“Journal writing is a voyage to the interior.”―Christina Baldwin

My husband describes the sound of a Facebook Messenger notification as “a cartoon arcade ping.” My own ears hear a cartoon cowboy expectorating into a spittoon. Sha-PING! Regardless of context, we both hear cartoons.

The ping that began this case study, however, revealed a topic that was no laughing matter. An acquaintance had been monitoring my posts about our work on the National Divorce Decision-Making Project and wanted to “make a donation.”

Her contribution wasn’t monetary, however. She explained that she had been searching for a way to “let go,” by getting rid of a journal she had written years ago during a time when she had been thinking about a divorce. This particular 18-month collection of writings began when she discovered that her husband was having an affair, and ended when she had exhausted her decision-making process.

“I don’t want my grandchildren to find it some day, but it’s hard to let go,” she wrote me. “If there were a purpose, somebody it could help—anonymously—that would be a way…Can your study use it? If so, will you destroy it once you’re done?”

Journals are data. Case studies are one type of social science that provides different levels of information than surveys or interviews; of course, I wanted to see if discovery could be gleaned from the pages of a private discussion with “Self.” Our team discussed ethical implications and ways to handle the volume appropriately. Completely de-identified when we received it, we still assigned a new team member with fresh eyes and no knowledge of the case to code and aggregate the data. And so our research assistant, methodology in hand, went to work examining the story of a woman who battled through the process of betrayal.

Summary of the Case

The journal details a wife’s perspective after finding out about her husband’s emotional affair. She and her husband had been living in separate cities while waiting for their house to sell—she maintained their original residence, while he began a different job in the new location. After she joined him, she discovered that her husband had been having an emotional affair and suspected possible physical involvement as well, but had no proof. She writes:

“I heard and knew my suspicions were there, and I ignored them because I didn’t think it could be true— NO— I didn’t want it to be true—NO—I didn’t think it could happen to me. I was always going for the happily ever after…when I should have been listening.”

“I got up early the next morning, pulled out the phone bills, and I found hours of conversations [with] her. I wanted to be wrong! What killed my heart was many of these calls were when I was out of town…Late in the [night]—those are the hours you save for people you love and care about OR for your affairs of the mind and heart.”

The pages feature denial on his part, which caused her to continuously struggle and question their marriage. Emotions such as anger, betrayal, and feelings of being deceived are laced throughout the pages. Though she rarely expresses thoughts of actually leaving and divorcing her husband, questions about whether love or her marriage were “real,” and whether integrity, commitment, and promises “even exist” monopolize the first two-thirds of the journal content. Examples include:

“We will never hash this out with his denial, and yet I am trapped, and I hate it…Integrity. Commitment. Promises. AAH! I’ll think on these words. Do they exist anymore?”

“Angry that the rules changed but I wasn’t told, and now we are making them as we go along.”

Two “pivotal moments” stopped her from leaving her marriage. Earlier during the process of having discovered the affair, she planned a day to leave while her husband was at work. But without her knowledge, he told his boss he “needed that day off” in order to stay home with her. Obviously, he sensed something was wrong although she made no mention of her plans, and later she told him “he ruined her plan to leave.” Later, she reflects:

“He brushes my hand and I yearn to hold his, but I am afraid to because do I dare hope? Hope leads to trust and trust always leads to a broken heart.”

“I read once somewhere that divorce is harder than death to deal with because you have to go on seeing that person.”

Toward the latter pages, her renewed writing interrupts a several-months gap of time. She was involved in a car accident that caused major injuries. She felt that the accident was a positive turning point for her marriage. That incident helped “lower her walls,” allowing her husband to provide care, which then led her to trust him again. At one point, she writes:

“I prayed for him yesterday. It had been a long time since I had. I haven’t prayed for us, but this is a beginning. If God can give me the Son, I can give a little too.”

The journal ends with a random entry declaring they have remained married for over 30 years, are over the crisis, and have moved on to other, smaller challenges.

Analysis

Journaling is fairly common intervention, frequently used in the social sciences to stimulate reflective practice in education, to help influence emotional catharsis in psychotherapy, and to encourage “the act of moving the hand across the pages and writing down whatever comes to mind” for medical professionals. However, spontaneous and self-directed journaling, in cases such as our subject’s donation, provide insight into the unbounded, chaotic, sometimes circular, and certainly polemic thinking of a human being experiencing their life.

Exploratory processes make up a great deal of divorce decision-making, and this journal provided a perfect example to reinforce many elements we’ve documented: emotional and rational dimensions, personal values and identity, constantly balancing and rebalancing across space and time, and collectively summarizing all this information in privately internal, or verbally external ways. The appraisal process of marriage can certainly start at any time, and the punctuation of an affair, the surprise of a spouse noticing you pulling away, or unexpected events such as a car accident are all ways a decision-making journey might reorganize.

Case studies such as this one, however, also provide us with an up close and personal view of the individual experience—how one dimension is favored or weighed in comparison to others. For example, the participant in this case was highly spiritual and her spirituality was utilized as a center from which much of the rest of her decision-making was considered. How she saw the concepts of divorce or separation, how her beliefs informed her process, and even the word choices she used with regard to summative points or values were all voiced within the perspective of a deeply spiritual person.

In her book, “Writing to Save Your Life: How to Honor Your Story Through Journaling,” Michele Weldon used the phrase “scribotherapy” to describe “the healing power of words. Written words. Words that come from deep within ourselves. Unedited thoughts. Uprooted collections. Unsettled feelings.” Daniel Goleman, a Harvard-trained psychologist, has spent a good deal of time examining the utilization of both the right brain (emotions) and the left brain (regulating emotions) in exercises such as journaling. Weldon and Goleman, almost by virtue of who they are and how they analyze, represent the full scope of possibilities related to how journals can be used as a tool for human expression. And certainly, our participant reflected a full scope of personalized “back and forth” through her own decision-making journey. For example, she wrote:

“A choice and a mistake are so opposite. A mistake—you don’t plan NOR do you repeat it—a choice, a conscious decision, and then you must deal with the consequences of the choice you made. Yes, there are consequences of mistakes too, but these are more easily forgotten. Choices—especially bad ones—are never forgotten…seldom forgiven.”

Even in the process of our subject turning over her journal for scientific use, it is apparent that The Journal is still working. It is working as a tool to increase critical reflection, self-awareness, growth, and change. The thoughts have now left her head; she’s “moved her hand across the page[s];” and her scribotherapy has now been summarized by social scientists, who have tried to find nuggets of wisdom to pass along.

One useful nugget for our team is that this case does, like a transparent overlay, reveal and reinforce our current divorce decision-making theories quite nicely. Another might be how powerful spirituality can be in helping those in crisis or times of decision-making endure present circumstances until future relief is found. The donor’s work clearly provides a genuine tale of someone whose marriage survived an emotionally taxing crisis. And certainly, once again, journaling—perhaps especially when self-perpetuated without outside guidelines imposed—has therapeutic value to create space for change.

Perhaps this last nugget can best be further described by the use of metaphor, also an essential element of decision-making narrative that we’ll be writing about very soon. J.P. Charles, in his paper, “Journaling: Creating Space for ‘I,’” penned these words: “[Journaling is where] we may find a place to dump the trash of our jealousies.”