I read the recent letter to you from a woman who has been cheated on by her husband. I am a man who has also cheated on my wife and children, putting our family at risk of breaking up. I felt your advice was quite good, but it is now 10 months since my infidelity was revealed and it does not feel like we have made any progress toward reconciliation.
Just last week my wife went into a rage accusing me of continuing to lie and hide things from her. She checks my phone constantly and suspects anything that doesn’t seem clear to her. She continues threatening to divorce me. I have done all I can think of to make amends. I have accepted her anger toward me. I have apologized and confessed to my shame and guilt. I have participated in all of the family events and feel like I am always available for her wants and needs. I am trying to make amends.
I feel like I have reached the end of my capacity to tolerate her anger and inability to move on. Maybe she is right, we will have to divorce, but I desperately do not want that. What can I do?
I have talked about the healing process and how couples can get through these extremely difficult situations where trust is broken, where anger becomes intense and where the imagination becomes influenced by fear and mistrust. Your example is one where the process of healing can become stuck and therefore frustratingly painful for a long period of time.
Sometimes people (in this case your wife) believe that if they just know the entire truth in all its details they will be able to trust again. It is a false belief. Going into the details of what you have done will not help your wife come to a resolution. She will have to let go (or reduce the influence) of the past in order for the two of you to move on.
In the beginning of this process it was important that you were as transparent as possible and that you accept responsibility for what happened. At this point it no longer serves the process to continue to look at text messages or for other “hidden” things. You can now set a limit and say, “enough is enough”.
The same thing is true of anger. Righteous indignation is a kind of anger that keeps people stuck and unable to resolve the past. Because someone is right does not mean they have permission to use that anger abusively or as a demonstration of power or as a punishment. You can now let her know it is not acceptable. I am not saying she doesn’t still have anger. I am saying that the intensity of that anger and the behaviour influenced by that anger is her problem and it is not helpful to tolerate it.
It is not unusual for someone who is feeling guilt or shame to feel “helpless” or unable to defend themselves against intrusive or abusive behaviour. Humility is the condition where we accept responsibility for what we have done, we apologize and we try to make amends. It is empowering and allows us to move on. Humiliation is a condition where we internalize our shame and accept abuse, feeling we deserve it. It is a place of disempowerment, weakness and stuck-ness.
Your wife cannot stop her abuse on her own. She needs you to set a limit and to regain the respect you can have for yourself. It will help her to contain her anger and to trust again. The mistakes we make are reflections of our human condition. With compassion for ourselves and others we can renew the bonds we have with those we love.
I hope you will not continue to feel “helpless”.
I wish you well,