After a woman is struck by the news of her partner's emotional or physical unfaithfulness, she is flooded with grief as she faces deep, personal loss on multiple levels. To heal and move on toward health and wholeness, she needs to accomplish certain tasks of mourning. This holds true whether her marriage survived, or she lost it to legal separation or divorce.
Although the stages of healing aren't cast in concrete, grief and loss experts generally agree that before we can hope to heal and grow from our painful experience, and move on with our lives, deep loss demands certain tasks of us. Let's look at them one at a time, always remembering that emotional healing is never linear, nor does it come with a list of easy instructions that will put everything back together again, just the way it was before. Loss does change things, and it changes us, as well. The way you grieve your losses—or don't—shapes who you become as you grow from experiencing them. Healing is a journey…a process. And, healing, takes time. We must make space and time for the tasks of mourning if we want positive changes in our character to result from the pain we endure.
Four Basic Tasks That Are Essential to the Completion of Grieving
Task I: To Accept the Reality of Our Loss
Have you come to that place of acceptance that follows the initial discovery that the man you love has violated his commitment to you and your marriage? As any woman who has been through the initial shock knows, simply believing and accepting that truth can be very painful and difficult.
As basic as this may sound, it is not uncommon for a woman to deny that sexual betrayal of some sort really did take place—and may still be taking place—in her marriage. Many women have said to me, "I don't want to know anything about the way men are wired, and I don't want to think about, or talk about what I suspect or know my husband is doing. I'm happier not even going there; I'd rather just go on living my life. As long as I ignore it, I'm happy. And besides, he still loves me, and comes home to me at night."
Living in pretense has some advantages. As long as we deny something happened or changed, we haven't experienced a loss. We remain free from the pain that comes with change and betrayal. Still, that uneasy "knowing" gnaws away at our inner peace, and fuels unhealthy suspicion, and interferes with emotional intimacy. Until we face and accept our reality, we have no way to heal and grow from it. And denying the reality this problem creates can make the consequences much bigger, and much more painful.
Your first step toward accepting your losses requires that you make them real by giving them words. For that, you may need a trained coach or counselor who has the skills to ask you the right questions so that in answering them, you give words to what you know down deep but continue to deny. You need to tell your story to someone safe, or to a support group, maybe telling it again and again, and in so doing, beginning the process of acceptance. Coming to acceptance takes time, and it requires not only intellectual acceptance, but emotional acceptance, as well.
Ask yourself this question: What have I lost because of my husband's sexual betrayal? For nearly all of us, one major loss was our beautiful dream of what love, marriage, and commitment meant to us. This was a dream we carried forward from our days of playing house as little girls. While many of us still have our marriages because the relationship survived the trauma of sexual betrayal, most are still having trouble making their marriages work again. We have all lost much that was near and dear to our hearts. And some have lost their marriages, along with our dreams.
Whichever of these two has been your lot in life, if you give it some thought, then give words to those thoughts, you'll be surprised at the long list of losses that will eventually bubble from deep within. As you recognize your many losses, and express them to someone, or write them down, you will begin to grasp and understand what all is now missing. Consider just these few that women often lose to sex addiction, depending upon their circumstances and their husband's willingness to seek help and change: innocence, identity, emotional security, trust, self esteem, feeling happy, shared plans and dreams, financial security…and perhaps your best friend. Identifying your losses marks the beginning of your ability to accept what you know but haven't wanted to hear with your heart’s ears.
Sharing your painful losses with someone you trust not only helps to make them real, it helps you begin to believe and accept that these things you've held very dear really have slipped from your grasp. You will realize that some of your losses may be temporary, or at least you hope they are. And some will not. The beginning of letting them go requires believing and accepting what has been lost.
Task II: To Work Through the Loss to the Pain of Grief & Process It
What do the words, "work through our loss to the pain of grief and process it" really mean, anyway?
It means we do the hard work of allowing ourselves to feel our deep pain, rather than avoiding it. We let ourselves experience the heart-wrenching anguish that comes with the betrayal of our trust, which was so precious and vital to our joy in the marriage.
