Dr. Wall continues his series (this is the third) on healing from an affair from the point of view of the person who had the affair. He looks at what true moral guilt is and what it is not. For the first in this series click here. For the second click here.
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.
Revelation 20: 12-13 (NIV)
Let’s hypothetically say you had an affair. Let’s say you are sorry you had an affair, you are doing whatever you can to not have another affair, you are connecting with your spouse, you are learning what real love is, that it is NOT a feeling, that it is a responsibility, a calling, a duty and a privilege all wrapped up into one, and that you finally get it. Let’s say you are reaching out to your spouse, learning to be the spouse you should be. You are giving even when your spouse can’t give to you. You are being forthright about your life. You are telling your spouse what’s going on with you. There are no secrets any more. Let’s say you do all these things after your affair and you still feel guilty about what you had done. What then?
I would say, good for you. I’m not one to explain away guilt or to talk people out of it. If you were abused or a victim of a crime or some tragic occurrence, like a tornado, and you felt guilty, we’d have a little chat about that. Real genuine guilt is related to doing things we shouldn’t have done, not doing things we should have done, saying things we shouldn’t have said and not saying things we should have said.
Guilt, when you haven’t sinned is counterfeit. It’s not the real deal. The book of Job dealt with that false theology and psychology and rejected it 3500 years ago: That if bad things happen to you it’s because you deserved it. No. Bad things happen to everyone whether we deserve it or not. The rain falls on the rich and the poor. I’m sure there were fine people and evil people in Haiti that got nailed with that earthquake. Sadly, too many of them are going to feel guilty after that occurred. If any of them are fortunate enough to go to counseling, their counselor, if he or she is worth anything, will not let their client get away with taking blame for an earthquake, or being raped or being sexually abused as a child, or being the spouse of someone who had an affair.
If someone murdered your mother or your mom and dad divorced, if you had guilt about that, it would be false guilt. It’s understandable for people to feel guilt, because your feelings are all over the place when tragedy strikes. You are weak and frail emotionally and Satan comes knocking on your door and he tells you God is capricious and fickle and He was out to get you, because you are a dirty so and so. It’s amazing how many people dump God when they go through heartache. For me I want it to be just the opposite: When I’m going through heartache, that’s the very time I need Him.
But instead of false guilt, let’s say you have guilt after having an affair, and you are working hard to make amends with your spouse and taking care of yourself and learning about appropriate boundaries and honoring your marital vows going forward. Let’s say you really ARE guilty, you really did chose to dishonor your vows, but now you are done with that, it’s over, you’ve learned your lesson the hard way (bummer!) and you aren’t going back. If you have guilt now, I’d say good for you.
Good for you because guilt is a great motivator. True, moral-breaking guilt tells me your conscience is alive. You need a conscience if you are going to keep your life on the straight and narrow and never go back. You need a little empathy for the pain that you have brought upon your spouse and your family. Down the road you are going to want your conscience to be alive to help fight temptation. There’s nothing like a little guilt to keep your passions at bay.
If you had broken your marriage vows and pursued your own lusts at someone else’s door (please don’t tell me it “just happened”) and you didn’t feel guilt, I’d be a tad concerned. I would see it as part of my duty as marriage therapist dude to help you see that maybe a little guilt here wouldn’t be such a bad deal. If you have guilt, it’s just one less thing we have to cover.
Early in my therapy career I worked at an agency where one of my responsibilities was to work with sex offenders. This certainly wasn’t my favorite thing to do. It was a little too creepy for my blood, but you have to learn to be a counselor somewhere. One of the major things we did with this population was what as called “empathy training.” This was the idea that you are not going to offend a little girl or boy if you have any empathy for that child. If any of the rest of us ever had a sexual desire to ravish a little child, we suppress that desire and kick it out of heads as so much drivel, because our consciences tells us that it would be a horrid thing to have Uncle Bob or Grandpa do those sorts of awful things to us.
It’s not just the fear of getting caught that keeps people from committing crimes. It’s empathizing with one’s possible victim that keeps these criminal thoughts away. The theory was that the only way someone could use a little boy or girl for their own pleasure was if the offender is basically dead to any sort of feeling that their victim might be going through at the hand of their abuser. We wanted these offenders to come to the point where they understood what it really felt like to have this stuff done to you.
