I remember the day I found out my husband was having an affair. So many clues from the prior six months clicked into place and I was full of pain and rage. Many of you know this feeling, while others experienced a flat, surreal calm and numbness. We all respond in our own ways to the pain of betrayal. I had this this feeling of being stripped bare, all the layers that I’d applied to protect myself peeled back, until there was nothing left but…me.
If I wasn’t a valued wife and mother, who was I? I knew that the only thing I could change was me. I had started, almost a year prior, working on myself, knowing that something in our marriage needed to change. I got into therapy, got off the anxiety meds, started exercising and trying to eat better. I had already lost 25 lbs. prior to D-day. I was casting about trying to figure out why I was so unhappy.
A few months after D-day 1 and shortly after D-day 2, we went into marriage counseling. I remember deciding that no matter what, I was going to become the heroine of my own story. I was done being “the broken one,” which had been my job in the marriage forever. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but it was an important beginning.
As my husband lied his way through marriage counseling, I took everything she suggested to heart. Even as we moved toward separation, she suggested that we continue to work on our own stuff, find ways to connect with who we are and change the roles we’d always played in the marriage.
In addition to the marriage counselors and my own therapist’s advice, I’ve done a ton of reading and listening to podcasts and almost buying the “save your marriage” crap from the snakeoil salesmen out there. I’ve even read dating columns. Despite the disparate (and sometimes questionable) sources, I began to see some themes emerge. There looked to be four major areas of focus, which I’ll highlight for you here.
I will not guarantee that if you work on these things, it will help your wayward spouse get their head out of their hind end. I will guarantee that if you work on these things, you will come out the other side, stronger, healthier and with a greater sense of who you are, what you have to offer the world and why you deserve to be treated with love and respect.
1. Physical: Get moving. Take care of your body. Walk. Run. Do yoga or kickboxing. Lift weights. Physical activity will help you process stress and difficult emotions. You are not doing this to get a fitness model body to win him back. You are doing this for you. There’s evidence that walking (or running) is good for people with PTSD (if you’re here, that’s you). Make time for this. Enjoy feeling your body get stronger. Be able to do more of what you want to do (there was a moment eight months after D-day, on a trip with my son, when we ran up a long flight of stairs together in a park. I realized I would not have been able to do that just a year earlier. It was a moment I was grateful for.). Eat food that fuels you. Notice when you are eating (and especially drinking) your feelings. Take care of your body. Why? Because YOU are your body. Treat yourself like you matter. Get a massage. Get a pedicure. Get your hair done. Do things that make you feel good. These are good opportunities for getting in the present moment. Runs always turn into long meditations for me. Bonus points if you can find ways to take care of you that also bring you into contact with other humans.
2. Intellectual: Use your brain. I’m not talking about your job (though you can absolutely get fulfillment from doing a job that you love). I’m talking about an activity that is just for you that uses your brain. Reading. Music or art. A book group. A night class or finally going back to school for that degree you’ve wanted for so long. What part of your mind have you lost touch with over the course of your marriage? For me, it was art and music. I went to painting class. I started piano lessons. I started making time to go outside with my camera. I got tickets to live music and theater. And I read a lot about neuroscience and anthropology. Find something to that helps you remember how smart and capable you are. It could be a new hobby or reconnecting with an old one. And while you are engaged with those things, try to be in the moment. Just enjoy what it is you are doing. Bonus points if it gets you out of the house and/or connecting with new people.
3. Emotional: Get to individual therapy. If you can’t afford that or in addition to that, try the Infidelity Counseling Network (it’s a sliding scale, so you can probably afford it). Read books that reflect your experience of infidelity or childhood. I read up on how growing up with an alcoholic can impact your behavior. Wow. It was spot on and helped me feel less alone and flawed. Get serious about working on your own stuff. If you are alive and human, and recovering from infidelity, you have stuff. Make time to be with friends. I had lost touch with everyone, had no real friends of my own, because we always did what he wanted and with his friends or not at all. There were no girls’ weekends for me. I remedied that. I reached out to friends and held myself responsible for keeping in touch with people I cared about. I confided in my sister and we have become very close over that last two years. I joined groups and classes that helped me pursue my interests and make friends. I joined a volunteer group, because giving helps fill my own cup. I made a commitment that I wasn’t going to let my volunteering fizzle once I started to “feel better”. I have some great friends through my volunteer work and am now on the leadership team for my local chapter. And yes, you guessed it, bonus points for doing emotional work that gets you involved with supportive other humans. (BWC definitely counts, but don’t forget the value of real, immediate human interaction.)
