Hi everyone, I’m Dr. Marie Murphy. I’m a relationship coach and I help people who are engaging in anything they think counts as infidelity to deal with their feelings, clarify what they want, and make decisions about what they’re going to do. No shame, no blame, no judgments! A lot of the so-called advice for people who are engaging in infidelity is little more than thinly veiled judgement, but that is not what I provide. I provide guidance and support that respects the fullness of your humanity, and the complexity of your situation. If you’re ready to begin the process of resolving your infidelity situation in a way that’s truly right for you, I can help you do it. To schedule an introductory coaching session with me, go to my website, mariemurphyphd.com. I can’t wait to meet you.
Today we’re going to talk about guilt and responsibility.
Sometimes people come to me and say, “I actually don’t feel guilty about cheating,” as if they are confessing something bad. And sometimes they go on to say, does that mean there’s something wrong with me? Does that mean that I’m a narcissist, or a sociopath, or a psychopath?
My answer to all of those questions is no. If you don’t feel guilty about cheating, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It doesn’t mean you’re a narcissist. Or sociopath. Or a psychopath. I know there are a lot of people out there who would disagree with me on this, and that’s fine, they’re all allowed to have their perspectives. More importantly, if thinking of yourself as a narcissist or a sociopath or a psychopath for not feeling guilty about cheating helps you in some discernable way, then by all means, keep thinking about yourself like that.
But usually thinking this way is NOT helpful. And now I will tell you WHY I don’t think not feeling guilty about cheating means there’s anything wrong with you.
Cheating, or the behaviors that we think count as cheating, is a neutral behavior until we give it meaning. As I’ve talked about on other episodes, the language that we use to talk about infidelity is really loaded. “Cheating” is a word that is laden with negative connotations. I think “infidelity” is a little less loaded that some of the other words we use, but it isn’t exactly neutral. So as soon as we start talking about cheating or infidelity or adultery or affairs of whatever, we begin to imply that we are, by definition, talking about bad things. Bad behaviors. And, as I’ve said in other episodes, I think we need a whole new vocabulary to talk about this kind of stuff, but since we don’t yet, I continue to use words like cheating and infidelity and affair for the sake of not being too confusing.
However, let’s be really clear about something. The behaviors that we think of as cheating, or as infidelity, or as adultery, or as an affair, are not inherently bad behaviors. They aren’t even inherently meaningful behaviors. All of our actions are neutral until we give them meaning. Or, put differently, our actions are meaningless until we assign meaning to them.
And of course, one of the things that humans in groups do is exactly that! We collectively assign meaning to human actions all the time. This isn’t a bad or good thing, and moreover, we wouldn’t be able to function as a society if we didn’t do this. Shared understandings of what means what make the world go ‘round. Shared understandings of what is acceptable and what is not acceptable also make the world go ‘round. Having agreements with other people about how we’re going to live is part of what keeps society functioning to the extent that it does. And in order to have shared agreements about how we’re going to live, we tend to rely on shared understandings of what human actions mean.
So, to reiterate, the point here is not that assigning meaning to our actions is a bad thing, or that we shouldn’t do it at all. I’m not suggesting that. I’m suggesting that we want to recognize that meanings we have given to certain human behaviors are social in origin. They’re the product of human interactions and negotiations. That’s not to say that human-made meanings aren’t powerful. They certainly are. But they aren’t non-negotiable. We want to be aware that we have the power to examine the meanings humans have assigned to certain behaviors, and the consequences of buying into these meanings.
And with that, we also have the opportunity to recognize that we always have the option of changing what we think particular behaviors mean – or what we think anything else means, for that matter. What we as individuals think matters, even if what other people think may matter too. And moreover, when we as individuals take responsibility for our own thinking, and potentially decide to change our own thinking, we’re able to contribute to changes in how people collectively see things.
With all of that in mind, we could get deep into the history of why the behaviors we think count as infidelity have come to be considered bad, or problematic, and we would get deep into social construction theory, and the sociology of knowledge and of public opinion. But instead of doing that, let’s lay out a few brief points:
Societies have, at various points in time, decided that behaviors that we think of as cheating are problematic. And those ideas came about within particular socio-historical contexts, for reasons that made sense to certain people at the time. And over time, these ideas have been reinforced in various ways. And with the idea that cheating has problematic has come the idea that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t think that cheating is problematic. These ideas are definitely out there in the social world we inhabit. You’ve probably been exposed to these ideas in hundreds of subtle- and not-so-subtle variations.
