106: Ask Yourself the Right Questions

Sep 13, 2022

Many of us have a basic assumption that life needs to make sense. We can interrogate this desire for a coherent narrative of ourselves and our experiences from multiple different angles. But if you really want a deep sense of yourself and who you are, you need to take responsibility and have ownership of your self-definition, which comes from asking yourself the right questions.

Asking the right questions can be life-changing, both on a personal and collective level. When we ask helpful questions, we can address problems and challenges very differently than when we ask not-so-helpful questions. This is just as applicable if you’re trying to solve a math problem or, as is the case here, deciding how you want to deal with your infidelity.

Maybe you want to leave your marriage, but you’re not sure exactly why yet. Perhaps you think your marriage is something you should aspire to and value, but you’re not fully wanting it. Asking yourself, “Why would I want to leave a perfect relationship?” is the wrong question. So, in this episode, Dr. Marie Murphy is showing you how to ask yourself the right questions that show you what you really want, not what you think you should want.

If you’re ready to take this topic deeper in a confidential and compassionate environment, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me by clicking here!

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • Why we have a desire for a coherent narrative of ourselves and our life.

  • The questions I see people asking themselves about their infidelity that don’t allow them to own their self-definition and, in many cases, are unanswerable.

  • Why it’s no surprise that people have idealized the idea of marriage (or any aspect of their lives) as the right way to do things.

  • How to see the notion that your life is perfect and therefore you should want it as open to questioning, rather than an assumption you must buy into.

  • Why it’s always okay to want something different to what other people want or what you think you’re supposed to want, and you don’t need a deeper reason.

  • How to start asking yourself more approachable questions that get to the bottom of what you really want.

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy.  I’m a relationship coach, and I provide shame-free, blame-free, non-judgmental relationship coaching for people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity.  If that applies to you, and you want help dealing with your feelings, clarifying what you want, and making decisions about what you’re going to do, let’s work together.  You can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.

Okay.  Today we’re going to talk about helpful questions, and not-so-helpful questions.  I firmly believe that asking the right questions can be life-changing, both on a personal level and a collective level.  When we ask helpful questions, we can address problems, or challenges very differently than when we ask not-so-helpful questions.  And this is true if we’re trying to solve an engineering problem or a health policy problem or a personal problem, but today I’m going to focus on the kinds of questions that can help us deal with personal problems, or challenges, related to infidelity situations.  Because, of course that’s what I’m going to focus on.

Many of us have an underlying idea, or a basic assumption, that life needs to make sense.  Or perhaps even more specifically, we have the idea that our own lives need to make sense to us.  We want a coherent narrative of ourselves and our experiences of life that makes sense to us.  And there’s a lot I could say about that.  We could interrogate this desire for a coherent narrative of ourselves and our lives from multiple different angles.  We might ask who or what exactly this “self” is that we seek to understand.  Some would say that the notion of the “self” is the source of much of our suffering.  But I’m not going to focus on that today.  Instead, I’m going to acknowledge that for many people, having a clear sense of who they are, and who their “self” is, is really important.  And that CAN be fine and great!  I’m not subtly suggesting that you must abandon your idea of yourself as an individual self and give up on your desire for a coherent narrative of who you are and what your life is all about.  That’s not my position, but moreover, it’s not even a question I think it’s important to entertain for today’s purposes.  

But I am going to suggest that if you are going to have a coherent narrative of who you are, if you do want to have a sense of your SELF, it will serve you well to take responsibility for this narrative, and for defining your sense of who you are.

This is very different from what a lot of people do!  A lot of us do not take responsibility for, or ownership of, our self-definition.  Instead, a lot of us spend a lot of time and energy asking ourselves questions like, Why am I like this?  How did I get this way?  Why did I do that?  Why do I want this?  

Let me give you an example of what this can look like in practice.

Sometimes my clients who are married and having affairs tell me that they want to leave their marriages, but they “don’t know why” they would want to leave their marriages.  They think they have a very good marriage, or maybe even a “perfect” marriage, and they think the life they have with their spouse is exactly what they should aspire to and value and enjoy and appreciate, but yet they find themselves NOT wanting that marriage and that spouse and that life, or at least, not fully wanting it.  And sometimes folks in this position get really stuck on questions like, “Why am I this way?” or “Why don’t I want this perfect life that I have?”  

There are a number of problems with this sort of line of questioning.  The first is that the underlying assumption when people are ruminating on questions like these is that there is something wrong.  The basic premise that people are often operating from is that their supposedly perfect marriage or perfect spouse or perfect life is indeed objectively perfect, and therefore they should want it.  And it’s no surprise that people think this way.  When enough people around us value certain things, or tell us that a certain sort of partner is ideal, or a certain way of living is the way we should all want to live, we tend to buy into these ways of thinking.  That’s totally normal.  HOWEVER, we don’t have to get stuck in these ways of thinking forever, and nor do we want to.  You CAN take the notion that your life is perfect and therefore you should want it as open to questioning, rather than as an assumption you must buy into.  And when you look at your situation that way, questions like, “Why don’t I want my supposedly perfect spouse or marriage or life” either drop away entirely, or become approachable in an entirely different way.  

