On Healing 6/11/2007: Learning to trust and love again

Dear Dr. Dan: I read with great interest your May 14 column on healing after betrayal, but you didn’t say anything about couples who break up. My husband was the “offending spouse” and we recently divorced after 20 years of marriage.

I still feel all the emotions you mentioned: shock, anger, sense of loss, and loss of trust in my ability to have an intimate relationship. The way I feel now, I never want to open myself to that betrayal again.

I’ve gained weight so I’m less attractive to men. My motto these days is “The more I know people, the more I love my dog.” Is there any hope to get back a sense of trust in myself and relationships? -Hurt and Confused

Dear Hurt and Confused: Your letter highlights the basic health of the human mind/soul. You said you never want to open yourself up again, yet your last sentence expresses longing to feel trust some day. That sense of closing off is healthy. Chinese medicine calls it a “heart protector”; to a neurobiologist you have diminished oxytocin, the brain’s trust hormone. The anger protects your broken heart while it stabilizes after the shock.

And then, most begin to wonder: Did they nag too much? Were they not sexual enough? Are they lovable?

When my wife left after 19 years I felt overwhelming fear at times about my ability to function as a single man with two daughters. I wondered if anyone would ever love me again. The emotions would turn in an instant to rage at my wife, who I blamed for all my suffering. It was an ongoing loop of shame and blame.

Please allow yourself to feel what you feel with all its intensity. This doesn’t mean your feelings reflect facts, or that you must do something about them. Just feel.

When the intensity diminishes, you might find yourself feeling great sadness. Besides a spouse, you lost your best friend, your identity, your vision of your future. Like all great losses, these must be mourned. It is a process of saying goodbye to what we had, of opening up to the genuine pain that goes with loss. Because it is an expression of more tender and vulnerable emotions, mourning starts a transition from a closed heart to an open one.

Healing is a natural process. With few exceptions, broken hearts heal. But you can help the process along:

Spend time with those who understand what you’re experiencing and will not rush you through it. And try to expand your circle of close friends.

Reconnect with yourself. You have spent many years as part of a couple. You know what you have lost; explore what you have found. You might discover parts of your personality that have been dormant since you wed. Certainly over time you will discover your own resilience.

Don’t isolate yourself. You’ll need time alone to move through the process, but if you find yourself canceling work or social engagements, it could be a sign that you need some help.

Do things that bring you happiness, and do at least one of them every day.

Your heart will heal.

How do I know? With few exceptions, that’s what happens. If you were happy and loving before your marriage ended, you will be again. That doesn’t necessarily mean you will marry again, nor does it mean you will have the life you once envisioned. But as you heal, you will dream new dreams.

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