4. Spiritual: Connect with something larger than ourselves. Do something that feeds your soul. If this is something that you’ve neglected in your life or you don’t feel applies to you, I’d encourage you to rethink spirituality. Humans are instinctively spiritual. We can’t be observers of this universe without sensing that something big is going on. While I am not a “church” person, I am a “God” person. I had too much evidence that someone had my best interests in mind through all of this to doubt it. Open up to what is divine inside of you. Chances are you know things but have stopped listening or trusting your inner voice. If you are a church person, get to church. I connect with my own spirituality through nature and the secret language of birds. Take time to do things that feed your soul and help you feel a part of something larger. Pray. Gratitude is a simple way to connect with the spiritual. Pay attention to the little things of beauty in your day. Maybe a daily devotional journal works for you or a simple morning ritual of words of affirmation. Volunteer work counts here too. And final bonus points for finding ways to do this mindfully and/or with people.
Across these four major areas, you’ll see some other themes that always apply. The first is mindfulness. Getting right now, getting comfortable with being uncomfortable, with not knowing the future, helps you to suffer less. When you are in the moment, you are not thinking about the pain in the past, you are not worrying about the future. You can find some moments of stillness and connect with yourself. It’s a place you can come back to over and over. If you have not already done so, please consider learning about meditation.
The second is gratitude. By focusing on what we do have (right now I am safe, right now I have food and shelter, right now I have family and people who love me, right now the sun is shining) you won’t waste energy focusing on what was lost or on what ifs. Gratitude and mindfulness are best friends.
The third is human connection. I truly believe that this is the cure for everything wrong in the world. There is so much illusion of connection out there in our digital world that we sometimes fail to notice how isolated and disconnected we are. Find ways to be with and interact with other humans. Be kind. Notice when people respond well to you. It seems to me that people are so surprised by a smile or a greeting these days (I do live in the northeast in the US, so that may be a local problem) but everyone responds well. Make time to snuggle or spend time with your kids or mom and dad or sister or whoever is in your live and tell them how much they mean to you. Make time to be with friends who love and support you and can hear what you have to say.
My final piece of advice for those working on themselves and trying to make a new, better life post- betrayal is this; learn what your opinions are and use your voice to express them. I started deciding even when I could sense no strong opinion in myself. I had not had a voice for so long that I had forgotten how to speak up or how to know what I wanted, let alone express that want. Example: what do you want for dinner, Mexican or Chinese? I don’t care. What do you want? Mexican. (Inside my head, oh poo, I wanted Chinese). Why did I not just say I wanted Chinese when I had the opportunity? I started forcing myself to make decisions, even about stuff that only involved me. I also mindfully started making choices that were different than the choices I would have made by routine or out of habit. This was a time to try to learn something new and be different. I had to make new choices even if they were uncomfortable. And I had to speak up. With my ex, with my doctor, with my boss (shocker, he actually appreciates it when I say “you know, I’m don’t think this is a good idea. Here’s why and what I think we should do instead) with my kids, with my friends, with anyone who crossed a boundary. I also selectively told people what was happening and, eventually, why my marriage was coming to an end. I needed to break my habit of keeping silent to protect him at my own expense and not getting the support I needed. Shame thrives in the darkness and shadows. Give yourself permission to tell your story and get help where and how you need it. It is not your job to protect him from the consequences of his actions. If you are working together to repair your marriage, I’d suggest you have an agreement about who you tell, so there are no secrets or unpleasant surprises.
This is probably a lot to digest. You don’t need to work on all of this at once. This evolved for me over the course of several months and continues to be what I work on and come back too when I find myself sliding into old habits or feeling like I am rushing around getting nowhere. Start with one thing. It’s absolutely ok to start with the one thing that is easiest for you. It might be something you are already doing. For me that was running. Then pick the next thing. Maybe it’s finding a therapist. Just check in with yourself each day and see what you’ve done that is just for you. It’s not easy. In fact, I believe it is a lifelong effort, but I believe it pays off now, every day.