What is your relationship with pain? That seems like a strange question. You might find yourself quickly responding with “I don’t like it.” After all, who wants to experience pain. So many of our efforts are aimed at eliminating discomfort, from being able to order what we want online having it delivered to our homes, to be able to distract ourselves from life by streaming endless episodes of the newest show, to taking any number of pain-reducing medications. It’s easier than ever to live a pain-free life, at least what seems like a pain-free life.
Infidelity creates tremendous emotional pain and often may injure us financially and physically too. Acknowledging the infidelity is the first step in the process. We accomplish this step by our admission of the unfaithfulness followed by the completion of a formal disclosure. To use a metaphor, this is us having wrecked the car with our spouse in it, we both get to the hospital, receive the needed immediate surgeries and medical attention, and we are now both laying in beds next to each other in the ICU. We are not out of the woods yet. We are still in a lot of pain. So what is the next step?
What is Grieving?
We are now entering the process of grieving. What is grieving? Grief is our reaction to the loss of someone or something with which we had a meaningful attachment. Our grief response includes powerful emotions, but also carries with it cognitive, social, physical, and even spiritual dimensions. In the case of infidelity, we grieve losses in regards to the marriage, our spouse, family members, social/professional circles, our view of ourselves, and even our relationship with God.
Our need to grieve should not be mistaken for being stuck, focusing on the negative, or being unforgiving. It is the way forward. However, grief is painful, bringing us back to the initial question: What is your relationship with pain? Unlike much pain and discomfort in life, which may or may not be necessary, feeling into our grief pain is absolutely necessary for getting ourselves and our spouse out of the ICU beds and back on our feet. To put it simply, the pain we feel grieving in recovery is not the same as injuring pain. Grief pain is actually healing, whereas injuring pain is what we feel when more damage is being done. Our goal here is to have a positive and accepting relationship with our grief pain.
Blocks to Grieving
Believe it or not, you were born, hard wired by God with the capacity to grieve. No one actually needs to teach you how to feel. If you doubt this, go spend time around a very young child and notice if they have any struggles feeling into their emotions. We are not saying that our goal here is for you to act the way a young child does when they are emotional. Instead, we want to notice the blocks we have against feeling into our emotions, which we develop over time. Some common blocks to feeling into our grief include the following:
- “I don’t want to wallow/feel sorry for myself.” – Grieving you and your spouse’s pain is not wallowing or feeling sorry for yourself, any more than grieving the loss of a loved one would be. Feeling into your grief means the infidelity and how it effected you and others matters.
- “Others have it worse than me, so I should not complain, its me being unthankful.” – Comparison is a way to diminish our need to grieve by identifying others who we believe have “more pain” than we do. It would be like saying our broken arm is not a big deal and doesn’t need attention because the neighbor has a broken arm and two broken legs. Their pain has nothing to do with whether or not our arm is broken and needs medical care. Your pain matters and so does the pain of those who have been effected by the infidelity.
- “It’s already been a while, how much longer is recovery going to take?” – We often create timelines of how long we and others should be hurting from the infidelity. Its like a grace period we give, where we silently endure, knowing that after a certain time frame the pain is “supposed” to be over. Typically these time frames are short and not based on reality, but our own desire to be done with the pain.
- “I know I was unfaithful, but how long do I need to keep absorbing their pain? I feel like a punching bag.” – Silent endurance is very common. A betraying spouse will come into the recovery process and behaviorally do the right things and quietly endure their spouse’s pain, while not truly joining with their spouse emotionally. They do not feel into their own emotion, become vulnerable, and join with the spouse in their pain. Instead, they are present and simply absorb their spouses hurt.
- “I don’t want to get stuck in my pain.” – We are often anxious about feeling into our own painful emotions because we are unsure what will happen and concerned we will never stop feeling the hurt. While this is a common anxiety, it isn’t true. Feeling into your pain will ensure you don’t get stuck there. Instead, you will heal and experience significant relief.
- “I don’t want to accept this has happened in my life.” – Both the betrayed and betraying spouses can struggle with accepting the reality of the infidelity. For the betrayed spouse they have been thrust into a new world of pain they never asked for and for the betraying spouse they are now having to own how they compromised in their own integrity. It may seem unbearable now, but accepting your reality will be very freeing, as you cannot heal what your cannot accept.
- “I have already forgiven you.” – Forgiving too quickly is more common in betrayed spouses. In order to avoid the pain of the recovery process, the betrayed spouse will quickly convince themselves of having forgiven the other person. While forgiveness is important and something we move towards in recovery, there is no shortcut around the pain to getting there. Taking shortcuts will only lead to the pain reemerging later on.
Leaning Into Grief for Betraying Spouses
For betraying spouses, an initial step to leaning into your grief is to complete your Emotional Restitution Letter. While your Full Disclosure was an accounting of the details of your infidelity, the Emotional Restitution Letter is aimed at you leaning into the emotional impact of your behavior on your spouse and others. The purpose is not to beat you over the head with what you have done. Infidelity takes us out of emotional reality and this letter brings us back in. While it will be painful to write, we want to encourage you it is helpful and necessary.
Leaning into Grief for Betrayed Spouses
For betrayed spouses, an initial step into leaning into your grief is writing your Impact Letter. This letter is your response to your spouse’s infidelity. In it, you will outline and express how their decisions have harmed you. You are not beating them over the head by feeling into how their infidelity has impacted you. Instead, it is absolutely necessary for you to connect with how you have been injured.
Leaning into Grief Together
Once we have completed the letters above, we will use them in our individual and marital counseling to help guide our grieving process. In a sense, each of these letters is an inventory of our grief. The goal in recovery counseling will be to feel into this pain, really connecting with it. Additionally, your counselor will work with you to be able to lean into your spouse’s pain, as well. Initially, counseling will be focused more on the betraying spouse being able to feel into the impact of their actions and connect with their betrayed spouse’s grief. However, over time, counseling will also provide a space to connect with the betraying spouse’s grief. A betraying spouse’s grief about their infidelity means the marriage actually mattered to them and is necessary for the couple to heal.
As we are able to grieve together, we heal the broken bond between us. We create a recovery process that is an exclusive healing space between just the two of you. While the infidelity intruded on the marriage, grieving together provides a space that is pure and set apart for you as a couple.
Grieving in infidelity recovery leads to freedom and healing. It moves us forwards, ensuring we don’t stay stuck. Grief does require us to feel into the present pain from the past damage. While it isn’t easy, doing so will ensure the emotional injury heals for you both. What started as a mountain casting a shadow over and defining your whole life, can turn into a story of redemption.