My husband disclosed the affair on a walk in our neighborhood. It was a good decision because I was mobile, and I don’t associate it with my home. The end of my marriage as I knew it was brief and surprisingly devoid of emotion, as if we were 2 strangers exchanging insurance information after an accident. We talked for a few minutes. I asked some questions and then it was over.
I used the last fragment of a clear mind to plan for the immediate future because I could feel myself unravelling. I asked him to go back home to welcome our oldest son from his first day of school. I challenged him to rise and be strong for our kids, to balance the black void I was entering. Even though I was a mere blocks from my house, the initial revelation was so crippling, I honestly didn’t even know where I was. The first minutes alone involved wandering the alleys of Minneapolis, lost in my own backyard.
I began making phone calls and texts, not strong enough to stand, incapable of sitting. I have never felt so disoriented by my own body. My brother who lives far away was the first to respond. I don’t even remember what we talked about before my oldest friend came to rescue me. I expressed that she had a family to take care of; she replied, “But you are my family.” Those words are the brightest light in this murky memory.
The first hours, days, and weeks after discovery are about survival. Here is what worked for me.
I naively thought that because I am strong, I would move through this pain relatively quickly. I initially compared it to losing my father and how I wasn’t able to focus well at work for a couple of weeks, but this is different. This is a trauma. Reading books and articles helped me realize how deeply wounding infidelity is and helped me normalize my symptoms of post-traumatic stress.
I process emotions by talking to trusted friends. The first night was a drunken tour of my neighborhood, telling friends and then moving on to the next person when the feelings started to sink in. I quickly resolved that overindulging in alcohol was a 1 day allowance. Over the next few days, I carefully chose who I told, and it became increasingly harder because it made it all the more real, which is probably why it took me several months to tell my mother what happened. I immediately told her that we were having serious problems and that I needed her support. That was all I could offer at the time.
Good friends grieve with you and sit with you in your pain. They don’t tell you what to do. They don’t try to fix the situation. It cannot be fixed. Telling people also meant that I received supportive texts, cards, phone calls, flowers, casseroles, and desserts. I am grateful that we haven’t told everyone, as there are times when I enjoy being able to hang out without the sympathy looks or wondering what others think of my choice to work on the marriage. In general, I found that my male friends had no idea what to do with me. They awkwardly hugged me and then looked away. Perhaps we deal with pain differently as genders, or perhaps it was because the affair drew me mostly towards women, so the second-hand knowledge from their wives made it more difficult to be direct.
Still, the hardest part of the silence is pretending that everything is ok at school meetings or soccer practice. Silence carries the shame of bettayal despite the fact that I did nothing wrong. I find myself telling less and less people as time goes on. Enough people know to support me, yet I still crave new avenues to share my truths. This is where writing comes in.
Ask for Help
The first few days, my coworker encouraged me to take care of my basic necessities. Without her, I wouldn’t have showered, remembered to drink water, or eat. I asked a close neighbor to sit with me, so I could eat a few bites of soup. I took any help I could get. I used my company’s EAP program to schedule counseling sessions, talk to a lawyer to review my options, and chat with a financial planner. I accepted help from my company’s stress coach, and found ways to be more present with the use of scheduled meditation and essential oils. It is important to me to be intentional in my healing.
Until I started reading, I had no idea how common affairs are. I wanted to shout it from the rooftops to everyone I know: Talk about this! This is important! Use me as an example. Knowing the statistics made me feel less alone, but I desperately craved the comfort of someone who was walking my path. Through the Surviving Infidelity site, I found the Beyond Affairs Network (BAN). The first time I attended the support group, I burst into tears walking into the door. I was instantly welcomed by normal people who get it. I still attend these meetings monthly and have developed helpful friendships.
Don’t Make Major Decisions
It was very appealing when the lawyer told me to strike fast while the iron was hot. He told me I would likely get anything I wanted. Even though I have since made the decision to work on the marriage for now, I still daydream of divorce; however, the intensity and frequency has diminished. I read that a decision should not be made when in an emotional state and that I should wait at least 1 year to make a decision. Initially, I wanted him out of the house, but then I realized that I could benefit from his help with the kids in my time of crisis. I allowed him to stay in the guest room. I made the decision to wait for 1 month until my next decision. Sometimes, my decision was not to make a decision. I started sifting through writing lists that were less intimidating: Who am I? What do I want out of a partner? What am I afraid of if I stay? What am I afraid of if I leave? This sifting gave me power.
