Updated: Oct 21, 2021
What does grieving look like?
It’s different for everyone. Often we think it’s a linear process that starts at one place and through healing, ends at another. But it isn’t like that at all. It looks more like someone sprayed silly string all over the floor. It’s hard to determine the starting and stopping places. But they’re there.
Shelley Martinkus in her book, Rescued, shares wisdom from the book, Of Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who is responsible for developing the five stages of grief. She shares that learning of your husband’s sexual integrity issue is like a death. It’s a death of what you thought your marriage was. A death of a dream, a death of whom this man is who you thought you knew, and for some wives there’s a little girl inside whose dream of ‘happily ever after’ has died.
Learning that this infidelity feels like a death to the wife or intimate partner, is very validating for us, but it’s also something that no one seems to understand. When was the last time a betrayed partner you know received an outpouring of love from her community and had meals set up for her? Or surrounds her with love and care for helping with the kids or finances or emotional support? It doesn’t happen and it adds to the devastation.
Knowing that this can feel like death, how do you manage to move through the process?
According to Kubler-Ross, the five stages are as follows:
Denial, or survival mode, essentially helps you to continue to function in your life. If we are to stay in this stage for too long, we tend to not process well or think that we somehow have responsibility in his choices. We don’t. I’ve found that one of the best ways to process in this stage is through journaling. This gives us a safe space to be able to hash out our feelings, give them voice and to allow God to speak into where we are at. It is also helpful to be able to go back and look to see how far we have come.
When anger sets in, many partners feel that they don’t have the right to feel this way or that they somehow may hinder their spouses healing. But that isn’t true. It can be healthy to express that anger and is an integral part of grieving and healing. Shoving it down only stunts your process and be assured that it will come out in some way at some point. During this stage we need to explore why we feel the way we feel. What emotion is it attached to? What are we feeling and what is that rooted in? Being able to answer these questions can help us to move through this stage. But understand that there is no 'right or wrong' amount of time for being here. It is different for each person.
Bargaining is when we are willing to accept things that we never would have because we are afraid of the alternative. For me, the alternative was earning an income of my own after being a stay at home mom for most of our marriage, and that income being able to support me. Anger usually isn’t present during the bargaining stage. We may be tempted to excuse the addictive behavior if we feel he’s been a really good husband or father in order to relieve the fear of financial loss. Or we may justify that if we have more sex, things will be better. Or we tell God that if ______ happens then everything will be okay and we can stick it out. At least until the kids are grown...
Feeling depressed or hopeless is often when we really allow ourselves to feel the pain of the betrayal. It can feel really scary. It messes with our value and self-worth. Often there are a lot of tears here and sometimes isolation. Partners feel pretty misunderstood in this space. Others may try to convince us to either stay or go, depending on their own opinions or beliefs. They may also send us books or scripture thinking that it will help us decide to stay or go, or the thinking that these things will bring us hope. It can be difficult to know who to listen to. In this stage you have moved from denial to reality.
Acceptance simply means that you know your new reality and are purposing to learn to live in your new normal. It does not mean that you are okay with or deserving of his choices. This is the stage where forgiveness can happen. And please remember that forgiveness does not equal reconciliation.
So what can moving through these stages look like? Here’s an example:
It can mean discovering his infidelity, whether you found out on your own or he told you. In order to function on a daily basis, you begin to put this issue on a ‘shelf’ and purpose to not think about it. You may begin to ask yourself all the questions of 'how could God have let this happen', or 'how could you have missed the signs', or 'what did you do to cause this behavior'. It’s very normal to wrestle it all out, but at the end of the day, there was nothing that you could do to change it.
Moving into anger can happen after you have done some processing. It can certainly mean that you don’t trust anything that he has ever said or done. You go back and question everything and you may not believe that any of your life together was sincere. You feel hurt, betrayed and angry. And you are justified in feeling this way.
At this point you may learn that it was ‘only’ porn and since your kids are small, decide that you will stick it out for the kids sake. It’s not really that bad, is it? Others don’t seem to understand or think it’s a big deal so maybe you made too much of it. After all, he works and has provided for you. That’s something. So you decide to stay, mostly for financial reasons and for the sake of the kids.
Realizing that life may not ever be any different than it has been, you may feel hopeless. What if he chooses to not recover? What if he just blames you, cause you already have, and he takes no responsibility for his actions? You can begin to feel hopeless and depressed because you don’t see any hope for real change. It can feel scary and overwhelming. You may decide to suck it up and live in misery for fear that you can’t make it on your own financially or as a single parent. And that realization only brings you into deeper depression.
You then have to accept that this will be your new normal, whether you have decided to stay or go, it’s not what you hoped for or dreamed for or signed up for. You intended to be married forever, even through the difficult times. But life goes on. And you know that. Knowing your reality and that you CAN do this, with a healthy support system and good boundaries, will help you to move forward.
**Please note, I am not saying this is the way to go or not to. This decision is between you and God-no one else. There is no judgment here. Only you know when enough is enough. You get to decide for you. I will say that, knowing what I know now, I would have left sooner for my own emotional health and for that of my kids. It would have been hard, but it would have been healthier for my family.**
Remember that this process isn’t linear. You can go from one stage to another and back again or skip over one. You may feel like a crazy mess in this process and wonder if it will ever end. It will. But it’s long. I can only tell you that if you don’t allow yourself the opportunity to grieve your losses, you will not be able to fully move through your grief.
Allow yourself to acknowledge the pain. Allow yourself to be angry. Allow yourself to feel all the feelings without shame or guilt from yourself or others.
I’m still grieving. My discovery day was five years ago and my divorce was final close to a year ago. There are still days that things come up that bring pain and sadness, yet because of the healing and forgiveness that have happened, it doesn’t last as long or feel as devastating. I’ve spent days in tears or have felt angry. Again, journaling and having close friends who ‘get me’ have been an invaluable asset.
My point is that depending on the length of the relationship or the trauma that was caused as a result, this process can take many years. Please don’t rush it. Don’t punish yourself for not being where you think you should be or where others think you should be. This is your journey. Though the process can continue for years, you may not be in a stage for as long or as deeply as you continue to heal. Celebrate how far you have come. One day you will realize that you are now a thriver, not just a survivor.
Where are you in the grieving the process?
What do you need others to understand about where you are? Have you been able to forgive yourself for it taking longer than you think it should??