A Relationship without Empathy

pd

I little while back I watched the Netflix series “Mindhunter”. It is about the development of the FBIs behavioral science unit in the 1970s, as they start to study and try to understand the mindset of serial killers.

It’s a cool show. It’s slow moving at times, but starting to get into the psychology of killers (and specifically serial killers) is fascinating in its own way.

The was one scene in the series where the main characters are investigating a murder, and one of them says that he anticipates additional victims. I can’t remember the specifics, but he says something along the lines of how he believes that with serial killers they have probably played out the scenes of killing someone in their heads many times, and with the first victim it is often a case of opportunity. Maybe that first victim fell into their lap, and they got away with it. It gave them a sense of power, and excitement, and they get “a taste for it”. So after that first victim, it’s only a matter of time until they kill again.

It’s a disturbing thought, but also one that makes a lot of sense to me. The realization of fantasy can make it so fantasy isn’t enough anymore, and it starts to spill into reality.

This got me thinking about affairs.

Yes, really.

And if you bear with me a moment hopefully this will make at least *some* sense.

Within law, there are different classifications on the severity of what it means when you kill someone.

  • Manslaughter is a scenario where you killed someone, but it was an accident. There was no intent. Negligence perhaps, but not intent.
  • Second degree murder is intentional, but it happens in the heat of the moment and wasn’t planned in any way.
  • First degree murder is the most serious offence. It is not only intentional, but it is also planned/premeditated.

And then you have serial killers.

Serial killers engage in a series of first degree murders (though going with the idea from Mindhunters, I suppose their first victim *may* have been second degree). In law, they are charged with multiple counts of first degree murder.

But I think most would agree that serial killers are a whole other class of nastiness.

I’ve said before in these pages that I don’t think all affairs are created equal. Don’t get me wrong, they are all bad. They are all destructive, and it’s up to each individual and couple to think about what the affair means for their existing relationship. But that doesn’t mean all affairs are equal.

I have heard people claim their affair was an “accident” and they “never meant for it to happen.”

I don’t buy that excuse at all.

There is no affair equivalent to Manslaughter, because affairs can’t be accidents.

It’s not like someone is walking around one day and they slip, and they accidentally make out with/have sex with someone else while they are falling. I’m *pretty* sure it doesn’t work that way.

However I can buy the notion that affairs can be like second degree murder. They can be something that wasn’t planned and happens in the heat of the moment. THAT I can buy. And when affairs *are* like that I suspect there is a lot of regret and remorse, and “oh my god what have I just done” feeling after.

Affairs are frequently a point of no return for relationships, because trust is at the foundation of any relationship and when an affair is revealed that trust is gone.

That being said, in these scenarios, I do think it’s actually possible for couples to work through rebuilding that trust and continuing the relationship. Both people would need to be willing to face it, work through it, and let it go. But I believe it IS possible.

Calculated affairs (which are more like first degree murder) are different though. These are planned, and the adulterer knows exactly what they are doing and getting into. They are fully aware of the damage they are doing to their relationship, they simply don’t care.

Perhaps they do care at some level, but they have decided that what they are getting out of it (pleasure, a feeling of being desirable, a feeling of power, living out a fantasy, or whatever they are looking for) is worth the risk.

In these scenarios I would caution someone to think long and hard before they give the adulterer a chance.

Healthy relationships require mutual respect and caring. When someone has intentionally gone down the road of an affair, they are showing exactly who and what they value in the relationship.

And what they value is themselves.

In going ahead with this sort of affair, they are showing a complete lack of empathy for their partner.

Perhaps more alarmingly, when someone has been able to detach themselves enough from the relationship to have this sort of calculated affair; it rarely ends after the first time (if they “get away with it”). Rather, they will continue to engage in the affair or perhaps even have a series of affairs with different people.

Take the description of serial killers that I paraphrased from Mindhunter earlier, and replace the words “victim” and “kill” with “affair partner” and “cheat”:

“with the first affair partner it is often a case of opportunity. Maybe that first affair partner fell into their lap, and they got away with it. It gave them a sense of power, and excitement, and they get a taste for it. So after that first affair partner, it’s only a matter of time until they cheat again.”

I truly believe this is what happens here.

In fact a few years ago I interviewed two people (one male and one female) who had gone down the road of affairs and although it’s a small sample size they both furthered this belief.

The guy spoke of the affair becoming an addiction, and how he couldn’t stop thinking about her. He acquired that “taste for it”, and he described it as euphoria when they were together. He eventually ended the affair and to my knowledge has spent the last few years trying to rebuild the relationship with his wife.

