I’m going to call her, M. I’ve known her for a long time. When recounting the fallout over the ending of her marriage, something she never expected to happen in her life, M mentioned to me that she “holds space for those who held Space for her”. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated this sentiment. In the loss of our daughter I became a different person. It all began with her terminal diagnosis. In many ways I’m softer now. I’m less rigid, more patient, but that wasn’t always the case. For a while I was angry. I was harsh. I was unyielding. I pushed people away. Luckily, through it all there were those who were strong enough and committed to loving me through it, those who gave me time and grace. Indeed, I hold space for those who held space for me. M held space for me, and in the midst of it all she was fighting her own battle. One no one around her knew she was fighting.
The themes of Grief, Love, and Life After Loss can stem form many situations, not just from physical death. M found herself in a position dealing with all three of these in a way she never thought possible. Like me, M tried to do her best to keep pushing forward in the midst of her situation without focusing on her grief, or on herself. She did everything possible to keep her carefully crafted walls in place. The walls she had built to feel secure. Slowly, but surely a crack emerged, and eventually her vulnerability began to show through. Only then did she learn the way to make it through that grief was to face it head on. Only when those walls finally came down did M find her freedom in not being contained by them any longer.
“What do I say about grief when it comes to the ending of a marriage? Lots, I say lots. There are so many layers and varied themes in my story…in anyone’s story. I’ll start with the backstory to give you some perspective, but I intend to focus on one theme throughout: grief. I come from a long legacy of lasting marriages. Both sets of my grandparents celebrated fifty years. and my own parents are coming up on that same milestone. I am proud of this legacy and had every intention of adding to it. So, divorce, when it came to my own marriage, was not in my vocabulary. It was unfathomable.
It all began when “good” Christian girl married “good” Christian boy. They had a huge, lovely wedding and went on what was to her, the most bewildering ten-day honeymoon. He barely touched her the entire time. She was baffled. Based on their belief culture, (read: they had saved themselves for marriage) she anticipated his response to being married would be sex, lots of sex, but strangely, that was not the case.
The pattern continued for the entirety of their marriage. Along with a lack of physical intimacy came a lack of emotional intimacy. He worked long hours, played online computer games, and slept more than most adults. They did not talk about feelings, he didn’t want to. They did not go on dates, he didn’t want to. If she asked for these things, or any things at all, he made it clear that he felt burdened and pressured. In disagreements she was always the one to take the blame and need to change to make things right between them. She felt like he was willing to throw her under the bus to get what he needed or just to be right. She did not feel valued by him, she did not feel like a priority in his life. They were not partners, and what friendship they had started with faded yearly. She felt she must be doing something terribly wrong. But, she kept trying to be the good little Christian wife. She would lean in, and he would pull away. She would lean in even more until she was worn out. He sometimes would give her just enough, just a trickle of love to keep her in the ring. She’d regroup and go again. She had committed herself before God, family, and friends that she would do this with everything she had. And, she was not a quitter.
Somewhere in there they got something right, and made two really amazing humans. She got busy being Mom, and that filled some voids in her life. Daily doses of affection can do amazing things for a person’s heart, so do appreciation, and fulfilled purpose. They can also help to mask other underlying issues, for a while anyway. Motherhood gave her all these things. She had hoped that her husband’s heart would be softened by the little people. Maybe it was, but there were no outward signs that it was softened towards her.
Right around the eleven-year mark, she started feeling something she had never felt before. Trapped. Desperate. She prayed a prayer to be released. Oh no! What had she done?! God certainly was NOT going to answer THAT prayer. She re-committed herself to being the best little Christian wife she possibly could be. Guess what? It did not change things for the better. He detached even more. He kept rejecting her. He gaslighted her left and right (she just didn’t know what that was yet.) By thirteen years in, she felt another new thing: Done. She felt spent, drained, hopeless. Then, ugh, she found herself dwelling on thoughts of another man, a friend. What?! This was not her, not at all. She was shocked by herself. Of course she had been hit on before, flirted with by cute coworkers, even attracted to men who crossed her path, but never once had she considered anything romantic with any of those. She was NOT okay with this. It scared her. Once she realized just what she was doing, that her marriage was in such shambles that she’d even go there, she got herself into counseling.
