159: You Can’t Eat the Whole Elephant at Once

Sep 19, 2023

There’s one concept that sounds completely obvious when you’re considering it in abstract terms, but is rarely obvious when you’re in the midst of an infidelity situation that you find confusing, overwhelming, and stressful: you can’t eat the whole elephant at once. You can only deal with your infidelity situation one step at a time.

When you can break down your infidelity situation into individual worries, questions, hopes, decisions, and actions, you can start deciding what you want to do one piece at a time. However, when you’re in an agitated state, breaking your experience down becomes incredibly challenging. Dr. Marie Murphy is here this week to help you see a path to resolving your seemingly impossibly complex infidelity situation.

Tune in this week to discover why you can’t eat the elephant that is your infidelity situation in one bite. Dr. Marie Murphy is showing you how to consider breaking your complicated infidelity situation down into manageable chunks and sharing how to start making decisions about your infidelity systematically, one step at a time.

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

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How, in an infidelity situation, you end up believing you need to solve everything at once.

  • Why people deep in confusion believe they need to solve every facet of their situation in one go.

  • The challenging, complex, multi-faceted nature of your infidelity situation.

  • Why dealing with an elephant-sized problem in one shot doesn’t work.

  • How your mind becomes used to getting stuck in your own drama.

  • What changes when you can unload the content of your messy mind.

  • How to start breaking down your elephant-sized problem, looking at it one piece at a time.

Listen to the Full Episode:


Featured on the Show:

You are listening to Your Secret Is Safe With Me, non-judgmental talk about infidelity with Dr. Marie Murphy. If you’re looking for new perspectives on complicated relationship issues, you’ve come to the right place. 

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 out there for people who are engaging in infidelity is little more than thinly veiled judgment, but that is not what I provide.  I believe you are entitled to guidance and support that respects the fullness of your humanity, and the complexity of your situation – no matter what you’re doing.  When 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.  When you’re ready to talk, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  I offer confidential, compassionate coaching via Zoom, so we can work together no matter where you’re located. 

Today we’re going to talk about something that can sound completely obvious when we’re considering it in abstract terms, but is rarely obvious when we are in the midst of an infidelity situation that we find confusing or overwhelming or stressful or bewildering or all of those things and then some.

And that simple thing is this.  You can only deal with your infidelity situation one step at a time.  One piece at a time.  One question at a time.  One worry at a time.  One hope at a time.  One decision at a time.  One action at a time.  Etcetera.  And again, I realize that might sound absurdly obvious.  But what sounds obvious to us in a relatively unagitated state can completely go out the window when we think we have a big, messy, complicated, problematic, multi-faceted infidelity situation on our hands.  When we think we’re dealing with a complex situation, and when we think that complex situation needs to be resolved as soon as possible, we tend to forget that we can only do one thing at a time.  And instead, we tend to think that we need to be able to solve for ALL OF THE THINGS at once.  We think we need to be able to eat the whole elephant in one bite.  We think that if we don’t attempt to deal with all of the things at once, we won’t be able to deal with any of it, at all.  

When we’re in the thick of a situation we consider complex and daunting to deal with, we often do not believe that it is possible for us slow down and take things one step at a time, or one piece at a time.  Or if we believe that it’s possible, we don’t think that such an approach sounds very satisfying, because there’s just so MUCH to be dealt with!  How could looking at one little slice of the pie at once possibly do anything to address the entirety of the problem?  When we are in the thick of a challenging, multi-faceted situation, we may truly believe that we REALLY HAVE TO solve for all the things at once.  This may seem like the absolute, non-negotiable truth when we’re in a state of confusion or overwhelm.  We think that if we don’t eat the whole elephant in one bite, we’ll never be able to eat it, because taking it one bite at a time would take us forever and we don’t want it to take forever.  We just want to get it done as quickly as possible.