It means we grieve for that which we have lost. Without expression, our pain stays trapped within, only to show up in some other form. It may appear as the dull ache of ongoing depression, or flashes of anger or rage that seem unrelated to the moment; or as physical symptoms in the form of headaches, stomach trouble, or something else.
Working through our loss to the pain of grief means we choose to quit avoiding or suppressing our pain. Some people feel guilt if they allow themselves a time of mourning, especially if it takes more than a couple of months. So they avoid their grief by using thought-stopping procedures. This way they don't have to feel the pain of their loss, and they look strong and spiritual on the outside. But using tricks to keep the psyche from processing grief the way it was created to as a natural way of healing only short circuits the whole process, and results in prolonged mourning, or mental or physical illness.
Working through our losses to the pain of grief requires that we "externalize" what we're feeling…that we get those mixed up feelings outside of ourselves. There are several ways to externalize our emotional pain, and each method has benefits. Use the ones that work for you, and add any others that fit your needs. Let's look at some of the more common methods used to get the pain out where we can look at it, grapple with it, and allow its energy to be drained away by talking about what's happened, feeling loved and supported by friends and family, and asking God to heal our broken hearts.
Externalize Your Pain by…
- Identifying and expressing what you feel: All of us have trouble knowing just what it is that we are feeling at times. We may know we're tense, or grouchy, or teary, but often we don't know exactly why—until we talk about it with someone who lovingly listens and asks the right gentle questions, if we invite them to. Learning to label your feelings, and express them in a healthy way is a powerful tool for processing what's trapped inside, or is out of control on the outside. And with expression, and repetition if need be, the feelings ease over time. Slowly, they lose their negative energy, and with help, we can draw rich lessons from each painful experience.
- Journaling: Writing down the tangled thoughts and feelings that our emotions sometimes get caught in is another helpful way to give labels and words to the who, what, when, where, and why of our feelings. Sometimes there isn't anyone available to talk things over with. At those times, journaling can be a helpful substitute, or an additional method to figure out what's going on inside, and externalize it through written expression.
- Prayer: Few of us think of prayer this way, but in addition to being a means of talking to God, prayer allows us to externalize what's going on inside. It helps us sort it out with our Creator, and to ask for His help in grieving our losses, and His help in learning how to live without those elements that are now missing. And prayer enables us to ask Him to drain our pain of its intensity, and to help us learn new ways to help others because of what we are now learning.
- Song: Nothing moves the human spirit quite like music and lyrics that speak to our hearts. Praise and worship in a group, or church setting, can feel and sound like a choir of angels surrounding us with comfort and hope. And, it can be equally healing when listened to alone. At those very personal times with God, praise and worship music can soothe and comfort your aching soul, and bathe you in God's love and comfort.
- Movies: Have you heard of the book titled "Watch two movies and call me in the morning?" It was written as a resource for counselors. Psychology has discovered how deeply moving certain movies can be, because they touch on universal themes at work in all of our lives. More than likely, you, like me, have cried—or even sobbed—your way through a movie that touched on pain you didn't know still packed such a powerful punch. As you cried, you were using a method that externalized that painful punch, and helped drain away some of its energy. Psychodrama has a similar deeply moving affect when it taps into one of the emotions hiding out in your heart or mind.
- Art As Therapy: Again, a tool not many people use, but at the right moment, pictures, even scribbled ones, can provide a tool to identify what's buried inside, holding you hostage in an emotional graveyard. As you express your pain with colors, shapes, and lines, you are giving it labels, and externalizing it through artistic expression.
- Joining a Support Group for Partners: There's nothing quite like being with others who have felt what you feel, who know, as no one else really can, what it's like to have your heart broken by this particular betrayal. Because our society has so linked our value as women to the way we look, what size and shape we are, how we dress, and how old we are, it takes incredible inner strength and a deep understanding of your worth—your self esteem—to not automatically tie your husband's hurtful actions to your sense of self. Being part of a small, "closed to new members" group for several months (or as long as it takes), while using a process that helps you move through the tasks of mourning is perhaps the most powerful method of all to get in touch with your feelings and heal. There, each woman shares her story, grieves her losses, and with the help of the others recognizes her true value and worth. The power of the group can help undo the damage done by society's messages, and your husband's actions. And, if you get stuck in a rut as you move through the process, others will be there to love you, and to help you measure your emotional health, and to walk with you until you reach the other side of your pain and healing. You'll know when you have finished the tasks of mourning, because one day you will realize that you have let it go, and you’ve reached that place of readiness that enables you to move on with your life.
