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I’ve been through a lot in my marriage, including years where my husband was secretly looking at pornography and was verbally abusive. We’ve worked through these things with counseling and I feel we’re in a much better place. Recently, I’ve had a couple friends approach me for support as they go through some difficult things with their husbands (they know nothing of my story). The issues these women are dealing with are way worse than anything I’ve dealt with–like sexual affairs, husbands soliciting prostitutes—really bad stuff. I’m listening to them, being emphatic and supportive; I remember what it felt like when I found out everything.
I’ve enjoyed life without anxiety from my relationship, which has been great. However, I’m noticing that as I listen to and help my friends, I can feel that familiar anxiety creeping in again. I know my husband is in a good place and I want to believe that the changes he is making are permanent, but I feel flashes of fear as these women come to me. How do I support my friends in their betrayal trauma without losing my footing on the solid ground I’ve built in my marriage? How do I support, but not get emotionally invested?
Supporting others in their personal struggles comes with blessings and challenges. It’s an honor to be trusted with a friend’s pain. At the same time, in order to really be empathic, we have to call on our own painful feelings and experiences to relate in a meaningful way. In other words, if you’re going to support your friends in a way that helps them through these difficult betrayals, it will require you to re-experience painful feelings.
You’ve already been through a lot of your own pain, so this may seem like a really bad idea. In fact, all of us are wired to avoid pain, regardless of its source. Your hesitancy is understandable, especially since you aren’t that far removed from your own experiences with marital betrayal.
First, I encourage you to assess your own capacity to enter into these discussions with your friends. There is a time and season for everything, including offering deep emotional support to others. I love the wisdom of Anne Morrow Lindbergh who said, “My life cannot implement in action the demands of all the people to whom my heart responds.”[i] Elder Neal A. Maxwell shared about a time when he ignored his own emotional and physical capacity to help others. He said:
“A few years ago, already weary, I foolishly went late one afternoon to two different hospitals to give blessings to three individuals who were dying of cancer. Not only was I worn out, but worse, the last person really didn’t get much from me. Things had not been done in ‘wisdom and order.’ I was running faster than my supply of strength and energy on that occasion. Those blessings would have been better given over two or three days, and I would have had more empathy and energy.”[ii]
If you don’t have the resources to spend the time and emotional resources to help your friends, let them know what you can provide and trust they will get the support they need from other friends, professionals, or church leaders. There is nothing wrong with telling them specifically the amount of time you can spend with them. This isn’t normally how we offer emotional support, but your friends aren’t asking for a temporary listening ear. They are coming to you with marathon-length emotional struggles that will require weeks and months of ongoing support. They’ll appreciate your honesty and will feel secure knowing that your time with them is truly set apart for their benefit.
You may worry that your boundaries around your time will feel off-putting and offensive to them. I promise you that when you honor your own boundaries with your time and energy, you’ll give them more support in a shorter amount of time than you could if you stayed past your limit. Everyone has limits with their time, so to pretend that you have an endless amount of time and energy to give your friend is dishonest and will make them anxious. Structure is good, especially when dealing with trauma. When you let them know what you can and can’t do, they won’t feel anxious about taking your time. Here’s an example of what you might say: “Yes, I’d love to visit with you. I have about 20 minutes right now and then maybe we can take an hour tomorrow to talk more over lunch.” Of course, there will be occasional exceptions when you need to be more available. However, be careful to not wear you or them out by believing you can resolve all of this in one long conversation. It’s critical to keep to your limits while offering all of your love and compassion.
Spending time with someone in great pain is difficult, but it’s more painful if you’re doing it alone. Make sure you’re turning to your husband for emotional support while you’re supporting your friend. You don’t need to share the specific details of your friend’s situation with your husband, but it is important for you to let your husband offer comfort and support if you’re feeling emotionally vulnerable after listening to your friend’s pain. Reassure him that you’re not blaming him or trying to dig up the past. You’re simply entering into a sensitive part of your heart so you can connect with your friends and help them stay connected to compassionate support.
Their stories will likely trigger global fears that no marriage is safe from infidelity. If this happens, make sure you do everything you can to regain perspective about the work you’ve done in your own marriage. Yes, your marriage was affected by virtual infidelity with pornography, but it didn’t destroy you or your husband. You’ve both worked through it and no one can take away this secure foundation. As you reach to your husband in your times of vulnerability, you will be reminded that you are safe and connected.
It is possible to be with your friends in their pain without losing yourself, especially if you understand how to listen with real empathy. In her book, “I Thought it Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)”, Dr. Brene Brown referenced nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman’s four attributes of empathy:
- To be able to see the world as others see it — This requires putting our own “stuff” aside to see the situation through our loved one’s eyes.
- To be nonjudgmental — Judgment of another person’s situation discounts the experience and is an attempt to protect us from the pain of the situation.
- To understand another person’s feelings — We have to be in touch with our own feelings in order to understand someone else’s. Again, this requires putting our own “stuff” aside to focus on your loved one.
- To communicate our understanding of that person’s feelings — Rather than saying, “At least you…” or “It could be worse…” try, “I’ve been there, and that really hurts,” or “It sounds like you are in a hard place now. Tell me more about it.”[iii]
When we listen to our friends and loved ones with true empathy, we’re able to stay with them while keeping ourselves intact. When we stray from these attributes of empathy, we’re more likely to get reactive and lose our ability to stay centered.
Your friends sense something about you that is real and supportive. You have something to offer them, but make sure you have the capacity, support, and empathy necessary to enter into this long-term support of these good women who are calling on you for relief. Remember that you aren’t going to be the one who ultimately gives them the peace they seek. You are simply a lower light, pointing them to the safety of the harbor[iv] where the Light of the World can offer them the “peace of God, that passeth all understanding.”[v]
Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.marriage-recovery.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.
[i] Lindbergh, Anne M., “Gifts from the Sea”
[v] Philippians 4:7