My wife and I ended our 12-year marriage a few months ago and I find it challenging to delete from my computer all of our vacation and family (involving her siblings/parents, as well as mine, plus kids from a previous marriage) pictures. I force myself to go through only a few at a time because of the current pain brought on by the memories. Our separation was less than amicable, and she lawyered up. What’s the secret to getting past this roadblock?
I’m sorry to hear about the loss of your marriage. Twelve years is a long time to build memories and relationships with each other’s friends and families. It’s not easy to escape reminders, so let’s talk about how you can best manage these painful emotions that are surfacing.
First of all, it’s always good to remember that deep healing always takes more time than we realize. It’s natural to want to rush the process to get through it, but there are experiences and growth you don’t want to miss. The former dean of nursing at Brigham Young University, Elaine S. Marshall, shared important insights about the nature of healing in her devotional address, “Learning the Healer’s Art”:
“On [my] first day as a nurse, I assumed cure, care, and healing to be synonymous. I have learned they are not the same. Healing is not cure. Cure is clean, quick, and done—often under anesthesia. . . Healing, however, is often a lifelong process of recovery and growth in spite of, maybe because of, enduring physical, emotional, or spiritual assault. It requires time. . . It requires all the energy of your entire being. You have to be there, fully awake, aware, and participating when it happens.
Healing can help us to become more sensitive and more awake to life. . . Healing invites gifts of humility and faith. It opens our hearts to . . . truth, beauty, . . . and grace.”[i]
Of course, you can give yourself plenty of time to accomplish your photo sorting task. However, even if you push yourself to finish sorting these photos in a weekend, you’ll still be faced with how to manage the thousands of memories and reminders from these relationships. Instead of trying to eliminate the reminders, it might be more helpful to give yourself permission to feel all of the emotions when they surface.
This is scary for most people, as we worry what will happen when we feel unexpected and unwanted emotions. However, the worst thing emotions can do to us is cause us to feel emotions. That’s it. The actions we take after feeling emotion aren’t automatically programmed. It’s entirely possible to feel an emotion without doing something you’ll regret. You can just experience it, let it pass through you, and carry on with your life.
True, it’s not always convenient to allow the emotions to come and go, as our emotions will often surprise us. We can be surprised by grief and we also be surprised by joy. I invite you to allow yourself to feel the entire range of emotions and see what that’s like for you. Deep diaphragmic breathing can help you move the emotions through your body and soul so you don’t restrict the flow and cause additional suffering.
The Book of Mormon opens with a study in emotional contrasts. Lehi and his family are going through tremendous losses while they’re also receiving spiritual manifestations. There are moments of family closeness followed by ridicule and abuse. The emotional whiplash is truly astonishing as this family struggles through eight-plus years of traveling to the promised land. When Lehi was speaking to his son Jacob, he opened his counsel with this observation and reassurance:
“And now, Jacob, I speak unto you: Thou art my firstborn in the days of my tribulation in the wilderness. And behold, in thy childhood thou hast suffered afflictions and much sorrow, because of the rudeness of thy brethren.
Nevertheless, Jacob, my firstborn in the wilderness, thou knowest the greatness of God; and he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.”[ii]
Lehi didn’t play down or dismiss the reality of the abuse Jacob and the other family members experienced at the hands of Laman and Lemuel. He also didn’t hesitate to acknowledge the greatness of God and how the abuse and pain don’t need to define his experience in the wilderness. Lehi continues and teaches about the plan of salvation and the joy and sorrow experienced in the Garden of Eden. It’s reassuring to know that we really can’t experience joy without misery. They are inextricably linked and don’t need to be at odds with each other. It’s important to allow both to co-exist according to this law of opposites.
You are sitting with images which evoke emotions and thoughts that seem to be at odds with each other. When you’re ready, see if you can allow yourself to connect to the joy and the sorrow of what you are experiencing. Perhaps you do this with just one photo and then put it away for a time. You can allow yourself to develop a great tolerance for integrating these opposing feelings. I believe the healthiest people can hold opposing emotions without becoming reactive.
Here are a few more suggestions that might help you as you work to experience these different emotions:
- Perhaps you have someone you trust sit with you while you go through and talk about the photos. They can ask you questions and have conversations that will likely include the full range of emotions.
- You might consider sending copies of these photos to the people in the photos. You might find that some of these extended family members and friends still have kind feelings toward you. Allow other people to decide if they want to be in relationship with you instead of assuming they only filter their experience of you through the perspective of your ex-wife.
- Recognize that those are pictures of times that were truly happy with what you understood at the time. Looking back on it now doesn’t mean those people in the photo weren’t truly having a good time. You can cherish a great memory by identifying the parts of that trip that were beautiful and also grieve what’s now lost.
I appreciate Dr. Brené Brown’s reminder about embracing the vulnerable parts of our stories:
“Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but no nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”[iii]
And, remember that the light inside is the Light of Christ that will give you the strength and capacity to do this very difficult task of embracing your past, present, and future.[iv] It’s courageous work, but it will offer you more peace than spending the rest of your life reacting to it.
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.
[i] https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/elaine-s-marshall/learning-healers-art/ I also recommend you read this devotional, which is where I learned of Elaine Marshall’s thoughts on healing https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/jonathan-g-sandberg/healing-courage-action-grace/
[ii] 2 Nephi 2:1-2
[iv] D&C 84:45-48