Question

I’m feeling overwhelmed as I try to rebuild my marriage after being unfaithful to my wife. We’re currently separated and she’s in a lot of pain that she regularly shares with me. Strangely, I find myself hurting in lots of unfamiliar and uncomfortable ways. It’s like standing blindfolded in the middle of a busy freeway waiting for the next semi-truck to smash me. It feels like I’ve already been emotionally hit by a few cars and every time I attempt to protect myself, I’m told that I’m behaving selfishly. In order to be trustworthy and valuable, my wife is basically telling me I’ve got to stand in there and take the hits.

I’m basically told to ignore my own feelings in favor of someone else’s emotions. However, I’m having trouble getting the hang of getting strong as an individual so I can be strong for others. I don’t like the idea that I’m being selfish if I express my needs.

Answer

You’re correct that rebuilding trust in the wake of sexual betrayal is overwhelming for both of you. It’s hard to witness the fallout that follows shattering your wife’s foundation of exclusivity and security. It’s difficult and exhausting to try and stop the cascade of pain. Your actions dropped your wife into a world of uncertainty and fear where she now questions who can be counted on. Her reflex to turn to you for comfort and support when she’s hurting is now contaminated with the very real possibility that you will continue to hurt her. Consequently, she can’t care about being there for your needs until she finds more stable footing. It’s a chaotic mess of competing needs that requires some immediate triage.

Please recognize that this discussion isn’t about the validity of your needs. Every one of us has needs that are an essential part of our existence. To live without needs or wants is to be completely diminished as a human being. This discussion is about how these needs will get met and identifying who will meet them.

I intentionally used the word “triage” in the first paragraph to focus your attention on your wife’s urgent need to have her world stabilized. She’s turning to you in a messy and direct way asking for you to help her find her footing. It’s difficult to detect but sharing her pain with you is her instinctive way of asking you to help her. She’s turning to you because you’re not only the source of pain, but you’re also a source of comfort.

This is not the time to ask her to consider your relationship and emotional needs. She was dropped into a crater and it’s simply unfair to expect her to meet your needs as if you are both on level ground. While this is a reasonable expectation in a marriage where both partners are on equal footing, a betrayed marriage is standing on very different terrain. If you make your needs bigger than the wounds she’s experienced, it will not only cause her more distress, but it will also make it difficult for you to create healing in your marriage.

This is the time to increase your capacity to hear and care about the pain you’ve caused her. One of her greatest needs right now is to find safety by know that you care about what happened to her. If you’re self-protective, defensive, blaming, avoidant, or indifferent, it will only add more injury. Even though she needs to take responsibility for how she expresses her pain, I find that you can help soothe her by meekly and humbly inviting her to share her reality with you.

Your ability to do this will be dependent on how you address your own emotional and spiritual needs. Sexual betrayal is a strong signal that you’re emotionally and spiritually bankrupt. Recognize that you were trying to get your healthy needs met in unhealthy ways through your betrayals. When your own needs have been starved, it can create resentment and panic that you’re somehow supposed to now provide these needs for your partner from your empty tank.

Even though I’m inviting you to continue being there for your wife’s pain, it’s essential that you take individual responsibility for identifying and meeting your needs in a healthy way. You can start with doing a personal inventory of these four areas: physical needs, emotional needs, spiritual needs, and social needs. There are countless resources to help you meet these needs in healthy ways.

Even though you might want to turn to your wife and expect her to care about meeting some of these needs right now, this is the time to strengthen yourself and allow others, especially your Savior, to strengthen you so you can not only get your long-denied needs addressed, but also show up for your wife with increased capacity.  

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at [email protected]  

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, host of the podcast, “From Crisis to Connection”, and creates online relationship courses. He earned degrees from Brigham Young University and Auburn University. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

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