My husband is the only guy I’ve ever dated. So I’ve never broken up with someone. Or been broken up with.
But this year I experienced the devastating break-up of my marriage.
Niel’s heart walked out first, when he chose to begin an affair with my friend that lasted a year and a half. The rest of him followed seven months ago when he told me he wants a divorce.
I’ve grieved so much loss this year. Of my husband. My marriage. My identity. My dreams. I’ve bounced between denial, anger, depression, anxiety—sometimes all in the course of one day. I’ve cried. I’ve cursed. I’ve questioned. I’ve surrendered. I’ve taken back. I’ve begged. I’ve raised my hands and closed my eyes and said absolutely nothing.
He is making all things new in me. Not just fixing them. Not repairing, rebuilding, or even renewing. He is redeeming. And making me new.
Some days I see that, feel that, know that more clearly than others. Thankfully those days are coming more frequently. The pain isn’t as deep as it once was, the tears don’t come as often as they did, and hope isn’t as elusive as it used to be.
While I wish this wasn’t part of my plot, I take heart knowing that God isn’t done with my story yet. He’s still writing.
My first break-up won’t be my last chapter.
When Niel’s affair came to light at the end of last year, I fell apart.
There are gaps in my memory of that week—parts I honestly can’t even remember. What I do remember is this: I punched my husband. I cried uncontrollably. I spent hours unable to breathe.
I remember knowing that, in spite of my world crashing around me, I wanted to work through this. I didn’t know how, but I wanted to forgive Niel. I wanted restoration in our marriage.
So I came to the States to see a counselor, and asked Niel to follow a month later to begin joint counseling. He came, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it. He was distant, unapologetic, and disengaged from the process. It seemed evident that his mind was already made up. So I knew before he told me. But on that bitter cold day in March when he finally put words to what his actions had been saying all along—that he was leaving me—I fell apart yet again.
A layer of pain buried 9 years deep rushed to the surface. This wasn’t my husband’s first infidelity.
Twice I had chosen, by God’s grace, to forgive. To ask God to restore and reconcile. Twice. And yet Niel still made the choice to leave.
His “till death do us part” really meant “till someone else comes along”.
His decision left me completely broken. I’ve since struggled with feeling unlovable and undesirable. Not enough. Not worth fighting for. Easily discarded. More replaceable than keepable.
While cognitively I know those are lies, when someone leaves me after making a vow that they won’t, it’s really hard to believe that abandonment isn’t always inevitable.
I hate that it’s easier for me to believe the lies of man than the truth of God.
God tells me that I’m enough, lovable, worthy… just as I am.
And I want to believe Him above all else.
The very first time I told Niel I was uncomfortable with his level of friendship with her, they were already crossing the line. I knew it, and his defensiveness only proved it. And by the time I found his secret email account, they’d already made their relationship official.
But every time I questioned him or voiced my feelings, he denied it.
And shifted the blame to me.
Niel tried to make me feel guilty for accusing him. He attempted to convince me that I was being unfair—that if I have a best friend, why can’t he? He said the real issue was me. I was blogging too much. I wasn’t socializing with our staff enough. I was too paranoid. I was untrustworthy because I kept trying to check his phone and email. With sleight-of-hand manipulation, he’d divert attention from what he was doing and heap shame on me.
I saw through it. I just felt defenseless against it.
I withdrew into myself. I grew increasingly depressed. I thought I was going out of my mind. I don’t know how else to describe what it feels like when I know something to be true that is continuously denied—but it was crazy-making.
Niel and I fought constantly. The second half of last year was brutal—we argued every single day about this. And yet he still wouldn’t own up to it.
It was only when I held undeniable proof in my hands that he finally began telling the truth.
Sometimes I wish I hadn’t known all along. I wish that, like the majority of spouses in a similar situation, I’d been blindsided when the truth came out. Because there is added betrayal and pain in him choosing to progress the relationship even though he knew I knew.
I can’t even begin to describe how worthless that left me feeling.
And even putting words to it now, I feel shame. I don’t fully understand why, but I feel embarrassed, ashamed, that I knew. Maybe because I wish I hadn’t sat in his denial for so long. Maybe because I have regrets for choices I made along the way. Maybe because it makes me feel foolish, stupid, naive.
But it’s true nonetheless. I knew even when I couldn’t put my finger on it. Even when I had no hard evidence. Even when Niel told me every day that I was wrong.
Discernment is bittersweet. But I always want to sense His Spirit inside me, leading me into all truth.
Because even when it hurts, truth will always set me free.
I didn’t tell a soul. I couldn’t.
I felt paralyzed.
