Healing From Affairs, Sexual Addictions, and Other Marital Infidelities
Like A Pioneer
A pioneer is defined as a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area. Pioneers are often seen as courageous, resourceful, and willing to go out where others haven’t gone before. Yet, if we look throughout history, not all pioneers became pioneers by choice. Some were forced from their homes into new uncharted territory. They went forth into the wilderness unprepared and afraid. Maurice Harker, LMHC, and author of Like Dragons Did They Fight describes Mormon pioneer women who were “forced out of their dream homes in Nauvoo” as similar to survivors of infidelity who “are … forced out of their dream marriages by the significant misbehaviors of their husbands.”
Like these pioneer women, they suddenly find themselves out of the comfort of the trust they thought they had, into an unknown and sometimes scary wilderness. When a disclosure of information comes to light about secret behaviors, this can cause partners to go into a survival mode, activating the fight, flight, or freeze response. In 2006, Barbara Steffens and Robyn Rennie published a study revealing that a disclosure of a husband’s compulsive sexual behaviors produced traumatic symptoms that matched most of the symptoms for diagnosed PTSD in 70% of their participants.
Many partners report that the most devasting thing about the infidelity is not the acting out itself (while still extremely hurtful), rather it is the lies and the broken trust that make it so hard to move forward.
If you find yourself, forced from the comfort of the trust you once had, in the vast wilderness, in survival mode, how do you move forward? How do you get back to a place of safety and trust?
The first thing we must recognize is that now that we are no longer in our safe comfortable homes, we can’t go back to what once was. With this new information, you can’t go back and unlearn what you now know. Denying it may comfort you for a short while, but doing this will only increase the consequences in the long run. When we hold on a desire to “get back to the way things were” it keeps us in the past and unable to move forward. If we go back to the ways things were, that means we also go back to the lies and secrecy. Instead, look towards creating a new, better relationship. One that includes honestly, trust, vulnerability, and empathy. If your spouse isn’t interested or willing to be part of this type of relationship, you can still keep growing so that you get the place that you know and only accept a healthy relationship.
Packing Your Wagon
I recommend to take the time to pack your wagon to continue forward. Packing your wagon is a term coined by Maurice Harker to help women see the need to prepare themselves. Along the lines of the pioneer woman analogy, to cross the plains we need supplies to get us to safety to a new home. It’s common to get caught in the thinking of, “I just need him to…” or “If he would only…” These desires show a hope that your spouse has in his wagon what you need to survive.
Think about this way. Imagine that you are traveling through the wilderness, and you realize your supplies are dangerously low. Naturally, you would look to your spouse for extra supplies from their wagon. But what if they were just as depleted? Or worse off, what if they made their wagon appear full, but in reality, there was nothing in there? Then what? Many couples find themselves stuck at this point. They constantly look to the other to fill their wagons, yet both are in need of their own resources.
Often, you hear therapists today ask couples, “What do you need?” “What do you need from your spouse?” While this can be helpful in some circumstances, we’ve created a culture where we are constantly looking to other people to fill our own needs.
Maurice Harker describes it like this: “American relationship psychology promotes the idea that you should have “Needs” that the other person should fulfill, and if they don’t, you have permission to become dysfunctional. We were even taught this in counseling school, “Have each make a list of needs and then give it to the other person and expect them to fulfill those needs.” There was no consideration for situations where both feel completely depleted. Where is the intervention for situations where both feel completely maxed out and have no resources to attempt to meet the needs of the other. What about when the woman has been highly traumatized and is lying mangled on the ground…is it expected that she still work to meet his “needs”?
So, what does that mean for you? Naturally, you want to rely on your spouse. Naturally, you desire them to show up, hold your pain, and create safety. Those are good things to want and desire. Yet, whether our spouse can do this or not, doesn’t need determine our ability to move forward or not.
You can start packing your wagon today. We as humans are made to handle difficult challenges. We all have a psychological mechanisms built into our bodies to empower us to survive the most difficult of circumstances. You can start packing your wagon with healthy resources now.
