About 9 months ago, I was in a physically — and mentally — tough training environment, and became very close to a man who was also there. We leaned on each other for support and became very good friends. We also live in the same town, so on downtimes, we would carpool to go home and see our families. The last week of the training, we went out to celebrate, and things escalated from friendship to a sexual nature. We had sex two more times since then. We are both married and were in mutual understanding that we love our spouses and therefore would never want to do anything to ruin our marriages — such as tell them. We still see each other occasionally as we have some of the same friends now, and even our spouses know each other. We always act as friends when we’re around each other. Here’s the problem: Before then, I was very anti-cheating and would speak very openly on how disgusting I thought it was. I have never cheated before this and never thought I would. My husband is so trusting of me and knew of this friendship the whole time I was there. I love my husband so much and it kills me knowing what I’ve done. I don’t know why I did what I did. The guilt is tearing me apart. I feel guilty for what I did and also because sometimes I think I still have feelings for the other man. I lie awake many nights for hours before going to sleep, sometimes crying into my pillow. I don’t know if I am depressed or just feeling sorry for myself. I just want to be able to get over what I have done and I don’t know if I ever will.
Thank you for the opportunity to serve. You, my dear friend, have arrived at that fork in the road where you must decide for/or against your own happiness. You see, the issue you’re dealing with (guilt) is probably at the root of just about 90% of all our unhappiness. And in many ways, it’s the single biggest enemy we all must overcome.
On one hand…
You cheated, and this created guilt. This guilt brings unhappiness, and that unhappiness spills over into everything you do (even your marriage). Now, you recognize that you must let go of the guilt you carry, while at the same time, you feel “guilty” letting go of this guilt (since you knew better and still cheated in the first place). You see the dilemma?
So let’s take this step by step.
What is guilt?
One way to think of guilt is that it’s a form of “self-punishment”. It can also be called “self-inflicted revenge” or “self-directed retribution” for being “bad.”
When we believe we’ve somehow failed to live up to a certain set of rules or principles, and therefore we punish ourselves with guilt.
When we believe we’ve “wronged” another and think the way to do right is to punish ourselves with guilt.
When we feel we’ve let down God, our parents, and/or our loved ones, and feel the honorable way to repair the damage is to punish ourselves with guilt.
When we feel we’ve committed a “sin” and believe the only recourse to “prove” we’re sorry is to inflict pain on ourselves.
“Guilt” is the voice that whispers…you’re no longer innocent… you’re now guilty, and therefore you should be punished.
Here’s a personal example of guilt at work:
When my daughter was younger, we used to have a “time out” chair. It was actually an old car seat that we put in a quiet place in her room, to serve as a place for her to go and “reflect” on whatever she did that caused her to be in the chair in the first place.
At that time, my husband and I thought we were “more evolved” parents, therefore a “time out chair” would be a much more effective way of correcting behavior than other old-fashioned methods (e.g. spanking or shouting).
One day, she decided to color her bathroom walls with crayons. We had asked her not to do this, and so we were surprised to see she had deliberately done it again. When my husband and I walked into the bathroom and caught her in the act of marking up the walls, she immediately jumped up, ran over to the “time out chair” and jumped in. “It’s okay, mommy,” she said. “I’m already in the time out chair; you don’t have to tell me to do it.”
My husband and I busted out laughing. My daughter had put herself in “time out”, rather than have us do it for her. As funny as that moment was, it also revealed a very valuable lesson about guilt. Guilt is the belief that IF we punish ourselves, we prevent life, society, parents, or God from doing it for us.
Here’s the upside to guilt. (There’s an upside? Yep, there is.)
- If you weren’t inherently a “good” person, you wouldn’t feel guilty.
- If you weren’t concerned about violating the rights of others, you wouldn’t feel guilty.
- If you weren’t striving to be a better person, you wouldn’t feel guilty.
And yet, as honorable and logical as it all may seem, guilt never works. I learned that lesson the day I realized my daughter hadn’t learned how to correct her behavior — what she learned was how to punish herself.
IF you look closer at guilt, you might see:
- Guilt inflicts punishment but offers no correction.
- Guilt attempts to evade punishment while inflicting punishment.
- Guilt is a day late and a dollar short (only shows up after actions have been taken).
- Guilt doesn’t prevent bad behavior (as you said, you felt guilty, but still had sex 2 other times).
Think about this.
It’s obvious you made a mistake. If it weren’t a mistake, that affair would have led you to a place of peace and happiness.
What is a “mistake”?
Any choice that leads you away from your happiness and into a state of misery, suffering and alienation.
You said, in the past you were always “anti-cheating” and spoke up against it. This would make sense. You are a good woman. And yet, what we’ve discovered is that you’re also human. The same invisible strings of temptation, desire, and sexual attraction that tug at all of us tugs at you, too. Guilt tells you, you should’ve known better. You’re a bad person. You don’t deserve to have the good husband you do. But keep in mind, guilt is NOT helping you correct this mistake. It’s actually keeping you stuck in it.
So, ask yourself…
What do you REALLY want? Intimacy? Or infidelity?
If you want INTIMACY, you have to free yourself from guilt because guilt and intimacy are opposites.
The Keys to Free Yourself from Guilt
Freeing yourself from guilt is like a prisoner finding the keys that unlock the doors of his prison. At first, he tells himself it’s too good to be true. Then, he rationalizes he must not use these keys because he deserves to remain in exile. Then comes the day the desire for freedom is stronger than the tolerance for pain, and he finally uses the keys to free himself. He stumbles out into the sunshine, only to discover there were no guards — he was his own jailer.
Key: Recognize that infidelity (the choice to deceive) is a mistake. It calls for correction — not punishment. And punishment and correction aren’t the same.
Key: Accept responsibility for your mistakes. Know they call for correction and nothing else. Your mistakes are feedback that you have more to learn.
Key: Embrace learning success. Ask yourself: if you knew for a fact that you had learned your lesson and there would never be a repeat of this offense, what would you have to feel guilty about? That’s right — nothing. So the fact that you’re feeling guilty is a red flag that you still haven’t learned the lesson this particular situation is teaching you. It tells you that you’re still vulnerable to temptations. They way to correct this is to learn the lesson once and for all: Deception never serves.
Key: Embrace self-forgiveness. Guilt is the attempt to make an idol of our mistakes. By embracing self-forgiveness, you acknowledge that your mistakes are worthy of forgiveness.
I have faith that some of these insights have been of benefit to you. For more help, read my article on “Overcoming the Guilt.”