Task III: To Adjust to a Life With Something—and Maybe Someone—Missing
Task number III is the hinge on which our healing swings. And for many, it proves to be the hardest. When you discover that you have held a distorted view of your reality, of the man you've loved, and of your marriage, something permanently changes inside. And, if the man you love walks away and leaves you, as well, not only have your dreams been shattered, so has your life. There is now a huge hole in your heart, an empty place at your table, and an empty pillow on your bed. There is no one to hold you, to say "I love you," and to kiss you goodnight.
Our job during this task of mourning sounds simple enough…just four little words: "Adapt to Your Loss." Yet those four little words comprise volumes of meaning, understanding, changing, and growing to accomplish. We must give ourselves time, but we must also be purposeful, and consciously work to adapt to our losses. For some, these losses create not just a crack in life, but a wide, vast chasm. To adapt, we must build a bridge across that gap, and we must find a way to cross over to the other side.
To cross over, we are forced to stretch and grow and reach beyond our former comfort zone. If a woman still has her marriage, she must learn to live without that Pollyanna comfort that came with her former naiveté about the way most men are wired sexually. To stretch this far, she must seek and find support from others living through similar experiences. She must risk sharing her story in a safe environment. She must be challenged by the growth of other women who are ahead of her in this journey.
And, for the woman who has lost not only her naiveté, but her husband, his love, and the life they had together, major reconstruction must take place to bridge the vast gap in both her inner and outer worlds.
Adapting to our losses doesn't mean we throw away the past and all that went with it. But we must redefine our meaning of marriage, and love, and let go of our fairytale endings. We must educate ourselves about the moral and spiritual challenges men face in our sexually charged world. And we must learn to live with this information, while remaining happy, and emotionally healthy.
Letting go of our old views and adapting to this new information is a mountain high task, all by itself. Going to the beach, the mall, or even a grocery store check out may now put your ability to "Let go and let God" to its ultimate test.
One helpful, beneficial way to begin to adapt to your loss involves choosing a few objects or items that represent the past, or hold special meaning because they were a part of your life, or of your partner's. Choose objects that link you to that which was, but is no longer. These may now become treasures that hold special meaning because they represent your dreams. Allow these items to hold the good memories for you. You may want to leave a few out where you see them each day, and perhaps carry one small one with you as a memory holder. Over time, while you build a new life, allow yourself to transfer the meaning and memory of that which once was, to these items, and to the photo albums, and the positive things that took place as you lived those years of your life.
During this time of letting go, you may want to revisit places that hold special memories of your love and your dreams, going there with a purpose…to say "Good bye" to your past, and to your naiveté. In so doing, you are taking purposeful, positive measures to emotionally relocate your marriage and your husband in your mind and in your heart. Your challenge is to recognize that men, like women, were born with a free will, and a fallible human nature. Then to release the past to just that: the past, that which is no longer. As the past has changed, so must you.
During this time of letting go, we all have other tasks to tend to, as well. This is particularly true for those who have lost their marriages, and have spent the last several years focusing on the full-time job of raising children and running a home. Losing a marriage under these circumstances means they must hurriedly develop a plan for how to live with the huge changes they now face. Things like economic loss, a reduction in free time, and a partner to share the load. All these, and more, generally come with the new, more demanding life. To survive this much change requires assistance and emotional support from people who care. It becomes especially important to draw energy from every available resource. It is crucial that we do: 1) not isolate, 2) talk to other people every day, 3) learn the new skills required to bridge the gap in life, and 4) draw energy and support from our relationship with God, the One who has said that He is the husband to the husband-less.
