I remember a young woman in her early 30s I’ll call Liz. Liz had lost her young husband to a sudden fatal heart attack after just under a year of marriage. To all appearances, he had been in good health. He kissed her goodbye one morning, left for work, and never returned. Since she worked from home, she was there when the policeman came to the house. She had absolutely no idea why he might be there. Liz said that her husband’s sudden death without warning had shaken her to her roots! But there was more. After basically coming to terms with her grieving his loss and missing him so much, she discovered that she had emerged from this traumatic experience with the sense (and fear) that she would never be able to deeply trust anyone again. This side effect of her husband’s death almost three years earlier had left her withdrawn and slow to reach out to anyone about anything. This was just the opposite of her personality before her husband’s death!
It is not that uncommon for people who are struggling to come to grips with the painful end of their marriage through the death of their spouse, especially if the death was sudden and without warning, to make the distressing discovery that they cannot seem to deeply trust anyone anymore. This can be terribly upsetting because they fear that this change may become permanent. Also, distress comes from the realization that, in the end, all authentic human relationships are based on mutual trust. What are they to do?
A key element of the devastation caused by the end of a marriage is the shock that a shared spousal relationship one had hoped would last “forever” or “happily ever after” has tragically ended. For many, it seems that the painful ending of such a basic relationship undermines or weakens all other basic relationships or at last the ability to form new authentic ones. Why is this?
First of all, trust is a decision rather than a feeling such as one’s feeling safe and secure in a relationship. Contrary to many people’s impression, we cannot directly either cause or eliminate our (or someone else’s) feelings. In fact, we can cause ourselves and others distress when we try. In the end, we can only discover our feelings. One’s feelings seem to have a life of their own independent of one’s will. Trust, it turns out, is a decision one can make in spite of possible feelings of fear, anxiety, or even doubt. That being said, one should be cautious about how much trust one ought to place in another person. (It goes without saying that if that person has betrayed one’s trust in the past through serious lying, abuse, or marital infidelity, one rushes back into that relationship at one’s peril. The key word is “rushes”. Time for trust to rebuild may be offered if one chooses, but a series of serious betrayals is always a red flag in any relationship.) That is because trust is the fundamental basis for any authentic relationship, whether of close friends, lovers, or spouses.
One’s decision to trust another person requires a certain amount of inner psychic and emotional energy. It naturally happens that, in the aftermath of any experience of personal devastation, one’s level of psychic and emotional energy sinks. In time, this state of low energy most often slowly rebounds back to its usual level, unless some additional personaf upset occurs. Otherwise, the natural process of human healing usually includes the ability to eventually again form human relationships based on trust.
I asked Liz if she might be open to attending a series of weekly group meetings hosted by a grief recovery group. The meetings were aimed at newly-widowed persons learning how to cope with the disheartening effects of losing a spouse. She replied that she would consider doing so because she did not want to live the rest of her life in a shell like a hermit crab! I told her I could not agree more.