Emotional Pain and the Enemy at the Gates

When I was a kid, we used to play football in a grassy empty lot between an old church and a huge old house in my hometown. The space was wide enough to get a good game going and the house and church on either side made out-of-bounds a non-question.  

On blistering hot July days, we’d run down to the lot beside the church and play touch football for hours. 

The grass on the field was the greenest I’ve ever seen and provided a natural surface for running and getting crushed to the ground. It felt good to run on, like we were real football players marching down the field. There was a huge crab apple tree at the back of the lot, which stood tall over the left corner of the endzone and attracted angry bees all summer. You had to be careful running a route near the tree because you might find yourself in a cloud of stinging insects or slip on one of the disgusting apples. We got stung a lot down there, so often in fact that we grew to accept it as part of our touchdown celebrations.  We always seemed to have time to celebrate our victories near the old crab apple tree but never had the smarts to learn from our mistakes. 

I can still remember the acrid smell of the rotting apples on a warm summer day. Even now, the putrid smell of crab apples on a hot day makes me feel like going out for a pass and wiping my head around to watch for bees. If I close my eyes, I can hear high-pitched wail of the Nerf Whistle Football screaming across the clear blue sky. That sound alone combined with the smell of crab apples is summer to me. 

When I was about 11, I broke my smallest finger on my left hand playing football in that field. I have vague memories of making a basket with my hands near my stomach and bringing in a pass. 

I caught the ball awkwardly, I took too much of it on the small finger of my left hand, and was rewarded with the first broken bone of my life. It hurt — I know it hurt — and back then, it was probably a monumental experience in terms of pain. My finger jutted out awkwardly to the left, farther than any appendage should bend, and I remember being curious and amazed on top of being in pain. 

I also remember how the doctor set that broken finger back into place. He wedged a bic pen in the joint between the ring and broken finger, gripped the busted digit, and yanked it back into place violently. That kind of medical ingenuity is seared into my brain. 

I tell that story today and people cringe. All these years later, that finger still arches strangely out a bit when I relax it. I show my kid the way that finger can extend awkwardly out too far to the side — it really makes a full right angle — and he winces in some phantom pain. I’ve got a few good party tricks and “doing that thing with your finger” is one of them. 

I can remember so much about the experience, relive so many feelings and reexperience so much of that summer. When it comes to the physical pain, the actual hurt and agony of busting that finger, it’s a feeling and emotion lost to my childhood.  

Despite everything that went into the experience, how it was crudely put back into place and how it remains changed all these years later, the event had little impact on me as a person. I went back to playing football as soon as I could and carried on with my life.  The pain of breaking my finger was a distant memory. I couldn’t bring that revisit that pain again no matter how hard I tried, now or then. 

Physical pain is like that. We feel it hard in the moment, register it in our brains for its level of intensity, but lose the sense of what it really was like. If you break your foot, you live with the memories of the traumatic experience but can’t really experience the pain and suffering again later. Physical pain is difficult to reimagine or relive. 

But that’s not the case with emotional pain. 

Emotional pain — the agony and suffering from traumatic life  experiences, deaths, relationships, and breakups — is a thing more easily reimagined. Trauma that lives in our brains has the ability to reemerge and be experienced again and again. 

Unlike physical pain, emotional agony is an experience we can have on-demand at any time we want. We can relive the experiences of breakups, deaths, and struggles any time we want. All we have to do is think about the bad experiences and we’re filled with intense emotional agony. 

Physical pain and emotional agony differ this way. The pain of emotional experiences echoes through our past into our present with remarkable ease. We’re able to relive our emotional pain much easier than physical agony as well.   

Broken bones, bruises, and other physical injuries heal, leaving you changed in structure but perhaps cosmetically altered on the surface. Emotional pain cuts deeper and plays on another level. It plays on your brain and can work to damage your self esteem, causing ruin to your confidence in yourself. It can rain down blow after blow on your perceived abilities to be a loving partner and damage your views on relationships going forward. 

Just like the pride of a job well done can build you up, emotional pain can tear you down.  

When you’re battling emotional pain from an unwanted divorced, you spend a lot of time deep inside your own head. You play and replay past events in your head. The hurtful words hurt again, as strong today as they were when you or your partner said them. You run through fights you had and struggles you endured. You relive the pain. 

Each agonizing memory relieved is like the enemy at the gates of your self confidence, a monstrous, toxic battering ram of agonizing, destructive memories crushing against the door of your worth and confidence, threatening to break it apart. And if the emotional pain’s barrage of painful memories and hurtful feelings continue their assault, your self esteem can splinter, break, and give way, allowing the enemy to make its way into your relationship stronghold. Then everything inside the gates changes. 

Emotional pain from an unwanted divorce can tear down your self esteem if you let it and change you. 

It can make you feel like less of a person and change the way you see yourself. You feel damaged and unwanted from all the pain, so you’re going to start seeing yourself that way. All the things you think make you a strong, loving partner start to get questioned by reliving painful memories.

