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:
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.
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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Copyright 2014 Guy Winch
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