Cows, Buffaloes, and Minimization

I wasted so much time trying to talk myself out of validating my own experience, that I lost the opportunity to face it head on and deal with it.

You may be familiar with the life analogy of the contrast between the way cows and buffaloes face an impending storm. As a storm approaches, cows sense it coming and move in the opposite direction, away from the storm. Unfortunately for the cows, they aren't very fast and as a result of this decision, they actually remain in the storm longer as they run alongside it, prolonging the unpleasantness.

Buffaloes, on the other hand, will turn toward the coming storm and charge directly into it. By doing this, the buffaloes pass through it quickly, reducing the amount of time and discomfort they experience from that storm.

I remember hearing this analogy somewhere along my recovery journey and confirming that I must be a cow. I wanted nothing to do with any of this, and would definitely run in the other direction if avoidance was really an option. But it's not. So I might as well be a buffalo and get through this. From my current vantage point, I can look back and see ways in which I prolonged the storm by trying to avoid it, even unknowingly. One of those ways was through minimization.

On the surface, minimization might sound like a good idea. In the moment it feels healthy and helpful, like downplaying and making all of it less significant might help get me through it faster. Looking back, I realize I greatly minimized the affair after disclosure.

As I mentioned in a previous blog, there was a 10 year gap between the affair and my husband's eventual confession. I had always been uneasy and suspicious, and could never feel settled about it. My direct questions and accusations during (and after) the affair were always met with blatant lies. I knew they had something between them, but for years I tried to convince myself my husband would never have done such a thing, and that I was just being paranoid. I minimized it, trying to believe it was "just" a flirtation or a crush, as though even that would have been ok. My instincts and fear persisted to tell me they were having an affair, which conjured graphic sexual images of them in my head, but my inner denial was equally strong, and this internal war raged on in my mind and heart for years. I could only settle the extreme anxiety by repeatedly telling myself, trying to convince myself, that he would never do that, that it hadn't gone that far, and that he was telling me the truth. I minimized what I knew to be true in order to survive.

Then disclosure happened. It basically blew all those years of denial out of the water in one fell swoop. He told me the "worst" of it first: the part he knew would matter to me the most. He got it out of the way rather than leave me wondering as he went on to tell the whole story. It was devastating. Still is. Always will be.

Anyway, looking back now, I see that after that point I took every opportunity to minimize the affair, rather than face it head on. I really thought I was facing it, but in reality I was trying to convince myself it wasn't that bad. I repeatedly tried to package it as "a long time ago" - as though it shouldn't completely rock my world, since so much time had passed. Or that it just wasn't relevant to my present life. Early on, before either of us really had much of an understanding of the full impact, my husband also echoed this a few times, "It was a long time ago," he would say, and for him it was. But for me it felt like it was happening now. So this statement just reinforced my attempts to minimize it, as I tried to believe it shouldn't matter that much now, and I didn't understand why I couldn't just get over it, concluding that I was at fault for allowing it to continue to hurt me, since it ended a long time ago. For context, my husband's affair was fully sexual, spanned well over a year, and included many occasions that intentionally placed me together with my husband and his affair partner. This included a variety of settings, including spending several holidays together at her home. It was not insignificant and there were many layers to his betrayal.

I often found myself repeating minimizing phrases to myself, as though if I said them enough it would make it hurt less. I said things like: they "only" did (this or that) ___ times, or "at least" he wasn't planning to leave me. "At least" the affair "only" lasted ____, and he "just" felt ____ toward her. And so on. All the "only" "just" and "at least" statements served to soothe my heart in the moment, but kept me from facing the reality of the situation. I spent so much energy trying to convince myself it wasn't really that bad, I was just running away from the storm like the cows.

Unconsciously, I put a lot of effort into these minimizations. In my Harboring Hope group I consistently felt and said out loud that my situation was "not as bad" as the others, since their husbands had cheated for more years than mine did, or had more affair partners than my husband did, or both. These kinds of minimizations made me believe I wasn't justified to feel the pain I did, since my situation was so much "better" than theirs.

