Crisis can lead to a fresh new start
Saanich News - November 19, 2003
Paul Beckow M.Sc. R.P.C.
Individual, Couple, and Family Therapist.
Recently my wife told me she has been having an affair. Even though she was remorseful and told me the affair was over, I feel hurt and devastated. I feel like running and never stopping. We have two children. Tell me, can a couple ever recover from something like this?
First of all, Bruce, I get your shock and your hurt. Surprises like this shake up your whole world.
You ask, can a couple ever recover from something like this? Yes, they can. I have worked with couples who have successfully found their way through such a break in trust.
Some of these couples would even say that, while extremely difficult at the time, the crisis actually strengthened, in fact saved, their relationship. But a special kind of work faces you both - work that requires openness, authenticity, and commitment. And it can be done.
Your wife broke her promise to you. She has a "mess to clean up". Her work requires an honest personal moral inventory, a willingness to be responsible for the impact of her behavior on you, and a commitment now to support you through your process. There can be no minimizing or avoiding your experience - your hurt, anger, sadness, jealousy, uncertainty.
But I will focus here on the work that you can do - in fact, that you must do - if you are to complete this with your wife.
First, allow yourself all of the pain. Don't suppress it. Don't "brave it out." Don't avoid. Don't pretend. Allow all of your experience to surface. And let it be. You don't have to dramatize it. Simply let it be. Share with her what is coming up. Perhaps do some journaling.
Secondly, you need to be very clear on your own commitment, your own choice now to be in your marriage - or not. Do you choose to stay?
If you choose to stay, in order to move beyond this event and the hurt, resentment, mistrust, protections that could persist over years, you must learn about forgiveness. As people have many misunderstandings about forgiveness, I'll say more.
Webster's Dictionary defines forgiveness as "the willingness to give up all resentment, claim to punish or exact penalty upon another. To pardon."
It's interesting that the word "forgive" actually comes from the very ancient roots meaning "give away". This is what we do when we forgive. We "give away" our hurt, resentment, anger, and blame.
The first thing to understand about forgiveness is - you don't have to. No one has to forgive. It is a powerful choice, but it is a choice. One grants forgiveness in their own time, as they are ready. You cannot force forgiveness. Force closes the heart. Real forgiveness only happens through the heart.
Many people think forgiveness is something they do for, or give to, the other person. And in some ways it is. However the deeper truth about forgiveness is that it is really a gift you give to yourself. So, the second thing to understand is forgiveness is about doing what it takes to look after your own emotional state and well-being.
Most people don't notice that when they hold on to hurt and resentment, they are the one's that continue to suffer. If you carry painful memories and resentments, you suffer. It's like walking with sharp stones in your shoes. It hurts and limits you to be upset and bear grudges. So forgiving is a self-serving act. You do it because you wish to heal yourself and create an authentic new beginning.
Third, we need to understand forgiveness in no way condones or excuses the behavior. You are forgiving the actor, not the action. In forgiving another, you see what they did as a mistake and you continue to grant them your trust. This sets you free. And you focus on what you can now learn together. You focus on the future.
So how do we forgive? We simply do it. We give up our grievance. We come to accept that "this happened." We no longer kick and scream about it. We face it. We come to peace with it.
At a deeper level, forgiveness happens when we use the power of acceptance and understanding to strip our negative fearful thoughts of their charge. We replace judgment and anger with the desire to see and understand wherever this is possible.
This brings me to the last piece I want to say to you. Please consider this. When something like this happens, it is an opportunity for you to be accountable. This takes you beyond being a victim. Being accountable means you examine and own how you both have been - more specifically, how you have been in the marriage that produced these results.
This is not to excuse the other of their responsibility, but is an opportunity for you to discover what led to the disconnection between you both. If a couple takes this kind of inquiry on in a responsible curious spirit, without blame, some very great work can be done. Important truths can be seen and spoken and powerful new learnings can occur.
A crisis then becomes a fresh new start achieved by facing issues previously avoided. You may want a professional to assist you together with this kind of exploration.
So, Bruce, it takes a certain resilience, intention, and vulnerability, to take this on. When life isn't the way we would like it to be, we can always choose to interact constructively with the way life is.
I am clear that where there is a commitment from both people to save and recreate their marriage, there is a way!
Paul Beckow is a trained individual, marriage, and family therapist with over 25 years experience. If you have a relationship or family concern, write to him c/o Victoria Family Institute, 4046 Century Rd., Victoria B.C., V8X 2E4 or e-mail him at pbeckowLETSTALK@shaw.ca.
For personal or couple counselling, for more information, or to register for a course - please contact Paul Beckow at The Victoria Family Institute.