The lady was a bit different. From our discussions I believe she once loved her husband, but she loved how the affair made her feel. The excitement, the power, the fantasy world. She continued the affair and I believe had at least a few different partners. She had no intention of stopping, but also had no intention of leaving her husband because she enjoyed the life that he provided.

Take a look at this list of characteristics:

  • Sensation seeking
  • Lack of remorse or guilt
  • Lack of empathy
  • Impulsivity
  • The need for control
  • Shallow emotions
  • Lack of responsibility
  • Cunning and manipulative

This is a list of characteristics exhibited by serial killers, and I believe it can also be used to describe serial adulterers.

To engage in a long term affair or multiple affairs, you can’t really have empathy. You can’t truly care about your partner.

You also can’t really be bothered by guilt.

I’m sure at some level you know what you are doing is wrong, but you’ve found ways to justify your actions to yourself. You’re special. You deserve this. Your relationship isn’t that great to begin with. In fact, it’s probably your partners fault because you wouldn’t be cheating if they were taking care of your needs.

A few years ago a number of my readers were women who had stumbled across my site while trying to understand and deal with the fallout and emotions of discovering an affair.

There was always pain, a sense of loss, but also frequently a sense of guilt (along the lines of maybe it wouldn’t have happened if I had been a better partner) and questions about whether I felt the relationship was still worth working on.

I never really wanted to answer that question because I think each person needs to make whatever decision they feel is right for them. But I do caution anyone to consider the following question:

If you find your partner has been cheating and they have continued it for a long time or had multiple partners, do you think they actually care about you? Is it you they want, or are you simple a means to an end – a way to have a life, a lifestyle and perhaps keep a family together? And if it’s the latter, are you really any more than a tool?

For anyone dealing with the pain of discovering an affair, remember that the affair is not about you, and it is not a reflection on you.

Maybe your relationship isn’t what it could be, and maybe you’ve played a part in that. Own that part of things, and only that part.

Having an affair is always a choice, and there was always a different way.

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Living with Guilt

Guilt-Pain

I’m a big believer in personal accountability, and feel it’s often missing today.  Too often people are looking to blame, and while that’s and easy road to take it’s also completely non-productive because blaming doesn’t allow us to grow, or change.

To me, accountability is all about accepting responsibility for those things that you should be/are actually responsible for, and only those things; no more, and no less.

Accountability doesn’t always come easily though, and there are a number of mental processes that we go through before truly accepting responsibility and becoming accountable.

I’ve written about this process before, but for a recap the idea is as follows:

 

Some sort of stressor occurs (an issue, and argument, a disappointment, whatever it is); and when this happens our primal brain kicks in and goes through a series of steps to determine how to deal with this stressor.

This process starts with Denial, and then moves to Blame, Justification, Shame/Obligation, and only after that does it move to Responsibility.

The first three, denial, blame and justification are easy to explain. In these, rather than taking any sort of ownership we are deflecting the issue away from us. In denial there is no problem. In blame the problem is seen, but it’s not “my” problem, it’s someone else’s. And in justification I only partially accept that it’s my problem. I am saying that yes, it’s my problem – but there are a number of reasons as to “why” it happened (and these reasons somehow absolve me of any blame).

What I’m interested in today is the next mode – when we operate out of guilt or obligation.

 

Operating out of Guilt

In many ways acting from a state of shame or obligation is worse than denial, blame or justification. When you do any of those, you are deflecting an issue away from yourself.  With shame or obligation though, you are doing something but you feel as though you are being compelled to do it by some external force.

It’s almost as though your choice to do something is being made under duress.  You aren’t doing it because you want to, or because you believe it’s the right thing to do.  You are doing it because of a fear of consequence.

With guilt and obligation the consequence we are trying to escape is usually other people’s perception.  Saying I need to do this because so and so expects me to is really saying I need to do this or I will disappoint so and so.  And really, that’s a crappy reason to do something.

When this happens you are liable to build up resentment that you “have to” do something, and you are also liable to build up resentment for the person that you are trying to not disappoint.

Doing something from a state of shame or obligation is fine when done occasionally, but if it is a common state for you then are liable to give up or quit.

 

Guilt and Shame

Brene Brown (a prominent writer who has researched shame and guilt) says:

I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.

I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.

I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.

Brene Brown

 

According to her guilt is positive, and is a way of telling yourself “I have done something bad”.  Shame is negative, because instead of just believing we have done something bad, we start to believe that we are bad as a result.