But here is the truth. Pain is pain. It's not a competition and there is an unlimited supply. Someone else's tragic situation does not mean there is less pain available for mine. By trying to talk myself out of being justified to feel the pain, I am avoiding the pain and all that is necessary to get through the pain. Skirting the edges by creating explanations and justifications as to why I shouldn't be feeling this way offers no benefit and just prolongs the storm, like the cows do.

I came across a note I sent to my Harboring Hope Group Leader after our first or second meeting. This was 6 months post D-day, and reading it again now really illuminated my frame of mind at the time. These are actual quotes taken from my message:

"I just feel like I will feel better knowing that you really understand what happened to me. In many respects his affair was so minimal compared to everyone else in our group….Sometimes I think it's ridiculous that I can't get past it because it is so minimal compared to everyone else's situation and that maybe I'm defective for feeling as overwhelmed as I do."

But now I see none of that is valid. My pain is my pain and his affair hurt me deeply, regardless of how much "worse" it could have been, or how it compared to other people's experiences. I wasted so much time trying to talk myself out of validating my experience, that I lost the opportunity to face it head on and deal with it. Even with all the gut wrenching work I did with my first few therapists (and on my own), most of my effort was spent trying to figure out how to override my feelings through the perspective of minimization, rather than accept and deal with my feelings and the reality of the situation. I focused on the aspects of my husband's affair that "could have been worse" and tried to dismiss my feelings about what actually did happen, including the lies, deception, and manipulation, not just during the affair, but for years afterward. I tried to ignore all of this but still felt all the pain, so instead of minimization helping my perspective, it just made me feel as though I was a complete failure, a loser who couldn't even get over this correctly. I wouldn't even acknowledge the buzzwords - recovery, safety, trauma, self care, and so on. I felt it was all far too dramatic for me, and I didn't feel I was in a situation that warranted all that. I had not been on the battlefield and I hadn't been physically assaulted. My heart was just broken. I don't think I really felt permission to see this as legitimate trauma until I started working with my current counselor (therapist #4). I had dismissed all of it - the clear emotional trauma and the subconscious physical impact of years and years of continued deception and repressed emotions. I'm not looking for a trauma trophy or anything, but I do think it is important to accept and validate that a break in the marital relationship in such a deceptive and damaging way is in fact traumatic. I continually beat myself up for failing to recover from something I wasn't even willing to fully acknowledge, adding much more pain and frustration to an already painful situation. We can't heal what we aren't willing to name or face.

Paraphrased from @Nate_Postlethwait: After experiencing trauma we often are apologetic for how we show up - needy, sad, unable to "shake" the depression or "live in the present" etc. These are often responses from our nervous system as we grapple to heal from and overcome the trauma, but it's ironic that we often apologize or feel "less than" for the experiences we have in trying to heal from a trauma, despite the fact that no one asked permission before harming us to create the trauma in the first place. Infidelity is huge, with many losses that we don't fully appreciate or understand until later on in this journey. There is nothing minimal about these losses or that pain that they generate.

I don't want to confuse minimization with perspective. There are actual things about my husband's affair that probably could have been "worse" and while it's important to try to have perspective of the whole picture, comparison to others, or how much worse it could have been, is not going to somehow make the pain go away. As someone recently said on the Affair Recovery forum, when language like that is used about someone destroying your marriage, it just feels impossible to take in. The poster went on to say, "It's like saying, 'I only stabbed my victim in the heart with a knife one time.' Once, twice, a dozen times, the fatal blow is the same."

Rick Reynolds shared an article about grieving that illustrates the importance of facing, and embracing, the grief. In the article, Rick says, "Those who go into "GRIEVING" mode may spend months sorting through their grief with tears, pain, and true sorrow, but at the end of their journey they feel refreshed and renewed." He continues, "I have never known of a single person who has thoroughly grieved and had any regrets or felt a need to blame anyone. They are free and at peace. When people fail to move forward after the affair, it's often due to the inability to grieve the loss. Instead of healing from the pain, they try to control and manage the pain which only results in further damage and isolation... A major determining factor between those who go forward with new life and those who remain stuck after an affair is their willingness to grieve the loss."

