I have been trying to think of concepts I had to get my head around in order to make my way through the healing and recovery process of not only myself, but my relationship too. Concepts that were important, that really made a difference, that I had no awareness of before any of this happened. Leaning in was definitely one of those.
The first, I would say at least, 4 months felt fraudulent. Like I was faking it with my husband and he with me. It was all feeling very forced, almost like we were pretending at being a happy couple. When you know someone so well, have lived with them for over a decade and feel completely comfortable with them in every way, it was really odd and surreal to feel be feeling so uncomfortable around them. I didn’t really believe a word he was saying during that time. I was incredibly skeptical about pretty much everything. I wondered if he regretted staying, if he was only doing it out of guilt. I wondered if he made comparisons to what he perceived he gave up the opportunity for, whether he believed the bubble was real and wished he had left while he had the chance. I wondered if he was harbouring feelings for the affair partner. I worried about what I looked like and whether I was being “perfect” enough or fun enough, something I had never worried about before. It was all very strange and it made me very wary. Then throw in the P.I.T.S, emotional flooding and hyper-vigilance and it was extremely difficult to feel any sense of normality. It felt like there was a Grand Canyon between my husband and I, but we were still smiling, pretending there wasn’t. Like we had one foot in the middle together because we said we would, but we were both “leaning” in the opposite direction, away from each other. Neither of us wanted to let our guards down, so we were keeping up appearances for anyone looking in. It was weird, very weird. Bit like I was a “Stepford Wife”.
I know why. That felt pretty obvious. It’s self-preservation. You can feel the fear, the apprehension, the “wtf am I doing here in the Twilight Zone?” What we had, had been severely broken. Nothing was normal anymore and would never, ever be the same again. From my perspective everything I thought and believed had been completely smashed right before my very eyes. I had no idea what was true or real at that time. I did have one foot in, as I had committed to working through this and was trying to keep some normality for my kids sense of family, but I was also definitely “leaning out”. I could feel it and I could feel he was too.
Quite early on, I had read in one of the books that part of recovering from an affair was loving even when you didn’t feel like it. It used an analogy of when your kids are driving you crazy and you don’t want them anywhere near you, but you still push through and care for them just the same. There was an example of when your kids have been a nightmare all morning, are screaming in the back of the car, driving you nuts with a tantrum, then fall asleep. When you return home, you lift them up with care and gently put them into bed, taking off their shoes, stroking their head and tucking them in for a nap. You make sure they are not too hot or too cold, that they are comfy and have their favourite sleep toy. Despite the testing behaviour and feeling like you want to be as far away from them as possible you exhibit your love in just the same way. It was so true. I did have to really force myself to love my husband in many ways. I felt very much like a con-artist. Pretending every day, was something I was definitely feeling, but didn’t know what it was until I saw a video on Affair Recovery. For the life of me, I can’t remember which one it was or I would link to it. I watched so many of Samuel’s videos I genuinely have no idea which one it was, but I think it may have been one where he was interviewing the female trauma expert. Probably no use to you at all, but just incase you wanted to go and look for it.