But just because a lot of people may agree with these ideas doesn’t mean they are true in any absolute sense. Just because a lot of people – even people with professional credentials – believe that cheating is bad and that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t believe that, too, doesn’t make it true with a capital T. More to the point, even if someone with a particular degree and a particular job title tells you that you are in fact a narcissist because you’re cheating and you don’t think that what you’re doing is bad, that’s just one perspective. Their perspective may be totally valid within the domain of their professional knowledge, and it might well have some value, somehow, some way, somewhere. But that doesn’t mean that it’s an absolute truth that you have to agree with.
It's also important to note that in some societies, cheating is NOT considered this terrible awful thing. In some times and places, people have generally believed and still generally believe that committed relationships are important, AND cheating isn’t that big of a deal as long as you keep it quiet and don’t do anything too disruptive. And I’m not going to get into a bunch of specific examples of that because the point I want to underscore is that even if some people think that cheating is really, really bad – which some people certainly do – it’s not a universally shared belief that cheating is really, really bad. Not only is it not a universal truth, it’s not even universally believed to be A truth.
Knowing that may not be of immediate help to you if you a member of a society or a community in which cheating is considered pretty bad, or at least, not very good. We all have to contend with the norms that surround us, at least to some extent.
But I point this out to further illustrate that you not feeling guilty about cheating does not have to be considered an indication that there is anything wrong with you, or that you have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. Cheating and not feeling guilty about it is an indication that you have different thoughts about cheating than some people do. That may be a verifiable fact. And, that may be about it.
On top of that, there may be value, or utility, in not feeling guilty about whatever you’re doing in the infidelity realm. In other words, not feeling guilty about cheating may actually help you deal with your situation more effectively. There’s a very prevalent idea out there that feeling guilty about cheating will make you stop doing it, but this notion is problematic in two ways. One is, the feeling of guilt does not tend to enable us to make positive change. For a lot of people, feeling guilty inspires hiding and avoidance and resistance to making change. And hiding from or avoiding dealing with our infidelity situation or any specific aspect of it may not be all that helpful in any discernable way.
And of course the other problem is that you might not WANT to stop cheating. You might want to continue what you’re doing, and the point may be that you want to find a way to keep doing that that meshes with your other priorities in life.
But since we as a society – or we in some societies – have decided that cheating is bad, and if you’re cheating, you’d better feel bad about doing it, and if you don’t, then you’re REALLY bad, and since we disseminate those messages in all kinds of ways, a lot of people get stuck under different layers of guilt, or layer upon layer of guilt, and this is part of what makes it so hard for them to actually deal with their infidelity situations. And when we don’t recognize that guilt is in and of itself part of the problem, that adds to our challenges.
So, if you’re not feeling guilty, consider that not only is there nothing WRONG with you – consider that you’re also relieving yourself of a whole lot of unnecessary suffering.
However, not feeling guilty about your infidelity situation may not in and of itself be the solution to all of your problems.
Even if you don’t feel guilty about cheating, you might not want to keep on doing what you’re doing. There may be aspects of your infidelity situation that you do not like, even if you don’t feel the emotion of guilt. For instance, some people really hate lying, and being deceptive. Some people don’t like having to remember their lies and keep their stories straight. Some people don’t like being emotionally invested in multiple relationships. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. There are many things you might dislike about your infidelity situation, even if you don’t feel guilty about it, and that’s the whole point: an absence of guilt does not necessarily mean you’re content with what you’ve got going on.
So try this little exercise out. If you’re engaging in something you think counts as infidelity and you don’t feel guilty about what you’re doing, ask yourself if you feel good about what you’re doing. If you feel fine about it, great. That’s one thing. Let me make it clear that if you’re okay with what you’re doing, that is your right and your business, and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise.
However, if you don’t feel guilty but you also don’t feel good about what you’re doing, I want you to ask yourself WHY you don’t feel guilty. This is a little tricky because I realize that by posing this question, I might sound like I’m implying that you should feel guilty! And that’s not my intention. My intention is to help you dig into your own thoughts about your situation. Stay with me here.
Sometimes when people tell me they don’t feel guilty about cheating, they have these really elaborate, well-thought-out explanations as to WHY they don’t feel guilty about cheating. And what those explanations often include are justifications for their behavior, or defenses of their behavior. And that’s very different from saying simply, “I’m choosing to do what I’m doing for reasons that I like, and that’s just all there is to it.” Right?
