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Shattered VowsHope and Healing for Women Who Have Been Sexually Betrayed
By Debra Laaser
ZondervanCopyright © 2008 Debra Laaser
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWhat Am I Supposed to Do Now?
First Steps for the Brokenhearted
Perseverance is more prevailing than adversity, and many things which cannot be overcome when they are together, yield themselves up when taken little by little. Adapted from Plutarch (46-120 AD), Lives
"Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!" Luke 12:24
When I first met Mark, I was seventeen. Although I had plans to go to college, I became more interested in what he was going to do and what dreams he was pursuing. They were magnificent. Mark was a debater, a college tennis player, an academic award winner-with plans to go to seminary and be a pastor. Wow! I did continue with my plans to go to college, but my focus was on hurrying through so that I could be married to the man of my dreams. All the while Mark and I attended separate colleges, my heart was miles away, dreaming of the day when I would immerse myself in my husband's life. I was already making sacrifices of things I wanted to do in order to be with him. I had no idea that I was starting down a path of silent resentment and sadness with no healthy way to talk about it.
I was in shock after the living room conference in which I was briefed of Mark's secret behavior. Mark's first steps were made for him very quickly during the intervention his colleagues held before delivering the news to me. First, they fired him from all of his work. Second, they advised him to get deep and comprehensive psychological and spiritual help for his "symptoms" of acting out sexually in such destructive ways.
One of the men who participated in confronting Mark was a recovering alcoholic. I soon learned that this colleague had told my husband that his problems seemed similar to his own, and he offered to find help for Mark. Within three days Mark left for a thirty-day inpatient treatment program for sexual addiction. It was a whirlwind of phone conversations, intake interviews, and packing. Our lives were in emergency mode, with all sirens blasting. My husband went off to get help, leaving me at home with three small children and no income in the foreseeable future.
Life was not looking good for me. Mark at least was being rescued from despair and furnished with a plan. But no one talked to me about first steps. What should I be doing? Could anyone out there advise me on how to handle my emotions, my bills, my choices, or my marriage? Even though the story of what Mark had done was front-page news in our local paper, no one from our church or social circles reached out to me. I felt totally alone.
I quickly took on the persona I had adopted at other times during my life when storms of any kind hit: I tried to look perfectly calm. I could barely think or feel, let alone decide practical things to do, so I went into autopilot mode, which for me meant "getting busy doing something." I determined that we would get through this. I didn't have an urge to run away because, practically, that wasn't a great option for me. I had three kids, and my family was five hundred miles away. Besides, it was not what I knew-I had parents who had modeled commitment and were still together after forty-two years of marriage. They had never talked about leaving each other.
I suppose I could have considered going to someone for help or advice, but the thought didn't even cross my mind. Figuring out difficult situations by myself was what I knew how to do. It was far too embarrassing to expose more information or need to someone else. I did what I do best: I kept my feelings to myself and worked ceaselessly at figuring out how to manage my life. It kept me busy and distracted me from thinking about the devastation. I was grateful for necessary things to focus on so that my crying didn't consume my entire day.
After Mark left for the inpatient treatment program, I was flooded with practical dilemmas: What do I tell the kids? Who else should I tell? How will I take care of our bills? Have I been exposed to sexually transmitted diseases? How can I focus on my work and the kids' needs when I'm such a mess inside? Will I ever stop crying? Do I really know everything that happened? Can there be more? How can I prevent this from happening again? Are the children safe? Am I crazy thinking we can overcome this? Am I just being naive thinking I can trust again? Do couples really "make it" after something like this?
I was good at being a martyr, and for now, it was serving me well. I would just figure out how to do it all! First things first for me involved thinking about how to shore up our finances. Previously Mark had handled all of our money, and I needed to sort through the bills to pay. I was devastated to find months and months of unopened bank statements and overdue invoices. I could see that the details of managing our home had been abandoned, and I was terrified. Furthermore, it was nearing time to pay taxes. We owed several thousand dollars but had no resources to pay the IRS. And now I was alone to figure out what we were going to do. The compassion and patience I had felt in the first few days after Mark agreed to get help were giving way to frustration and rage. It was one thing for him to violate our sacred marriage vows, but now I was feeling abandoned and uncared for in another way. The kids and I were unsafe financially, and I hadn't even realized it.