This particular video really resonated with me and what I was experiencing. So much so, I thought it was talking about me. At the time I found it, as I’ve described above, things were feeling very strange. As I watched, I realised why. Neither of us were “leaning in”, because that meant being vulnerable. That meant trusting. That meant forgiving. That meant moving on. That meant humility and compassion and understanding, and that was hard. Really fucking hard. When something burns you, then your brain learns to stay away. Don’t lean in closer. Move the other way. Do not go there until the coast is clear and everything seems safe. How did I know I was safe? It was bloody difficult! My husband was still being very guarded and defensive, what I came to learn as his reaction to his own feelings of guilt and shame. It felt like leaning in slowly tipped the balance and kept each side of the canyon slowly closing together, but if I moved a millimetre it would start to move back the other way instantly. It was very much one step forwards into a lovely sea of calmness and temporary relief and then three steps backwards back into a deadly whirlpool with crashing waves of upset, pain and anger. My husband was often paralysed with fear of doing or saying the wrong thing, so tended to keep his head down and not risk an emotional mother of meltdowns or scathing attack. I was still seeing glimpses of his Mr.Hyde, who I was terrified of and I was dealing with the continuous realisation of what he had actually done. At times I absolutely, categorically, without a shadow of a doubt DID NOT want to fucking lean in! There were times I wanted to rip his fucking head off, hide his body in the bottom of that canyon and get as far away as I could. I am sure he felt the same about me too and wondered why the fuck he had stayed. However, we both learnt that those feelings were temporary and, even though the confusing one step forward, three back cycle was tedious and exhausting, I think I’ve said it before, but when the flooding and/or the meltdowns passed, I/we always, without fail, came back to a place of love for each other. The thought of not being with him was incredibly sad and not what I wanted at all. I think our foundation of love has to have been pretty solid as it’s been shaken violently on a Richter scale of 9.7 pretty consistently for the last 18 months. I realised pretty quickly that if one of us (meaning me) didn’t make an effort to lean in, this would fall apart very quickly. I could definitely sense that expanding Grand Canyon would take any opportunity to keep growing and grow quickly, if we didn’t lean the other way. Despite how I felt about what he had done and the amount of pain I was in, I had to “lean in” and keep leaning in. Not all the time, but enough to keep the canyon moving closer rather than further apart.
So, what does leaning in look like?
Leaning in is about being a safe place for your partner. Being receptive to them and not reactive. No longer punishing them or pulling away, showing resentment towards them or withholding opportunities for connection. Showing that you are serious about recovery and commitment, rebuilding trust and being the best partner you can. Then appreciation and acknowledgement of those efforts and acts of love and affection, even if you don’t feel like offering it or for fear of it feeling or looking minimal in comparison to what’s happened. Because my husband was frightened of putting a step wrong or setting off yet another emotional episode, making sure I was receptive to his efforts was so important and that was very hard in the beginning. It was very hard for me to allow things he said or did to land on me. When I say “land”, I mean have meaning, make an impact, be believed or appreciated, because again, that meant being vulnerable. So for a long time, I am not ashamed to say it, I faked it. I faked it for his benefit and I faked it for mine. If every time he did something nice, I shrugged it off and snapped back something like “Well, that’s the least you can do don’t you think?”, no matter how deserved it was, we would have got nowhere fast and the canyon would've been expanding at a rate of knots. Sometimes I managed it and sometimes I was very aware I shut down his efforts to “lean in” and could have reacted much better, but I think that’s all part of the process. Sometimes there were times where I could have leant in too, reacted differently to how I did, and didn’t and due to me persistent PTSD and hyper vigilance, my leaning in was kept to a safe level for a very long time. Neither of us were perfect in this and it is an on-going process that has to be worked on every single day, but I’m just explaining what I recognised needed to happen in order for us to find our way through.
So here’s some examples of what I mean. Not an exhaustive list, and a lot it reads as things you might think you should be doing anyway in a relationship, and it is, but when your entire relationship and perception of trust has been shaken to its very core, when your chosen person has abandoned and betrayed you, I’m telling you, you really, really don’t feel like or don’t want to do any of these things, so doing them does take a massive concerted effort. Some of these things are pretty straight forward and easy and some are much harder (I’ve given them a difficulty rating out of 5, where 1 is the easiest). For me leaning in was:
not throwing a punishment sulk every time I was upset but try to explain calmly and without tearing him apart. 3
making sure we went to bed together every night. 1
saying sorry, even if he didn’t. 3
texting him to see how his day was going and telling him I loved him. 2
allowing his efforts to “land” and be acknowledged. 4
appreciating what he did do rather than comparing it to what I think he should be doing. 3
not being standoffish to his efforts at affection. 2
let go of resentments and forgive him. 4
not make snide comments. 2
no name calling or silent treatment. 3
instigating physical contact like touching while sitting on the sofa. 1
telling him he looked handsome or smelt nice. 1
saying thank you. 2
believing him when he said sorry (super fucking hard!) 5
Some days you feel like it and some days you don’t. Some days feels more genuine than others. Some days you think there’s a real love connection and then “BAM!”, swept three steps backwards again by an unsuspecting tidal wave. That’s simply how it goes. You just have to hang in there, keep finding your way back together, keep leaning in and fake it until you make it.