Our trip had not started off well. My husband was overworked and grumpy. I was overtired and resentful. I had a laundry list of things that had been building up that I wanted to talk to him about but hadn't found the time.
Neither of us had been doing any self-care and our attitudes showed it.
We snarked at each other in the airport. He snapped at the kids. I chastised him for snapping at the kids.
We might have been heading to a tropical paradise but none of us seemed very happy about it.
Two days in, we finally found ourselves alone on the beach. It would have been easy to tell myself that now wasn't the time. That I should just enjoy the breeze and the sunshine.
I swallowed hard. "I need you to listen to me," I said.
So often on this site, I read your stories of being triggered. You suddenly find yourself in a situation that takes you right back to a terrible moment. You hear a song. You spot a certain make of car. You pass a restaurant or a motel or a massage parlour. And it feels like a kick in the gut. You have trouble breathing. Your throat constricts. Your heart, literally, aches.
There's not much we can do about triggers but wait them out. But what we can do is have those tough conversations with our partners about them.
It's tempting to not bring them up. Our partners, especially if they're still new to this "tough conversation" stuff, will almost inevitably disappoint us with their response. They'll get defensive. They'll try and shut us down. They'll ask us if we're ever going to "get over this". They'll get silent. They might get angry.
All of those are countermoves and are the response of someone feeling deep shame. Someone who just wants this to go away.
We know that doesn't work.
Have the tough conversation anyway.
Even if you're the only one talking, have the tough conversation.
"I need you to listen to me."
"I want you to know something."
"It matters to me that you know this because I need support."
"I'm hurting and I need to share that with you."
However you phrase it, give words to your pain.
Not to make him feel bad (though that might be an inevitable part of this) but because he's your partner and you're going through this together.
Not to cast blame but to seek support and compassion.
It takes practice. If he responds in a way that's disappointing or hurtful, talk about it. Tell him you don't want to hear excuses. That you don't want to be talked out of your feelings. Tell him he doesn't even need to say a thing. Tell him that this was tough for you and that you need a friend right now. That's it. A friend. Not a therapist and certainly not a defence attorney.
It's fraught, of course. The person you most want to help you through is the person responsible for the pain you're in.
But that's the reality of it. And you can both use these tough conversations to pull closer to each other. Or you can avoid them and leave the wall up between your hearts.
But you cannot rebuild a healthy marriage without, eventually, learning how to have these tough conversations. Without learning to really hear each other's pain.
Fighting back tears, I proceeded to tell my husband how his attitude sometimes hurts me and the kids. I stuck to "me" statements. "I feel hurt when..." "The kids feel frustrated when..."
I pointed out that he seemed so annoyed with me. That I feel small and stupid.
He listened. He simply didn't realize how his stress came out as annoyance with me. That wasn't at all how he felt.
He shared some of his own frustrations with work, with our kids, with me. I listened to him.
By the time he got up to get us a couple of margaritas a half-hour later, I felt 20 pounds lighter.
Pain is heavy.
It doesn't always work out quickly easily. Sometimes we need to take a break and walk away and come back to the conversation a day or two later. Sometimes it takes each of us some time to really digest what the other is saying. Old habits die hard and we get defensive. Simple truth is we don't want to hear about the other's pain, especially when it triggers our own shame in creating it.
But...marriage is tough. Marriage after betrayal is especially tough. And having these tough conversations can create a foundation beneath you that will hold you both up as you move forward. Being able to listen and say little more than "I'm so sorry you had to go through that" or "If I could go back in time and un-do this, I would" or "Thank you for sharing that with me. What do you need from me?" goes a long way toward shoring up that foundation.
It takes courage on your part to start that tough conversation. You will feel unbearably vulnerable. You will feel naked. Your heart will be exposed.
But the alternative is a cop out that only disguises your pain but does nothing to validate it.