Learning to Like Yourself Again – Non-ADD Spouse Version

I know what it’s like to be a non-ADD spouse and discover that you no longer like yourself.  Many here have the same problem – they have struggled so long, and are so exhausted, that they can no longer find the core of who they are.  They write things like “it’s pathetic that I stay in this relationship” and “I feel like I don’t matter at all” and “I feel self-loathing that I stay in my marriage” and wonder if there is something wrong with them.  I would like to share with you my own story of how I moved from disliking myself back to “being me” as well as provide some ideas for change that may help you.

My husband shocked me out of my self-loathing and into action when I discovered he was having a very hot affair.  Suddenly, the reason to stay in paralyzed, self-loathing mode (that things might change if I worked hard enough, even if that was destructive to me) was gone.  I consulted Ned Hallowell about my situation and he gave me some really good advice, which I will now pass along to you.  He said "Your kids are stable, resilient kids.  You are a wonderful person in extreme pain.  You should seek your own happiness.  Don't define ahead of time what that happiness looks like.  Don't link happiness with either "saving your marriage" or "getting out of your marriage".  Just pursue what brings you joy.  The rest of it will fall into place."  He argued that I had been working to save my marriage for 10 years with little success – it was time to try something new.

So that's what I did.  The first step was to look back into myself and remember who I had been when I was the happiest.  The second step was to start BEHAVING like that person, and being that person again.  I remembered I had been happiest when I was optimistic, outgoing, even-keeled, not angry.  So I literally erased my anger (it hadn't gotten me anything, in any event), and started following my gut instincts.  These included just hanging out with some old time friends who happened to be around, seeking support from others who cared about me, and talking with my husband in a clear (and not angry) way about my own needs and boundaries (see post on boundaries).

I made no assumptions that we would continue to be married, in fact I assumed we wouldn't - that the siren song of infatuated sex and a woman who “adored” him without any complicated past would lure him elsewhere.  But somehow, by being true to my happier self I didn't resent that (my behavior had been part of his leaving, I knew) I just accepted that he controlled his fate, not me.  This acceptance of him was freeing.  I mourned that he might choose another, but finally acknowledged him as a person completely independent of me.

By not setting in my mind a pre-conceived view of the outcome I was surprised to find how naturally things developed.  In a shockingly short period of time (a couple of days) I was my old self.  I had nothing to prove, no marriage to change, no one to be responsible to besides myself (I knew that part of being me would be taking great care of my kids, so I wasn’t abandoning them with this change.)  I mourned the loss of the marriage I had hoped I would have.  I accepted my role in my husband’s abandonment of me (did I say that I had had an affair previous to his?)  I ranted at the other woman in my head for a couple of days.  Then I moved on.

My husband was shocked to see the change – suddenly the woman he had fallen in love with was back.  I wasn’t bubbly, but I was strong and centered and kind, and knew deep inside that I would be okay – that life was about to get better, no matter in what direction it headed.

The feeling of suddenly being myself again was like having a huge weight lifted from me.  I liked who I had been long ago, and it was freeing to like myself again.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want my husband in my life, it was simply that I knew that I didn’t have to have him in my life to survive.  It put me back, in other words, to where I had been before we had gotten married.  I trusted that I would act the way I wanted to act – thoughtfully, kindly, able to voice my own needs without anger – because I knew that I was responsible for myself and no one else.

My story may end differently from yours.  In my case, my change was so shocking and the need to resolve our situation immediately so obvious (we had 14 days before he was to take a romantic vacation with his girlfriend that would have ended our marriage) that my husband decided to try one more time.  He will tell you that he had a big ball in the pit of his stomach as he made that decision, but ultimately he found the courage to do so.  Because of my newfound “independence” I was able to more clearly (and nicely) talk about my needs and listen to his.  I gave him space to grieve and get over his affair.  (It took about 8 months total for him.  Because I had had my own affair, I was able to understand with greater compassion just how hard it is to let go of the fantasy that is an affair and give him that time – which doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt, only that I felt empathy towards his pain even as I suffered my own).

I also stopped trying to control his life.  This was a huge deal for him, and matches with a comment I hear from other men with ADD.  Once their spouse starts to let them be themselves again they feel more able and willing to do the work needed to be a better partner.  The bottom line - we both knew we could leave.  Acknowledging that your spouse is capable of leaving, if it is done in a positive way, tends to put your behavioral priorities in order.  Be thoughtful, be responsible, tend your relationship with care.

So, returning to the idea of learning to like yourself again…here are my suggestions:

Be reflective.  Look back at who you were when you liked yourself best.  How did you behave?  How did you treat yourself and others?  Then start behaving that way again.  YOU are control of you – no one else is.

Accept that just as you are responsible for you, so you are NOT responsible for your spouse.  You are responsible for communicating your needs to your spouse (in a way in which he receives the information and understands it) but you can’t control his response.  If you don’t like his response, respond to him in a way that is consistent with the good person you would like to be.  He’ll get it eventually.  If he doesn’t, you’ll leave knowing you were true to yourself.

Let go of anger.  Forgive yourself and your husband.  Ned Hallowell calls forgiveness “a gift we give ourselves” and I actually buy into this after all of my experiences.  I was the first beneficiary of my forgiveness.  My husband also benefited.  If you need help thinking through this and figuring out what the steps are for forgiving yourself or others, read “Dare to Forgive” by Ned.

Detach yourself from the institution of marriage.  It isn’t the marriage contract you are trying to save –it’s you.  Sometimes you have to back up and look at what fulfills you.  Don’t mistake me here – I’m not advocating for divorce.  I’m simply saying that some people have more likelihood of being happy (and maybe even staying married as a result) if they get out from under the “pressure” that the idea of “saving my marriage (at any cost)” can bring.  Some find that “giving up on my marriage” can help them erase their anger.  It can also provide a sort of “clean slate” from which you can recover.  If your marriage won’t bring you happiness it reinforces that YOU must bring you happiness.

Be proactive and make a plan.  You will feel better about who you are if you actively work to make your situation a better one.  People do this differently.  Some find a counselor, others read books, others initiate conversations with their spouses.  Some set a time frame, some put together separation contracts or start mediation.  But sitting around and feeling as if someone is just waiting to pile on more problems is no way to feel better about yourself.

Seek help from a professional.  A therapist, counselor or good friend can help you start refocusing on your strengths.

Exercise.  Your mood will benefit from the chemicals released in regular, aerobic exercise and you’ll feel good about progress you make getting into better shape, too.  Exercise is a great way to fight depression and anxiety.

If you have had an experience in which you’ve moved from self-loathing to self-love, or if you know of a good resource for people in need, please let us know.