Hi all, a new kitchen conversation….it’s been a while!
First, thanks to everyone who has responded to the survey. I’ll be taking it down soon, and will follow with a post on the results.
Next, I just want to address an issue that keeps coming up when I’m working with couples in recovery. I’m hoping that it saves some heartache, especially for wives, and also some exasperation for husbands.
The issue is stating what bad things could have happened but didn’t. Let me explain. A wife went out of town recently and her husband stayed home, lived with integrity, and honored her. Once she returned, they were talking about how the trip had gone and whether or not he had any struggles with temptation. He honestly admitted that yes, he had thought about looking at porn one night. She was irritated, but not angry. She expressed how disappointing it was to hear, and how she wished it was never an issue for him. Rather than hear her pain and empathize, he retorted with something along the lines of “give me a break, I handled it. I didn’t act out. I could’ve gone to a strip club and you would’ve never known, but I didn’t. Sorry, I’ll never be perfect”.
Now, he was genuinely trying to shed light on progress. But with poor delivery. And rather than make her feel safe and secure with his progress, she was simply reminded of how hurt and betrayed she felt. It wasn’t the least bit comforting to know he even thought about what he could get away with while she was gone. As you can imagine, the whole thing went south from there.
For this wife, her declaration of disappointment wasn’t a jab at her husband; it was simply an expression of emotion. It tapped into his shame though, and his response was to manipulate the situation to make her the problem by having unrealistic expectations (via the “I’ll never be perfect” comment). It would’ve been a simple conversation that ended rather quickly had he not popped off.
Remember that reassurance is underscored by empathy, not by painting a picture of how much worse a situation could have been.
When our wives share their triggers and the accompanying pain, it can bring a tidal wave of shame. When we get hit by the wave, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and to buckle under it. We can go back into that shame shell where we shutdown, get angry, lose empathy, etc. Many wives will say when they see this happen (and they definitely see it happen) they begin to think of their husbands as fragile. They start feeling like they can’t share what they are really thinking or feeling because it will crush him. Underlying this is often a fear, sometimes unspoken, that it will ultimately lead to acting out or relapse. So wives will sometimes hold back because of this.
Two unfortunate things happen when this is the case. First, the wife’s process is halted. When a wife can’t share her pain and receive an empathic, receptive, humble, healing response there is a block to her grieving process. It can even feel like that point is the stuck point that the couple keeps coming back to.
Second, a wife’s respect for her husband is further eroded. Some would say there’s nothing left to erode, but I often see that there is a little reserve respect in the tank, and that gets totally tapped when a wife see’s her husband as fragile. I heard a wife recently say to her husband, “You gave me this pain, now I want to give it back to you but you can’t take it, so I’m stuck with it.” Pretty accurately describes the situation to me.
As husbands who’ve committed betrayal, we have to develop fortitude when facing our wife’s triggers. Take a look at this definition-
\ˈfȯr-tə-ˌtüd : Strength of mind that enables a person to encounter danger or bear pain or adversity with courage.
Fortitude isn’t the same thing as being stoic. It is not stonewalling and lacking compassion. It also isn’t simply caging our anger and just saying the right thing; although that’s better than popping off and saying hurtful things.
Fortitude means we bear pain with courage. When we encounter our wives’ triggers and pain we must develop the mental and moral strength to persevere through the danger, fear and difficulty.
I don’t know about you but I can’t just will myself into this. It reminds me that I need a Savior. I need the Spirit of God to develop character in me that leads to courage and fortitude. And He is committed to doing so.
All that said, here are a couple of practical steps you can take:
- Remember that every trigger is an opportunity to develop fortitude and to cultivate respect. It is likely that on the other side of all this your wife will say she is thankful for and admires by your willingness to lean into the process of her sharing her pain.
- When your first reaction to your wife’s sharing is anger or defensiveness, it is probably about self protection. But in the process of grieving and healing, self protection is always the enemy of empathy. Let your heart break for the pain of the situation, rather than trying to avoid feeling it.
- Remember that she hates it too. She wants it to go away more than you do. She hates that a good day is interrupted by painful thoughts too. Thus, try to be gracious knowing she isn’t manufacturing this stuff or making it up.