Sometimes the fear in this is if we are packing our own wagon, that means that are setting ourselves up to leave our spouse. This is not the case. Packing your wagon allows you to be whole and complete, with sufficient resources, so you can show up in the relationship in the way you want to. It takes you out of a place of scarcity, and helps you move forward in trusting yourself. Ideally, while you are packing your wagon, your spouse is too. So together, you both can move forward in the path of healing and recovery.
Resources for Healing
Before we jump into what ways we can pack our wagons, I want to take a minute to recognize the mourning that comes when we realize our partners don’t have the full wagon we thought they did. We need to have compassion with ourselves as we mourn the loss of the valuable resource they once were or appeared to be. Realizing that our partner may not yet be capable of creating safety or holding our pain to the level we want, is extremely painful. And until they are more capable, we can continue to gain our own resources by packing our wagon.
So, what do we pack our wagons with? What are those valuable resources needed?
Find Your People
First and foremost, we need a support team. This is the people in your life that you can reach out to for emotional, physical, intellectual, social, and spiritual support. It can be helpful to find others who have walked this path and who have firsthand experience of what you are going through. They can offer you empathy and wisdom of what the path looks like ahead. Therapists and coaches are also a great resource, because they have the knowledge and skillset to help you know how to take each next right step. They also can help you see your blocks clearly, and help you move past them.
As part of your support team, make sure you give God a seat at the table. Like pioneer woman of old, this challenging trial can deepen and strengthen your relationship with deity. No matter what your relationship is with the church and its culture, God will continue to be by your side. Trauma can block our ability to see and feel God’s presence but keep reaching out. God can handle of all of your pain, your anger, your sadness, and your grief. Bring it all. The healing ointment of the atonement, the balm of Gilead, can heal all wounds. Usually, it takes much longer than we want. When we trust in God and in God’s timing, while moving our feet forward, healing comes.
Self-care Is Not Selfish
Another important way to pack your wagon is by learning to take care of yourself. I’m not talking just about surviving, you are built to do that. I’m talking about the kind of self-care that replenishes you and strengthens you. No one is going to make sure you get this type of self-care. You have to make this happen. A common mind trap that many women struggle with is that ‘self-care is selfish.’ Yet, this needed care is what will allow you to be able to do all of the things for others that you desire to do. Self-care doesn’t need to be complex, but it does need to be consistent. Pay attention to what things nurture you and what things just numb you. Doing small nurturing things with consistently can make big changes over time. By small and simple things do great things come to pass…
You Can Start To Heal
Be willing to be the one to start making changes. When we aren’t the ones who have strayed, or we weren’t the ones to have acted out, it’s easy to fall into the thinking that they just need to change. While common, this thinking can keep us stuck in our pain. You didn’t choose to have this happen, but you do get to choose whether to move forward and heal or to stay stuck.
You can start taking steps to pack your wagon. You can have a support team. You can have healthy boundaries. You can no longer engage in patterns that don’t work for you. You can ask for help. You can start making your care a priority, and you can take courageous steps forward. While you can’t control the actions of another adult (nor should you try), you can start healing today.
If you find yourself on the plains, pulling a hand cart (with or without children inside and walking with you), remember that you like other pioneer women, you can walk many miles, barefoot, forging for food, powering ahead to a better tomorrow. A pioneer woman is the opposite of a settler—someone who is “sedentary, stationary, and maintaining.” A pioneer woman moves her feet. She moves forward through the hard because she knows that the difficult road leads to better destinations.
Remember that your body was designed to handle this challenging world. Tap into this inner power and find the strength within you. It is there, waiting and ready for you to harness it.
You can do hard things. You have already done many hard things in your life. You are in the middle of hard. And while you may not enjoy it, you can continue to do hard. You are made to heal and you are made to progress.
For more information on Maurice Harker’s work, see:
Alana Gordon, MFT-I is a marriage and family therapist and a betrayal trauma coach. For more articles, podcast episodes, and videos from her, go to Chooserecoveryservices.com