So, in terms of infidelity situations, sometimes new clients will come to me, and in our initial meeting they’ll tell me something like, “Well, I had an affair, and I thought I was sure I wanted to leave my marriage so that I could be with my affair partner, but then that relationship got really weird, and now I’m not sure if I want to stay married or not or if my affair partner really is my soul mate and also I’m not sure if I can stand the idea of not being single if neither relationship were to work out, but I don’t want to stay married just because I can’t stand the idea of being alone, so I know I need to work out my abandonment issues before I can think clearly about any of this, and I’m also really afraid of what I’ll think about myself if I leave my marriage because I have these really bad commitment issues and I don’t want to just quit something before I consider it carefully so I really want to carefully consider whether or not I want to leave my marriage but it’s been hard to think about that because I’m so unattracted to my spouse because my affair partner opened up my eyes to how great sex could actually be and now all I can do is think about them but I’m really scared of making a decision I regret.”  And sometimes that’s just the tip of the iceberg!  Sometimes people tell me all of that, and they’re just getting started.

And to the client, it may REALLY seem like all of these issues HAVE to be addressed right away.  Each element of their situation may seem equally important, and equally confusing, or equally unknowable.  To the person in this situation, it can really seem like they have to know EVERYTHING before they can know anything.

And this is totally understandable.  When get ourselves worked up about a bunch of concerns that all seem interconnected and interdependent, and when we ruminate and ruminate and ruminate on those concerns, it can really start to seem like we have an elephant-sized problem on our hands that absolutely has to be solved all at once if it’s going to be solved at all.

But this simply doesn’t work, and we need to know that.  We also need to know that when our minds get into a frenzied state of trying to solve for all the things at once, we have to do something about that.  We need to be able to slow down and look at one piece of our situation at a time, so that we don’t stay lost in the forest forever.  And I will say that this is one of the reasons why it can be SO very helpful to have someone to talk to about your infidelity situation.  Sometimes, BEFORE we can slow down and deal with one thing at a time, we really need to have the opportunity to talk about ALL the things before we can focus on one thing at a time.  Sometimes we have to allow our situation to be really messy and complicated before we can even begin to simplify it.  And it can really help to share the contents of our messy mind with another person.  Sharing our story, and allowing someone to witness us as we tell our story allows us to begin to change our relationship to our story.  And obviously, I am one such person who can compassionately witness your big, messy, unwieldy story.

And then, once all of your thoughts about your situation – or enough of them, anyway – have been unloaded, we can then start to deal with them systematically.  We can use our power to think in ways that serve us very well, and help us get more of the kinds of experiences we want to have in life, instead of allowing our minds to drive us crazy.

Because what so often happens when we try to answer all of our questions at once, or figure out all of the things related to our infidelity situation at once is that we don’t figure anything out, and don’t answer any of our questions, and we don’t resolve much of anything.  Or we may come to some sort of decision or conclusion, but then we may think that we need to QUESTION ourselves, and then we may get into the habit of second-guessing ourselves.  And all of that is bad enough, but on top of that, we take our inability to come to any kind of answers or resolutions or decisions as an indication that we are even more confused than we thought we were.  We may take this as an indication that we truly don’t know what we want.  We may say to ourselves, “I’ve been trying to think all of this through for so long and I haven’t come up with any answers so I guess I just can’t trust myself.”

And then we start to feel even worse, AND our thinking may become even MORE convoluted and unhelpful.  And then we create even more evidence for ourselves that we don’t know what we want to do about our infidelity situation, and we have no idea how to figure it out.

And if you’ve been there – or you are there – you know that this feels TERRIBLE.  Being perpetually confused or uncertain feels bad enough, but believing that you don’t have the capacity to get out of confusion or uncertainty feels even worse.

So here’s what I want you to know.  Or at least, here’s what I really want you to CONSIDER, even if you’re not inclined to immediately accept this idea.  You really can deal with your infidelity situation one piece at a time, one step at a time.  If you have been trying to deal with all of the things all at once, or at least, lots of different elements of the situation all at once and that hasn’t been working, here’s my suggestion: it’s time for a new approach.