What’s worse, it can change the way you feel about your ability to be a partner ever again. It changes how you feel about being with someone. It can have long-term impacts to how you feel about yourself from a relationship standpoint.  Your confidence to ever have a loving, positive relationship starts to fade. 

I’ve heard a lot of guys that thought they were loving, caring partners in iron clad marriages, find themselves going through an emotionally painful divorce and say this: 

“Maybe I’m just not meant to be married.” 

That’s a statement born out of reliving the emotional pain of watching your marriage burndown. And over time, if allowed, that ‘maybe’ can be erased to create the lasting sentiment of finality.  

Emotional pain can change you forever. It can spread throughout your emotional toolbox like a cancer and put you in a lifelong state of fear of intimacy. It damages your confidence in being a strong partner and changes the way you feel about relationships in general. 

A good relationship makes both parties better. Any healthy relationship benefits both partners equally. It’s not just about one person’s growth, it’s about both getting better incrementally as time goes on. 

When your self esteem has been broken into pieces, you can find yourself not feeling like you deserve anything from a partnership. Future relationships can find you not striving to be loved as much as you love. You’ll settle for less or choose a partner that doesn’t fit because of what’s been damaged in you. 

Additionally, your damaged self confidence will undoubtedly find you settling for less through the course of future relationships. Since your previous marriage ended and burned to the ground, leaving your self esteem shattered, you’ll accept things in a relationship that you wouldn’t have stood for in the past. You’ll compromise your wants and needs in a relationship out of fear of having everything end in divorce again. 

“I don’t have much to offer in a relationship so I can’t ask for something more,” you’ll think. “How can I expect more out of a partner if I can’t expect more from myself?”

Emotional pain can be a harsh teacher if the lesson is that relationships result in pain and suffering.  If the takeaway is that we’re not good enough and relationships are bad, the lasting impact will be just that — we’re not good enough and relationships hurt.   

We can’t escape feelings of emotional pain from an unwanted divorce. The battering is undoubtedly going to slam into the door of our self esteem, threatening to shatter it into a million pieces. 

What we can do, though, is understand it, analyze it, and learn from it. 

We can make the situation positive.  

Reliving the tape from your failed relationship is like watching the battering ram of emotional pain slam against the door of your self confidence over and over. 

As we relive painful memories of our failed marriage, the things that happened play out in our minds, culminating their natural ends, bringing forth waves of emotional agony. 

The battering ram of that emotional pain slams against the door of your self confidence and we feel it’s impact as we relive the things we said or the actions our partners took to bring the marriage to an end. 

We associate the pain and suffering with the things that happened. My spouse cheated on me so I feel pain. We fought all the time and things were tense so I’m in emotional agony. Memories of the “what” around events that led to the divorce ending are coupled with emotional pains slamming against the door of our self esteem.  We equate what happened with the emotional pain we feel. 

But that’s just part of the assault. There’s more to it. 

That driving force of emotional pain’s impact is felt widespread but it’s origin — it’s moment of impact — hits one central point originally. If time carries on normally, the resulting impact of emotional pain’s blow will result in a shaking of the entire door of self esteem. If slowed dramatically, we can see the ram hitting one specific point first before anything else. 

Like an arrow hurtling toward its target or a boxer’s glove speeding towards it’s opponent’s face, every attack has one singular point of impact. The resulting impact might be widespread, but the point of origin is centralized. 

The shockwave from a painful memory is indicative of what happened. The point of impact — the reason it occurred in the first place — speaks to the “why” of how an event happened. 

And understanding the “why” can teach us things about how to get better as people. Understanding the root cause of emotional pain, getting to the moment of impact emotional pain has on self esteem, can help us see events differently. We don’t just live in the world where events happened to us, but we understand better why they happened. 

Armed with that knowledge — knowing why an emotional battering ram choose to pick that very spot in the self esteem as opposed to any other — can make us stronger. 

We begin to understand our weakness and how we can build up defenses around these things in the future. 

With enough work, you can find the root cause — or causes, let’s be honest — of your emotional pain. You’ll find they were either things you or your partner did (personal things) or aspects of the marriage that could’ve been handled differently (strategies for being together). These are important realizations to make and armed with their knowledge, you can make better decisions in future relationships. You can work on this stuff in advance of your next relationship so the outcome won’t be the same. 

Experiencing your pain and analyzing it to understand the root cause of why things happened will unlock all sorts of things about yourself. You’ll find yourself coming to terms with things you can improve. Better yet, you’ll uncover redflags about your partner that will help you find someone better in the future. 

With enough work, your self esteem can be rebuilt. You’ll come out the other end understanding that sure, there’s things you did that contributed to the end of the marriage, but that doesn’t make you an entirely bad person. The emotional pain won’t erode your self confidence fully and you’ll see future relationships in a positive, more healthy light. 


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