“We’ve been working on rebuilding our marriage for several months now,” said Tina. “But I’m having a hard time coping with the memories from that whole dark episode in our marriage. It’s been almost ten months since I found out about the affair.
The period surrounding that time was one of the worst of my life, from a year before Dan’s fling when we weren’t getting along, to the days and early months after I found out. It continues to haunt me, in the background of every effort we’re making to save our marriage. I just want to get rid of these memories. Isn’t there some way to hit the ‘delete’ button so I can be free of them, once and for all?”
Like Tina, you may also feel like you’ve barely survived one of the worst times of your life. First, congratulate yourself: If you’re reading this, it means you’re still breathing. As bad as things were, and maybe still are, you are surviving.
But getting through a period of turmoil can leave your mind working overtime, as it sifts through and analyzes the facts, turning them over and scrutinizing them, filling in any blanks with conjecture and snippets of fantasy.
When problem memories or images come up, do you find yourself saying anything such as:
1. “What could I have done differently?”
2. “Maybe I should have married someone else instead, and this wouldn’t have happened.”
3. “Why didn’t I see what was going on?”
4. “I wonder if they enjoyed talking and laughing together.”
As you can see, there is a whole lot of baggage that often comes with a memory or from an event you’ve imagined from that problem time. In this blog I am going to guide your understanding of emotionally-laden memories, and provide you with three steps that will help you better cope with the painful memories you may be suffering with.
The Cerebral Warehouse
Every day we’re experiencing the textures of life. We’re processing events, situations and the people who touch us. And with the processing comes the formation of memories. Our unique, individual stories are built on these memories.
Think back over your life: you have memories with associated emotions ranging from very good to very bad, and everything in between. You don’t just have time/date-stamped events stored away. Your brain has processed and categorized those events according to their personal meaning to you, which includes your deeply emotional memories, before storing away the entire packaged event.
No matter how those events have been experienced and processed, those memories and the associated thoughts and feelings are yours. We’re not going to consider, for the moment, the accuracy of that stored package-just that it is stored in your brain.
Most of you don’t remember what you had for breakfast in 2006 on the morning of June 12th. It didn’t have an emotional impact on you (unless you became violently ill or it was a special occasion). Longer-term memories usually stick because they have tugged in some way at your emotions. And when it comes to a bad time in your marriage, or worse, learning that your spouse has had an affair, some very powerful, negative emotions have been created in relation to those memories.
Pulled From Storage
Just because your brain processed and stored a memory doesn’t mean you’re done with it. As you’ve experienced, memories will come forward at various times, just when you thought you were “over” them.
As I wrote to you recently, images can be triggered by your senses: sights, sounds and scents that have been attached in some way to an event. Your brain pulls the memory-with all of its attached images and emotions-and you find yourself looking at it and revisiting some of those attached emotions, yet again.
When you are bothered by your memories playing reruns in your head, there are ways to change your thinking so they lose their emotional impact. You can also learn to cope with them. You can start to fight back against those bothersome memories when you begin thinking that you will accept that which you cannot change.
Events happen in everyone’s life: good, bad, and indifferent. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that an event that happened in the past, is now passed, and you cannot change it.
When an unpleasant memory comes forward, here’s a way for you to better cope with it:
Step 1: Don’t resist it.
Let the memory present itself. Your normal reaction would naturally be to resist the memory from entering your mind. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t, depending how you fight the memory. This is a different tact to take: allowing it to come forward without resistance.
For example, Tina from the opening story may struggle with the memory of Dan’s dark silences and how he would physically pull away from her when she came near. Tina may be inclined to resist this memory, but if it’s going to come anyway, she can choose to allow it to come into her mind.
Step 2: Assess your reaction.
Decide what it is you are feeling about the memory: you’re angry, sad, indifferent, happy, or . . . You may be surprised to find that through this exercise, when done repeatedly, the reaction you have toward the memory may begin to change. The goal is to loosen its powerful grip on your emotions, allowing your reaction to fade in intensity.
Step 3: You’re in charge of the story.
Use the voice inside your head to accept what is and what was. You can tell yourself things like (fill in the blanks): “______ is what happened, ______ is how I felt about it, and I will be all right-I’ve already lived through it.”
Or, “People have put up with a lot worse than I have and turned their lives around in a positive way. I will do that, too.”
Or, “When I think about ______, I currently feel ______ and this, too, will pass. When I look back at this from the future, I wonder how I will feel differently.”
Many people struggle with and suffer through negative images, thoughts, and haunting memories. It’s no small matter when it happens to you, and can cause yourself and your spouse distress for years if you don’t learn effective coping mechanisms to help you find the peace you deserve.
Wishing you hope and healing for your marriage,