Fragility or Fortitude

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.

Silent Struggle

Last week Shelley and I both had the privilege of speaking at Biola University in La Mirada, Ca. We’ve had other opportunities to speak to students at schools and ministry events through Campus Crusade for Christ, and every time we are blown away.

There is so little pretense.

It is almost like they haven’t had enough time in the Christian sub-culture to figure out they need to wear masks. Or maybe better said, there is still enough sensitivity in their heart that when they are invited into authenticity and transparency they can throw caution to the wind and enter that sacred space.

Shelley and I challenged the students to make a decision to be radically vulnerable about their struggles. We urged them to risk rejection and take the first step to open up. We tried to help them understand the value and reward of true intimacy. We talked about teenage pregnancy, bestiality, shame, guilt, pornography, sex addiction, anorexia and body image, work-aholism, abortion, forgiveness and redemption.

The stories that were relayed back to us from students covered all these topics and more. They were vulnerable, gritty, sometimes empowering and made us want to cheer, other times painful and hopeless, bringing us to tears.

Interestingly, two consistent themes came out as we engaged the students’ stories. First, the reality of a silent struggle. So many times we heard, “I’ve never told anyone” or “I’m afraid to tell anyone that I’ve…” I even received a handwritten letter from a student describing her shame and disappointment of struggling with repetitive sexual sin, and I’m the first person she has told [written to].

The second theme was that of divorce in the home. Several students came up and said their folks are currently or have recently divorced due to sexual integrity issues. One girl, in tears, talked about how at 20 she’s realizing that her father’s sexual sin has affected her deeply. It pains her to see her mom so resentful and bitter, and her dad simply declares it covered in the blood of Jesus so it doesn’t need to be spoken of again. Heartbreaking.

All in all, I walked away from that campus with hope. Hope because of the raw, unfiltered, willingness of the students to engage difficult topics. Hope because the faculty and staff decided its important enough to address from the main stage and create an open dialogue about. Hope because God is still in the business of redemption and those stories we heard are, for many, a turning point that will change the entire course of their lives and legacies.

If you are in the silent struggle, it doesn’t have to be that way any longer. If you are the ones divorcing with college age children, it doesn’t have to be that way any longer. Change, real lasting change, may be right around the corner.

Recovery Resentment

I want to write about a strange phenomenon that happens for wives in the recovery process that I’ll call Recovery Resentment.

The confusing thing about this resentment is it seems to show up most often when a husband is doing really well in his recovery work. You might think a wife would be happy, thankful and excited about the changes she sees, yet at times she may seem angry about it.

What typically happens is a husband gets discovered or does disclosure, gets plugged into counseling, attends an Every Man’s Battle workshop, jumps into a group or develops friendships and becomes accountable, and finds himself hopeful about his future. For some guys, it’s the most free they’ve ever felt, and they experience joy unlike anything in a long time. There are powerful insights about addiction and personal idiosyncrasies, and realizations that can sometimes explain decades of lifestyle choices.

Then there’s his wife. She gets the backpack of his pain. She has to reconcile her whole life and make sense of her hunches and where she overlooked the clues. She has to find a way to not feel crazy as she looks back on her life. She has to struggle through sticking around, riding the roller-coaster of feeling love towards her husband one minute, hate the next. The disparity between how joyful and hopeful he is and how hopeless and devastated she feels becomes stark. For some wives, this is where resentment starts to creep in. And it’s a real catch-22: she feels resentment that she’s been put in this situation, and also resentment that her husband is changing and things may be getting better. Talk about confusing!

Here are some things I hear from wives that indicate the recovery resentment is building:

  • “He starts to feel better and I start to feel worse”
  • “He gets to attend a retreat, while I am stuck giving up more time of my life to his recovery.”
  • “He gets to hang out at breakfast with his friends once a week while I’m stuck getting the kids ready for school”
  • “I have to struggle through a day of triggers reminded of pain and feeling anxiety, while he seems to pass the day without thinking anything of it or feeling any remorse.”
  • “We’re having to spend money cleaning up his mess, when for years I’ve wanted to spend money on _______ and he’s refused to do so.”
  • And finally, one I heard last week that I think strikes such a chord for so many wives, “Sure, he’s changing, but who is he becoming? And how long do I have to wait to see if I like who he becomes? I don’t want to waste more of my life only to find out I don’t like who he is, or worse that this new man decides he is getting rid of me!”

The key here is to remember that the emotional craziness and the building resentment are all part of the grieving process. Not everyone grieves in the same way, but know if you (or your wife) experiences recovery resentment it is not abnormal. It is grieving, and that means making sense of chaos.

A few steps to take if you’re a husband watching your wife experience this:

1)   Don’t call her crazy or too difficult to please.

2)   Be patient, continuing to put one foot in front of the other and work your recovery.

3)   Let your heart break that your actions have brought this on.

4)   With input from your accountability folks, make sure you are diligently practicing empathy. Your excitement for your recovery and new found freedom cannot overshadow your connection to your wife’s pain.

5)   See #1

 

For wives going through it, a few suggestions:

1)   Be sure you have your own support; women who can help you process the resentment without having to make decisions based on it.

2)   Make time for yourself, and give yourself permission to use that time.

3)   Insist he maintain his commitments to the household on top of recovery work.

4)   Remember that his enthusiasm for his recovery is a good thing. There is growth. Its not the same old, same old. You can certainly ask him to temper his enthusiasm, but don’t forget that his excitement for change is a direct offset to his stubbornness to stay the same.