She told her “good” Christian husband about all of it; about the other man in her thoughts, about the counseling, about the hopelessness and the brokenness of their marriage. He was blank, initially. He listened in silence with zero emotion shown. She made demands. He needed to get into counseling, and then they would eventually go together. He got angry as if her asking for him to get counseling implied that he held some blame. She could see it in his eyes: blame and contempt. Why should he go to counseling when she was the one with the problem? But he did go.
Right away counseling uncovered the landmine that decimated her heart and explained everything simultaneously. She was married to a sex/pornography addict. His counselor identified it in his first session, and he told his wife about it that same evening. Her husband said he was flabbergasted. How did the counselor know, she wondered?! Why hadn’t she known?! She was in shock. Waves of disgust and self-loathing descended upon her unexpectedly as she would go about her life in the days just after his revelation. The ick factor was huge for her. At their first joint counseling session, the female counselor, unprompted, identified his addiction as well. This time he was angry. Why would that woman say such a thing about him?! (Side note: men who regularly partake in pornography tend to objectify and undervalue women in general. Notice the difference in his responses to being found out.) As counseling progressed, he walked a fine line of rationalizing/defending his behavior and owning up to it. He did enough to look like he was working, but not enough to actually change. He had been addicted since he was fourteen. At this point he was over forty. It was his coping mechanism. It was his release, his escape. It was the most nurtured, and deeply hidden piece of his identity. It was one that needed to protect at all cost.
She understood that no marriage was perfect. She knew one person isn’t solely responsible for a breakdown of this proportion, but by this time, all the deception and lies, all the rejection, all the detachment, all the holding his wife in contempt, they were all byproducts of his addiction. She could see, in hindsight, the signs that should have clued her in years ago. She was an unwitting enabler. When he blamed the dirty movies that would pop up in Netflix’s “recently watched” tab on a glitch in the system or the sweet teenage babysitter; that should have been a red flag. When she found Archie McPhee figurines posed in a variety of sex acts each time she and the kids would pick him up from work and he would quickly knock it off the shelf to keep her from seeing; that should have been a red flag. When he would turn down sex with his wife and then fifteen minutes later disappear into the bathroom with his phone for forty-five minutes; that should have been a red flag.
Again, she tried to be proactive, but after much counseling, studying, support grouping, separating, praying, and soul-searching, she decided she couldn’t do any more. She couldn’t fix this. She called for divorce. There was fallout…so much fallout. He blamed her and shamed her, threatened suicide, got angry, but never once took ownership of what he had done to their marriage. She was criticized by several people. She was shunned by a few. Her kids didn’t understand. Mainly, sorting through her own feelings was the hardest part. Guilt. Hope. Uncertainty. Smallness. Heartbreak. Grief.
Grief. The big one. Overarching all the feelings was her grief.
I was grieving my marriage long before my divorce. Or, I should’ve been
grieving it, because it was dying since the get-go. I don’t know if it’s the way I was raised, the way I’m wired, or the years of being objectified and undervalued, but I did not feel worthy of my grief. I did not allow myself to grieve. I would tell myself, “Hey, look around! There are so many people who have legitimate reasons to grieve.” I just got stuck with in a horrendous marriage. That doesn’t compare to losing a loved one, or a limb. He didn’t beat me. He was never blatantly awful to me, just subtly awful. Do you see that? That’s what I do. I minimize my grief. It was my coping mechanism. It’s too hard to feel. I don’t deserve it. My life is not hard enough for me to deserve grief. All told, my life is pretty good…if you ignore a few little moments here and there:
• a cross-country move leaving my childhood friend/sister behind
• rehoming a beloved dog
• a miscarriage
• rehoming another dog
• a fourteen-year long marriage that was empty, lonely, and devoid of affection
• grappling with my husband’s porn addiction and mental illness
• a divorce
• the loss of independence that comes with a smaller income
• watching my children’s lives be turned upside down
Don’t let me lie to you like I lied to myself. Those things deserve to be grieved. Along with the loss of love, the loss of trust, the loss of one’s sexuality and sexual identity, the loss of a plan or a goal. And sometimes, hard times bring the loss of friends. That happened too, and needed to be grieved.
