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Guilt After Betrayal

An insidious form of guilt impairs healing and growth.

The greatest obstacles to healing and growth following intimate betrayal – abuse, infidelity, deceit - are also the cruelest, because they seem so unfair. Guilt is a primary example.

In both hidden and overt ways, guilt permeates the initial hurt of intimate betrayal and insidiously undermines recovery, as it affects all areas of your life, especially other family relationships.

Guilt is an uncomfortable and often painful feeling that comes from the belief or impression that you have violated a personal standard through specific thoughts or behaviors, i.e., you did (or thought about doing) something you regard as wrong.

The reason that those who suffer intimate betrayal are likely to feel guilty has less to do with their personal psychology or relationship experience than with the evolved function of guilt in close relationships. Most anthropologists agree that early humans would not have survived without strong emotional bonds that made them cooperate in food gathering and territorial defense. Not surprisingly, modern humans are endowed with highly developed, pre-verbal, pre-rational, and automatic emotional inhibitions and reactions to behaviors that threaten emotional bonds. Guilt is primary among these. In close relationships, guilt acts as a distance regulator. Behaviors that threaten the emotional bond stimulate guilt, while behaviors that enhance the bond relieve guilt. More simply put, get closer and guilt disappears; put up walls and it gathers strength.

This evolutionary function of guilt, naturally selected because of its advantage in preserving emotional bonds that were once necessary for survival, has nothing to do with moral judgments of right or wrong. So we cannot merely intellectualize our way out of it. Neither can we escape it by blaming it on those who remind us that we've violated a standard, as in the immature appraisal of a "guilt trip," an invention that has its roots in toddlerhood when we feel "punished" by guilt.

Guilt is a Motivation, Not a Punishment

If guilt feels like punishment, rather than a motivation to reinvest in the attachment bond, there is an impulse, left over from toddlerhood, to blame it on the person stimulating it - "Bad Mommy!" The impulse to blame is rarely interpreted for what it essentially is: a method to reduce guilt or shame. Rather, it "proves" that others are wrong, unfair, untrustworthy, or abusive. The compulsion to blame becomes the filter through which all evidence is processed. In other words, if I feel like blaming you, you must be bad, so I will only consider evidence that proves you’re badness and disregard anything to the contrary, thus nullifying my guilt as a motivation to reconnect. Blaming your guilt on those who remind you of it does nothing to relieve it. Rather, it makes you feel more powerless, and, therefore, more resentful and angry.

The association of guilt with anger is almost inevitable, which is why it begins in toddlerhood. Guilt induces a state of vulnerability, which makes the brain hypersensitive to possible threats. (The more vulnerable mammals feel, the more threat they are likely to perceive.) The threatened ego shifts into defensive resentment or anger within milliseconds, which is far too fast for conscious awareness, much less deliberate regulation. We may know we're resentful (usually not) or angry (usually) but are unlikely to fathom that we also feel guilty. Other people are even less likely to see beneath our displays of resentment and anger, much less be sympathetic to the vulnerability that lurks there. (They are far too busy defending themselves against the sharper edges of our anger and resentment to notice what lies beneath.) Guilt cannot function as a motivation to love better when obscured by blame. Instead, it becomes a fuel for the eternal flame of resentment.

Rational Guilt

If you have suffered intimate betrayal, most of the guilt you experience is irrational, mere remnants of the early days of species development, when preserving attachment bonds - no matter how bad they might have been - was necessary for survival. But you will also have some rational guilt about simple human mistakes you made and a few personal failures of the sort everyone occasionally commits in intimate relationships. Even though unrelated to your partner’s betrayal, these will prevent healing and growth, if ignored, explained away, or blamed. Your guilt is yours; whether rational or irrational, hidden or overt, it must be converted into reparative actions that honor your deeper values.

As with all emotions, guilt loses its motivational power when we focus too much on how it feels and not enough on what it tells us to do, i.e., get right with our deeper values. Focus on the feelings themselves, rather than their motivations, increases the risk of seeking a quick fix to temporarily numb the pain (through blame, anger, or alcohol) or distract from it with compulsive behaviors (such as working all the time) or obsessions (thinking endlessly about something else). Quick fixes for guilt typically lead to more failure and violation of values, which produce still more guilt to be numbed or avoided. Attempts to numb or avoid guilt trap us in a relentless feedback loop. It keeps coming back, often with a vengeance, until we honor our deeper values.

A better strategy for dealing with the pain of guilt is to convert it into compassion, first for yourself, then for the significant people in your life. Never experience guilt without doing something to honor your deeper values.

Okay, that’s good advice, but guilt is usually concealed by resentment or anger, so how are you supposed to know when you feel guilty? The purpose of the following exercise is to discover the guilt that may lurk beneath your anger and resentment. Once you identify causative guilt, you are free to follow its motivation to heal and connect to loved ones. At that point, anger and resentment become unnecessary.

Briefly describe an event in your recent past that triggered your anger or resentment. (Example – My wife implied to the children, yet again, that I’m a no better as a father than I was as a husband, to justify leaving us for another man.)

I’m angry, but what do I also feel guilty about? (Example – I make the same kind of aspersions about her, sometimes by saying them and other times by just thinking them, which I know hurts my children by dividing their loyalty.)

This is what I will do to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect. (Example - I will focus on the best interests of my children, in recognition that my behavior toward them - not what their mother tells them - determines the quality of our relationship in the long run.)

If you do the above exercise, you should notice that regulating hidden guilt lurking beneath most anger and resentment empowers you to move forward in your journey to heal and grow. When you feel empowered, anger and resentment are unnecessary.

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