"I feel so guilty I had the affair. I don't even know why I did it. What was I thinking?"
The reasons for cheating vary -- feeling stuck, bored, neglected, unwanted and unable to communicate are among them. Regardless of the reasons for the infidelity, feelings of guilt compound, affecting our health and our mental well-being.
Excerpt from Esther Perel
“From the moment we are born, we straddle two sets of contradicting needs: the need for security and the need for freedom. They spring from different sources and pull us in different directions. And the issue today is that we want to reconcile this tension in our romantic relationships and in many other facets of our lives. Maybe your lifestyle requires a 9-5 paycheck but corporate life feels restrictive to your creativity. Sometimes, you like to be nomadic; other times you just want to be home.
Control, for many, means choosing one or the other: security or freedom. The fact is we need both. Because we desire the security of belonging—whether to a person, a job, or a community—and the freedom to explore other options, we often find ourselves acting out of our internal contradictions. Some of us come out of our childhood needing more protection; some of us come out needing more space. And these needs continue to fluctuate throughout our lives. Cultivating fluidity helps us navigate this tension. People want partnership and a deep lasting love, but they also want relationships that should also be revocable at any time.”
The following exercise offers one approach to processing the thoughts, feelings and actions that have led you to this place, and there is an order to this that can be helpful to follow.
Get out of your head
While I highly encourage you to read through and complete the exercise, the process itself will take time, and should be accomplished over weeks, again over months and possibly again over the years. But for now... do you have an hour or more to reflect on each of the five points? You can read through this as many times as needed and add your reflections/responses over several days. Find some paper and a pen to respond to the following questions and prompts. Please spend time on each question and write out your thoughts. Try not to read ahead, as there are no right answers, only honest ones that come from you.
Grieve (Give yourself approximately 1 hour to complete)
After an affair, you must grieve the loss of that extra-marital relationship (and their former lover) as well as the loss of the marriage, or at minimum this chapter of the marriage. You can’t bury the past if it is still gasping for air. Closure is a process, and healing takes time. Before entering a journey of reconciliation or a new relationship, it is important to take stock of what has been lost, and to be honest about what you need.
Are there areas in your life in which you are looking for an exit sign?
At this moment, do you crave security or freedom? What does that look like?
Have you been in the same job or marriage or town for too many years, yearning to get out?
Have you lost yourself to your roles as spouse, parent, family member, friend, employee?
Do you maintain lackluster relationships that have become obligatory and devoid of joy and interest?
Did the affair provide an opportunity to experience life and/or yourself differently? How?
Who was the “new you” or “new life” you found through the affair? How was it different from the you and the life you lived before the affair (or the “other” world you lived with your husband during the affair)?
Are your desires (emotional and sexual) from the affair completely gone? Are they buried in guilt, but unresolved?
What feelings and thoughts do you have for your former lover?
Are you motivated by desire or fear to repair what’s been broken in your marriage?
What is most important to you? What do you value most in life? (There are some values' exploration exercises I can share with you upon request.)
If you need freedom, find ways to explore. Push yourself where you haven't allowed yourself to go. Take someone new with you into the places that you love. Ditch wine-tasting and go rock-climbing, or biking, or to hear live music. Open your world and the people in it.
If you need stability, look for structure. Stand still and begin nesting. Create new rituals: a walk in the park, journaling, or meditation. Every weekend, try to reconnect with an old friend.
Remember that the goal is a confident walk on the tightrope, back and forth between the two. When we find that balance, our lives open up to new possibilities: new chapters and new ways of experiencing life.
Understand (Give yourself approximately 1 hour to complete)
If you don't seek understanding, you won’t be able to forgive yourself or feel connected to anyone else around you. Being consumed with beating yourself up without getting curious is a self-centered roundabout with no exit.
What kind of person would have an affair?
On a good day, our emotions reinforce logic. When this happens, it’s called congruency. When we live congruent with our values, we have a life filled with richness and meaning. See the writings and videos of Russ Harris and Steven Hayes for more on this.
Unfortunately, emotions can also obstruct logic. When this happens, it’s called a cognitive distortion, which can lead to behaviors against our values and out of the norm for most people.
A cognitive distortion is a type of thought that allows wrong actions to appear right. Distortions disrupt the rules of common sense. They disguise or suppress the fact that actions against our values can only lead to chaos.
Let’s review some common cognitive distortion examples illustrated in the following comic. Write down which examples of cognitive distortions ring true for you.
Cognitive dissonance and emotional reasoning affect our behaviors. In the following examples, we know the behaviors are “wrong,” but we can somehow make them “right” in the moment.
Yelling at the kids
Driving while intoxicated
Keeping the wad of cash we found on the pavement
Calling in sick when we're not
Making a budget-busting purchase
People know the above actions are questionable, wrong, or even dangerous, but they do them anyway. The reason is because intense or impaired emotions obstruct rational thoughts, and they hide out under a familiar name...
You know the difference between right and wrong, so it goes without saying that you wouldn’t have allowed yourself to have an affair without first having intense emotions allowing you to be convinced that it was somehow right, justifiable (or would eventually work out for the best). Somewhere along the line, you created (and believed) certain arguments that made it okay for you to get your desires fulfilled outside of your marriage, and in a secretive way.
What could have allowed you to do that?
If you are having trouble answering the above, consider the following examples:
"I might never feel love or desire again."
"My spouse doesn’t care about me anyway."
"My marriage is already over."
"As long as it’s a secret, nobody gets hurt."
"I should be able to do what I want for once."
"What if this is my soulmate?"
"These feelings are so strong, they must mean something."
So, what were your excuses that led you to the affair?
What were the excuses that kept you in it?
Were these excuses the same or different?
