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Feeling Very Guilty After An Affair Is Not Unusual

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Feeling Very Guilty After An Affair Is Not Unusual

Learning to forgive yourself after an affair

Dear Duana,

I’m living with horrible guilt for an affair that ended four years ago.  I didn’t plan on cheating, but like your articles say, I got too close with a co-worker and the affair went on for over a year.  I finally hit a point where I was so guilt-ridden, I confessed everything to my wife Kris and I asked her to help me end the affair.  She did the steps to forgiveness, but I can’t stop beating myself up for doing this to the nicest, most respectful person in the world.  I feel like scum.  Please tell me how to forgive myself.  And please don’t hate me.

Ryan

 

Dear Ryan,

I don’t hate you, and Kris clearly loves you.  But I’m worried you might hate yourself.   And I’m wondering:  Should we both hate guilt?

No…and yes.

Appropriate guilt is a gift.  Like physical pain, guilt done right is rather persuasive in directing us to fix our behavior and stop wrecking our lives.  It was guilt that motivated you to tell your wife and end the affair, right?  Good going, Guilt.

But as with lingering pain from a wound long-healed, your guilt has not only outlived its purpose, it’s now The Problem.  So how do you cast that burden aside and move forward with a clean heart?

 

Commit yourself to labor and love.    

Forgiveness is a labor of love, and loving and working on yourself with forgiveness should be a priority. 

Kris loved herself (and you) enough to give up the natural desire to punish you.  She moved past normal feelings of bitterness, obsessiveness and pain.  Letting go in this way is usually a lot of work—the work of forgiveness.  Now it’s time for you to pick up where she left off, and find out whether you can love yourself that much.

First, please re-read the article linked here.  It’s about forgiving others’ affairs, but applying the other-forgiveness steps to yourself isn’t rocket surgery; you’re smart, and I’m sure you’ll be able to do it if you just keep on putting out the effort.  Still, I’d like to call your attention to two of the steps in particular:  reliving the past and setting boundaries for the future.

 

—Relive the past…in writing.

It’s important to put in words how the affair started, and include the feelings and actions that got you there:  “Sherri’s desk was next to mine.  I found her attractive, but not as beautiful as Kris.  But every day, Sherri and I talked, and soon we were telling each other details of our lives.  Nothing serious, just stuff.  I really enjoyed these conversations; started looking forward to them, thinking up what I would say to her and missing her if she was out.  I liked the flirting that went on, but I didn’t seriously consider that it could be a danger to my marriage.  I began thinking about Sherri more often when I was at home, sometimes in sexual fantasies.  I started revealing things to Sherri that nobody else knew, not even my wife.  I started feeling awkward about telling Kris that Sherri and I had talked, or what we’d said.  One day I asked Sherri to coffee and didn’t tell Kris.  I told myself it was still an innocent flirtation—that I loved Kris far too much to ever cheat on her…”

And so on, until you’ve written the story of the affair itself.

I know, I know.  Many people –especially male people—think it’s super-lame to Write Things Out.  But I’m insistent on this point.  Writing your story is vital.  There is no forgiveness without empathy.  And there’s no route to empathy without insight. 

Get the insight.  Or rather, give it to yourself as a present of love and healing.

 

—Set boundaries for the future…in writing. 

Writing down which beliefs and behaviors got you into the affair is also an invaluable tool for not, um, re-tooling.

Review your written story and list all the risky behaviors you won’t be engaging in from hereon out:  telling Other Women your secrets, telling them things you aren’t telling Kris, spending unnecessary time with them, spending time away from work with them, inviting them to coffee, etc.  Whatever you said or did that got you involved/devolved should be on the list.  When you were naive, these things seemed innocent.  You’re not so naive anymore.

 

Let yourself out of jail.

Repeat after me:  “If we jailed people for affairs, I’d be out on parole by now.”

And if I were your parole officer, I’d give you a glowing report.  Per your longer letters to me, you’ve done the things people do who aren’t going to have another affair:

—You’ve sincerely admitted your wrong;

—told Kris the details when and in the manner she requested to hear them;

—asked and received her forgiveness;

—lived a transparent life so Kris could trust you again; and

—committed to not only a verbal statement that you won’t have another affair, but more importantly, you committed to avoiding behaviors that lead to affairs.

Moreover, you believe affairs are wrong, and if you had the chance, you’d prevent the affair you had.

Ryan, the only Law Of Psychology is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.  Especially the most recent relevant behavior.  Yes, you had an affair.  But you haven’t done it again, not for years, and your new behaviors and attitudes tell me this:  You’re reformed.

Prisons exist to punish and to reform.  The prison of your own making has handily accomplished both objectives.  You’ve paid your debt; you’ve changed your life.

Now walk out of prison and stay your new course.

 

And while you’re throwing away the key…love yourself again.

 

Cheers,

Duana

The author wishes to thank the following scientists and sources:

Shirley Glass, for her lifetime of research into affairs, affair prevention, and affair recovery and forgiveness

David G. Myers, whose writings in social psychology showed me the value of guilt…and of finding a way through it

 

All material copyrighted by Duana C. Welch, Ph.D. and LoveScienceMedia, 2011, 2014

Copyright © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, Duana

Duana C. Welch, Ph.D., is the author of Love Factually: 10 Proven Steps from I Wish to I Do, coming in January, 2015. She also contributes at Psychology Today and teaches psychology at Austin-area universities. Get a free chapter of Love Factually!

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