Forgive me – this will be a long post because there are, in my opinion, no easy answers here. And, Keep, I am not going to direct my reply specifically to you because I think that there are many here facing this crisis and each will likely have to find their own path. I wish there was a solution we could all use that worked – but it really doesn’t seem that way.
This is, to me, the final, and most important, barrier to the “better” marriage. The deeply satisfying one that gives far more than it takes.
First, there are so many hurdles to clear before you face this one. So much work, thought and decisions to be made before you get here – before you even SHOULD get here. I would never recommend to someone that they open their heart fully to someone that hasn’t done the work to recognize and change the part of them that was capable of hurting their partner in such a deep way. It would be – at best, reckless – at worst, cruel – to open them to the very real potential of being hurt again.
But that level of change and learning new habits takes time for our spouses… and in the mean time we HAVE to protect our hearts. We don’t know which way they will turn. We don’t know if it will stick, if the change is real or temporary. And so even those of us who loved wide open, with nothing held back before, learn to brick a part of us away in an effort to safeguard ourselves from what feels like the inevitable other shoe dropping.
In our case, I’d say my husband (and I) are still learning and growing. Hopefully, it will be a lifelong process. But there had been enough demonstrated change and self-reflection between 12-18 months that I began to be more comfortable to stick my head (or really my heart) out of the little armored castle I had built.
This was so critical for me, because it has always been the crux, the bottom line in my head of whether I could stay long term. While I can be very realistic and practical in many areas of my life… my heart is not one of them. I have always desired, sought – and given – what I call BIG LOVE. It’s that love that leaves little held back, that isn’t reasonable, or sensible, but flings itself ALL IN. For me, it is one of the key ingredients for a good life. When I am on my deathbed, it will be one of my markers for a life well-lived.
So if I could not get back there with my husband, I knew I’d be dissatisfied in the long haul. That I’d end up leaving, not specifically from the infidelity, but from the fact that I couldn’t regain a part of myself with him that meant a great deal to me. A part of me I loved and was unwilling to lose – even for him.
Please understand that I know many people who are deeply loving, that just don’t work this way – or even want to. I don’t think they are any LESS loving, and I in no way mean to imply that it is. Or that my idea of BIG LOVE is better… frankly, I’ve questioned its veracity many times and wondered if I would be better off changing to a more tempered approach. But I always end up in the same place… it is the way I am built. And I like myself.
So… I did what I always do when faced with an internal crisis. I began reading and studying about vulnerability. About being able to love whole-heartedly.
And slowly, over the last two years, more and more parts of me came back online. It was definitely NOT a quick flip of a switch. It was more like a slow drip into a big bucket. I think several things played into filling my bucket back up:
- The internal work I was doing of reacquainting myself with ME and falling back in love with myself. The stronger and more happy in MYSELF I felt, the more safe I felt to be vulnerable. It was if I’d found a tiny island in me that no one could touch. And knowing that my safe little island was there, allowed me to be more free and open with the outside world because I knew my retreat existed. I have no idea if this makes the slightest bit of sense to anyone else, but it is how it FEELS.
- My husband’s work. At times it has seemed that we are in a bit of a lockstep. He progresses in his understanding and in his ability to be emotionally vulnerable and transparent with me… and a part of me responds in kind.
- My own strong desire to be able to reclaim this level of feeling for myself. A willingness to walk away if I couldn’t achieve it with him. Once the trauma healing was done… I immediately moved to looking for every tool in reclaiming my joy and capacity to live and love wholeheartedly. I have probably listened to Brene Brown’s book the Power of Vulnerability 10… maybe 12 times? Braving the Wilderness… several more times. The book I often recommend, “How to Live and Love after Intimate Betrayal” helped me find the ways to focus on my own values – and one of them was continuing to be soft and vulnerable – even in a sometimes cruel world.
I really, really, really wish I had better, more concrete actionable steps. If I could figure out how to help others find this within themselves, I’d turn myself inside out to do it. To me, stealing someone’s joy and ability to love freely, is as cruel as stealing their arms or legs.
But so much of this process was internal that I don’t know how to break it down for others. It was reflection, reading, meditating, journaling, talking to others, talking to my husband about our respective fears, helping others… each took a tiny piece of my wall down.
All I know is that at a little over 3 years from DD, I honestly feel like myself again. The pain, shame, shock, trauma and heartache are experiences that will always be a part of my story – and therefore a part of me. But they only feel like a part of me the way having shingles years ago does. I can remember the unrelenting pain and fear that I might have nerve pain for the remainder of my life. But then it healed – and now I don’t think about it until something triggers it or I am using that experience to help someone else.
I have been able to reclaim myself, and later, my deep love for my husband. I actually think I may love him more deeply now because I respect how hard it was to do the internal work to save himself and us. He faced parts of himself he’d spent a lifetime trying to bury. But hurting me and our daughter made him face the fact that he could bury them no longer. I see people chose to continue their patterns at other’s expense rather than have the bravery to face themselves EVERY day. So I can respect any WS who does that work, including my own.
I also think that like Skelling mentioned – we know each other far more deeply at this point. Neither one of us loves a mirage, or carefully crafted image. We love a living, breathing person warts and all. It’s a more mature love, but one that can squeeze my heart at times so tight from its intensity that it makes me want to cry – from gratitude rather than sadness.
I think I would have found this level of happiness and peace one way or the other – with or without my husband. In fact, I recognized that at some point I might have to conclude that he was the last thing standing in my way if he didn’t change. But I was committed to still being able to see and live in technicolor and was BULL HEADED about the idea that someone could take it from me. I re-read some of Viktor Frankl’s work and reminded myself that if there were Jews in concentration camps who could hold on to their kindness, compassion and humanity in THAT horrible place, I could sure as hell find my way back from this trauma (that’s not a ding on anyone suffering – just the thoughts that I used to rally myself when it was hard to put one foot in front of the other.)
But I do feel fortunate that it was a journey that my husband was able to join me on. If he had not, we would have parted ways, which would have been very sad. But I was not willing to exchange my capacity for joy or love for him. He had to grow to someone that could support me in feeling those things (make me feel safe and valued), or leave my life.
Sorry this is so long and doesn’t really give any real “steps” to breaking down the walls. But I wanted to share my experience of this important topic.