With shame, it’s like we have internalized the action and believe it comes to represent who we are.  So shame starts to touch on self worth, and feelings of adequacy.

 

I think I understand what she’s saying about guilt and shame, but there is one problem with the idea that guilt is positive.

If guilt occurs when you are doing something that you know is wrong, then it’s dependent on what you have been taught.

Unfortunately, right and wrong aren’t that straightforward.

 

The Problems with Guilt

There are some “big” things I suspect most will agree on.  Killing others is bad.  Stealing from others is bad.  Hurting other people is bad (though we seems to have a lot less of an issue with hurting people emotionally than we do physically).  Those are fairly obvious.

Guilt is tied to morals though, and morals can get very murky.

LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) rights are in the news a lot these days, and many LGBT people struggle a lot in their early years because they are taught that the way they feel is not normal.  There is a lot of guilt and shame that has to be overcome in order to accept who they are.

Going beyond LGBT issues, anything to do with sexuality is often a HUGE source of guilt and shame for people, and most of us struggle with feelings of embarrassment when the topic comes up.  Why?  It’s a natural act, and none of us would even be here today without sex.  But we are taught that it is “adult stuff”, and therefore taboo; so many people struggle with accepting that they are sexual beings.

 

Another area where people struggle with what they have been taught is emotions.

Men are often looked as emotional Neanderthals, and sadly we often are.  To me, this is an example of misdirected guilt.

Little boys (and girls, but more commonly boys) are often taught they are supposed to be “strong”, and that crying is for “sissies”.  This causes them to try and hold negative emotions in, and over time feelings of sadness will make boys feel guilty.  Holding things in can lead to suppressing emotions, and can cause people to start to disassociate themselves from emotions in general.

Emotions are natural responses to external stimuli.  Yet they are often suppressed, or associated with guilt – simply because of what someone has been taught.

 

An additional problem with guilt is that it is often rooted in comparison, or perception instead of in reality.  Often guilt is related to not wanting to disappoint another person.  Yet the feelings of guilt are based on our own interpretation of how the other person would feel about us; and that interpretation is often completely flawed.  It’s something that WE project.  So it really comes from us more than from the other person.

 

Lastly there is the subjective side of guilt.  Look at some of the areas that are often considered major conflict areas in relationships:

  • Money
  • Sex
  • Work
  • Children and Parenting
  • Chores

In each of these areas, conflicts are usually because each person has different ideas about what is right and what is wrong.  The problem is, there IS no right way or wrong way to deal with any of those topics.  It’s easy to believe that our way is the right way – after all, it’s what we know.  But when we insist on things being our way (because it’s better), we are saying that our partners approach is inferior to ours.  And that can cause feelings of guilt (and shame) in our partner.

 

Letting Go of Guilt

The way I see it, guilt does have some value.  As Brene Brown has said, guilt provides us with psychological discomfort when we do something that goes against our values.  Essentially it’s our conscience saying “hey, should you really be doing this” or “c’mon, you KNOW you shouldn’t have done that”.  That side of guilt can be helpful, as it can help guide us to make better choices in the future.

It’s important though to remember our understanding of right and wrong is based on what we have been taught, and due to this I think it’s always valuable to question our beliefs and be willing to adjust them as needed.

So a huge element of guilt is really about identity, and self-acceptance.  If you accept yourself, love yourself and believe in yourself then it really doesn’t matter what other people think.  If you KNOW you are making good decisions, and are doing the right thing then what is there to feel guilty about?

Are you worries about disappointing parents?  Disappointing your partner?  Realistically, if you can honestly say you accept yourself, and try to do the right thing (balancing your needs with the needs of others) than any disappointment on their part is their issue – not yours.

 

I don’t understand doing things out of guilt or obligation.  If you REALLY don’t want to do something, then don’t do it.

Don’t get me wrong, we all have times that we need to do things we don’t really want to do.  That’s part of life, and part of being an adult.  But doing something you don’t want really want to because it needs to be done is doing it from a position of responsibility.

If someone finds themselves continually doing things out of guilt or obligation, then it seems there is at least some part of a person that believes they should be doing this.  Either that or they have been taught to believe something they don’t truly agree with.

So question things.

Accept yourself.

Accept that “your” way isn’t necessarily the “right” way.

Accept that others won’t always agree with you, and that’s alright.

 

When you do that, if you accept that sometimes things have to be done (even though you don’t want to) then approach them from a position of responsibility.  If you determine that it’s not something you should have to do, then don’t do it.

If you do that knowing you have done the right thing for you, then you can let go of guilt.