Friday, December 21, 2012

Holiday Heartbreak Survival Rule: Just Show Up

I found out about my husband's affair (D-Day #1) on December 10, 2006. When I think back on that Christmas, I remember little other than completely self-destructing. I screamed at my mother who'd come to visit, I threatened suicide, I took off in my husband's car to track down the Other Woman – with no idea what I planned to do if I found her.
I don't remember a holiday dinner, though I must have made something for my family. I don't remember my children's joy... It's all blocked by my memory of that excruciating pain. I cried, I moaned, I raged...but mostly I howled with the overwhelming suffering I felt.
If that's where you are, please know something that I didn't know then: This suffering will pass. Not today. Not tomorrow. But soon.
In the meantime, this is NOT the year to dazzle everyone with a gourmet meal, fabulous decorations or getting together with anyone who isn't 110% your cheerleader in life. This is the time to turn inward, to tend to your wound, to cocoon.
And please know something else I didn't know. I thought this was bigger than I was. I thought this sort of emotional pain was simply more than I could bear. I honestly had moments when death seemed a viable option – when I simply couldn't imagine a day when I wouldn't be crippled by the hurt.
But the human spirit, even one that's barely breathing from being trampled on, is an amazingly strong and resilient thing. We've seen that in others. People who've survived unimaginable suffering who've risen from the ashes to live and love again. They're not special, they're human. Humans who understand that all we can do is just keep showing up and trusting that we can be better. Treat ourselves better. Insist that others treat us better. One step forward...toward healing.

May your holidays offer you a measure of joy (knowing that joy feeds on itself), peace and self-love.


  1. Elle - I've been reading your blog since sometime in early October. I'm a bit over 6.5 months from Dday #1 and about 3.5 months from Dday #2. Your blog has brought me much solice and I want to thank you for posting.

    This post comes at such an appropriate moment for me. Today, I honestly sent my husband a text that said this pain is bigger than I am, that it's too much for me to endure. I had been having a run of "good" days, had been feeling a little less likely to crumble at any moment. Then all of a sudden, over the last couple of days, the anger and the pain and the endless grief washed back over me. I know we're suppose to let go of the "how could you's" and the "he shouldn't have" but again I'm finding myself going down those rabbit holes.

    All the happy smiling Christmas cards that keep assaulting me make me feel like running in terror from the mailbox. All they do is serve to remind me that I am not happy. Our life is a lie. I can't read the happy letters. I just feel so miserable.

    Both of us are on IC and we're in MC as well. Sometimes I just don't think I have the heart to care about how broken he was. He's finally confronted a depression that has stalked him as long as I've known him, he's confronting major low self esteem (self hate actually) and repressed anger and a host of FOO issues. My rational brain says he was broken indeed. My fear driven amygdala says it doesn't care how broken he was. He shouldn't have done it. I pray every day to learn compassion and find empathy. But it's so hard. He showed me no such favor. He didn't shield me with compassion or empathy when he had an affair with a co-worker, 20 years younger than me. Some days, I think I'll never be able to see my marriage as beautiful or special or meaningful ever again.

    It's comforting for me to read that it took you a long time to be willing to really try. My IC keeps telling me that I'm holding back, not committing. Damn right! He just handed me my heart, all bloody and torn to pieces!

    1. I'm so glad you posted your comment. I think your feelings are incredibly common...and I'm glad others can recognize that they're not alone.
      My IC calls what you're experiencing "recycling". When you're going along thinking you're doing so much better, and then suddenly it feels like you're right back at the start. You're not, of course. It likely just mean that something tripped you up (happy cards, for example) and your fallback response was anger/fear/resentment. But you'll find that you'll more quickly recover from those relapses. You'll get your footing again.
      I'm glad to hear your husband is addressing some really major issues. You likely never will truly understand why he made the choice he did. And you don't really need to. But you hopefully will get to a place where you can accept that he made those choices without the searing pain that accompanies that knowledge now. What my husband did is now simply what he did. I've been able to separate his actions from who he is now. My mother, a wise would, once said to me that she believed my husband loved me the best he could...even when sleeping with other people. And that once he learned better, he could love me better.
      It's a sentiment shared by one of my favorite writers/people, Dr. Gabor Maté, who writes of trauma and addiction. He believes that even abusive parents love their kids the best they know how. And that's key. He's not saying their abuse is acceptable. He's simply saying that at that point in time, it's the best those people are capable of.
      It's a radical view. But it's one that frees you to detach yourself from his choices. It wasn't about you. It was about what he was capable of at that time. And now that he's learning better, he's capable of better. To expect him to behave like you is simply setting yourself up for an internal argument you'll never win.
      What I hope for you is that you'll someday be able to view your 20- (or 30-...) year marriage as beautiful and strong and weathered – all the more beautiful for the storms it survived. Love isn't passive. It's something you fight on behalf of every day. Loving someone is an action. A deliberate choice.
      You'll get there. In the meantime, put the Christmas cards away. Don't even bother reading them if you don't feel like.
      Hunker down and wait for the world to feel miserable again in February. :)


  2. Thanks, Elle. I found your blog this year shortly after d day which was Christmas. I have boys who are 7&9, and I keep feeling like i am letting them down. No one knows about the A in our families or friends, so I am just feeling so lame about the limited effort I have to put into Christmas this year. But we are vacationing in a new town for Christmas and trying to have a Christmas unlike any other in our past. And wayward husband is trying to support me. Thanks for the thoughtful and reassuring post.

