A reader writes: I am a soldier in the US Army recently returned from Afghanistan. I spent a year there and found out last December that my wife had been in love with a Catholic priest for 3 years unbeknownst to me (he was a friend of the family). She never let on to him that she was in love, however, her devotion to him was very intense. I know this from their emails, friends and my wife’s own admission. They were rarely alone together, and did nothing untoward with each other (physically). My wife allowed me to believe that the emotional distance between us was caused by my neglect of the relationship and nothing else.
This revelation totally broke my heart. I was half a world away when I found this out. My world collapsed. We are in counseling together, but I have been an emotional mess. It’s so hard because I can’t point to an adulterous tryst, just an intuitive knowledge that my wife was in love with another man for an extended period of time. I have spent the last 10 months crying daily, depressed and bewildered at my wife’s reaction to my grief: To her it is a burden at best, and rank manipulation at worst. All I have wanted is for her to acknowledge my awful, heart-breaking pain. Yes, I come from a broken home and never saw my father again after the age of 7. I don’t do separations well and my chaplain believes I have typical symptoms of PTSD.
My time in Afghanistan was bad but nowhere near as painful as finding this out. My wife is committed to our marriage, but struggles with sex, is easily irritated with my sadness, and is depressed herself. She ended her friendship with her best friend of 20 years over this (that’s how I found out). We have recently moved, we have two young children (8 and 6) and the Army life is filled with stress.
I am writing to you because I found your website and was moved by your deep empathy and personal experience with grief and suffering. I don’t expect a miracle, just some advice on why my grief is so deep and slow to heal, and what I can do to manage the pain. Thanks for all the help you provide to grieving people.
My response: I am deeply moved by your letter, first because you write to me as a soldier who has served in Afghanistan. I want to acknowledge and to honor your service to this country as an American soldier, and to personally express my gratitude to you for helping to preserve the precious freedom we Americans so take for granted.
That said, I’m so very sorry to learn of the difficulties you’re having in your marriage, and I hear from the tone of your message that you are in a great deal of pain. It’s good to know that you and your wife are in counseling together, but from what you’ve written to me, I’m not sure that you are satisfied with whatever progress you are making there. Because I know so little of your situation, please understand that I am hesitant to step in very far with my opinions. Nevertheless, since you’ve asked for my input, I will offer some of my thoughts in hopes that they may help you make some sense out of what you may be feeling and why.
You say that your wife was in love with a Catholic priest, but they were rarely alone together, she never disclosed her feelings to him and, apart from being “intensely devoted” to him, she never acted on her feelings. (It’s interesting that your wife chose a Catholic priest to be the object of her affection, because there is a certain safety in such a choice. Perhaps on some level she chose such a relationship because she believed that it couldn’t or wouldn’t go beyond a certain point.) You also say that your wife is committed to your marriage, and certainly her willingness to be in counseling with you now is an indicator of that commitment.
Nevertheless, since learning of your wife’s feelings for another man, you still find yourself feeling broken-hearted, in pain, crying daily, sad, depressed and bewildered, and you describe your wife as being depressed, irritated with your sadness, and having difficulty being sexually intimate with you. Apart from all the other realities in your lives that could be interfering here (raising two children in different stages of development, coping with a recent move and struggling with the demands of Army life), it seems to me that your wife may be having some trouble understanding why you are so upset about this affair that, from her perspective, happened only in her mind. And it also seems as if you may be having some trouble explaining it to her, much less understanding it yourself.
I am struck by your statement that “I come from a broken home and never saw my father again after the age of 7. I don’t do separations well . . .” I don’t know what if any work you have done to examine and come to terms with this particular loss, but as a grief counselor, I want to encourage both you and your wife to acknowledge, recognize and do whatever you can to examine the significance of this early loss in your life.
Read what clinical psychologist Maxine Harris has to say about this in her book, The Loss That Is Forever: The Lifelong Impact of the Early Death of a Mother or Father:
When a parent dies young, the pleasure of loving is tied permanently to the pain of loss. Love and loss are no longer separate and distinct. Like the branches of a vine, they have grown so intertwined that it is impossible to see one without seeing the other. The young child learns that to love is to lose, or at the very least, to risk losing the beloved . . . As each of us grows older, we begin to learn one of life’s most important lessons: There is no beginning without an ending; there is no love without the loss of that love. Nothing lasts forever and the things we hold dear eventually leave us. However, for most of us, those lessons are learned when we are old enough to put them in the perspective of a full and complete life. When a child learns such a lesson young, that lesson colors forever the way relationships are experienced . . . When a child loses a loved parent, the child learns that love and the pain of abandonment are inseparable. As that child grows into adulthood, [he] must figure out how to build intimate relationships with this early reality as a backdrop. As the childish pledge “I’ll never love anyone again” begins to wane – as it does in most but not all cases – the adult survivor of early loss must develop a strategy for how to love in a world where loss and abandonment are ever-present dangers . . .
Here is what I think: I think your wife fails to understand your reaction because in her mind she is innocent, since she probably did all she could to resist having an affair and she is now being judged for what she was feeling, not for what she did. Feelings are neither right or wrong, or good or bad – they just are. We cannot control what we are feeling; we can only control what we do with what we are feeling. I suspect that your wife may be reacting the way she is now because she feels so misjudged.
For your part, I suspect that the reason this “revelation” has had such a devastating effect on you is because for you, it feels as if your very worst fear has been realized. This entire “affair” has reawakened those old (probably unaddressed and as yet unresolved) childhood feelings of loss, abandonment and grief that began when your father left you.
Grief produces all kinds of conflicting feelings, most commonly those of anger and guilt — which over time can become quite distorted, unless we share them with someone else (a trusted friend, relative, co-worker, neighbor, clergy person, support group, grief counselor or therapist). Feelings exposed to the light of day can be acknowledged, examined, evaluated, worked through and resolved. Feelings that are stuffed or ignored just sit there and fester, oftentimes making us feel miserable, crazy, sick and alone.
The good news is that it is never too late to do the work of grief, because the grief you feel for a lost loved one doesn't go anywhere. It just sits there, waiting for you to take care of it. And if you keep refusing to give it the attention it requires, sooner or later out it can come, just as if the loss had happened yesterday. It can happen when you least expect it and certainly it can be triggered by present circumstances, such as the threat of another significant loss.
While I strongly support your willingness to be in marital counseling, I also hope that your counselor is knowledgeable about grief and the mourning process, particularly as it relates to the early loss of a parent. You might also consider doing some reading about this particular type of loss, so you’ll have a better sense of what’s normal – see the Links page of my Grief Healing Web site, and click on the Death of a Parent category for related links. Such readings can help you see that you are not alone and may give you hope that if others managed to get through their losses, then somehow you will find your own way, too. Grieving is very hard work, but you don’t have to do it all alone.
I hope this information proves helpful to you, my friend, and I wish you all the best as you work your way through this difficult time.