When my ex-husband first left, I bought and read nearly every book in the self-help section of the local bookshop. At the time, some of them helped but I was a bit too dazed and confused to take on board a lot of what was being said. Some months later I am re-reading, 'When Everything Changes, Change Everything' by Neale Donald Walsch and this article is the first in a series where I apply some of the ideas in the book to recovery from spousal abandonment. I would encourage anyone who is feeling overwhelmed by upheaval to read this book. It is essentially about dealing with the emotional turmoil that life changing events create, by changing the way that you think about them.
The central idea in the book is that although events, like the end of your marriage, are created by forces outside of you, the way that you respond to the event is created by the thought process inside your head. This thought process gathers information from the data bank of your memories and works out how to respond accordingly. So, for example, when my husband abandoned me for his affair partner, my mind went back to my previous experiences of abandonment to work out a response. We tend to think of emotions as something that automatically happen, but Walsch argues that it is possible to manually override the process and choose a different emotional response.
I will use myself as an example to illustrate how this works. When my husband left me abruptly without any real explanation or care about the devastation that he left behind, I was paralysed with the pain of being rejected by someone that I thought would always be there for me, the fear of an unknown future and the shock of suddenly being alone. My mind had observed the event of my husband leaving and had gone back through the database of my life to find a similar experience. My emotional response then mirrored the response I had to that previous event.
When I was three years old, my mother gave birth to my sister. In those days, women stayed in hospital for at least a week, and I think in my mother's case it may have been longer. We had emigrated from England the year before my sister was born, we had no relatives in Australia and acquaintances rather than friends. My father had to work, so the decision was made to put me in the Wanslea Children's Home which was a residential facility for children whose parents' were unable to care for them. I remember that my father took me to a strange old house with a musty smell. We were greeted by a stern lady. There were lots of children sitting at big tables in what must have been the dining room. The stern lady gestured to me to sit on a vacant chair and I was given a bowl of soup, the same as the other children. I took a spoonful and I turned to tell my father it was too hot, but he had gone. Even as I write this fifty years later, tears are coming to my eyes as I remember feeling absolutely and utterly alone. I didn't know if he was coming back or if I was ever going home again. I am pretty sure this is the memory that my mind pulled out as a match, when my husband left.
Your mind pulls past experiences into the present and that is what creates the emotion and continues the trauma. Once you become aware that this is what is happening, you can make up your mind not to accept your first reaction, you can make a conscious decision to change your thoughts about the abandonment. and the fear and pain attached to it.
When your mind retrieves past experiences, it is programmed to prioritise the negative or bad experiences over the more positive ones. This is a function that has evolved to ensure human survival. For our ancestors it was important that the first response on seeing a dangerous animal was based on the negative past experience of it eating one of your friends. However, you can consciously decide to have a different emotional response based on different data after the mind has had it's initial response.
I can choose to have a different set of emotions based on a different perspective. My mind is telling me to feel paralysing fear, pain and sadness because that is how I felt as a three year old being abandoned by my father. But here is my new perspective - I am not alone, I have friends and my children, they haven't abandoned me, in fact they have rallied around me. I haven't been married before, but I have had relationship breakups before and I have recovered. I also remember that after at least one of these breakups, after time I realised that actually I was better off without him.
If I look at my husband objectively, like Mr Spock from Star Trek would, he was a heavy drinker and smoker, he ran up debt, he had affairs, he was addicted to Internet porn, we had no social life, he treated me with little respect, he didn't even once put the bins out or bring them back in, for the whole time we were married. There really is no reason for me to be as upset as I have been, I really deserve so much better - I can't change the past but I can sure change the future.