The shame and embarrassment alone made it near-impossible for me to utter a word about my husband’s affair. But added to that was my role as the head of a ministry. I didn’t know who I could turn to for help, when most everyone I know is connected to Thrive in some way.
Shame muted me.
Pride froze me.
Fear paralyzed me.
I finally confided my suspicions in two friends. They made me feel less crazy, less invisible. They prayed with me and for me, and kept me breathing when I didn’t want to.
I eventually sent one email to a pastor friend. Even though I was deathly afraid that it could affect his support of our ministry, I was desperate. My email was vague, hinting at trouble in our marriage. He responded and said he’d pray. And then he never mentioned it again.
Somehow that reinforced the message inside that I needed to keep my mouth shut.
I know now how foolish that was. With the benefit of hindsight, I so wish I’d spoken up. I regret not pushing past my own paralysis and actively seeking more help.
My deep regret heaped more shame on top of me. I blamed myself because I imagined things would have been very different had I actually spoken up. When I told my counselor how I felt, he told me that nothing I could have done would have yielded a different result.
I immediately dismissed him. I rolled my tear-filled eyes and shook my head. I told him there are too many hypotheticals for him to be certain of that.
He told me that maybe I could have done something that would have affected the situation—I could have somehow forced the relationship to end. But none of those efforts would have changed Niel’s heart—because that’s a choice he needs to make on his own.
“Nothing you could have done would have yielded a different result because this is about Niel’s character and issues, not yours.”
It took me several weeks, but I finally began to see the truth in what he said. And it brought such freedom to my heart.
My entire life I’ve thrown myself under the bus, carrying the blame for anything that doesn’t work out as it should. If someone doesn’t take responsibility for their wrong or the hurt they’ve caused, I take it on myself. But I’m learning to only own what’s mine to own.
And this is not mine to own.
That doesn’t mean I don’t wish I’d done things differently. It doesn’t mean I did everything right. I definitely acknowledge and take ownership of my personal failures and shortcomings. My sin. I take responsibility for the things I’ve done wrong. I’ve repented and am working on correcting my heart issues so I don’t repeat the same patterns of sinfulness.
I take full responsibility for my decisions and actions. But I don’t need to carry the weight of shame for someone else’s decisions and actions.
Easier said than done.
But every day my heart is more free than the day before.
For those who aren’t on Thrive Africa’s email list, this message was sent out last week—
A Note from our Founder
I consider you part of Thrive’s extended family, so I want to share from my heart what’s going on in my life and at Thrive. It saddens me greatly to tell you that earlier this year my husband, Niel, chose to terminate our marriage. His decision came after revealing to me that he’d violated our marriage covenant. Although my desire was to move toward reconciliation, Niel felt differently. Following his decision for divorce…
I have wrestled through each of these posts as I’ve begun telling my story. I’ve spent hours writing and rewriting. I’ve had a friend look them over and make changes. I’ve slept on them and come back to make more edits the next morning.
It’s been hard to write them because it’s forced me to sit in the hurts all over again. It’s been difficult because of the responsibility I feel to the ministry I love, and my desire to represent her well. And it’s been impossibly hard because of the weight I feel in how I speak about Niel.
I feel an undeniable tension between wanting to remain honoring of my husband and sharing authentically about what happened and how it’s affected me.
I’m laboring over every word I write because I need to get this right. I want to get this right.
And yet I know that without me dressing it up at all, the truth is ugly. It’s shocking. It’s devastating. Even in the simple telling of facts in the most tactful and respectful way possible, it can seem like I’m being malicious.
But that certainly isn’t my intention.
I hope my true heart shines through my words even as I share about the worst season of my life. I pray that in my transparency, you can see more than just my pain. I hope you can also see the love I still have for my husband and my unshakable desire to honor him even in this.
It’s been a scary thing for me to feel so vulnerable and exposed by putting my raw heart out there for the masses to see and give their two cents on. But while it frightens me, I crave authenticity. It’s been the single greatest intentionality of my blog—to foster authentic community. To share transparently and in doing so, make others feel safe, free, and comfortable to be transparent in return.
So I am committed to continue writing honestly and authentically about my story, while remaining mindful of how my words affect and reflect my ministry and my husband.
And I will continue to choose to honor him.
Because ultimately I desire to honor Him.
I’m sitting here in Starbucks, puffy-eyed. My heart feels raw. Exposed. Tender.
I just spent two hours crying like I haven’t in a long time.
In a counseling session. Sigh.