Now I deal with affairs all the time, but the principle is still the same. With an affair it is a lot easier to teach empathy because the victim, the spouse that didn’t have the affair, is right there in the office. I let that person talk about what it is like to have a spouse have an affair and how that plays havoc on his or her brain, because I want the offender, the affairee, to kick his or her conscience into gear.
So if you have some guilt after the things that you did, I would say, good for you. We’re on the right track.
And I’m NOT going to talk you out of it…Unless that guilt tells you that you a such a low piece of crap that you may as well go ahead and continue to screw up your life and everyone in it. Then we’d have a chat. Then I might wrap your knuckles.
Wouldn’t that be the pits? You do all this work in therapy, you make amends with your spouse, you reorient your life and your priorities, you start spending time with your spouse, you start actually MAKING love WITH your spouse instead of going through the motions, you recommit your heart, you respect boundaries and honor your vows and you STILL FEEL LIKE CRAP and you start to tell yourself that all this therapy and coming clean and repenting and making amends is for the birds and the worms can have it, too, and you’ve done all this work and nothing’s change for you, you’re just a loser, a frickin’ loser, and there’s nothing you or any therapist, or any minister either, can do to make you feel any better and since you don’t feel any better and you are doing all the right stuff you may as well act like your feel, so you go back to the ways that led to your emotional, relational and spiritual demise out of habit and comfort with being a total wasteland when it comes to morals and principles and the fundamentals and you go back to screwing up your life because your feelings keep pounding in your head that since you are such a loser you may as well act the part. Wouldn’t that be a crapper?
Now if you have that kind of guilt, then we’d have a chat and I’d be telling you that that type of guilt isn’t true guilt at all, that those types of thoughts and feelings may come upon someone who’s really done things to damage he or her relationships and integrity, but it doesn’t mean a person has to camp there. These feelings need to just be passing through. You take a look at them, evaluate them, see them for what they are worth (nothing!), realize that you are having them because you really did screw up a bunch of stuff and this is collateral damage that you are going to have to pass through and pretty soon you’ll be fine, and you’ll be on the other side.
And most of you will go, “Whew!” and wipe your brow and buckle down and continue to honor boundaries and reach out to your spouse and live a life of balance and never go back to whoring around and spreading your seed in the sewer.
But some of you won’t and that’ll be sad, but it’ll be said of you that there wasn’t a connection with your therapist, no alliance there, or you had the wrong therapist, or you were a difficult client or you just didn’t get it or you’ll say your therapist was off the wall, no pun intended, and he just didn’t get it, didn’t understand me, nobody understands me and you’ll continue your life-style of choice and all the things I warned you about will come true.
But the bottom line, it doesn’t matter if I get it or your next therapist gets it. It’s all neither here nor there. What matters is what YOU do with your life, how YOU spend your time, what YOU think about and what YOU do with the thoughts you think about and the feelings you feel.
Because, look. I’m not going to be standing next to you on Judgment Day. You’ll have to stand there in front of the King and Judge of the Universe all by yourself and answer for what YOU thought felt and said and did. It won’t matter if I got it or not. It’s your life that will be on the overhead. You WILL be responsible then.
My point is let’s be responsible NOW, let’s make the right choices NOW, let’s rise above the crazy feelings NOW, let your true moral guilt be a great motivator NOW, while the sun still rises every morning.
For the first blog in this series on healing from an affair see:
Dr. Wall explains a very important step that must take place for healing to occur after an affair.
For the second:
In this second blog in a series on healing from an affair (for the first one click here) Dr. Wall suggests that loving feelings are too shallow to make a marriage work. Your love better have more fuel than feelings to keep it burning.
Another blog on a similar topic from last fall is:
The first question that comes up after a trust violation in marriage is: Do both partners need to come to therapy or just the person who violated the trust? Dr. Wall clears the air on this issue and describes the therapeutic process around trust issues.
For all of Dr. Wall’s blogs on affairs click here.