In another article Rick says, "We mistakenly believe that hiding the reality of our situation will somehow save us from the pain, yet it only serves to enslave us to that very same pain. Hidden pain is then transformed into shame. Our shame then negatively impacts all those we love and serves as the fuel to perpetuate our cycle."

The point of all of those thoughts is that the buffaloes have the right idea. Running into the storm, into the grief, into the loss is what is necessary, yet so contrary to every instinct we have to escape pain. Mona Shriver very accurately stated, "Recognizing the depth of the pain gives us permission to seek healthy ways to mourn instead of wasting so much of our energy trying not to feel the way we do."

Healthy perspective is important, and along the way this will come. In the beginning I thought I was developing perspective, but I really was just trying to talk myself out of my feelings. Looking back I can see how unproductive and harmful that was, and how it just prolonged the pain. Now, I don't minimize anything, but I have developed a better perspective over time and with a lot of conversation and reflection. Facing this stuff is hard, and not for the faint of heart, but I never want to be a cow again. Let's be buffaloes and face the storm - together.

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Wow, Jen... once again, your

Wow, Jen... once again, your writing resonates with me as a former betrayed spouse, 5 years into recovery. My husband also read this piece and really liked it, so I re-read it again trying to see how this could apply from an unfaithful perspective. And it really does apply from that side as well - avoiding the painful reality, denying the gravity of the situation, and ignoring the need for personal healing seems to be a common human condition. Also, the almost universal temptation to compare ours to others' situations can lead to minimization by the unfaithful as well, leading to further harm of the betrayed partner. So people of both sides of the infidelity will always be better served imitating the buffaloes, fighting against our instincts to be cows.

Thank you blessedgrace

I really appreciate you pointing that out. I had not considered this blog from an unfaithful perspective, but I'm sure there is a lot of minimization at work - during and after the infidelity. You're absolutley right, any minimizing by an unfaithful spouse of the impact of the betrayal does lead to more pain and confusion for the betrayed spouse. It's really hard to face this stuff head on, no matter which side of the street you're on, and it takes a lot of effort to be a buffalo.

I haven't read something that

I haven't read something that resonated this strongly in awhile but boy did this hit home.

Unfortunately however, i've concluded i'm a buffalo in a cow's body!

kirsty_1

Thank you for commenting. I'm glad this resonated with you but I'm also sorry you have to feel all that. Try to give yourself grace to just be where you are today. Sometimes we have to spend a little time as a cow before we are really ready to be a buffalo, and that's ok.

thank you Jen

Again, you have written as if it were from my heart. I can barely stand the thought that it has been more than three years since discovery, and I too have wasted so much time, so much money on therapy, and am still such a long way from feeling like healing is even beginning. I am such a cow that I have kept perfect pace to stay in the center of the storm. Ugh.

Paulette

I totally understand your frustration, feeling like you have just remained in the center of the storm. I was there a long time too before things began to shift - even a little - and it was incredibly discouraging. Infidelity is so hard, and none of us is prepared. We are all winging it and doing the best we can on a given day. You do have good moments, and good days, and that is the beginnings of healing. Taking steps backward does not negate the steps forward you have already taken. They just coexist. I wish it was easier and much faster, but you have grown, my friend. Just not as fast or as much as you would like, and I can totally relate to that.

Very impactful Jen!

Very impactful Jen!
I remember reading early on in the AR materials that I would need to grieve the loss. I felt that deep in my bones as my grief was substantial.
I knew I had to mourn these losses, but I remember my question then was, “But how do I grieve this???”
Perhaps I should have worn all black like folks used to do to signal they were grieving, but that would have meant explaining my grief. Not as simple as saying, “My husband died last year.”
And no one brought me casseroles or sent cards.
It’s a lonely and often silent kind of grief. No one understands unless they’ve experienced it.
Perhaps you could write a future article on “betrayal grief and how to do it well”. Create a survey and ask people how they grieved.

