This is a guest blog by Luke Shillings: I was happily married. That was until my wife began to fall for a close friend of ours and my whole world changed within an instant.
I had to be strong for my children and felt like I had to hide what I was going through to everyone around me. I felt so much shame and I blamed many things, including myself for how I’d ended up there. But despite everyone I knew expecting a different approach, I chose to forgive, just for me and no one else. I had the power to change my experience, so I did. Because it was never about her not deserving forgiveness. It was solely about me deserving it for myself. And letting go of my anger, was the very thing that led me to finding a way forward.
I believed at that time; I could have predicted the next ten years
Aged 28, I met the woman that would become my future wife. From the very beginning there was a mysterious magnetism around her that I found irresistible. Early into our relationship I can recall thinking that I knew she was ‘The One’. My proposal for marriage was accepted a little under a year after our first date.
Fast forward seven years, and with the addition of our two beautiful children, we had a pretty good life. Loving and supporting family lived nearby. I was happily married, in love, and proud to have been part of what we were building for ourselves. At that time, I believed I could have predicted the next ten years with a reasonable level of accuracy. On reflection, a naïve thought.
There was a knocking on the door, followed by an “are you ok in there?” – “err … yeah, I’ll just be a minute” I called back trying to conceal the trembling in my voice. I quickly scrambled to wipe the tears that had rolled down my cheeks. It had been one of my work colleagues wondering what had happened to me as I’d disappeared into the toilet cubicle for what seemed like the hundredth time in the last week, as I found it nearly impossible to contain the emotion around the unfolding reality that was my personal life.
The preceding six months had seen what I believed was an innocent friendship between my wife and one of my close friends, develop into something more. The week before had resulted in a final admission that an emotional boundary had been crossed and I heard the words “I have feelings for him and I’m not in love with you anymore,” being spoken by my wife. Everything that had happened in the time between ‘trusting them as wife and friend’ and this moment, I had kept completely to myself.
It is not a time I would like to experience again
I spent each day at work imagining what was going on between ‘them’ when I wasn’t at home, and each evening and weekend wishing I was at work to avoid the anger, resentment, jealousy, sense of betrayal, loss. But most of all, the heartbreak I was trying to contain so that my kids weren’t aware of what was going on. It is not a time I would like to experience again.
I have never felt so alone, yet there were people all around me the whole time
I was fortunate to have lots of support from my friends and family around me during the divorce but … from experience, friends and family are not always ideal for helping you heal from an emotional trauma. It’s not that they don’t care or don’t want you to stop hurting, quite the opposite in fact. It’s that they are emotionally involved themselves and can become less objective as a result.
Oftentimes, people just don’t know what to say. I’d regularly hear “time is a great healer” and “I know it’s tough, but you’ll get through it” and “focus on your children”. Not that any of these statements are inherently detrimental but when you are in a crater so deep, with near vertical walls, and no rope or ladder to escape, these well-meaning idioms are somehow, just more painful because they appear so unattainable.
I was very grateful for the support I received. It provided a sense of comfort, and helped me get through each day, but I can’t honestly say it helped me take any major steps during my healing process.
“She doesn’t deserve my forgiveness”
Because it sometimes seemed there was a standard, socially acceptable approach to dealing with infidelity and divorce; to hate, blame and punish the other person. I would have conversations with people close to me, and I often sensed disapproval because I didn’t actively hate my wife, like something was wrong with me.
When I talked to others about choosing to forgive her, it was as though I was committing a crime, like I was letting her off the hook somehow. “She doesn’t deserve your forgiveness” they’d say. But I just didn’t want all the good that had come before this situation to be disregarded. It could be argued that I was ‘blinded by love,’ but the reality for me was that prior to recent events, I had no reason to ever not trust my wife.
Blaming and shaming didn’t solve anything for me
I was noticing how complex all the details of a relationship that you build with your partner are. How unique each situation is, and just how unrealistic it was to apply a one size does fits all approach. Yes, she was in a new loving relationship, in the family home and I was almost 40 years old now living with my Mum and no longer with my children. I of course felt a lot of resentment, bitterness, and anger, I blamed her at first, of course I did.
