In 2009, Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina disappeared for six days on a “hike” and then confessed to having been in Argentina with a woman with whom he was having an affair. He held multiple press briefings in which he admitted to lying to his wife, his children, his staff, and the citizens of his state, all of whom he abandoned for a full week. He stated, “I take full responsibility for my moral failures.”
However, as Sanford quickly demonstrated, saying
you take full responsibility for an affair doesn’t mean you actually do
Despite calls for him to resign—a reasonable expectation for anyone who disappears from their job for an entire week—Sanford refused and remained in office for the rest of his term. In this and many other ways, despite repeatedly and publicly claiming to take “full responsibility” for his actions, Sanford actually took none.
Confusing Taking Full Responsibility With Admitting Wrongdoing
What Sanford actually meant when he stated he took “full responsibility” for his affair was that he fully admitted to having one. Indeed, if you substituted the phrase, I take full responsibility for having an affair with I fully admit to having an affair, Sanford’s subsequent actions make much more sense.
For example, he claimed he wanted to save his marriage but his wife eventually filed for divorce "after many unsuccessful efforts at reconciliation." These "‘efforts" were no doubt torpedoed by the fact that Sanford never actually left his mistress; in fact, he proposed to her soon after he was officially divorced. By misleading his wife and continuing to lie to her, Sanford demonstrated a complete lack of responsibility.
Admitting wrongdoing is an important first step but it is just that—a first step. Unless the person having the affair is willing to take honest actions, deal with consequences, and put in the hard work of rebuilding and repairing their damaged relationships, they are by definition, not taking responsibility.
How to Take Full Responsibility for an Affair
There are many things one should do when taking full responsibility for an affair; by no means is the following list exhaustive. Reforming a broken relationship, healing emotional wounds, and rebuilding trust is difficult, painful, time consuming, and not always successful, but it can be done—especially if the person who cheated commits to the following:
- Stop the affair (obviously). One cannot repair a relationship with a partner while one has contact with the other person. Taking full responsibility for one's actions means stopping the affair and ceasing all contact.
- Figure out why you had an affair: Including the reasons, motivations, triggers, excuses, justifications, opportunities, and circumstances that allowed it to happen.
- Figure out what you plan to do if and when each of the reasons, motivations, triggers, excuses, justifications, opportunities, and circumstances appear again—because they probably will.
- Be ready to listen—and talk—when your partner needs you to. Taking full responsibility means being ready to help your partner recover when they need you to be there for them, whether you're "in the mood" to talk or not.
- Avoid promising it will never happen again until you’ve figured out the "why." Taking full responsibility means not promising things you cannot guarantee. Unless you’ve dug deep and figured out why you cheated you do not have sufficient grounds to believe you won’t do it again—fear, regret, and remorse are not sufficient deterrents; they fade with.
- Contain your partner’s feelings. Your partner will go through cycles of feeling close and distant, loving and hateful, trusting and suspicious, as well as other emotional extremes. Taking full responsibility means it is your job to be understanding, supportive, and sympathetic as they go through these cycles. For example, they might feel trusting and loving one moment, then feel stupid for feeling trusting and loving, then feel rage at you for making them so unable to trust their own feelings. Yes, it’s difficult to contain another person’s rapidly shifting emotional states, but since you caused them, it is your responsibility to do so.
- Provide transparency. If you want your partner to trust you again, you have to demonstrate that you’re trustworthy. For example, if they want to look at your phone—let them. Don’t roll your eyes and don’t ask them why they need to check your phone. By rolling your eyes, you’re minimizing the fact that your actions made it difficult for them to trust you. Taking full responsibility means understanding that building trust takes time and cannot be rushed. Instead, try to welcome such requests as opportunities to soothe your partner’s suspicions and prove yourself trust-worthy. So hand over your phone with a simple, “Sure, here it is.”
- When it comes time to examine what aspects of the relationship were not working—what the "betrayed" partner might have been doing wrong—it is crucial to do so with the clear and expressed understanding that whatever wasn’t working in the relationship in no way excuses or justifies the affair. Taking full responsibility means recognizing it was your job to discuss your dissatisfactions with your partner and not act them out.
The bottom line is truly taking full responsibility for an affair should always be followed by weeks, and months of actions and consequences. Otherwise you’re not taking responsibility at all—you’re just admitting you got caught.
View my quite personal 17 minute TEDx talk about Psychological Health here:
For more about healing emotional wounds and strengthening relationships check out Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure and Other Everyday Hurts (Plume, 2014).
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