when only one partner wants to grow. Marriages and families cannot function effectively solely by consensus. I’ve said all along that relationship stability is maintained unilaterally. So is change.
• Don’t grab the high ground (and don’t give it to your partner). When things reach critical mass, there’s no point in claiming to be the “real victim” or trying to grab the high ground. And if your partner (or you) can still get away with either one, you haven’t reached critical mass yet.
• Stop trying to change your partner. Let marriage pressure your partner instead of you trying to do it directly.
• Confront yourself. Self-confrontation keeps you from believing your own nonsense and allows you to learn from your mistakes… Instead of becoming defiant when your partner confronts you, things get really serious when you allow this to happen and you confront yourself.
• Don’t give your partner ultimatums or threats. And don’t let your partner back you into thinking you’re giving one. When you issue an ultimatum, the only person it is binding for is you. 3
Marriage’s Grand Design
Why do things have to reach critical mass? According to William Brietbart, psychiatrist and psycho-oncologist at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, “If life is always smooth, we’re never challenged. Suffering is probably necessary to make us grow. The need to find meaning is a primary force, but we may need to be confronted with our own mortality for that to occur.”
Cancer survivors, for instance, often use going through this crucible experience to reconstruct their lives. They don’t return to their prior level of functioning, they go on to greater levels… Research indicates cancer survivors frequently come out of their crucible demonstrating the characteristics of increased Four Points of Balance: bravery, curiosity, fairness, forgiveness, gratitude, humor, kindness, and an enhanced sense of meaning.
Cancer survivors survive, in part, because they develop Meaningful Endurance. Meaningful Endurance can save your marriage and your life. It’s about having hope when things don’t look good. Meaningful Endurance is a sense of possibility, based on facing reality and accepting inherent risks, and being willing to work things out as best you can. According to one study, hope increases your chances of surviving cancer. It’s not just a matter of faith. When you have hope you take action. 4
- Schnarch, David. Intimacy & Desire (p. 240). Beaufort Books, 2009.
- Schnarch, David. Intimacy & Desire (pp. 247-249). Beaufort Books, 2009.
- Schnarch, David. Intimacy & Desire (pp. 250-251). Beaufort Books, 2009.
- Schnarch, David. Intimacy & Desire (pp. 251-252). Beaufort Books, 2009.