Wednesday, April 13, 2022

My Overly Defended Heart

I wrote the title of this blog post on my phone and then emailed it to myself. That's how I keep track of interesting phrases, or quotes, of tidbits of info I want to Google later when I have time and when I don't have to strain my aging eyes reading things on my phone.

I don't know where I saw the phrase "my overly defended heart". Maybe BrenĂ© Brown's new Atlas of the Human Heart, which my son gave me for Christmas. (If you're not watching her TV series based on the book, please do! It's wonderful.) I do know that when I saw it, when I still see it, it feels true. It is true. My heart. It is overly defended.

I wonder if yours is too. It would be reasonable, of course, when our heart has been shattered, to build a wall around it. To defend it. To guard it from any threat.

And yet, I believe – with my whole heart – that what Nick Cave says is true when he tells a young reader, fearful of heartbreak,

"to resist love and inoculate yourself against heartbreak is to reject life itself, for to love is your primary human function. It is your duty to love in whatever way you can, and to move boldly into that love — deeply, dangerously and recklessly — and restore the world with your awe and wonder. This world is in urgent need — desperate, crucial need — and is crying out for love, your love. It cannot survive without it."
Heady stuff, huh? To imagine that the world wants, indeed needs our love! Nobody could blame us if we say 'no' to that. If we decide to stay small, to refuse to expose our hearts to more pain, more injury.

My therapist once told me how resilient I was. She pointed to the all the ways in which people had harmed me, from when I was young. Look at you, she said to me, urging me to see myself as strong. I pushed back. Surviving isn't strength, I insisted. I was tired of being resilient. Sick to death of forcing myself back onto my feet when what I wanted – what I thought I'd earned – was rest, solitude, to be left the fuck alone. Never again, I vowed. I would stay married because I couldn't imagine telling my children that their parents were divorcing. That wasn't strength, as far as I was concerned. That was exhaustion. I would build fences – walls! – around my heart.

It hasn't exactly turned out that way. For one thing, my default setting is a soft heart. It didn't seem to matter whether there was barbed wire around it, my heart wouldn't harden enough to make me invulnerable to pain.

My guess is yours won't either. But the good news is, you don't want it to.

Because an overly defended heart isn't one that doesn't feel pain, it's one that can't feel love. I know, I know. The two feel inextricably linked right now. Lovepainlovepain, all wrapped up in a ball of confusion.

But, as best you can, let yourself heal from this in a way that keeps your heart unguarded enough to enjoy the good stuff, too. As my therapist also explained to me once, by refusing to feel the bad stuff, you also numb yourself to the good stuff. Your heart can't be selective. It's either all felt, or none of its felt. 

Besides, Cave makes a compelling case. "To love the world is a participatory and reciprocal action — for what you give to the world, the world returns to you, many fold, and you will live days of love that will make your head spin, that you will treasure for all time." Love, he tells us, means we're alive. He concedes that heartbreak often comes with love, something he hardly needs to tell any of us, right? 

We are not given guarantees. Surely we know that by now. And yet, we act as if we can stop pain. We act as if we can insulate ourselves from bad things.

What we must do, the only option really available to us, is accept all that life brings our way. This is not the same as saying it's okay to treat us badly. It is never okay. We get to choose who gains entry to our day-to-day lives. But it is to refuse to let pain, our wounds, harden us against life's joys, because joy exists too. It is an act of self-preservation to stop and notice. Joy might be easily overlooked right now but it's there. The first spring flower. A brilliant blue sky. A puppy. A child climbing into your lap. A really good cup of coffee.

It's all there for our hearts to take in. But only if we haven't defended our hearts so thoroughly that we miss it all. 


  1. Thank you for this entry and for this blog. I am still reeling from the discovery that my husband had an affair (found out 3 weeks ago), and even though my three children are in their late teens, I also can not imagine allowing that to destroy our family and the 20-year marriage we built. I have my up and down days. The days I am sure this can only make us stronger as we work through it, and the days I can not imagine ever not feeling so betrayed and hurt. Tonight we have a concert to go to and I do not want the pain to take away from enjoying the show, or from enjoying his company on a "date." I will be reading and re-reading this post today to remind me not to let the hurt stop me from feeling the joy that can be around me and in me. Thank you!

    1. Three weeks! Oh Anonymous, that is still so new and raw. I'm so so sorry. Be gentle with yourself. Right now your priority must be taking care of yourself, not pushing yourself to "accept" or forgive. Digest this shock. Get sleep. Eat well. In the meantime, as you've discovered, there are many women here who have been where you are. Take comfort in their words and their strength.