A story that I hear over and over again goes something like, “Well, I’m married, and my spouse did this really bad thing at one point in our relationship, and they never made amends for it, and our relationship kind of went to shit as a result, and I’ve been unhappy in the marriage because of that and because of them, so I feel like it’s only fair for me to do what I want outside of the marriage.” Or sometimes people explicitly say that they feel like they’re JUSTIFIED for doing whatever they’re doing. Sometimes people say, “Well, my spouse didn’t give me what I needed in the relationship, so I’m justified in getting my needs met elsewhere.”
And I think this kind of explanation for why someone is cheating and why they have decided not to feel guilty about it is so interesting, because on the one hand, this COULD work out for someone just fine. If you decide, okay, I feel justified in doing this thing for these reasons, so I’m going to do it, and I’m not going to feel guilty about it, you might not have any kind of a problem on your hands. If you feel okay about it, that may be the end of the story – and it is, for some people!
But when we start justifying anything, whether it’s engaging in infidelity, or not feeling guilty about engaging in infidelity, or doing anything else for that matter, there may be something funny going on somewhere in there. There’s a difference between feeling truly okay about what you’re doing, to the point that you don’t need to justify it, even if someone else might potentially take issue with your actions, and finding ways to justify something you don’t feel completely okay about. And this distinction may really matter for you in practice, because it may have a big impact on how you feel about yourself and your life.
Justifying whatever it is that we’re doing may be a great short-term strategy. But in the long run, it may not get us what we want the most, or the most of what we want.
So if you’re justifying your cheating, or your infidelity behavior, because of what you consider to be your partner’s misdeeds, you get to ask yourself if you like that. If you do, that’s fine.
But what I see a lot is that people who say they don’t feel guilty about cheating because they have this list of things that their partner did that allows them to justify their cheating aren’t really all that happy with their infidelity situations. They may like some aspects of them quite a lot, but they don’t like other aspects. And perhaps most importantly, people who justify their cheating by citing their spouse’s bad behavior aren’t really happy in their marriages, or committed relationships. And so cheating and not feeling guilty about cheating might be a win in some respects, but the overall situation might not be much of a win. Is staying in a marriage with someone you feel justified in cheating on because they did all of these things that you didn’t like a success? Forget the cheating part for a second, and ask yourself what you get out of staying with someone you’re holding a bunch of grudges against.
Let me rush to point out that people tend to have very human reasons for staying with partners they feel ambivalent about, or are holding grudges against. And for justifying cheating on them. And for avoiding thinking about what they might really want their romantic life to look like.
But no matter how human your reasons are for doing whatever it is you’re doing, eventually, the important question becomes, do you want to keep doing what you’re doing, or not? At some point the question stops being, do you feel guilty about what you’re doing or not, or how can you justify what you’re doing, and becomes, how do you want to live? Not what can you get away with or justify, but what can you feel great about?
To that effect, I want to suggest that beyond a certain point, we may want to shift from thinking about guilt or the absence of guilt to thinking about responsibility, or response-ability. Now, there’s a time and place for dealing with guilt, to be SURE. I’m not saying to just ignore guilt if you feel guilty. No way. Dealing with guilt in an intentional way is really important, and I can teach you how to do that, and teach you how to get good at doing that. But in addition to dealing with our guilt, if we’re experiencing it, we want to think about response-ability. And if we aren’t feeling guilt, we want to think about response-ability. And to illustrate what I’m talking about I’m going to give up an update on one of my ongoing situations.
So, back in Episode 54, which is called, “Embracing your contradictions,” I talked about how I, for a while, was in the habit of taking my old dog outside to go to the bathroom in this area on the side of my building, and not picking up his poop when he pooped out there. Which was like, pretty much every weekday for a number of months. And by “a number of months” I do not mean two months or three months. I’ve lost track of the exact timeline, but this went on for a while. And this area to the side of my building was not my private property. It was essentially common area, but not common area that anyone used. It’s a space with dirt and some plant life, and since no one really ever goes there, and since it was so convenient for me to take my dog out there to relieve himself, I was able to justify my behavior to myself. And this is really saying something, because in general, I really WANT to pick up after my dog. I am a big believer in picking up dog poop. In general, I pick up poop even if no one is watching, I pick up poop even if it’s in places that no one is likely to walk, and I am happy to make the effort to do so. And it’s also really important to me to be respectful neighbor, and not do things that are disrespectful of shared spaces or shared resources.
So in other words, letting my dog poop in this area day after day for months on end and not picking it up was unusual behavior for me.
