When we got married, we got advice that we shouldn’t talk to people outside of our marriage about our marital struggles. We both agreed that this was something we would do to strengthen our marriage.
A year ago I discovered my husband was having an affair with a co-worker and now he’s upset at me that I want to talk with my parents and a couple of friends about it. We have talked with our bishop and a marriage counselor, but I still feel like my husband is silencing me from the very people who really understand me.
He is accusing me of betraying him if I tell other people. Is that really the case?
Keeping marital difficulties between partners is sound counsel that will strengthen any marriage. You were wise to hold to this rule, but in certain situations, it’s also wise to recognize that there need to be exceptions to the rule.
When marriage vows are broken through the serious betrayal of infidelity, it changes the very nature of the marital bond. In many cases of infidelity, one or both of the partners wonder if the marriage will even stay intact. Turning to others can be helpful because trust is so fractured that turning to the unfaithful partner doesn’t bring relief. This is especially true early in the process of affair recovery.
Your formerly secure relationship base became compromised and you now need someone you can count on. Even though you’re both seeking counsel from your bishop and a professional counselor, it’s important for you to turn to people who have been there for you throughout your life. They can remind you of who you are, who your husband is and help you see what’s real and true.
It’s important to seek people who are “friends of the marriage,” affair researcher Shirley Glass wrote in her book, “Not Just Friends.” They will help remove the pressure of having to figure out what to do with the marriage and, instead, allow you to have a space to make sense of your experience.
Please be careful whom you choose for your confidant. Just because you have family who might be wiling to listen, make sure they are healthy and protective of your sensitive information. Sharing with just anyone who will listen is a really bad idea. You don’t want to spend anytime worrying about what happens to your information in the vulnerable process of recovery. You don’t need additional betrayals of people gossiping and criticizing.
Turning to family can also come at a risk because their familial instincts may make it difficult for them to trust your husband again. Once you unload your entire trauma on your parents and siblings (who are naturally going to take your side), they may have difficulty supporting your marriage down the road if you choose to reconcile. You don’t want to spend the rest of your marriage trying to defend your decision to get back together.
However, many families are healthy and provide the best kind of support. Healthy family members know you, care about your marriage and will give you a permanent shoulder to cry on when you’re struggling to put together the shattered pieces of a betrayed life. Just make sure your family is healthy and won’t, as Brene Brown once put it, “become another piece of debris in your tornado.”
You need a witness to your pain so you can know that you’re heard and seen. You need to know that you are a human worthy of love and belonging. You need to know that your pain matters to someone else. Ultimately, you need to know you won’t have to do this alone.
Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend wrote a book called “Safe People” that outlines the characteristics of people who are more likely to protect you and your story. They identify safe people by the following characteristics:
- They value love and connection.
- They have the ability to trust others.
- They value responsibility and aren’t overly dependent on others and don’t allow others to be overly dependent on them.
- They are honest and transparent with their lives.
- They work on their own issues.
- They have good track record and have respectfully dealt with yours or other people’s private information.
- They encourage you to grow individually and in your relationships with other people.
I will also add some qualities I’ve observed in safe and healthy people:
- They are well acquainted with suffering and have graciously learned important lessons from their trials.
- They are good listeners and don’t interrupt.
- They don’t gossip about other people to you.
- They are fair and work to see the big picture.
- They keep their promises.
- They don’t jump to conclusions.
It’s likely there aren’t many people in your life that fit these criteria. It takes time and experience to find safe relationships. You don’t need to have more than one person in your life that fits this description.
Even though it’s good to have multiple people in your life that can support you, recognize that when you are working through the messy and vulnerable early stages of discovery and trauma, it’s not a good idea to broadcast your situation to multiple people. Sharing with too many people will leave you feeling more exposed, scattered and anxious about having to keep everyone updated and in the loop, as things can change quickly.
Recognize that it’s common in the early days of discovering betrayal for word to get out that there has been a crisis in your marriage. Curious people may approach you to find out more details. You do not owe anyone an explanation of any details just because they ask. And, you certainly don’t need to apologize for not sharing your story with them. You can simply tell them that you appreciate their concern, but you already have the support you need.
It’s critical to take a little time to carefully select someone who will hold your story with respect and compassion. Brown also said that we should only share our shame story with someone who has earned the right to know that story. Trust is earned. It’s not something you give someone just because they’re family, you attend church with them or you roomed with them in college. Safe people have passed multiple relationship tests and continue to provide you with the steady reassurance that they can handle your reality.
Instead, start by identifying the safest person you can think of and start sharing with them. I don’t recommend you do this by text message or email. Sometimes phone is the only option you have, but if it’s possible, face-to-face is best. You need the nonverbal reassurance that you’re not crazy, to see them reflect your pain. You need to know that you can be physically held and soothed by someone who cares deeply about you. Even if it’s a tremendous sacrifice to get with this person face to face, I promise you it’s worth it. Perhaps they might even come to you if you ask them.
If you can’t identify anyone in your natural support system that meets the criteria for a safe person, then don’t settle for the next best person. It’s better to stay with your therapist and bishop who can hear your messy story and provide you with a secure space to share. Then, after you feel more grounded and clear about your situation, you can take the time to find other people who are safe.
Don’t worry about how your story is shared. If they’re a safe person, you won’t have to edit your information in a way that makes it easy for them to hear. Just share and talk and cry and release and cry and let it go where it needs to go. A safe person will track with you and stay with you and let you know you can say whatever you need to. This is not a time to worry about protecting them. It’s a time for you to organize your shattered reality. So, put all the pieces out there to your safe person, in whatever order they appear, and trust that over time it will all come together.
After you spend time sharing your story with this safe person, you will feel a bit more organized and clear. As you move forward in your life, continue to share with them as things become clearer. The experience of sharing your story with safe people allows you to reaffirm you worth, see your progress and even open up more support to others who are struggling.
In my experience, when you share your story with the right people and in the right way, it can support the healing of your marriage, which benefits your husband if he really wants complete healing for you and your marriage. You didn’t get to have say about him having an affair, so I don’t believe his fear of others knowing is something that gets to direct your healing.
Ultimately, everyone wins when sharing is done in a respectful, compassionate, and safe environment.
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 his own and may not be representative of St. George News.
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