    1. We moms are so incredibly hard on ourselves. It's not enough that we survive heartbreak -- we expect ourselves to survive heartbreak while looking fabulous and being awesome moms who put on a Hallmark Christmas.
      Treat yourself as you would a close friend whose heart was mending. My guess is you would tell her to give herself a break. To trust that she was doing her very best while dealing with such pain. You'd probably tell her that her kids just need a mom who's present – not a mom who can juggle fifteen balls while tap-dancing. And you'd be right.
      Your kids want you around, that's all. In the end, they aren't going to remember how many decorations were up or whether you cooked a feast or ordered pizza. They're going to know that they were with a mom who loves them enough to show up, day in and day out, no matter what. And loves them enough to allow them to continue loving their dad, no matter what.


  3. My mother is a recovering alcoholic as well, Elle. This weekend we went home to celebrate the holiday with her and she said much what your mom said to you - that she believes that during the affair, my husband was falling apart and had no tools to deal with it but that she believed he did love me as much as he was capable of at that time. She then later told my husband that he's a wonderful person and that she has tremendous hope for him.

    When I cried this weekend, she held me and rocked. I'm almost 40 and my mom held me and rocked me and let me cry my pain and not once did she try to fix it for me or deny my right to feel it. She validated it, rocked me like I was a little kid, and then later, after witnessing my great pain, she still had the capacity to tell my husband he's a good man who did an awful thing. She's one of the gifts in my life and the wonderful thing I realized this weekend, is that even if my husband and I divorce, I still have my marvelous messed up family while my husband would be left with only his emotionally barren and crippled family.

    My IC says she knows I'm capable of incredible forgiveness - she knows because I found a way to forgive my mom, see that my mom loved me as much as she could when she was drinking, accept that she learned a better way when she got sober. Sometimes I worry that I gave away all my forgiveness when I was young and that maybe there will be none left for my hisband now. This pain is so great. Not long ago, my mom asked me if it was unforgiveable to do a horrible thing but then to own it and make amends for it and change because of it or if it was only unforgivable to do the horrible thing and then never face it. My hisbamd is facing it, I will give him that. I haven't answered her question for myself yet but I ponder it often.

    1. Wow Leslie, it seems as if we've lived parallel lives. I could have written your comment word for word. My mother, too, was able to give my husband a hug the first time she saw him after I'd called her sobbing. She was able to recognize in him something he couldn't even see in himself at the time. He, the child of emotionally barren and crippled parents, had never seen such a capacity for forgiveness. To this day, his own family has no idea what he did. He says they would disown him.
      My mother also asked me a crucial question that very first phone call. "Do you love him?" she asked. "I think so," I sobbed. "Then you will fight for your marriage." It was that simple for her. And, after much sturm und drang, it became that simple for me.
      Yes, this pain is great. Greater than anything I'd ever experienced. I kinda thought I'd paid my dues. That I'd experienced enough pain as a kid that I was due something of a windfall in the form of a perfect husband. Not so much, it turns out.
      But now, six years out from D-Day #1, I can far better see my blessings. No, he's not perfect but neither am I. He's a flawed man, with a flawed love for me but a man who's willing to keep showing up day after day, loving me the best he can. And loving his kids the best he can. And to keep on learning how to love better, having had no-one teach him.
      Your mother sounds wonderful. But I bet much of her wonderfulness comes from a compassion borne of experience. She knows shame, she knows regret, she's pulled herself back from the edge. She knows that good people can make horrible choices. My mom, whom I miss daily, demonstrated the same compassion and ability to forgive. And yet, she also taught me strength to refuse to be treated with anything less than respect.
      The answer of whether or not you can forgive your husband will become clearer with time. But it needs to be a choice made not from a place of anger and fear but compassion for yourself and him.
      I'm so glad you posted...and I wish for you the strength to know you'll get through this.

  4. Elle and other wives-sisters, I hope you can all find joy and love in this festive season despite the pain and hurt thrust upon us. As I have discovered, joy and love come from the simplest and yet, most precious, things. A cold, clear winter morning where the sun and beauty of nature can almost make you forget, the first smile of the morning from a beautiful 4 month old daughter, the excitement on my 4yr olds little face when Santa brought everything on the list! As D-Day was only just under 4 months ago I still feel incredibly hurt, betrayed, sad, unsure of the future and am in fact in mourning for a man I was so so sure of and a marriage I had so much hope for. My little newborn was merely 3 weeks old when I discovered the affair and of course the following weeks I can scarcely remember as they were a mixture of intense hurt and motherly resilience. I knew also that I didn't want to risk that special bond between a newborn and mom so I did all the "right" things...immediately booked into MC, made sure the children were fed, washed and loved as much as possible or as much as their heartbroken parents could manage.