But it was just so damn convenient for me to take my dog out there and let him go to the bathroom and not pick up his poop. I COULD have picked up his poop and taken it to a trash can, of course, but that would have made the whole operation a lot less convenient, and therefore, pretty much pointless! So I kept on doing this thing that I felt bad about doing because the benefit I got far outweighed the drawback of feeling guilty about doing something that I didn’t feel great about doing. And even though the guilt was very uncomfortable at times, it did not motivate me to make positive change.
Then, things changed. My old dog died last summer, so that effectively put a stop to me not picking up his poop in that location. After his death I made a half-hearted attempt to pick up what poop I could in that area, but nature had already absorbed and reintegrated a lot of it, and then it rained more this winter than it has in California in a very long time, and that really helped wipe the slate clean, so to speak. The outside area I’m talking about was completely refreshed and renewed.
In the middle of all of this rain, at the very beginning of this year, I got a new puppy. And I take him down to that same outside area to do his doggie bathroom business, but this time around, I pick up his poop. Every single time. If it’s dark out and I can’t see it, I come back when it’s light and make sure I clean up after him.
And here’s why I’m picking up the poop this time around: because I WANT to. Not because I feel bad about not doing it, or because I think I would feel bad if I didn’t do it, or because I feel bad about having not picked up my old dog’s poop during that season of his life. It’s because this time around I am actively thinking about what’s great about doing my part to keep this common area clean. It’s because this time around I WANT to prioritize doing what I consider to be the right thing in this situation, which is picking up the dog poop. It feels so much better, on the whole, to have taken responsibility for my part in this situation, than to justify my behavior and/or feel guilty about what I’m doing but keep doing it anyway.
It still takes more effort to pick up the poop than to not pick up the poop. But that effort, made willingly, isn’t a big deal. Without resistance to making the effort, doing what I think is the right thing isn’t onerous.
Just to be really clear, when I say that I’m doing what I think is the “right thing,” I’m not saying that I’m doing the right thing in any absolute sense. I do think that the world is a better place when there isn’t dog doodoo everywhere, and I strongly prefer that dog owners pick up after their dogs than not pick up after their dogs. For sure. But I am also at peace with the fact that I don’t get to make the rules or dictate what other people do. The point I’m making is that I prefer to pick up dog poop because by doing so, I contribute to creating the conditions I would like to see in the world.
And taking responsibility for contributing to the world being the way I prefer it to be feels a lot better than justifying my decision to avoid doing that.
And what a lot of my clients find is that the same is true for them and their infidelity situations. It may take effort to assume response-ability. It may mean dealing with some serious life shit. And that may be no small thing. But dealing with your shit, unpleasant as that may be, can actually be a million times better than not dealing with it. Because for one thing, feeling response-able usually feels a lot better than the alternatives.
Okay, here’s a little recap for you. There’s nothing wrong with you if you don’t feel guilty about cheating. If anyone says there is, you can generously ignore them, or politely disagree with them, or scream at them for being wrong if you want to. You don’t have to make their opinion your truth about yourself.
Feeling guilty can really get in the way of taking responsibility for what we have the power to control in any situation in life. Sometimes we think we get some sort of benefit from feeling guilty, but if you look closely at how that actually works in your own life, I’m willing to bet that you’ll see that guilt doesn’t get you anything great.
And, although not feeling guilty may lighten your load, and that’s a good thing, not feeling guilty about your infidelity situation may not really resolve the matter for you.
Which is why we don’t want to get too focused on guilt. Yes we want to deal with guilt if we’re feeling it. But the bigger opportunity may lie in looking beyond guilt to response-ability.
If you want help cultivating your capacity to be response-able, that’s what I’m here for. Sometimes we just don’t know how to take responsibility for what we have the power to control in a certain situation, and we need someone to show us the way. And that’s exactly what I can do for you. Seeing where you have the power to take responsibility for your infidelity situation, and then exercising your response-ability can be a bit of a learning process, but I’m here to teach you and guide you, and the reward of learning how to do this is that you get to feel like you are in control of your own life. Because you actually are. So when you’re ready to get to work and begin the process of dealing with 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. You can also learn more about the current coaching packages I offer, as well as my current pricing through the services page of my website. I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, which means we can work together no matter where you’re located.
All right everyone! That’s it for today. Thank you all so much for listening! If you enjoy this podcast, if you appreciate hearing what I have to say, I would appreciate it if you would rate and review the show on iTunes. You can do this anonymously, and your ratings and reviews help other people who would benefit from my perspective find this podcast. Thank you for taking a moment to do this.
Have a great week. Bye for now.