OPINION – In Lewis Carroll’s story “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the protagonist of the story, Alice, finds herself in a distorted world where big things are now small and small things are now big. As she tries to make sense of all of these bizarre changes, she interacts with a caterpillar that asks her about her identity. She replies: “I – I hardly know, Sir, just at present.” Alice continues rather shyly, “at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then …”
Discovering the secret life of your spouse changes your understanding of your life so profoundly that, like Alice, you hardly know or trust anything you thought was true about yourself or your relationship story with this other person.
For some, this discovery overtakes them like a nuclear blast that goes off on a calm morning, just when they thought things couldn’t be better. For others, it’s a slow realization that starts out with finding out little pieces here and there, wondering, suspecting, asking, and eventually putting everything together.
Regardless of how you discover their secret life, both experiences – sudden or a slow dawning – erode your ability to organize and trust your judgment. You think you’re crazy. Your body becomes activated with anxiety, tension, and even nausea. You know you’re not crazy, but still you think you’re crazy because you feel crazy. Even thinking that makes you feel even crazier. The spinning is almost too much to take.
You aren’t crazy. You’ve just been lied to, which now creates the tremendous burden of trying to synthesize new information with a story you thought had already been written. Even though you didn’t ask for this (who would?), please allow me to show you a few guideposts to help you get your bearings so you can find your way back to clarity and the truth about you and your situation.
Stop moving for a moment
The best thing you can do is stop moving so you can get your bearings. This isn’t the same as sitting down and giving up. This is about stopping your forward movement long enough to take in your present situation so you can regain your sense of direction.
Sometimes the movement is external and shows up as busyness, distraction, numbing addictive behaviors through the use of food, shopping, social media, television, et cetera. Sometimes the movement is internal storms of panic and chaos, even though on the outside you appear still and motionless. Regardless of how it manifests for you, being still and getting your bearings will make all the difference.
This is not a one-time event of stopping to find peace. It’s a new ritual you’re creating on a daily basis to give you the strength you need to reclaim your voice, your emotions, your brain, and your heart. It’s also something you can do each time you discover new information or get activated in your betrayal trauma throughout your recovery journey.
Now that you’ve stopped, what should you do? I recommend you practice some of the mindfulness exercises outlined by the Mindfulness Awareness Research Center at UCLA.
You are physically safe right now and don’t need to do anything physically to protect yourself. (If you are not physically safe, that is a different discussion for a different column; in short, you need to remove yourself to a safe place before you can assess and act going forward, you may need help and should not hesitate to ask for it.)
When you’re activated by the trauma of betrayal, you can’t think clearly to know how to move forward. So slow down and you will make better decisions.
Call for help
It’s not enough to calm your body, mind, and emotions by being aware of your present situation. Because you’re disoriented, you have to call for help. The sooner you can get help, the sooner you’ll find your bearings.
Chances are, you know someone who has already been down this road. Attending a 12-step meeting, finding an online community of support, attending a recovery program, talking to a licensed counselor who specializes in betrayal trauma, calling your pastor or church leader, opening up to a family member, or confiding in a friend.
You don’t need to sort out the details at this stage. You only need to know someone can see your pain and stay with you on this journey.
Trust your markers
Betrayal trauma uproots virtually everything you thought you believed and understood. Anna Fels wrote a descriptive essay for the New York Times called “Great Betrayals,” in which she outlined what it’s like for the betrayed party upon discovering a secret life of a loved one. She writes:
For the people who have been lied to, something … pervasive and disturbing occurs. Like a computer file corrupted by a virus, their life narrative has been invaded. Memories are now suspect. It’s as if they are constantly reviewing their past lives on a dual screen: the life they experienced on one side and the new “true” version on the other. But putting a story together about this kind of disjunctive past can be arduous. Understandably, some feel cynical if not downright paranoid. How can they know what is real going forward?
A lost hiker looks for markers that help him navigate when he’s disoriented. In the same way that stars, mountains, and other markers never move from their place, your life also includes things that will never move and that can help you reorient yourself.
There are dozens of other markers that don’t move and will help you regain a sense of stability and trust. The sooner you can connect to these stable markers, the sooner you can have the experience that not everything has moved in your life and you can begin finding your way forward.
Here are a few examples of markers my clients have shared with me over the years:
- Trusted friends
Connecting to your markers will remind you that not everything in your life is a lie. They will give you much needed respite from the journey of learning and believing the truth about yourself, your spouse, and your life.
Recovery is not a linear process that goes from dark to light in a neat and orderly pattern. Instead, you will be thrust back into darkness and confusion several times throughout the coming weeks and months. Although this forecast isn’t pleasant, know that every time you work through these steps, your ability to move from confusion to clarity improves. Eventually, you will have enough clarity to know where you are, who you are, and what you need to do to act in the best interest of yourself and those you love.
- Fighting addiction, promoting recovery in Southern Utah; community events and resources
- Relationship Connection: My husband’s an addict, what do I tell my kids?
- Relationship Connection: I hate sex with my husband
- Relationship Connection: I’ve attracted a loser who won’t commit
- Relationship Connection: Too much to change, too much crud inside me; how do I set resolutions?
Geoff will be holding a 2-day couples workshop on April 25-26 to help couples deepen their connection and strengthen their marriages in a fun and interactive setting. This workshop is limited to 10 couples.
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.
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