If you’ve been ruminating to the point where you’ve gotten yourself into a pretty good state of paralysis through analysis, you probably have a pretty good idea of what your major challenges within or concerns about your situation are.  So, to use a really common example, some folks who are married or partnered and are considering leaving their marriage at least partially because they want to have a relationship with their affair partner are often concerned about the following things:

Is their relationship with their affair partner solid?  If they leave their marriage, and they’re able to be with their affair partner on “normal” terms, will that relationship fizzle out?

Do they really want to leave their spouse – or are they just intoxicated with the affair buzz?

Are they okay with the financial implications of divorce?  For instance, are they okay with having less money to work with, at least in the short term?

What if their friends and family shun them?  What if they are judged harshly for getting divorced, and what if people find out about their infidelity?

What if their kids – if they have kids – think of them if they initiate a divorce, which creates changes in the family as a whole?  What if their kids end up HATING them?

What if things with their affair partner don’t work out and they never find anyone to love them again and they live an isolated, lonely life all the way up until their death?

This is just a short list of common concerns, but you get the idea.  You probably have a pretty good sense of what YOUR major concerns are, and if you don’t, you can sit down and take the time to identify them.  Or you can work with me and I will help you identify them.

When you know what your concerns are, you have the opportunity to pick one of them, and decide to deal with it decisively and definitively.  You have the opportunity to choose on purpose to focus on one thing that you’re concerned about, and NOT focus on the other things you’re concerned about – at least for a while.  You can address them when it’s their turn.

Now I will tell you that if you try to do this, if you try to focus on just ONE of your concerns instead of allowing yourself to mentally juggle ALL of your concerns at once, you mind will probably become very upset with you almost instantly.  In fact, your mind may try to tell you that you absolutely MUST continue to try to juggle all of your concerns simultaneously.  Your mind will probably try to tell you that focusing on ONE and only one of your concerns at a time is foolish, or impossible, or both.

Here's your job: don’t believe your mind.  Your mind may well have gotten pretty darn accustomed to its own drama.  If you’re used to being in paralysis through analysis mode, this may be uncomfortable, but to your mind, it’s a familiar use of its own capacities, and it’s creating a familiar form of discomfort for you.  So on some level, you and your mind are probably very committed to attempting to figure everything out at once.

But if trying to consider all of the considerations at once isn’t working for you, you have to remember that the mind makes a wonderful servant, but a terrible master.  If letting your mind try to juggle all of the questions and concerns and worries and hopes you have about your infidelity situation at once isn’t getting you anywhere good, you may have to step in and gently but firmly manage what’s going on.

And you – and your mind – may not want to do that!  Focusing on one question instead of allowing ourselves to attempt to address all of the questions at once can be really uncomfortable.  And this is true for multiple reasons, including the one I just mentioned – if you’re in the habit of using your mind to jump from one question or one problem to the next, you and your mind may be USED to doing that, and any change in established patterns can be strange, and therefore, a little uncomfortable.  But another other reason why focusing on one question at a time may be uncomfortable is that you may be asking yourself some questions that are pretty emotionally challenging for you to answer, and it may not feel great to confront that stuff and actually focus on it in a sustained way!  

Asking yourself, am I seriously interested in leaving my marriage, and committing to actually answering that question can be a LOT more uncomfortable than saying, “Oh, I guess I have to decide if I want to leave my marriage, but I’ve also got to worry about what other people will think about me if I do, and I also have to consider the possibility that I might end up alone, with no one, and then I’ll be lonely until I die.”  Distraction can feel a lot easier than focus.  Entertaining a lot of different concerns in a vague way can feel a lot less uncomfortable than truly tackling a single concern or question or decision in a definitive way.  Telling ourselves we have so much to think about that we can’t possibly make a decision can feel a lot less uncomfortable than actually making a decision and deciding that we are going to stick with it.