I can move very fast when I'm not feeling safe! Action to figure out how to survive pulled me right out of much of my sadness; I was busy doing the next thing in front of me. I decided to escalate the growth of my newly created company so that somehow it would support us. My business partner and I worked out a plan to allow me to work longer hours and travel more. I traveled forty-three out of fifty-two weekends the following year, selling our artwork at various art shows throughout the Midwest. Working gave me a sense of being in control-at least of my own destiny-and of knowing that I could take care of myself and my children if I needed to. Work was my friend; it was comforting; it was a place I could leave behind my anxieties and confusion about the rest of my life.
Shortly after Mark left for treatment, his parents called to ask if they could help me in any way. They asked if I needed money. I wanted to say no, that we were fine. But my fear trumped my practiced response. "Yes," I said meekly. "I don't know how I will take care of our taxes." I agreed to accept the financial help that Mark's parents offered, even though it nearly killed me to have to do so. They sent a check to cover all of our taxes-no questions asked.
I found that mixed feelings accompanied almost everything that happened in those first weeks and months. While I was relieved to know we wouldn't be in trouble with the government, I was extremely ashamed to have to admit we were so destitute. I told myself that good, hardworking people should manage money successfully. I believed something must be wrong with us if we had to accept handouts.
Only a week after one of our neighbors read the account of Mark's "fall" in the newspaper, he came over and handed me two hundred dollars. He said he knew things must be difficult for me and that he and his wife wanted to help. Would I please accept his gift? Through tearful eyes, I thanked him for caring and told him the money would be very helpful. When the door closed, my uncontrollable tears were evidence of how much I needed to feel seen and heard. My neighbor's gesture comforted me. "Maybe someone out there does know how hard this is for me," I thought.
Fortunately, treatment centers invite spouses and family members to participate in "Family Week"-a time of education, counseling, and controlled interaction with the patient. The third week of Mark's treatment, I left for my five-hour drive to the treatment center. The fear of meeting with therapists and being an emotional wreck and wondering what was going to happen to us felt almost paralyzing to me. I had never driven that far (five hours) by myself, and I was very concerned about even getting myself there.
But Family Week proved to be a powerful week of connecting with Mark in new, vulnerable conversation. We shared pain and stories of the past; we learned from therapists and educators; we met other men and women who were struggling to heal from sexual betrayal. I was astonished to find myself feeling more alive and authentic in my relationship with Mark than ever before. It felt like a new beginning for us. It was also the beginning for me of experiencing safe community. I was very grateful these first steps were available. I shudder to think how our recovery would have been affected if I had been left to fend for myself that entire month.
Some women have taken a first step to get direction or support from a friend, pastor, or therapist, and have been given information that simply stopped their efforts: "Just be a better wife, and these problems won't keep happening," suggests one pastor. "Your husband is totally selfish and will never change," offers an indignant sister to an angry and confused wife. "You would be better off leaving him and finding a man who will love you the way you deserve." A concerned friend says, "I would never stay with my husband if he did those things." The advice keeps pouring in from people trying to help, and it only serves to perplex and paralyze your hurting heart.
I know how difficult it is to find motivation to take first steps after a life-altering tragedy-of any kind. You are already flooded with feelings prompted by painful information. You have important practical things to attend to, but no energy to do anything. You may be getting too much advice or too little help to know how to move on. But only you can take your first steps on a healing journey, and they need to be for you. If you are facing a relationship damaged by sexual betrayal, nothing is more important right now than getting help for yourself. You are worth it! If you have children, getting help for yourself is the best thing you can do for them as well. If you are like I was, you are doing a lot of crying alone. You are obsessing about how this could have happened to you. You are replaying your life and wondering where you went wrong. You are beginning to feel crazy and out of control-alone. You need and deserve companionship now.