I also felt embarrassment, a sense of judgement and discomfort. And I used to beat myself up when I thought how I hadn’t noticed a change in my marriage or a difference in my wife’s perception of our marriage. But I didn’t feel any better about myself or the situation by blaming and shaming. Whatever I was doing still wasn’t working, I still felt crap!
I was just in a negative feedback loop
In my own head, I thought I may have been in some way responsible. Perhaps I just wasn’t good enough? What would others think? How blind must I have been not to see it coming? I thought I was a great judge of character but now I was questioning the trust I had in my own judgement. These are all scary thoughts, and there were many more!
I had lost control of the situation, that was obvious, so the natural thing to do was to blame; myself, my wife, our close friend, the world in general
It was difficult not to outwardly react, you know. Like go and kick the crap out of my ‘so called friend’ and scream and shout at my wife, but I kept it all together somehow. The problem was, because I had fallen victim to the anger, the resentment and the blame I had for them, I didn’t pay attention to the shame that had crept in unannounced. Initially, I wasn’t well equipped enough to deal with it. I internalized it, and it felt pretty god damn awful for a while. And this way of thinking for me; blaming someone, drowning in shame from the situation, trying to comply with the expected actions of others after infidelity. It just kept me in a negative loop that I was having difficulty escaping from. And it wasn’t doing anything positive for me.
The reality was, I was not and never had been either responsible for, nor able to control the thoughts and actions of others, including my wife’s. I couldn’t change what had happened. But I did have the power to change my experience. It was never about her not deserving forgiveness. It was solely about me deserving it for myself.
Letting go of my anger, was the very thing that led me to finding a way forward
I decided to treat myself like someone I really cared about, and work through it. Started being completely honest with myself and asking hard questions; of what it was I made the infidelity, the divorce, and sudden change in my life mean about me as a person. I started writing it all down, all my thoughts and feelings. And the more I did it, the more I saw it was about me and not her. I don’t mean it was my fault, or even that it wasn’t hers. But I did realize that beating myself up about it, and holding onto all that anger and blame, was not only ineffective, but it was stopping me from moving on.
Blame was acting as a shield of sorts. It was a defence mechanism that protected me from facing the deeper issue; the shame I was feeling about the breakdown of my marriage. And I came to realize that I was the only person feeling the way I was. No amount of kicking and screaming would have made any difference (well certainly not a positive difference). So, I began to think, if I feel like this, and it’s getting me no-where, and I’m the only one feeling it, then what is the point?. Why give all that power to her when I’m the only one responsible for how I feel? So I decided to take a different approach to the one everyone else expected me to take.
I chose to forgive, just for me
It’s so easy to think that people don’t ‘deserve’ things like niceness, politeness, love, forgiveness. Especially if they have done things that we don’t approve of. For me though, I just wasn’t prepared to continue withholding those things through some misguided desire to punish her. I was the one hurting. And if I held her responsible for my pain, she remained in control of how I felt. Enough was enough.
I’m not saying for one minute I just forgave and forgot in that moment. But once I stopped ‘blaming’ her it removed the power she had over me. It also allowed for much easier communication between us, which in turn meant that we were both able to eventually agree on the best way forward like the two responsible adults we were whilst married. Numerous things have happened since but ultimately, we now have a great co-parenting relationship. We respect each other as parents which has made the world of difference when considering flexibility around the kids, and much more.
I am free to move on with my new life
So, people might find it difficult to understand why I chose to forgive. But the thing is, I’d had a wonderful experience as a husband and family man. I enjoyed everything that had got us to that point (yes, including the shitty bits). So why on earth would I consider depriving myself of that pleasure as though I had wasted my time.
I did it for me and only myself. To release the shame, blame and truly acknowledge that forgiving was much more about me and my recovery, than it was about her being let off the hook in some way. I am now happier and more content in my life than I have ever been. Because I have completely changed its trajectory and the most significant catalyst of that change began through forgiveness. I am free to move on with my new life. And my kids and everyone else simply benefitted from that anyway.