So there’s nothing wrong with you if you’ve been letting your mind keep on juggling multiple concerns without seriously addressing any of them.  Your brain isn’t broken.  To one degree or another, you’ve just been doing things that humans tend to do, which is look for ways to enhance comfort, and look for ways to avoid or decrease discomfort.

But if you want to make any decisions about your infidelity situation, if you want to make any changes in your infidelity situation, you’re going to have to do the uncomfortable thing of focusing on one thing at a time.  Addressing one concern at a time.  Answering one question at a time.  Making one decision at a time.

Now sometimes people say to me, well, all of the decisions I have to make are contingent upon one another, so I can’t possibly make them in isolation.  And there are many things I can say in response to that, but the simplest and most important for you to consider is this: although your decisions may be very closely related in your estimation, they probably are not as truly contingent upon each other as you think they are.  Sometimes telling ourselves that one decision is contingent on another decision that we need to make is just a means of avoiding making a decision that we think doesn’t actually count as avoiding making a decision.  Furthermore, even if our decisions are indeed related, or even truly contingent upon other decisions, we still have the option of starting somewhere.  We still have the option of starting with one piece of the puzzle, and putting the other pieces into place from there, even if we have to do this in conjunction with addressing other pieces of what’s going on.  Because after all, what’s the alternative?  

Another thing that comes up a lot is that people believe they can’t make any decisions, or answer any of their own questions, or address any of their own concerns until something that they don’t have control over happens – or until multiple things that they don’t have any control over happen.

For instance, people who are having affairs sometimes tell me that they can’t possibly figure out whether or not they want to leave their marriage unless they know for sure that their affair partner is a) going to leave their marriage, and b) their relationship with their current affair partner is going to transition into a happy, successful, ongoing relationship that ceases to be an affair.  And then they sometimes go on to tell me that because they can’t decide whether they want to leave their marriage or not, they can’t really tackle any of the other concerns they have about their situation.  

As sympathetic as I am to the desire to have our desired outcomes guaranteed to us before we make any choices or changes that we consider scary, thinking that we cannot make decisions until certain things happen is only guaranteed to keep us stuck.  You CAN decide whether or not you want to leave your marriage, at ANY point in time.  You can evaluate whether or not you want to stay in that relationship based on everything you know and want and care about in any given moment.

Now, is it fair to want to see how certain things play out before we answer particular questions for ourselves, or make specific choices?  Sure, to an extent.  And moreover, whether it’s “fair” in anyone’s estimation or not, you get to do whatever you want.  If you want to wait and see how certain things in your life develop before you make any choices about your infidelity situation, that is your prerogative and I will never tell you otherwise.  But, if you want to simplify your situation, I encourage you to consider that you CAN make a decision about anything at any time.  Your decisions do not have to be contingent upon anyone or anything.

Sometimes I’ll be talking to a client about this and they’ll say okay, I see that technically, my decisions don’t have to be contingent upon anything.  Or figuring out what I want in relation to this piece of my situation doesn’t have be dependent upon anything else happening in a particular way first.  But then they’ll say something like, but I still think that all of the pieces of my situation are so related to each other that I can’t possibly figure out where it’s most productive for me to start.  How can I possibly focus on just one piece of my situation when I don’t know which piece to start with?

I think this is a fair concern, but only to an extent.  The order in which we address the various questions and concerns and decisions within our infidelity situation can matter, and when I work with folks one-on-one, I help them figure out what elements of their situation need to be addressed first, and which can wait until later.  But even if the order in which we take things on can be important, we don’t want to let worrying about the order of operations get in the way of us doing ANYTHING.  And sometimes that is exactly what happens.  It’s usually a lot better to start SOMEWHERE than to not get started at all.  Right?!  

