My wife sent me an article the other day that had an impact on how I view myself and the relationship(s) I now have with my wife and kids. Like most (if not all) of you, I struggle greatly with the guilt of what I did and the damage I did to the people I love the most. Finding a way to love and respect yourself post-infidelity is one hell of a mountain to climb, and no matter how high you manage to climb, the truth is, it never seems high enough to distance yourself from the "you" that was such a mess and a terror. So what I ended up doing was trying to constantly be a better person. And in my own opinion, I think I did pretty well in terms of rebuilding my integrity and dignity. But I still feel like I'm the "booby prize" that my family got to take home. I know they love me... they show me that every single day. The very fact that I'm still here and accepted is something that is still very hard for me to accept, and so, I think I tend to push it away. Part of me fights to feel like I deserve love and respect. Part of me fights to make sure I never feel that good, because I'm so used to holding on to pain and hurt.
"In my past, I had grappled with mental illness and addiction and acted selfishly, yet my children had forgiven me in the blink of an eye." ..."My husband stood on the path, too. He supported and cared for me from the early days of our relationship, and over almost a decade, we had grown together. He’d never abandoned me, even when it might have been justified." ..."I knew it was time to start letting go of my guilt. They didn’t want to see anything else but a happy mom."
This is a quote from the article she sent. What really grabbed me was that this person, who had also hurt her family (she doesn't mention infidelity but clearly she struggled with similar issues of no self-worth) was able to move past that guilt and shame and see her own value through the eyes of her family. She was able to see that they made the CHOICE to stay, and to still love her, despite whatever it was she had done. They saw value in her when she saw none in herself. They... her victims, the one she hurt, were still there for her, loving her, supporting her, wanting her to be better and willing to walk down that path with her... they didn't want her to wallow and suffer in guilt and shame. Her guilt brings no healing or value to their lives, but having a spouse/parent they love does. While nothing can take away what was done, they realize that dwelling in that hurt helps no one. But what did bring value and healing to their lives was to see their spouse/parent do better, be better, and become part of the family again.
While the affair was all about the WS, the post-affair is all about the spouse and family. Their healing is theirs to define. Sadly, for many of us, the story ends when the infidelity takes place. However, for those of us whose families choose to stay, they are the ones who get to define how that looks and works and feels. They choose to see the infidelity as a rough chapter in a long story, a story that is far from over, and which still has a chance for a beautiful ending in its own right. It is a rebirth and a rebuilding of relationships, and as the WS, you can either lean into that and learn to love yourself as you are, as you are seen through the eyes of your family, or choose to lean away from them and in doing so, take away the sacrifices they made in order to stay together, and disregard the love and hope they still have for you. And that's a crime.
It's a paradigm twist to be sure, at least, it is for a WS and our fractured souls. Once you "get it" and feel the full impact of what you did.. it's a lot to overcome, a lot to live with. It just doesn't "feel right" to be loved after such a thing. It doesn't make sense that the people you hurt would want something better for you. And most of all, it's no so obvious at first how you feeling better will help them to feel better as well. Sounds counter-intuitive but it's not. Our families who stayed want the family back. Not in the same broken condition of course, but they want everyone to be healthy and happy and supportive, together, healing together, growing together, rebuilding together.
So if you are like me, then maybe it's time to get out of your own head and do the one last thing you need to do. Forgive yourself. You are not forgiving what you did, but rather, you simply forgive yourself for not being a perfect person, and in doing so, allowing yourself to let go of needing to feel "less than" and start to feel more complete instead. Doing so HELPS our families as much (if not more) than it helps ourselves. It's exhausting carrying around all that guilt and shame all the damn time. I can tell you when I let go of the shame, it felt like an anchor had been removed from my soul. I honestly felt lighter. My life started to have purpose again.
Now I need to do the same for the guilt. I still punish myself every minute of every day (and to be fair, I suffer from depression and C-PTSD so those things don't help) feeling like I need to make up for what I did. The truth is, I need to stop doing that, just let it go already (it's not rug sweeping if you've actually faced it, felt it, owned it and dealt with it) and go be the father and husband I signed up to be in the first place. That's what my family needs from me more than anything now. To come back from the dead and live again. They need my love as much as I need theirs, and none of us is complete when one of us is lost and lacking. It's time to get off the regret carousel and back on firm ground, moving forward, not looking back.
I hope some of this is helpful to someone else. There really can be life after infidelity. You have to let it take place.