"Being half anywhere is the true definition of loneliness."
~Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening
It's tough to stomach when you're sitting in a therapist's office, your guts spilling out onto the floor, your heart shattered, your life in ruins, and your husband suggests that he's hurting too.
HE'S hurting? Well, cry me a goddamned river. He's the one who lobbed this grenade into your life. He's the one who lied and cheated and stomped all over your heart. You wouldn't be in this bloody mess if it wasn't for him.
He hurts too? Well, too damn bad. He's not going to get any sympathy from you. No way. Never.
Never came sooner than I thought it would.
Never came when I had triaged my own wounds enough to be able to look around and notice that he was bleeding too. At first, there was some satisfaction in this. I kinda enjoyed knowing he was in pain. In fact, I thought I could use that pain to keep him in check. As long as I kept reminding him of what he'd done to me – to us, including our children – I could assure myself that he'd be less likely to do it again. I wanted that pain to feel fresh, to sting. To act as a check on any impulses he might have to cheat again.
That was a mistake.
My husband didn't cheat because he wasn't hurting enough, he cheated because he was hurting too much and didn't know how to deal with it. He cheated because the only way he knew how to manage the constant ache of loneliness he felt was to distract himself from it. Sort of like how we dig our fingernails into our palm to distract from dental work.
It took time before I could listen to his pain without trying to trump it with my own. In the early days post D-Day, I couldn't. I was drowning in my own pain and didn't much care if the water was rising for him too. And that's fair. At first, it's all we can do to keep our heads above the waves. We absolutely must tend to our own wounds first.
But the time comes, especially if you want to rebuild your marriage but even if you don't, when it matters that you notice his pain too. It matters because it's in that compassion that your healing accelerates. By realizing that others hurt too, our own pain becomes less isolating. It becomes part of the human condition. Others' pain doesn't eclipse our own, it makes our own a bit more bearable. But only when we're each able to hold the others' pain as well. Minimizing, dismissing or playing the pain olympics just keeps us locked in our own silos.
And remember this. His pain isn't an excuse for cheating. It doesn't, for even a micro-second, mean that what he did was okay. But it does point us toward understanding. And it further makes clear that his cheating wasn't about us. My husband was lonely. An existential loneliness that defined much of his time. It was a loneliness he'd felt much of his life, courtesy of a cold demanding mother. But his loneliness wasn't my fault nor was it my responsibility to fix, even if I'd known he was feeling it.
When our marriage hit a rough patch – young kids, stressful career, competing ambitions – he responded the way he'd learned as a kid. Focus on something else. Get involved in risky behaviour. Seek out sex to self-medicate.
By understanding that he was in pain too I'm able to empathize. We were both hurting. I responded differently – not by cheating but by stewing in my resentment and treating him like an annoying child. But I came into our marriage with a different set of coping skills, with a different history. The day I was able to accept that if I was him, I might have chosen a similar path, was the day that my own heart began to feel whole again. And, incidentally, when we're able to have compassion for others, it's so much easier to have it for ourselves.
There's no rule that you ever have to acknowledge your husband's pain too. And lots of guys make it even harder by dragging us through further humiliation and pain, by continuing to lie and call our own sanity into question. Without genuine remorse and sincere determination to come clean and figure out how to move forward with honesty and integrity, lots of these guys don't deserve a second chance. But whether or not you make the choice to rebuild a marriage with someone who does deserve that second chance or move on without him, recognizing that hurt people hurt people can light your way forward.
It can soften your heart enough to realize that compassion is not a finite resource. The more we offer, the more that's available to us.