I think I was more buffalo than cow. I think at times I could have had a bit more minimization, but maximized everything instead. Now upon reflection I know that the interactions my husband had with other women, although grievous and inappropriate, meant very little to him emotionally. I blew up these relationships into grand love affairs when they were really dirty little secrets. He was gratifying himself sexually, but his love was always reserved for me. I wanted to minimize ME and my role in his life, but I’ve always figured large in his heart. I’ve always meant more to him than any of his dalliances.
So that’s a danger the betrayed sometimes face too - giving the “acting out” more meaning than it had.
We often see that the moment a marriage is threatened, the unfaithful will choose spouses over APs. As betrayed spouses we often minimize our power and give in to “woe is me” thinking, instead of valuing ourselves higher and expecting more from our spouses.
Initially I was caught in the trap of thinking something was wrong with ME that my husband didn’t want me. I don’t know when the change happened, I think around the three month mark, when I realized that I was the treasured and prized one and that his job was to win back my heart. I had been “maximizing” his affairs and their importance to his life while seeing myself as “less than”.
It’s really the other way around.
The affairs had zero meaning to his authentic life and I meant the world to him.

As for the hurt inflicted, you are right. There is no better or worse betrayal pain. My husband acted out in various ways - chatting, sexting, porn use, and physical encounters. Every single one of those incidents needed to be confronted and grieved. They were all equally painful!
At first it overwhelmed me as to the number of women. I had to question and get the details of each encounter (each “relationship” lasting about two months). I have grieved them all separately. So much work.
Now we lump them all together and call them his “stupid years” and minimize them because they hold so little weight in the loving relationship we now have. Eventually all trauma has to dissipate or we will forever be locked in its grip…but that means hacking away at it until nothing remains.

Thank you again for your insightful writing that makes us all think. Praying that it helps others in this journey.

Thank you Bighorn Mountains

Thank you for commenting - I always appreciate your perspective. Yes, this kind of grief is known as disenfranchised grief, where normal societal supports are glaringly absent, only adding to the feeling of shame and humilation as a betrayed spouse, as we deal with our pain in silence and often alone and in secret.

I could have definitely benefitted from support and comfort (and maybe a casserole or two) but there was none, which just made me feel more like I was to blame. I like your suggestion for the future blog about how to grieve / how others have done it. Thank you for that :)

I think you have very good perspective on your husband's affairs and what they meant to him versus what you initially imagined them to mean. I definitely agree there is value in understanding that (or trying to) but speaking for myself I also think that is separate from what it meant to me as the betrayed spouse. Even if the infidelity meant little to the unfaithful spouse, it doesn't mitigate the impact on me: my losses, my expectations and subsequent disappointment. I find it is important to honor and explore both. I am finally at a point where I can begin to step back and try to look at what it all meant to my husband, versus what I have imagined it to mean for all these years. It is a work in progress and very slow going in my case, but one worth doing.

Yes, all a part of healing. I

Yes, all a part of healing. I first had to grieve my losses and I did. I didn’t have any kind of road map for this grief. My father died in 2002, so I knew that kind of grief and observed my mom as she mourned his absence.
But betrayal?
I had no clue how to do this. For me I had to give myself permission to simply not show up in life. I spent a lot of time in bed, I spent a lot of time reading and learning and processing, I spent a lot of time in conversation with others (like you) who were going through it too. The rest of life fell by the wayside and I didn’t care. Fortunately it was the time of Covid and most of life was shut down anyway.
I wallowed in grief and I now believe it was the best thing I could do.
After that I was able to turn my focus on to understanding my husband’s motivations and emotional state.
Interestingly, as he has processes the past he’s now in mourning for his choices that hurt me so badly. At least once a week I’m holding him as he weeps. I’m comforting him and it’s very healing for both of us. I believe he traumatized himself, acting outside of his authentic Christ-centered self. I have empathy for this brokenness.

I agree with you bighorn mountains

You definitely had the right idea to let yourself sit in it and not worry about the rest of life for a while. I did not allow myself to step back from life responsibilities and focus on my grief that you describe, and that was the reason that prompted writing this blog about cows and buffaloes. I did not miss a single day of work or lessen any of my routine responsibilities. I showed up for every school and work event with a fake smile plastered on my face and no one had any idea, including my immediate family. It definitely stalled my grief and any possibiity of moving forward and left me in the storm for way too long.

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