How did they evolve or change overtime?
They must have been powerful because they were very effective in overwhelming your values and overriding your common sense.
Listen: The story I made up was
As long as the excuses exist, so will the possibility of repeating the cheating.
History does not repeat itself.
People repeat their histories.
Until you uncover the distortions, excuses and rationalizations that led you to infidelity, you will continue to feel shame and continue to be vulnerable to similar behaviors that move you further away from your values.
What emotions were strongest before you engaged in the affair?
What emotions were strongest during the affair?
Emotions can distort our thoughts and blind us to the consequences of our actions. After taking inventory of the emotions that lead you to thoughts that the affair was worth the risk, make a list of 5 excuses you used to override your better judgment and move forward with the affair.
Remember, an excuse is any argument that allows a false premise to appear true. Like monsters under the bed, they only have power if you don’t confront them.
All excuses are lies or false arguments. So, any time you choose to believe an excuse, you’re choosing to deceive yourself. You can never deceive any person without first deceiving yourself.
If you hadn’t had any of these excuses written above to justify the affair, would it still have happened?
What would your life be like right now if you had none of these excuses?
Practice acceptance. (Give yourself approximately 1 hour to complete)
Your actions caused suffering. The past cannot be rewritten, but you hold the pen to write your next chapter. Acceptance comes from the Latin word "acquiescence", which means, "to find rest in." Acceptance will stop your internal struggle -- the one where you keep wishing the affair had not happened the way it did or hurt others. Once you stop struggling with reality, sadness and then calmness will follow.
By accepting yourself as “all the things”, you stop punishing yourself for being human, you stop beating yourself up for following your cognitive distortions, you stop the self-loathing and shame, and you stop feeling like you have to try to pay back for making the mistake (or worse, suggest your partner betray or harm you to “make it even”).
Before you can accept and forgive yourself, it’s important that you remove obstacles that block you from accepting forgiveness.
Even if you can identify the excuses that rationalized the affair, and even after you have extinguished them, you may not be able to move to the next step because an even bigger excuse is standing in your way of healing. It’s an excuse that has you convinced you don’t deserve forgiveness.
Perfection isn’t part of the human experience.
Mistakes make lessons.
Falling is feedback.
There is no courage without vulnerability.
There is no love without loss.
Mistakes are learning opportunities. They provide feedback that can help us improve- constructive side effects. As children, most of us were punished for our mistakes — not rewarded.
Why do we believe in punishing mistakes (and mistake makers)?
Does punishment lead to correction?
What happens when it’s your mistake and you hold the belief that “mistakes a call for punishment”?
What is another word for self-punishment?
Are shame and guilt related? Do shame and pain correct behavior?
Answer: Guilt is a distressing emotion experienced by an individual who regrets actions which they have done in the past that they deem to be shameful, hurtful, or wrong. Shame is closely allied to guilt and self-directed resentment, but it is less descriptive of a behavior than it is deemed a charater flaw. When a person regrets an earlier action or failure to act, it may be because of shame or in response to various other consequences, including being punished. People may express guilt through apologies, trying to repair the damage they've caused, or express shame through self-imposed punishments.
What’s the point of shame?
Are you hoping that by punishing yourself, it will prevent you from making any more mistakes?
Will self-punishment atone for your actions or make the wrongs right?
Does shame lead to course correction?
Does feeling shameful really stop people from having affairs?
Shame doesn’t stop you from having an affair — it stops you from fully enjoying it.
Shame is late to the party, often showing up after you've "done it".
Shame is like the smell of your car after you've left the Chinese food takeout in there overnight. It permeates everything with an off-putting odor that is hard to get rid off.
While guilt compels you to acknowledge wrongdoing, shame marries you your mistakes (til death do us part), wearing mistakes like a favorite sweater.
Read anything by Brené Brown to learn more about shame and vulnerability.
Get out of your head and give back
Trade in your shame for something bigger than yourself. A higher power. A bigger plan. A meaningful role or responsibility. A new or renewed goal. Find compassion in your humanness. Get involved in something worthwhile. Give back. By doing this, you will be getting out of your own head so that you can move towards your values.
Aside from the things I feel guilty about, how else would I describe myself?
Who do I matter to and why?
What is unique and good about me?
Keep writing until you have a list to balance the weight of your guilt. You are not your affair. You are someone who made a mistake, like we all have made mistakes. You have overcome other mistakes, and you have made many amazing choices and actions in life.
Learn (Give yourself approximately 1 hour to complete)
Notice the lessons and make a plan. Practice self-care. Get counseling. This way, you won't fall into the same pattern (emotion > distortion > excuses > wrong action > guilt) again. Work on yourself and get the support you need.
Mistakes are lessons, not lead weights.
We live in a world of complementary opposites- peaks and valleys. As there are benefits and drawbacks to every situation, you will need to look at what the possible benefits are to what has happened. This is not about justification -- this is about being able to see that just as you have caused pain to those around you, you have also caused them pleasure and spawned introspection, too. When you embrace the fact that your mistakes are your teachers, you listen to them.
Self-forgiveness and acceptance are shifts in perception. There is no hierarchy in forgiveness, no exclusions, no exceptions. Forgiveness can’t be earned. So….
Grieve the loss of the affair and the loss of this chapter of marriage.
Get curious about the emotions that led to the cognitive distortions.
Explore the excuses that led to actions that weren’t in line with your values and your vows.
Embrace the lessons and self-correct so you don’t repeat history.
And in all this, treat yourself with the compassion you would for a child.
Check out this wellness recovery action plan to support the health and wellbeing of you and of your family. There is even an app! Some of the sample WRAPS and tools under the "WRAP in Action" plan will help you get started and inspire you along the way.