Women who already had careers that pay well and fill their lives with relationships and busy-ness, won’t find the change as difficult economically.
If you don't face huge time and economic loss, a positive, life-giving way to foster your own healing comes from reaching out and helping other women who hurt for the same reasons you do. Many of us have discovered that we receive healing for our own broken hearts when we minister to other hurting partners of sex addicts. And those women who are now being required to not only let go of the past, but also to rapidly become a whole new person in order to provide for themselves and their children benefit greatly from our gifts of time and love. In giving other hurting women love and support, we heal our own wounds, and reinforce the positive, healing process that flows from the tasks of mourning. As you give out hope, hope comes back to you
It is important to understand that adapting to your loss does not necessarily mean you will gain total understanding of the male mind. It's not so much about gaining that level of understanding, as it is about learning to live in peace and serenity without it. This defines true adaptation.
Task IV: To Emotionally Relocate Your Partner & Move on With Life
Emotionally relocating someone who has been central to your life feels a lot like moving to a place a long ways from home. And for a some women, it's even bigger than that. For them it feels more like being lost in a foreign land…a place so strange and unknown that they can't figure out where to go or what to do.
To make a change this big we must begin by finding a new definition and meaning of our marriage. In reality, this is true for each of us, whether our marriages survived—or did not. We now know our old perspective of marriage was built on a fantasy, because we lacked understanding and truth. But those days are gone, and just as a man who struggles with sexual integrity must find a new way to live in this world full of temptations, we have a challenge, as well. We, the women who love them, must find a way to live, and to love, while remaining whole and well, no matter what they—or life—deliver to us.
Our first step requires recognizing and accepting that marriage is a gift, and can be a wonderful gift, at that. But God did not create us as separate individuals with our own unique qualities and traits, only to seen as the wife of another. No, he created you, me, each of us, with our own separate identity for our own separate purpose.
When a huge percentage of who we see ourselves to be is wrapped up in being "the wife of _____," we place ourselves in a dangerous position. If he is the Sun around whom our planet rotates, our value and purpose instantly go dark if and when he uses pornography, or openly and longingly lusts for another girl or woman in our presence, or feeds his sexual appetite in any way outside our marriage relationship. We know that if we lose him, our entire life will completely and radically change. Subconsciously—or perhaps consciously—we live in constant fear; fear of not only losing the man we love, but fear of losing ourselves, as well because we've given so much of ourselves to the marriage that there isn't enough left without him. Is it possible that we have replaced the true Son in our lives with our husbands?
Each of us is a precious child of our Father in heaven, a father who loves each of us enough to give His life for ours. If He went that far for you and me, shouldn't we try to understand why we're here, and what each of our journeys is all about? Yes, part of the plan God has for our lives may include marriage, but if you haven't already done so, I challenge you to consider what else He has in mind for you. I invite you to look at marriage—your marriage—from this different, and I believe, healthier vantage point.
Discover Your Own Identity & Purpose In Life
If you have not yet determined your gifts and begun to use them, seek help from someone with the skills and insight to help you discover just who God created you to be. As you turn your attention toward moving on with life, it becomes increasingly important to know and understand what challenges you, what delights you, and what makes life worth living. Make room for new friends and attachments if that is part of God's plan for your life. Whether you are still married, or newly single, strengthening who you are in Christ enables you to grow and become the beautiful woman God created you to be, and to become a better partner, whether you are married still, or marry again in the future.
Remember, God has a plan and a purpose for your life. Allow yourself to focus on the process of fulfilling His design. Create room in your mind and heart for new experiences and goals, knowing that with God, you are never alone. And as you do, you will be emotionally relocating your partner, and moving on with life.
There may always be a sense of sadness when you think of the reality of the sexual temptations most men face, and how deeply it has impacted your life and changed your dreams. But through the tasks of mourning, the sadness looses the wrenching quality it previously held. To restore our wounded hearts to wholeness, we must take the time and energy that mourning demands of us, and allow God to use even this deep anguish to teach us new lessons that will serve us, and serve Him, well.