While you may have thought your mom, sister, or best friend would be the safe person you could talk to, that's not always the case. Often our friends and relatives are so invested in trying to keep us from being in pain that they can do little but try to fix our problems or give advice. It is very difficult to watch a daughter or sister or close friend suffer, and the natural inclination is to get them out of the troubling situation. Finding solutions or explanations is the easiest way, and so you may be bombarded by people trying to get you to a happier place. Unfortunately, these attempts don't always work, or if they do, they are only a Band-Aid that soon wears off. The truly safe people you need now have experienced betrayal and have been counseled in healing. They know how to listen, they aren't afraid of feelings, they don't judge, and they participate in being vulnerable and sharing their struggles, too. You'll discover they are real companions, not just observers or fixers.
We'll talk much more about getting help and participating in safe community in the next chapter. Meanwhile, I know you have many practical questions. I get phone calls and emails almost daily from wives who want to know what to do. Some say they don't even know how to get through the day; others wonder what they can do differently to keep their husbands from acting out again. Many wives are confused about who to talk to; most don't know whether to leave, make him leave, or stay together in the house even though the walls have come tumbling down. Women want solutions-specific solutions-and guarantees. I think all of us would like to believe that if we do the right things, then we can regain confidence that our lives can be the same again-or at the very least, a lot better than they are right now.
There are no black-and-white answers to any of these questions. There are no right answers or wrong answers regarding how to respond to information about infidelity. All women have different experiences, different reactions, different needs, and different solutions. I want to encourage you to take what fits and leave what doesn't. That wisdom comes from the powerful 12-step programs that have led many people up from the lowest bottoms of devastation. Only you will know what is right for you, so you will need to get in touch with your feelings, your body, your intuition, and God; this book will help you do that. Your discoveries will lead you to the next best step God has in mind for you. "'For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, 'plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future'" (Jer. 29:11). I was amazed to feel the hope that returned to me whenever I made one clear decision for myself or shared honestly with one other person or owned one feeling or behavior instead of blaming. Each small practical step helped me experience the truth that God was with me and in me and would provide all I needed if I turned to him.
The practical questions wives have as they begin to deal with the news of sexual infidelity tend to fall into three broad categories:
Questions about your spouse. These questions involve coming to terms with what a straying spouse has actually done and how best to respond to that reality. Questions about your children. These questions concern how children are affected by the betrayal, if the couple has children.
Questions about yourself. These questions relate to the strong and sometimes overwhelming personal emotions that surface in the aftermath of betrayal.
The rest of this chapter will explore these issues one at a time. If a particular question doesn't concern or apply to you, skip it and go on to the ones that do.
Questions about Your Spouse
New information about a spouse's betrayal is always shocking. You may feel inundated with questions about his problems and your reality. Let's look at some of the most common questions.
Does My Husband Have a Sexual Addiction?
One of the first questions most wives face is in regard to what exactly they are dealing with in terms of their husband's betrayal. In some cases, a husband has committed a single act of sexual sin. In other cases, his behaviors may be indicative of a sexual addiction. The difference is that isolated incidents of sexual sin can be stopped fairly easily if there is intent to stop. Addiction, however, entails qualities of progression, tolerance, and an inability to stop despite a desire to do so. Addictive behavior indicates a need to "medicate" painful feelings.
As with alcohol or drug addiction, sexual addiction starts slowly and builds-either by adding new behaviors or by increasing the involvement with a particular behavior. If masturbation was discovered at an early age, it may have been used once or twice a month. Progression, then, would mean that over time, masturbation might increase to once a week and then once a day. Some sex addicts masturbate multiple times a day, even to the point of inflicting physical harm on themselves.
Thinking It Over
1. Do you ever try to do detective work in your husband's life? If so, why do you find it difficult to stop looking for evidence of betrayal?
2. How do you allow others to hurt you? In what ways can you create safety (boundaries) for yourself ?
3. Are you aware of walls you create to shut other people out of your life-walls such as raging, withdrawing, being a martyr, or not speaking up?
4. If you are experiencing physical pain or discomfort, what might your body be trying to tell you? Is it holding on to certain feelings, such as fear, anger, anxiety, or sadness?
5. What baby steps can you take to begin your journey of healing?
Excerpted from Shattered Vows by Debra Laaser Copyright © 2008 by Debra Laaser. Excerpted by permission.
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