    2. Hi Elle, Thank you for responding to me with such caring and understanding. I have definitely NOT been taking care of myself in terms of eating. I have actually lost over 12 pounds. I was just starting to eat again as we are going to therapy and have had a couple of good days. Then he blindsided me again two nights ago by telling me he isn't in love with me anymore and doesn't want to give me false hope that we will be able to start again. So now I am reeling from blow #2 and just feeling lost. My children do not know anything. He is still here and still loves me, but not the way I want to be loved and not the way I still love him. I am so confused. Shouldn't I be the one who is done and he be the one begging me back? That's how all the affair recovery stories are supposed to go. Elle, all I want is to wake up from this nightmare. He apparently has been feeling this distance/indifference toward me for over 6 months, maybe even a year, but I had no idea. Yes, I felt distant too, but we have a lot going on in our lives with siblings and parents' illnesses, turning 50, perimenopause, college expenses, etc. I was just riding it out. He was having an affair. I forgave him almost immediately and only wanted to hear that he was sorry, it was a mistake, and he wanted me. This apparently is not going to happen. I know I need to focus on me and my feelings and what I need, but I can't get past just wanting him. He is a good person. We have had more talks in this last month than ever and he's cried more than ever. (I by the way have yet to cry. I don't know where all my emotions and hurt are going, except for the almost constant pain in my stomach and heart.) I know I need therapy for myself. And I know he needs therapy. Am I crazy to hope, wish, and pray that there is still some ember he has buried under a ton of ash, and that with therapy, he will uncover it and we can start again? Because that is all that is keeping me going and I have told him that which makes me sound so desperate and how can he find me attractive when I'm so vulnerable and practically pleading. Again, in a stoic kind of way because I have not cried or broken down yet. He has said he is not looking to divorce, he doesn't want to give up what we have built either, but he had to tell me about his lack of feelings towards me because he didn't want to give me false hope. We have another therapy appointment next week, but I am not counting on it producing anything helpful. I know I wrote a lot, but this is such a great outlet. Thank you.

  2. Liz,
    I'm nearly 2 years out (maybe 3, C-PTSD does that to memory) and now divorced. That was my choice after giving it one more try. My situation involved a lot of violence too.
    What I want to say is the marriage you had is gone. The minute he betrayed you it was gone. Now you get to choose which way the pendulum is going to swing and where it stops. "My heartache, my rules!" As Elle said it's time to think of me and not we.
    Time. Take the time to look inside yourself. And please cry. Cry as hard as you can. It will help you decide how you want this new marriage to look and it will feel good to release. But first you must take care of you. Decide who you want to be and take steps to get there. You will find that you have a lot more strength than you ever thot you had.

    Sending you all the support and love that I can. All of the Sisters here send it too.

    1. Thank you MissMiss. Your words are very similar to what I have been realizing. Our old marriage is gone and I have to grieve that and then decide if there's anything we can make a new marriage from. I really want to and he does too as he now realizes that what he thought he had with her was fantasy and that he wants us. I still haven't had that big cry, but I think you are right that I have to. I just haven't thought of "me" and not "we" for so long. I know it is what I have to do. I thank you again for your support and love.

  3. I just found out last week my husband cheated on me for the second time no tears this time still with him don't no why I thank God that I eat and sleep all night long and still can laugh I hate him sometimes and love him sometimes. We talked about it I guess trying to work it out I just don't know how to feel anymore

    1. Thinking of you Anonymous and sending you love. I am reading the book "Post Infidelity Stress Disorder" which teaches that the first step to recovery is "calming the emotional storm" which it sounds like you are experiencing. I am in couple's therapy, but this book is helping me too. I wish you the best.

    2. I am in the same boat as you. This is the 3rd time for me.

  4. Elle, your story hits home with me. My husband of 8 years just confessed to his latest affair last night. This is the 3rd one that I am aware of. He admitted that he has a sex addiction and needs help. We were in therapy at my assistance after the 2nd one, but he wasn't fully committed...didn't feel like it was helping .mainly because the therapist we were seeing uses the Gottman method and followed a script each time.

    I find myself distraught and numb at the same time right now.

    I HAVE to take anti-anxiety medication to function...I have for years and unfortunately it lowers my libido. He has had a much more provocative sex life in his previous 2 marriages than i ever a swinger type relationship.

    I have a strong faith in God and he is continually working on his faith..knows he needs to do better. I believe God can work miracles.

    Just like you describe in your article that tells your story, the 2nd and 3rd time he became a blubbering mess upon confession. This is the first time he has told me face to face about an affair. The other times were over the phone an via text.

    I feel like most people would leave...but that seems so scary to me right now.

    I have told him something I did not make clear the first 2 times..
    If it happens again, I absolutely CAN NOT stay. That would be insanity.

    I don't know what the future will bring...but i find comfort in knowing I am not alone.



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