It can be surprisingly difficult to determine when you’re beginning to heal from relationship trauma. There’s no finish line to mark the end of a journey, no certificate to announce that you’ve completed the graduation requirements and no neat summary to tie up all the loose ends before you close the book on that chapter of your life.
So how can you tell that you’re moving on from divorce or infidelity?
1 – Your Reactivity Decreases
After even a casual mention of my ex, I could feel my scalp begin to burn as my blood pressure climbed to address the perceived threat. If a movie or book touched on the topic of cheating, I became a passionate objector, unable to separate the character’s actions from my own experience. Online, if anybody posed a challenging question to me about my former relationship or my recovery, I had to engage until I felt understood (spoiler alert – no amount of engagement can guarantee this response).
Now? It’s completely different. I can discuss even the most painful aspects of my first marriage and its demise without raising any alarm bells on a heart rate monitor. I can view other’s actions that paralleled my ex’s with curiosity and a calm disapproval. And I am able to distance myself from the responses of others, able to see their origin more clearly.
Consider the healing process from a physical wound. At first, the site is incredibly tender, prompting a flinch from even the slightest touch. You become hyperaware of the need to protect it and often overreact if somebody gets too close. As it heals and the skin knits over the exposed and tender nerves, you no longer react the same way. In fact, you get to point where you no longer notice someone inadvertently brushing up against the previously damaged skin.
Emotional recovery follows a similar path. At first, you’re in a heightened state. And from that stance, everything has to be evaluated as a legitimate threat. Over time and with enough benign experiences, you become more adept at sifting out the real threats from the ones that simply appear dangerous.
2 – You Are Able to Appreciate Nuance Without Feeling Threatened
He was bad and I was good.
He was deceptive and I was honest.
He was the perpetrator and I was the victim.
It all seemed so clear, so black and white. And I outright rejected any thoughts or outside suggestions that didn’t fit cleanly into this worldview. This mindset was born of self-protection, as I secretly ran tapes through my mind with both his words tearing me apart and my own thoughts turning against me. I needed to paint myself as the “good” one in a desperate attempt to repair the gaping hole left from the rejection.
In time, I noticed that I was starting to see shades of gray. Yes, his actions were still despicable and inexcusable, yet I began to consider what might have prompted that response. Yes, I never lied to him in the marriage, but I was starting to realize that I had lied to myself. And as these realizations began to arise, I started to understand that the nuance, instead of being a threat to my self-image, actually was a place that brought peace as it felt like truth.
It takes courage to embrace the nuance of life. We find comfort in applying clearly defined labels because then we know where we stand. Yet there is often an underlying discomfort with this simplistic view because at its core, we know that it is false. In contrast, the gray area, although uncomfortable at times, feels like living with your eyes open and your confidence in your self intact.
3 – Your Obsessions and Compulsions Fade
I replayed the moment I read the text that ended my marriage over and over again as though I could change the outcome. At my home-for-the-year, I refreshed my computer screen hundreds of time an hour looking for that email or update on his other wife’s blog that would provide the answers I was so desperately searching for. My runs became a compulsion, the miles adding up even as my body began to protest the rapid scale-up in training. Even once I started dating, there was an obsessive energy to it as I responded rapid-fire to most every message.
The period after divorce or infidelity is often like the rapids that form when two bodies of water crash into each other. Only in this case, it’s the anxiety of unwanted change colliding with the overwhelming need to do something. And as you move further away from the trauma, the intensity of these feelings begin to fade and you no longer feel driven to think or act along those lines.
4 – Your Sleep Improves
I sat up abruptly, afraid that I was going to vomit. I wasn’t sick. Instead, it was another dream about my ex. I felt violated. Hadn’t he hurt me enough? Why did he have to steal my sleep too?
In the beginning, sleep is often elusive as the mind refuses to relax. Even once you manage to go down, your mind is often invaded with unwanted dreams and nightmares. The nights become an adversary, something you have to steal yourself to meet every single day.
And then one morning, you finally feel rested. Eventually, you’re able to string multiple mornings together where you realize your sleep was uninterrupted my the memories of the trauma.
5 – You Have Increased and More Sustained Energy
In some ways, healing from relationship trauma reminded me of the time I had mono. My body felt heavy, leaden. I had to deliberately summon effort and motivation for every movement, every decision. I was exhausted. It turns out that rebuilding a heart and a life at the same time is hard work.
As you begin to heal, more and more energy reserves become available for other endeavors. I like to equate it to the body’s response to extreme cold. It pulls the blood away from the extremities and towards the critical organs. A sure sign of warming up is pink fingers as the blood is released again to its normal pathways. Likewise, a return of energy is a sign that the critical healing phase has passed and that it is now safe to allow that energy to flow elsewhere.
6 – You Are Able to Broaden Your Focus
For a time, my identity was the abandoned one. That single event became the lynchpin of my very existence. It was both the most important thing about me and also the thing that I was most powerless against.
And then over time, I added new facets to my identity. I finished a race and began to call myself a runner. I published a book and added the moniker “writer.” As I continued to live in the face of betrayal and abandonment, I realized I was a survivor. As I began to look around, I realized that there was a whole world out there separate from what I had endured.
At first, your focus has to be narrow. You need to have blinders on in order to simply survive. And then slowly, the rest of the world – and its possibilities – begins to come into focus. Until one day you realize that you are not what happened to you.
7 – You Have Hope For the Future
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get past this,” I said in the beginning, unable to see beyond the enormity of the pain.
“I want to get through this,” I pleaded, words not yet backed by action.
“I will move on,” false determination sounding more confident than I felt.
“I am going to be okay,” I eventually whispered to myself, realizing that I believed it to be true.
The return of hope is a beautiful thing. A sunrise after a long winter storm that promises that spring lies just ahead.