Recovering from the Shame of Betrayal and Divorce
By Linda J. MacDonald, M.S., LMFT
While consulting with a local physician, I mentioned that I had recently gone through an unwanted divorce, knowing he had experienced the same. I will never forget his words, “Oh, the shame!” Instantly, I felt understood.
I’d been a Christian since I was five years old and had waited a long time to find the “perfect” marriage partner for me. After many years of dating a myriad of guys, James completely swept me off my feet. He was smart, handsome, a solid Christian, and best of all, he had a similar heart for ministry as I did. I was certain I had met the right man. I’d never felt so pursued, loved and accepted as I did with James.
Ten years into our marriage, his buddies pushed him to confess he’d been looking at pornography. Naïve about the dangers and degrees of online porn, I accepted his confession, forgave him, and that was that.
One year later, he admitted he was struggling with a romantic attraction at work. I had no idea they were actually “involved.” I missed all the signs, despite being a Marriage and Family Therapist who specialized in infidelity.
I tried every way I could think of to salvage our once-happy marriage, anywhere from kindness to tough-love tactics. Nothing worked. After two years of drama he filed for divorce.
I was devastated. I suffered Post Traumatic Stress symptoms with nightmares, involuntary tremors, and difficulty functioning in my job.
Along with my very broken heart, I experienced a tremendous amount of shame.
Professional Shame. How could I have been fooled? After all, this was my specialty as a therapist.
Personal Shame over being “thrown away” by a man I deeply loved. Was I that unworthy of love, fidelity, and commitment?
I found that Spiritual Shame was especially acute to me as a follower of Christ. I didn’t believe in divorce. Yet, here I was. I thought that God hated divorce. I wondered, “Did that mean that now God hates me?”
And then there was the Social Shame. One person asked a close friend of mine, “What’s wrong with Linda?” as if I must have some fatal flaw for my husband to fall in love with someone else and leave me.
I attended a women’s retreat shortly after my divorce, seeking comfort from my inconsolable grief. During worship, I saw our pastor’s wife put her arm around a friend of mine who’d been widowed a few months before. My shoulders ached for the same kind of sympathy. Yet, I suffered alone in awkward silence.
I’ve done a lot of reflecting on the shame that accompanies intimate betrayal and divorce. Here are three of the reasons why these twin-experiences are associated with so much shame:
1. Intimate betrayal and rejection are personal. They cause us to question our worth, desirability, lovability, and adequacy as a man or woman.
2. They are “stigmatized” losses. There is much disgrace associated with losing a spouse to any outside romantic or sexual involvement.
3. Divorce and infidelity go against our values as Christians.
Here are some of the ways I found healing:
1. God’s word became like diamonds to me. I pored over scripture to find:
a. Assurance that the Lord still loved me
b. Verses that countered the many excuses my husband used for his wayward actions
c. How much the Lord understood and identified with my suffering
2. I wrote thousands of pages in my journals which the Holy Spirit used to help me cope with and make sense of my suffering (and come to terms with the unsolvable).
3. I read every book I hadn’t read yet on the topic of infidelity, abandonment, and forgiveness.
4. I forced myself to connect with friends and attend bible studies, despite feeling hollow inside.
5. I sought counseling and healing prayer from professionals and friends. I needed “right brained” therapy to reach and resolve my traumatic memories. Accessing the right side of the brain where emotional memories are stored is essential in order to remove the “sting” of the negative meaning behind each injury.
6. I decided to head toward what I call “Unilateral Forgiveness” - where the offender chooses to have no part in accepting responsibility for his wrongs. So my choice to grieve and “let go” of each painful injury one by one was without the cooperation of my former husband. But necessary for my own mental and emotional wellness. And has taken me years to accomplish.
I attribute my greatest healing to the many ways God met me in the years after my sorrowful experience. But I couldn’t just sit there and wallow in my pain. I needed to be pro-active