So if you’re in this kind of a situation – if you have a partner and a relationship, and a life built upon that relationship that seems “perfect” to you, but you don’t quite want it – I have a couple of suggestions.  First, if you’ve been asking yourself a question like, “Why don’t I want this perfect life that I have?” or “Why don’t I want to be with this perfect partner I have?” you can just answer the question!  Or questions.  

So often, we think that there are some sort of definitive answers to questions like these that are OUT THERE for us to find if we search long enough or hard enough.  But that may not be the case.  I want to suggest that answers to questions like these are not out there somewhere in the void.  And even if there were definitive answers to questions like, “Why am I like this?” we would have to recognize them as such to find them useful, and that power of recognition lies within us.  Moreover, we might not LIKE the answers we found, even if we recognized them as answers.

The idea that we can just DECIDE why we are the way we are strikes some people as mighty strange.  Surely we can’t just do that, some people say.  Surely that isn’t how it works.  Well, I want to suggest that this is EXACTLY how it works.  We’re all telling ourselves who we are and how we are and why we are the way we are all the time.  We say things like, “I’m the kind person who… (fill in the blank).”  Or, “I’ve always been someone who… (fill in the blank).”  But are these statements ever as absolutely true as we think they are?  I want to suggest that they aren’t.  You may think that your observations of who you are are just neutral observations of the simple truth, but I want to suggest that even if they were, they are also acts of CREATION, and you may want to keep an eye on what you’re creating!

So, if you think questions like “Why don’t I want to be with this perfect spouse I have, and why don’t I just want to stay in this perfect life of mine?” are useful questions, then go ahead and answer them.  You can come up with clear answers to those questions.  You really can!  And if you don’t believe me, schedule a coaching call with me and I will pull some answers out of you, I PROMISE.  If you’re posing questions to yourself that seem unanswerable, you can simply decide that you are going to answer them, and that doing so is going to resolve the matter at hand.  It does not have to be more complicated than that.

But let’s also keep in mind that you may want to abandon certain questions entirely, because they’re based on faulty premises.  Questions like, “Why do I want to leave my spouse even though they’re perfect?” presume that your spouse is actually perfect.  But are they?  And what the hell does it mean for someone to be perfect?  And even if your spouse were “perfect,” does that mean you should want to be with them?  So this brings me to my second suggestion, if you’re asking yourself why you want to leave your supposedly perfect life, or perfect relationship, or perfect partner.  Stop asking those kinds of questions entirely, and ask yourself instead why it might be perfectly okay to want something other than what you currently have.

A lot of the time, what’s going on in a situation like this is we don’t quite believe that it’s okay for us to want something that’s different from what other people want, or what we think we’re supposed to want.  But what if it is okay?  What if it were totally okay for us to want whatever we want?  People love to push back when I ask them to consider that question.  They love to say things like, “Well, then nobody would ever be accountable to anyone else and everyone would just do incredibly selfish shit all the time and the world would descend into chaos in ten minutes or less!”  I am not convinced that that’s what would happen.  But more importantly, I want to suggest that if you’re tempted to say that, that’s just a sneaky way of getting out of considering why it just might be okay for you want whatever you want.  Which is a very scary thing for a lot of us to consider, and thus very tempting to find clever ways to attempt to sneak out of considering, of course.

Sometimes what it all boils down to is the question, “Why can’t it just be easier to be me, and live my truest life?”  Sometimes that’s what we REALLY want to know.  But what if it doesn’t need to be any easier to be you, just the way you are, and live out your truest life?

Okay, here’s another example of a context in which people start asking themselves a lot of unhelpful questions.  Someone has cheated, and they feel bad about it.  Maybe their partner knows, or maybe they don’t, but the person who has done the cheating feels awful.  In this kind of a situation, sometimes clients say things to me like, “Well, I don’t know why I cheated,” or “I don’t know why I’m not happy enough with my primary relationship.”  And on the one hand, you don’t necessarily need to know the answers to these questions.  If you cheated, that simple fact may be more important than your reasons for doing so.  But – to echo what I said earlier - if you want to get clear on your reasons, get clear on your reasons!  The answers are WITHIN YOU, already, right now!  And they may be a lot simpler than you think!  For instance, sometimes the reason why we cheat is because we desire someone else!  Or maybe we’re just kind of bored and we’re looking for excitement!  Or maybe we’re lonely and we found connection with someone other than the person we’re supposed to be committed to, and monogamous with.  Or whatever.  It doesn’t have to be all that complicated, people.  Sometimes people say, “Yeah, but there has to be a DEEPER reason why I did what I did,” and I want to suggest that the real question is why there needs to be a deeper reason!  

