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Question

My stomach is tied in knots and I feel in a constant state of anxiety. My husband walked out a week ago and said he needed to separate. He said that he could not take it anymore. We had started seeing a counselor and I thought things were getting better, if only slightly. We had a very small disagreement (if you even want to call it that) the night he left and he blew up and walked out. Blowing up and screaming is his communication of choice. He moved into his friend’s house and took his three children with him (this is a second marriage for us both). He said he wants to spend more time with his kids before they leave for college. I feel like I am dying inside. He won’t talk to me or answer my texts. I’ve tried to respect the distance he’s asking for and I’ve sent only a couple of texts. I also wrote him a letter apologizing for any part I may have played in any of this. I love him and my heart is breaking in two. I want to give him space, but I am afraid that he will get an apartment, move his kids in, and file for divorce. I sent him a two-word text this morning. It said, “Good Morning”. He sent nothing back. I can’t sleep. I can’t think. I am afraid. I am afraid for my future and for my children. Please help.

Answer

I’m sorry you’re in such agonizing pain right now. I can tell you’re in shock and trying to find some way to calm your anxious body, mind, and heart. Even though there are relationship issues to work out with your marriage, it’s punishing to not have the option when you long to repair things. We are emotionally defenseless when someone we’ve given our life to suddenly abandons us and won’t communicate with us. Before you figure out what to do with your relationship, you’ve got to restore your emotional balance.

He’s not giving you the option to communicate with him and get resolution through working things out. Instead, he’s left you with no information to chart a path forward in your relationship. If this is the case, it’s critical that you accept this reality so you don’t continue to search for something that isn’t there. Now, I recognize that this is much easier said than done, but your mental and physical health depend on your ability to pivot back to taking care of yourself instead of trying to get him to see you. He knows where you are. But, for whatever reason, he’s unwilling to have an actual conversation with you. You can literally drive yourself crazy trying to get him to respond, so please spare yourself this horrible possibility.

You are starving for connection. Our relationships, especially our primary attachment bond to our spouse, is like emotional oxygen. You need rescue breathing right now, which you can’t easily provide for yourself. Like supplemental oxygen, you need someone to give you the much-needed relief of knowing that you’re not alone and that you’re going to be okay. Find a trusted friend, family member, support group, or professional counselor who can see you and listen to what you’re experiencing. They can give you a space to share and ultimately know that you’re not crazy. You’re just experiencing abandonment terror.

Talking with another person can help regulate your breathing, your heart rate, and even help you sleep better. Even though you might benefit from meeting with your doctor to see if medication might help sooth these panic attacks, I believe safe relationships are the first line of defense to help us regulate our bodies, minds, and emotions. You may feel like you’re giving up on your husband if you turn away and focus on getting personal support for yourself. Please remember that he knows where to find you if he decides he wants to have a conversation with you. You’ve invited him to talk and share with you, but you can’t make him talk to you.

When you’re not speaking with someone else for support, you can work on developing individual coping skills. These involve your spirit, emotions, body, and mind. Here are some things you can begin doing right away to help you slow down and find your emotional balance:

  1. Breathe deeply. Focused breathing takes practice and discipline, but it signals to your body that you don’t need to be in the primitive fight and flight mode that comes when we sense danger. You’ve been abandoned and cut off, which activates our deepest fears of isolation and deprivation. Breathing will help you teach your body that you’re not going to die and that you will be okay. Even though you have understandable fears, the breathing will help you think more clearly and know how to address these fears. You can look up online about how to do deep breathing.
  2. Pray and meditate. You are a child of Heavenly Parents who love you and are looking out for you. You can pray to Heavenly Father and ask him to comfort you and reassure you that you’ll be okay. This peace “passeth all understanding”[i] and will activate the enabling power of the Atonement.[ii] Meditate on what you hear from the Spirit and what you feel. Stay in the position and slow down your thoughts, your body, and allow yourself to commune deeply. You can enter into relationship with your Heavenly Father and feel his presence. This will help regulate your entire physical, emotional, and spiritual system so you don’t have to do this alone. It will give you direction, peace, and support that cannot be generated by yourself.
  3. Seek truth and light. Your mind will be racing with all kinds of ideas and beliefs about yourself, about him, about God, and about others that will gain dangerous momentum if you don’t counter them with truth. Immerse yourself in the words of truth and light from the holy scriptures, words of living prophets, and other inspired counsel. You can slow down and quiet the mind chatter that will cause despair and hopelessness.
  4. Write down your feelings. Dr. Sue Johnson teaches that the first step in regulating any emotion is to label it.[iii] In other words, as you begin to write down what you’re feeling, you will start to feel more clarity and control over your emotions. Write down the things that you’re terrified to say out loud. Give yourself permission to write letters to him, to yourself, to God, to others. Write and feel how nice it is to have your thoughts captured and in front of you. Don’t worry about what to do with all of these letters and writings. Just let them flow out of your mind and heart onto paper.
  5. Practice self-compassion. Dr. Kristen Neff teaches that we can offer ourselves the kind of compassion that we would receive from a friend. Even though you’re going to be working closely with friends and supports to get this compassion, you can also provide it to yourself when you’re feeling overwhelmed and alone. You can visit her website at www.self-compassion.org and do complete some of the free exercises.
  6. Take care of your physical body. This is something all of us can benefit from, but especially people who are in shock. When your body is in a state of trauma, all of your resources are redirected to keeping you alive, which means that taking care of yourself usually gets ignored. For example, you may stay up all night typing a letter to him or waiting to see if he’ll text back. You may skip meals or exercise as you ruminate about what he’s doing or thinking. Self-care means that you take care of your physical self first before anything else. This means you get serious about structuring your bedtime, meals, exercise, and breaks. It means you cut out things that are distractions and keep you stirred up in internal drama.

Your husband has left without an explanation and you’re in shock. Take care of the shock right now so you can be better prepared to make decisions and sort through the other challenges that will arise in the future, especially if he’s planning to divorce. You want to have your full mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical faculties on board to help support you, as you may be facing more surprises. It’s not your fault that he chose to do this to you, but it is your responsibility to take care of yourself so you can function in your different roles.

 

Geoff will answer a new family and relationship question every Friday. You can email your question to him at geoff@lovingmarriage.com

About the Author

Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in St. George, UT. He is the owner of Alliant Counseling and Education (www.alliantcounseling.com) and the founding director of LifeStar of St. George, an outpatient treatment program for couples and individuals impacted by pornography and sexual addiction (www.lifestarstgeorge.com). He is the co-author of “Love You, Hate the Porn: Healing a Relationship Damaged by Virtual Infidelity”, available at Deseret Book, and the audio series “Strengthening Recovery Through Strengthening Marriage”, available at www.geoffsteurer.com. He also writes a weekly relationship column for the St. George News (www.stgnews.com). He holds a bachelors degree from BYU in communications studies and a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Auburn University. He served a full-time mission to the Dominican Republic. He is married to Jody Young Steurer and they are the parents of four children.

You can connect with him at:
Website: www.lovingmarriage.com
Twitter: @geoffsteurer
Facebook: www.facebook.com/GeoffSteurerMFT

 

[i] Phillipians 4:7

[ii] https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2004/10/in-the-strength-of-the-lord?lang=eng

[iii] See “Love Sense” by Sue Johnson