April 13, 2024
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Healing With Realistic Expectations

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Please don’t be disappointed if this essay approaches the topic of healing with a measure of skepticism. From my professional point of view, the concept of “complete emotional healing” may not exist. When discussing trauma with my masters in social work students at the Touro University Graduate School of Social Work, I begin the semester by quoting Dr. Sue Johnson (creator of Emotionally Focused Therapy). She explains that our role as therapists is to help clients who come to us for help with their “current story” to leave our office with a “new and different story.” Sadly, with trauma (which is often caused by horrific and unimaginable events), clients often cannot leave with a “different story.” Simply put, traumatic events are just not fair. One helpful perspective is that time does not heal, rather people heal with time (author unknown).

We’re in a Better Place

Often in couple’s therapy, after a couple of months of weekly sessions, one spouse will ask me, “Dr. Singer, we both feel like we are in a better place than when we started therapy with you months ago. We would like to taper down to bi-weekly sessions rather than weekly.” I am gratified to receive this hopeful and optimistic request. I respond by asking each spouse, “Could you describe to me what you mean by ‘in a better place?’” Usually this term means some healing has started to take place and continues forward. There are different degrees of intensity regarding the hurt or injury that needs to heal. Couples often describe communication difficulties that begin because one spouse feels talked down to or criticized or ignored. Healing from that type of behavior takes focus, listening and attunement. It is quite a different story, however, to work with couples in which infidelity is the presenting issue. The healing for infidelity, if you would graph it with an X and Y axis, looks like a roller coaster ride, not a straight line. Infidelity closely resembles PTSD, and the healing is painstaking and slow. Even a resilient spouse who works diligently at forgiveness can turn around one day and simply say, “Never mind, I quit, I’m through.”

Optimism: Look on the Bright Side

You can be optimistic but also be realistic. Infidelity tends to shake a relationship to its very core and render the marriage hopeless. If the betrayed spouse, having spent significant time in couple’s therapy, considers the cheating spouse to be unforgivable, then this marriage is basically over and done with. Bear in mind that forgiveness is not just a feeling, it is a decision. It is a decision to give up your perceived or actual right to get even with someone who has wronged you. Interpersonal healing requires forgiveness.

Comparing Emotional And Physical Healing

A scar is the body’s natural way of healing and replacing lost or damaged skin. According to the Johns Hopkins website, there are several dermatological procedures to minimize scars and choosing what is best for an individual depends on factors such as age, overall health, medical history, tolerance of medications, procedures, therapies, and expectations for the course of the condition. Physical scars usually fade over time. However, the Johns Hopkins web page includes the caveat that explains treatment can only improve the appearance of the scar. It cannot completely erase it. That’s why I began this essay by suggesting the concept of “complete emotional healing” may not exist. Wouldn’t you agree that physical and emotional healing appear to mirror each other?

Tips for Healing Emotional Wounds

Sharon Martin, a licensed clinical social worker, cautions that while emotional healing is possible, not everyone returns to excellent emotional health. Martin points to commonalities among people who heal more fully from their emotional wounds and pain.

First, take baby steps. Dramatic changes are often unsustainable. Making small incremental and manageable changes creates a feeling of success, hope and encouragement which are vital to carry an individual through their healing process.

Second, bear in mind that an individual does not need to heal 100 percent to improve the quality of their life. It is not all or nothing. Even a modest amount of healing will improve the quality of a person’s life. Taking one step at a time will enable the person to notice improvements in their mood and in their ability to cope with triggers, relationships and self-esteem.

Third, have realistic expectations. If we aim too high, we end up disappointed or frustrated— often at ourselves—which does not help us heal. One common unrealistic expectation is expecting progress to move consistently forward. Progress is more often two steps forward and one step back.

Fourth is to prioritize self-care and self-compassion. Work on emotional healing takes considerable energy, time and sometimes money. Pay attention to the physical sensations in your body such as tight muscles, headaches and fatigue—because these are your body’s way of telling you what it needs.

Fifth is to ask for help! Healing is not meant to be done in isolation. It isn’t easy but reaching out for help has many benefits including emotional support, guidance and the ability to break down shame. Seeking help is another form of self-care.

In conclusion, Martin suggests some helpful healing “meditations”:

I will seek help from trusted people who can give me guidance, encouragement, and love along this journey.

I am healing one day at a time.

I am learning to let go of what other people think and to honor what I think and feel.

I am learning to make time for rest, fun, and pursuing my own goals.

And, my personal favorite: I am learning to put myself on my To-Do List.


Dr. Alan Singer has been a marriage therapist in New York and New Jersey since 1980, with an 80 percent success rate in saving marriages of couples on the brink of divorce. He serves as an adjunct professor at the Touro University Graduate School of Social Work. He is a certified discernment counselor, coordinates reconciliation for family estrangement, blogs at FamilyThinking.com, and is author of the book, Creating Your Perfect Family Size (Wiley). All counseling sessions use Zoom. His mantra: I’ll be the last person in the room to give up on your marriage. (732) 572-2707, [email protected]

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