Now, I am fully aware that some of the messaging out there about infidelity tells you that you DO need to uncover the so-called root cause of your infidelity, and the ultimate reasons why you cheated.  I know that some people who consider themselves experts will tell you that you do in fact need to do that.  And with this, like with so many other things, my opinion is that if this approach is working for you, that is fantastic, and I’m not going to tell you to stop.  If searching for answers to your “why” questions is proving beneficial to you, then by all means, keep doing it, and have fun.  

But my observation is that searching for answers to “why” questions of this kind is often not nearly as helpful as we think it’s going to be.  Sometimes we think that we must have cheated because one of our parents cheated or we were abandoned as a child and we’re always seeking love and validation from all the wrong places or it must be genetic or it was because we didn’t have any good relationship role models or whatever.  And the quest for these kinds of “answers” can be really seductive.  There’s so much support out there in our culture for seeking and finding ultimate answers, or fundamental explanations of why we are the way we are.  And again, if you are pursuing and finding ultimate explanations as to why you are the way you are and you like what you’re getting out of that, then go with god, I am very happy for you. 

However, I want to suggest that our quest for answers as to why we are the way we are may not get us much of anywhere.  For one thing, as I said earlier, in order for answers to count as satisfying answers, we have to recognize them as such – and that’s up to us.  It’s not that an explanation just falls out of the sky and hits us on the head and then everything makes sense.  We have to decide what makes sense to us in order for it to make sense.  And moreover, I want to suggest that when we’re searching for answers, what we’re really searching for is not an explanation of why we are the way we are, or why we did what we did, but something else.  Let me explain.

Often, when we ask ourselves WHY we’ve cheated, and we think we need to come up with a whole explanatory story about why we’ve cheated, it’s because we believe we’ve done something really wrong, and therefore, there’s something really wrong with us.  And believing that usually feels pretty bad, and most of us don’t like feeling pretty bad!  And we want a way to fix that feeling.   

But what if the premise is the problem here, not you?  What if you haven’t done something really bad, and there’s nothing wrong with you?  Yes, you may have done something you don’t feel great about.  But does that mean you have to think of yourself as really bad, or flawed, or wrong?  My answer to that question is no.  It does not.   

What if you just did something that you wanted to do, for reasons that are totally human?  What if it’s as simple as, you cheated because you met someone amazing, and connecting with that person seemed a lot more important, in that moment, than honoring your commitment to monogamy, or whatever commitment you made but didn’t honor?  That’s just one example, of course – I’m not saying that’s how we might explain why everyone who cheats does what they do.  But the point is, the answers to these kinds of “why” questions aren’t necessarily all that elusive.  And yeah, maybe you don’t feel awesome about what you did in some respects, but you probably really enjoyed what you did in other respects.  And both things can be true at once.  You can feel not-great about not meeting a commitment, and you can also feel pretty great about connecting with someone amazing, even if you weren’t “supposed” to connect with them in whatever ways you did.  

So if you’re asking yourself why you did what you did, try answering that question for yourself and letting it be that simple.   And if you’re asking yourself, “Why am I the way I am?” you might want to ask yourself why you’re asking that question.  Is there a problem with the way you are?  I’ll answer that for you: there is NOT a problem with the way you are.  The end.  But if you’ve noticed something about yourself that seems like a problem, you may be asking yourself WHY you are the way you are.  I spent years doing this, by the way.  Decades, actually.  And I don’t recommend it.  Here’s what I recommend instead.  If you’ve noticed something about yourself that seems like a problem, or something about yourself that you don’t like, ask yourself what you want to do about it.  

If you’ve been engaging in anything you think counts as infidelity and you don’t feel great about, I think the most important question you can ask yourself is, what do you want to change?  There may be any number of changes you want to make!  And you can make any changes that you want to.  And moreover, asking yourself what you want to change is a lot more powerful than asking yourself why you are the way you are.  It gives you your agency back!  

This is really important when it comes to infidelity because there are so many myths out there that will tell you that anyone who cheats is going to cheat again.  And if you’re worried that this could be true for you, this might be really scary, and you might be desperate to understand what’s going on with you – which is often code for understanding what’s wrong with you - so that you can fix it.  