    They were dark days. Coming up to Christmas I had decided I could seep into depression-not a hard thing to do, or I could spend a fortune on yummy party food and spend time with family-cocoon. I chose the latter. Does it make me cured? No. Am I now magically healed of all the pain? No. But I think that if you get good days-go with them. Share them with your husband, children and family.

    I can say that it has been a very emotionally fraught week, my husband was working over the holidays and my children were very ill. I think these factors made me simmer away to COULD he do that to me? To us-to our child and unborn baby? Why is he taking so long at the store-has he re-established contact with HER? Emotional cutting. If I could have checked his phone yesterday I know I wouldn't have found anything. Would I have been disappointed? Sounds strange but sometimes this road seems so damn hard that a text from HER would be just the validation to say "I've had enough, you caused this, I've tried". Sometimes it's so hard to see a way forward. Sometimes the dark thoughts envelope me; we wouldn't be trying to save our marriage if we didn't have kids, if I get sick I'm gonna make sure SHE knows it's HER fault, do we even love each other anymore?

    Im very aware it's early days and this blog has been of invaluable help to me and for that I'm so grateful. I wish you all a Happy New Year. The 1st day of January always seemed to me like a wonderful blank canvas, just waiting for colour. I don't know how I will feel this New Year but it's all a process and a journey. Love to you all

    1. Lucy,
      What a beautiful comment. I'd love to re-post it as a guest blog post with your permission so that everyone can see it. Let me know if that's okay.
      And yes, yes, yes!! Those little moments are like life-rafts. Grab on and hold tight and don't let go until you see land. I distinctly remember the first time I had one of those moments. I was walking my dogs on a winter morning and the sun was making the lawns all sparkle in that beautiful fresh snow way. And, for that sliver of a moment, I was absorbed in the beauty of it. It felt like the darkness of my life cracked open just enough to let in some light...and show me that it was possible. After that, I tried to be aware of more moments like that. At first, they were few and far between but slowly they became more common. A wise friend of mine advised me to hold on to those moments as proof that I could still feel joy. Even now six years later that part of this experience has been a gift – my ability to now sit in the moment and savour it.
      Thank-you again for sharing your experience. No-one speaks the truth better than someone who's been there.

  5. Oh Elle, thank you! What an honour to be included as a guest blog :-) continuing good wishes to you and the family and all the lovely girls who have inspired me

  6. On Thanksgiving this year, my closest family member past away. On the same day, I learned my fiance has been having affairs with multiple women for over a year. Before my fiance, I had been married to someone I learned has a personality disorder where he is constantly creating lies for the thrill of getting away with manipulating people, so starting over again has been hard to begin with - and after putting myself out there and facing my fears of trusting someone again, I've learned I've been betrayed again. The pain has been unbearable. It has been so hard to find support during the holidays - and my best friend was my ex-fiancé. So many well-meaning(?) people just criticize mourning over any of it (including the death in my family - I've begun to really reexamine ALL of my relationships). It is so nice to find there is a blog out there that shares the rawness of going through these types of rug-being-pulled-from-underneath scenarios. Thank you for being so open and sharing. It is the first time in over a month I haven't felt so alone and rejected.

    1. Hi Kelly,
      You must be feeling such incredibly deep grief...on both losses. I'm so so sorry for what you've had to go through alone.
      But though we're a cyber-community, we are here to help you through. We have been there and we absolutely understand how raw and unsafe you must feel. Like you, it had taken me a lot to trust again. And then to have that trust betrayed felt like confirmation that there was something wrong with me.
      I've come to learn that I clearly had issues around judgement (ie. ignoring the red flags that indicated someone as UN-trusthworthy). But that the broken-ness lies in those who betray.
      I think re-examining all your relationships can be a good thing. I took the time post-D-Day to fold into myself and shut out the world. Only when I trusted my judgement again did I venture back out. And even now -- six years and a whole lotta therapy later -- I'm wary of some people's motives. But I've also learned to pay attention to that gut feeling that warns me when something or someone doesn't feel "good".
      You will get through this, Kelly. If you don't already have a therapist, I would suggest you find someone you can trust to help you through, whether a social worker, priest, counsellor... Someone who can remind you that you are worth loving, that you haven't been rejected so much as chose someone who couldn't love you the way you deserve to be loved.
      And please keep visiting here and posting your thoughts or questions. So many of us have been where you are (husbands cheating when they were pregnant, dealing with a sick parent or child, and so on...) and we're finding our way back to the light. Hope you'll join us...




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