When I first started going to counseling almost a year ago, I was so anxious about each visit. Now, without even really thinking about it, I start my sessions by taking off my shoes and pulling my feet up on the couch. I feel comfortable, even when we’re tackling a difficult subject. It helps tremendously that I have a therapist I respect and love. I’ve said for a while now that if my counselor is the only reason God has me in Atlanta during this season, it’s completely worth it.
Today’s session was different than usual. My counselor led me in a time of healing prayer, asking God to help me face and then finally let go of the events that have deeply wounded my heart. And I’m not just talking about my husband’s infidelity and abandonment. I’m also talking about childhood aches that have shaped my entire life.
It was hard, to say the least.
I cried. I forgave. I released. I surrendered. I asked the Lord to bring His freedom into the darkest corners of my heart.
I don’t want to be an Indian giver. I don’t want to take back what I’ve placed at His feet. I don’t want to pick up again the burden of guilt and shame that He’s taken from my hands. I want to live free.
I WANT TO LIVE FREE!
Sorry for yelling, but, well, that needed to be said loudly.
I don’t know a formula for living wholly surrendered. I don’t know the strategy to avoid taking back from God what I just gave over to Him. All I can do is continue to choose to live free. I have to keep making the choice to let go, to walk in forgiveness, to not embrace the guilt and shame that has become so second nature.
I’m praying for awareness. That I would recognize my old patterns the instant I slip back into them. So that I can, in that moment, choose freedom. Choose faith. Choose obedience.
This living sacrifice wants to stop crawling off the altar.
Because only in complete surrender am I fully free.
“It didn’t mean anything. I didn’t really love her. It was just about the sex!”
Hollywood’s portrayal of adultery always includes that explanation. But when my husband’s infidelity came to light, he didn’t say that.
In fact, he said the exact opposite.
He told me he loved her differently, more deeply than he had loved me. That their relationship was special and intimate in a way we’d never experienced. He said he doesn’t love me anymore.
And that he isn’t sure he ever really loved me at all.
I wish it had just been an affair that “meant nothing”. Sheer, unadulterated (!) lust would’ve been easier on my heart. But my story didn’t come from a Hollywood script.
And even if it had, I know adultery never means nothing.
But what caused the deepest ache inside me is this: My husband chose to share the intimacy of his heart with a woman other than me.
I wish it had just been about the sex.
But it wasn’t.
My marriage was always hard.
Our relationship was challenging right from the beginning. We fought. A lot. I always chalked it up to the fact that we were a cross-cultural couple. And we pioneered a ministry together from the ground up. And we worked side-by-side every single day.
It was harder than I ever imagined it would be.
While I’m learning to only own what’s mine to own, I just need you to know: I have plenty to own.
I can be extremely impatient and easily frustrated. I made Niel feel small with my critical words. I could be downright mean at times.
I didn’t communicate well. I see-sawed between bottling up and exploding. I didn’t always let him into the deepest parts of my heart. I didn’t often share my most honest thoughts.
I see now that I was seeking to find my happiness and value in my husband, instead of in God. And that contributed largely to the downward spiral of problems in our relationship.
The breakdown of my marriage extends further, deeper, than Niel’s affair. I grew lazy, complacent, and selfish, and stopped putting in the effort my marriage needed and deserved. The effort my husband deserved.
Staring my sin in the face wrecked me. It left me broken before the Lord, desperate for His forgiveness and grace. It also left me broken before my husband. I wept in repentance as I apologized to him. Repeatedly.
I believed that despite all our failures, our marriage was still worth saving. It would take a lot of work, but so does anything we’re passionate about. I knew restoration was possible and completely worth the effort. My heart broke when Niel disagreed.
As I began picking up the pieces of my life, I became more determined than ever to be open and teachable. I desire to live from a repentant heart. I want to be quick to see and own my sinfulness. And I’m committed to learn new ways of responding. New ways of living.
My beliefs determine my thoughts which impact my actions. So I’m starting at the beginning to change my foundational beliefs. My thinking and my actions will eventually follow.
It’s a slow-going, lifelong journey.
But one I know is so worth it.
Because, I’m beginning to see, I’m worth it.
I still we when I talk. Even though I haven’t been a we for more than a half a year. I can’t help it. I’ve been a we for almost a decade. We started Thrive together. We led our staff team together. We did almost everything together.
We were we.
Now I am I.
And I have to retrain my tongue. Because many of my responses are automatically plural. “We started Thrive eleven years ago…” “That’s one of our favorite places…” “Usually when we travel in the States…”
Each time I slip, I cringe inside. Not because I made a mistake. But because of what it represents.
But just as my wedding ring tan line eventually faded away, my habitual we will slowly dissipate as well.
Until one day I’ll realize I haven’t we’d on myself in quite a while.