But what if there’s nothing wrong with you?  What if the question is, do you want to change your behaviors or not?  I will tell you right now that if you don’t want to cheat again, you don’t have to.  Now, some people will say but wait, what about people who are love addicts or sex addicts, aren’t they DESTINED to keep cheating?  My answer to that is, no, not necessarily.  Yes, changing deeply habitual, compulsive behaviors can take a lot of effort.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.  We aren’t doomed to any particular patterns of behavior.  If we want to make change, we can make change.

So if you’ve been cheating, and asking yourself why you’ve been doing it, I encourage you to come up with some answers if answering that question is important to you, and then put that question to rest.  THEN ask yourself what you want to change, if anything, about what you’re doing or have been doing.  The past is all done, and although some examination of it may be useful, you may want to focus the bulk of your energy on deciding what you want your future to look like, and actively creating that future.

Now, I want to note that sometimes the reason why folks who have been engaging in some sort of infidelity ask themselves lots of questions about why they are the way they are, and why they’ve been doing whatever they’ve been doing is because other people in their life are upset about what they’ve been doing.  And that’s fine, the people who are upset have a right to be upset, but that doesn’t mean you need to come up with any ULTIMATE ANSWERS to the questions of why you did what you did.  You don’t have to justify or explain your actions with some inventory of your inherent flaws, or whatever.  Saying “inherent flaws” just reminded me of the movie “Inherent Vice,” which was directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  Did you see it?  I saw it in the theater and it seems like a million years ago but I think it was only actually about seven.  That is kind of a long time though, in this world that has been bent by the time warp of covid.  Anyway, I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, and depending on your taste, you might enjoy it too, but all of this is getting away from my point that if you have cheated and people are upset with you about this, you do not have to search for or atone for any inherent flaws.  You can take responsibility for your actions without taking on any sense of essential badness, or fundamental wrongness.

AND you can ask yourself what you want to do about your situation.  You may want to ask yourself what you want in your life right now.  I want to suggest that these are very important questions indeed.

So, let’s say you just got caught cheating, or you just voluntarily told the person you’re supposed to be in a monogamous relationship with that you’ve been cheating.  And your partner is upset, and they want to know WHY you did it.

Often what we’re really saying when we want to know why something happened, is that we don’t like the thing that happened.  Not always, but often.  There ARE times when we probably do need to figure out exactly why something happened, but I want to suggest that more often than not, that isn’t the most important question to ask when it comes to infidelity.  Often, when we want to know why something happened, we think that knowing why would make us feel better.  But that is not always how it works out, especially if we are given a reason why that we don’t like.  If we’ve been cheated on and we don’t like that, our job is to deal with our discomfort and then decide what we want to do with the relationship we’re in.  But that’s another topic for another day.  For now, my point for you, if you’re cheating or have been cheating and your partner wants to know why is that it is not your job to come up with an answer to that question that will satisfy them.  And you can care about their feelings and take responsibility for your actions in whatever ways you consider appropriate without answering that question.  What may matter more for both of you is you getting clear on what you want next.  So often, when someone cheats, the real question on the table is, “What is the future of this relationship?” – NOT ,“Why did the person who cheated do what they did?”

Okay!  There are so many more examples we could get into of questions that just lead us deeper and deeper into rabbit holes, and questions that help us cultivate certainty and clarity and the capacity to take decisive action.  But for today, I’ll leave you with three general suggestions.

Number one: if you notice that you have a tendency to ruminate on questions without answering them, recognize that this behavior is OPTIONAL.  You don’t have to make use of your mental energy in this way.  Entertaining questions without answering them may be a deeply entrenched habit, but you can change it, and start to use your mind in other ways instead.  But let me qualify that by repeating that if you love ruminating on questions without answering them, you don’t have to stop.  We’re all allowed to keep our habits if we want to.  But if you find that you’re engaging in this habit and it isn’t really serving you, I want you to know that you can let it go.

Number two: to that effect, if you notice yourself asking questions and not answering them, try answering the questions!  Trust that you are the only person who can answer most of the questions you’re asking, and decide that you will answer them.  So often we outsource the authority to answer questions to outside sources.  And if you like the results of doing it that way, then that’s great.  But if you don’t, there are other options.

Number three: if you’re asking yourself a question you just can’t seem to answer, ask yourself if you really need the answer to that question anyway.  Chances are, you DON’T need to know the answer, and chances are, ruminating on the question is not helping you in any discernable way.

All right everyone, thank you for listening.  If you want my help sorting out your infidelity situation in a way that’s truly right for you, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  All sessions are held via Zoom, so we can work together no matter where you’re located.  

Have a great week!  Bye for now.


Enjoy the Show?

Ready to talk?

Schedule your introductory coaching session with Marie.

Schedule Your Introductory Session

Want the answers to your questions?

Sign up to get the free guide to the podcast, which shares the exact episodes you need to tune into to get started answering the questions you have about your infidelity situation.

We hate SPAM. We will never sell your information, for any reason.