I am still in pain from an affair my husband had 34 years ago. He never talked about it, as he was too ashamed of his actions. He has passed away now and the affair is all I can think about. When he was alive, I did not think about it much. I don’t know how to stop the pain of these unwanted memories. What can I do?
It’s too bad your husband didn’t work with you while he was still alive to heal the damage caused by his affair. You are trying to heal from two betrayals. The first betrayal is the affair. The second betrayal is leaving you alone to silently deal with the pain of the affair. You might find the second betrayal to be more painful than the first, as isolation is one of the worst experiences we can have as humans.
However, even though he avoided facing the truth of his choices doesn’t mean you can’t heal from the residual pain. There are two things you can do today that will begin to help you heal from this betrayal.
First, you can face the truth of your marriage and recognize that you don’t need to run from it to have peace. Brene Brown, author of “The Gifts of Imperfection,” wrote:
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy — the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
Your husband hurt you deeply and this is now a part of your story. Trying to forget about it won’t work because it’s a chapter of your story and can’t be removed by simply wishing it away.
Instead, you can allow the pain of it to flow through you, recognizing that it will eventually subside. Although this will be something you reflexively avoid, it will hurt less than trying to suppress it. We are not built to suppress emotion. Let it rise and fall and trust that it will move through you.
I recommend you share and express these feelings with someone who knows you and your story intimately. If you don’t have someone in your life who can sit with you while you share and feel these things, carefully select someone you will share this with. You may have suffered for three decades in silence, but that’s not necessary anymore.
The pain of betrayal isn’t the only feature of this story. Anyone who goes through trauma also experiences growth. As you reflect back, see if you have changed for the better because of the betrayal. Did you develop into a more compassionate person for the pain of others? Did you discover something about yourself that you didn’t know was there before you learned of his infidelity? Did you form lifesaving connections with God or others? Did your husband learn some lessons from this and become a different person even though he couldn’t talk about it?
You can face the fact that this experience is more than just pain to be avoided.
Second, there is great power in surrendering things we can do nothing about. This is not a passive shoulder-shrugging hopelessness. Instead, it’s a firm commitment to let go of something you cannot control. You’re not surrendering it to forget it. You are surrendering it to acknowledge your inability to change it.
Most people find that surrendering it to a higher power, such as God, helps them know it’s being placed somewhere where it will be acknowledged and healed. Some people find it helpful to write down words that describe their experience and then put them in a container or burn them. Much like the formality of a funeral, we need rituals to help us surrender and give closure to our experiences.
Your husband made a relationship-changing decision that affected you deeply. You’re not a shallow person for struggling with this. You don’t have to fight the feelings of betrayal and suffer unnecessarily. Trust that your feelings will move as you open up and feel the full breadth of these emotions that this will give you the peace you’re seeking.
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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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