Tell the Kids
We decided to tell the kids the next day that Mom and Dad were having problems. We have never told them about the affair. As a united front, we sat them down and explained that things were going to feel very different; we tried to be honest about preparing them as best as we could. We would schedule time to spend with them separately each day. We told them that our problems were not their fault, that these are adult problems. These problems are only between adults, and they shouldn’t have to know what the problems are. We constantly reminded them how much we love them, and every night, I asked, “What questions do you have? What are you worried about?” I made a conscious choice to never say negative things to them about their dad. He is part of them. I need them to know they only come from goodness.
I said “yes” to friends more than I ever have in my life. I chose to do selfish things away from my family, like going on girls’ weekend trips or outings. I knew I needed to be selfish to be a better mom. I accepted offers to help, offers for dinner parties. I said yes to play dates. My schedule was full of friends and activities to look forward to and distract me and the kids. I also scheduled activities into the future that I would really look forward to, like zip-lining with my oldest son and taking my youngest to see sharks.
I cooled it on some of my volunteer activities, on busy things that just didn’t matter. My counselor helped me phrase an explanation: “I have experienced a trauma, so I need to take care of myself right now.” People were receptive and not pushy. It helped me pull back without feeling guilty. When I got too tired at dinner parties, I left. When I had enough of sympathy glances, I drove home and let the tears flow out. I said yes with limitations. I said yes until I had enough.
Give Yourself Grace
I allowed myself the grace to be out of character. I don’t regret that I yelled and said mean things. It’s ok that I didn’t fight fair even though I prided myself on rules of engagement for our entire relationship. One night early on, my husband and I were talking about the affair, and I burst out laughing at how ridiculous he sounded. I seriously could not stop laughing. I removed myself from the situation and sent him a text, saying I was sorry. For several weeks, I would make messes in the house on purpose, spilling bowls of soup, leaving garbage on the counter. It made me feel like I could get some jabs in without losing my good character. After all, I wasn’t hitting him or destroying his possessions. I was rightfully angry, but I wasn’t betraying my values, which would only make me feel worse.
I also gave myself the grace to recognize I wasn’t operating as a mother the way I normally do, and that’s ok. I did the best I could, and I allowed myself this temporary lapse. During this time, my oldest son commented that I had not been paying attention, that sometimes, I didn’t appear to be listening when he talked. I thanked him for letting me know, and I told him that it would get better soon. I apologized for my behavior. Once, I found myself too tired to make it all the way up the stairs, so I laid down midflight. My son caught me, and I reminded myself it his not his job to feel sorry for me. I am allowed to be sad, angry, and bitter. I just cannot buy an extended lease to live there, and I cannot wish for my kids to cosign the paperwork. They deserve so much better.
Focus on You
This resolve was probably the most beneficial to me. I allowed myself to be selfish after so many years of putting others first. I controlled when I spent time with the kids. I controlled what we spent our money on. There was no asking, no arbitration. I splurged on getting my hair dyed. I bought a new outfit. I didn’t share where we going or whom we were with. I boxed him out. I made both of us aware that I don’t need him. I made us both aware of how accommodating I had been in the past. I made him realize how good he had it and how much he had risked losing. Each choice on my own reminded me how good of a wife I was. It was not my fault that he didn’t appreciate me. His bad choices were his alone.
It felt good to use power tools and rip the shrubs out of the front yard less than a week from discovery. Destruction was easy, almost fun. Digging in the dirt and pulling the roots out was agonizing, but it was an important next steps. The dirt talked to me, and I listened. I learned I had an unstoppable might. I also learned that the roots that seemed so large and menacing were actually quite small and innocuous once excavated. The next step was building something new, something that was all mine, but you can’t skip ahead. First, you must destroy before you can build. Midwestern seasons require long pauses; winter helped me slow down and wait to be ready to decorate the deck that I built when the time was right.
I needed to take my power back. I needed rituals to guide me. I wrote little signs on 3 doors in my house: I only allow that which is beneficial to enter. I bought sage and cleansed the house. I collected phrases of encouragement and strength from my friends and wrote them on the back of a notebook. I diffused lavender oil while I was working. I plan on creating a prayer box soon, to write down the pain that I need help releasing, to offer my pain to a higher power.