So, if you’re following along with me here and you’re on board with the idea that addressing one relatively limited aspect of your situation at once might be a helpful approach for you to adopt, but you’re starting to freak out a little about which piece of the pie to tackle first, here’s my suggestion.  Just pick something.  You do not have make this decision difficult or complicated.  Just pick one thing to focus on.  It can be as arbitrary of a choice as you like.

That might sound flippant, but I assure you it isn’t.  Far from it.  When we have gotten really stuck in the quicksand of our own thinking, we really need to start to relate differently to our own thoughts and our own mental tendencies if we want to pull ourselves out.  And so you can start by saying to yourself, “Okay, I’m going to pick one piece of my situation to deal with,” and then you can actually do that.  And simply by doing that, simply by making THAT choice, you begin to show yourself that you really can manage your mind.  Simply by making the choice to focus on one thing, no matter what it is, you start to show yourself that you can trust yourself to make A decision.  You can decide what step you’re going to take first.  And then you can follow through on that decision by actually focusing on that one thing you selected, and temporarily taking your focus away from other elements of your situation you may consider important.

And then, you can put your efforts into answering that one question you’ve decided to focus on.  Or making that one choice, or figuring out that one thing.  And when you concentrate your energy in this fashion, instead of dispersing it all over the place, you stand a much better chance of actually making some headway on whatever the particular matter is.  And when you do that, you then begin show yourself in very concrete terms that you really CAN deal with your situation one step at a time, because you have in fact just dealt with one piece of it.  Maybe a small piece of it, but a concrete piece of it still.

And this is how we a) build trust in ourselves and our capacity to figure things out, and b) how we slowly but surely deal with complex, multi-faceted situations that cannot be resolved in one fell swoop, or in one huge bite.  You may not be able to eat the elephant all at once, but you can make steady progress by being willing to take one bite at a time.

Now I want to make something absolutely clear.  You may need help doing this.  In telling you that it’s important to deal with your situation one piece at a time, I am not suggesting that you should, with this knowledge, automatically be able to do this all by yourself.  You might be, of course – sometimes all we need is a little nudge in the right direction, and we’re able to do things differently on our own.  But sometimes we need HELP, and that is not a bad thing at all.  I will tell you that when my mind is a total mess and I think I have some big huge messy impossible to solve problem on my mind, I want nothing more than to have someone HELP ME slow down and take it one step at a time.  Because I practice what I preach, there are times when I can do this by myself – but there are also times when I want my coach to hold my hand, figuratively speaking, and HELP me deal with a problem that seems totally overwhelming to me.  Because I know that if I get help, I will feel better sooner, and I will be able to deal with my problem more efficiently than I would have been able to on my own.  And there are times when feeling better and dealing with something more efficiently than you could have on your own is absolutely priceless.  At least in my opinion.  Because we’ve only got so much time in this one life of ours, or at least, in this particular incarnation of ours, and we probably want to make the best use of our time that we can.  

And as ironic as it might sound, learning how to slow down and deal with our challenges one step at a time actually saves us time in the long run, and enhances the quality of our experience of being alive in the short term.  When we aren’t totally freaked out by all-consuming problems, we’re able to enjoy the time that we’re alive, because we can trust that whatever challenges we’re facing can and will be dealt with, even if they can’t be dealt with instantaneously.

So, the value of getting the right help in dealing with your infidelity situation is tremendous.  The quality of your experience of being alive is what’s at stake, and the quality of your experience of being alive just might be the most important thing for you to attend to.

And as you know, if you want help dealing with your infidelity situation, I am one such source of that help.  I’m here to listen to you tell your whole messy tale, and to witness you with infinite love and curiosity and compassion.  But I don’t just listen.  After you’ve had a chance to share your story and unload all of your thoughts, we get to work on dealing with your situation one manageable step at a time.  When you’re ready to talk, you can schedule an introductory coaching session with me through my website, mariemurphyphd.com.  I can’t wait to meet you.

All right everyone!  Thank you for listening and have a great week.  Bye for now. 


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