So, what happens when we minimize our grief? Give it a brief nod and then go on with life? What happens to that grief that doesn’t get acknowledged? That doesn’t get truly felt? I believe it eats us up in a variety of ways. I believe it can be responsible for physical ailments. I believe it can be responsible for the inability to move on with life in a healthy balanced way. I believe it skews our view of the world and of the people in it. When I minimized my grief, when I didn’t allow myself to feel what I felt it ate me up. Literally. I lost a large amount of weight quickly which, on my small frame led to other health issues. I lost sleep. I lost my temper. I lost my focus.
My faith wavered. This was a first for me. Nothing had shaken my faith
before, and it was scary. Unresolved grief can weaken the faith. I mentioned the title “good Christian” several times. It’s because I am a Christian, and I try to be good. I really try. I love Jesus and He loves me. But, questioning the state of my marriage and my beliefs about marriage certainly made me look long and hard at my faith.
I eventually came back around…to the grieving. It took time. It took coaching and it took some really great counseling. It took me learning my worth. I did that by trying to see myself through God’s eyes. It took me humbling myself to realize that I am not strong enough to avoid feeling. I couldn’t stuff it down inside myself any longer. (Side note: Isn’t it funny how pride can make us feel unworthy and overly confident at the same time? That’s another discussion, though.) It took me learning that when the wave of grief comes crashing down on me, the best thing to do is ride it. To go with it wherever it takes me. If I’m driving down the freeway when looms the icky realization that he preferred online sex with airbrushed, silicone-filled porn stars over sex with his wife, then I will pull over and scream and cry if I feel like it. It’s okay. Feel it. Feel all of it, and feel it fully. It’s not easy, but it is necessary.
Then what? Feel it all forever? For me, the waves gradually became smaller and more spread out. They still come sometimes. I acknowledge them, feel them. But, I don’t dwell. I won’t wallow. That gives the hurt too much power. I’m not sure I’ll ever be completely “over it.” My filters have certainly changed. For instance, Hugh Hefner’s recent passing was a personal trigger for me. Previous to all this, I would have hardly noticed. I certainly did not grieve him, but how he is praised for the legacy he left behind sure did a number on me. It brought a wave of pent up grief and unresolved anger crashing down on me. I still get triggered, which usually brings one of these waves. The difference is they’re manageable now. I no longer need to pull over on the side of freeways to scream-cry. And, the grief no longer fills me. Since I’ve learned to let it pass through, the space it took up has been freed to hold other things. Joy. Love. Wonder. Patience.
And where is this “good” Christian girl now? As I said, I am divorced. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I wouldn’t say it’s like pulling the plug on a loved one who’s brain dead, but it shares these similarities: technically my marriage was still alive, but in all respects other than technicalities, it was dead. And, I had to let go of the hope I had held for so long that it would eventually be what God had intended marriage to be. So, now I have found happiness again. I put all the weight back on, and then some… My kids are okay. I am remarried, happily so. I am married to a man who understands grief and feelings and intimacy. He’s faced his own losses, dealt with them, been honest about them, felt all the feelings, and grew from them. He shares his struggles with me. I feel safe sharing mine with him. We verbalize that we have it as a goal to talk about whatever we need to talk about, to stay connected, to be partners, to be lovers, and to be friends, to hold each other accountable, and to keep our faith as the keystone of our marriage. It’s a very good thing. It is real and honest and ugly at times, but that’s how I believe it’s supposed to be.
A word about pornography: For me, pornography was a betrayal. It was an act of infidelity. It was secrecy and lies. It was cheating. It went against everything we “good” Christians believe and hold virtuous in our marriages. But, ultimately, it was my now ex-husband’s unwillingness to recognize this that lead to the demise of our marriage.”
For more information about how pornography use kills love, please visit fightthenewdrug.org