...don't pitch your tent in the cemetery!
We want our marriage to last a lifetime. We start with promises of faithfulness and endurance, believing our union will survive any challenge we might face "in sickness or in health." Most do; some even thrive. But many marriages die in ways never anticipated.
When the death of a marriage is a mutual choice between two partners, grieving its loss may be a short-term process. Their decision to pull the plug likely follows a period of prolonged suffering that may even make divorce feel like relief. Similar to a funeral, partners make the appropriate arrangements, pay their final respects, bury the marriage, and move on with their lives.
But a marriage killed by betrayal is not so easily mourned.
The focus of my work is on helping couples survive an affair, but anyone working in this field can speak to the devastation caused by infidelity. Many marriages end because too much damage has been done or because the unfaithful partner chooses the lover over the spouse. These marital deaths are usually unexpected and sudden, leaving the betrayed spouse in a state confused grief. Here's how one client described her condition:
"I never, ever expected to be here. I thought our 23 years of marriage was just the first half of what we would share together. We talked about our future; we made plans. Then one day I find out he's in love with [another woman]. Without warning, he's gone. He's not coming back...
"No matter how many times people tell me 'things will get better,' that's hard to believe when all I feel is sadness. I wonder if I'll ever get over this."
Grief is a normal, necessary part of healing. The level of pain and sadness experienced after betrayal will usually require a period of grieving. But you need to eventually let go of the dead thing. You need to leave the cemetery.
Here are the steps I recommend for you:
1. Decide that you have more living to do.
Instead of thinking your life has died with your marriage, choose to believe that there are parts of your story waiting to be written. Even if you're not ready to take full control of your future right now, at least acknowledge that it is in your power to do so. Regardless of circumstances (yes, they will be difficult), you get to choose what story you will tell. You can decide who you will become.
2. Begin to grieve intentionally.
When first confronted with unexpected loss, you needed to let grief have its way. The depth of loss and sorrow you felt needed to be expressed, not controlled. As time goes on, however, you should require less time for mourning.
I encourage clients to begin the process of moving away from grief by being more intentional. You still need to process the pain, but you can begin taking more control of the time and places you allow yourself to grieve. Your attention to loss was once a vigil; now it should become a visit you make when necessary.
3. Choose to get involved with life again.
If you wait until you feel like doing this, you'll probably wait too long. Some people, in fact, never re-engage with life. But that doesn't have to be you.
Every day, make the choice to walk out of the cemetery and interact with the world around you. To encourage a quicker return to emotional recovery, make special effort to include one or more of the following in whatever you do:
- FRIENDS: Don't isolate. Engage with people who care about you. While you're with them, be sure to focus on what is going on in their lives, too.
- PASSIONS: Do things you love doing. Maybe this is a time to return to interests you had as a child. Or explore new and interesting opportunities. If you think you might like doing something, TRY it!
- SERVICE: Find ways to help others. Putting yourself in situations that require attention to the needs of others is one of the most effective ways of taking the focus off of yourself. You may feel like you've got nothing to give, but that's not true. I guarantee that you've got something (time, attention, talent, ability, effort, gifts, etc.) that someone else needs. If you're not sure, put the word out that you've got some time to volunteer and doors will open.