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Answers and Advice for Wayward Partners

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My partner is struggling with his own guilt

Question

I have known my friend for about 6 years now. And in June last year, we began a relationship. It’s very complicated. His wife of 30 years was diagnosed with a rare disease that attacks the nervous system, and the same with his middle son who is now 26 years old. She has been in a wheelchair for the past 5 years. He has lived in different continents than her and visits her during business trips approximately 3 times a year. He is absolutely devoted to me now, and we have decided it’s time to face the music, as we both would like to be together. He is feeling tremendously guilty about abandoning his sick wife. They have not been intimate for approximately 6 or 7 years, and he was involved with another lady for 10 years prior to me and him getting together. He just was never able to divorce his wife. How does this poor man deal with his own guilt? He is absolutely committed to seeing to her well-being financially and has since set her up in a retirement village in the country and the city where I live as part of our plan to get her close to us to take care of. I feel desperately sorry for him as he is realizing everyday that we are wasting precious time together, but also he is really struggling with his own guilt.

Thank you for the opportunity to serve. As you stated, your situation is complicated. This is not your typical “extra-marital” affair and he is obviously not your typical wayward husband and yet the guilt, sense of unease and burden your friend is carrying… appears to be the same, if not more than the typical unfaithful husband. Why is this?

Well, that’s the thing about guilt. It’s not logical, It’s not always rational, and it’s certainly not reasonable. Since guilt is totally mind-created, it depends on the mind of the person experiencing it… not the event. For example, I recently worked with one client who shared a flirtatious kiss with a co-worker and ended up feeling guilty about it for years. And then I worked with another client who has visited prostitutes once a month for the entire 14 years of his marriage and had only experienced a small twinge of guilt each time.

What’s the difference between the two? I couldn’t tell you for sure what it is. However, I must say that I have observed that the stronger a person’s belief in punishment, the stronger is the hold that guilt seems to have on them.

Here’s what I mean.

Guilt can be described as a type of “mind-created” punishment we inflict on ourselves for doing wrong or making mistakes. I believe most people use guilt to punish themselves for basically one of two reasons:

Reason #1: They hope that by submitting to guilt (punishing themselves) it will prevent God (or life) from doing it.

Let me give you a classic example of this reasoning at work.

When my daughter was little, we used to have a time-out chair. And anytime she did something we asked her not to do… we would often send her to the time-out chair as a consequence. Well, guess what? After about 4 or 5 trips to the time-out chair… my daughter came up with a clever plan. One day she marked up the walls with her crayons (something she knew not to do), and when I confronted her about it… she rushed and put herself in the time-out chair and then said to me “It’s okay, mommy, I put myself in the time-out chair… so you don’t have to tell me to do it.”

Maybe your friend has taken a similar approach. Maybe, in a way, he’s put himself in that “mental time-out chair” called guilt, hoping that by punishing himself first… God or life won’t come along and do it later. If you suspect this might be the case with him, then I want you to remind him that no one punishes themselves fairly because we just can’t be objective about our own actions. Think about it. You and I can clearly see that his situation has a lot of extenuating circumstances, right? If we were to take him to a court of law… no jury would judge him as harshly as he judges himself, right? And so the punishment he’s giving himself does not fit the crime. In fact, many times, “self-punishment” ends up being so cruel, it’s far worse than the crime! Now the question that comes to mind is this: Who in their right mind would ever continue to inflict unnecessary pain and suffering on themselves? That’s a great question and it leads us right into the second reason people use guilt to punish themselves.

Reason #2: They hope that their guilt will be painful enough to cause them to stop doing whatever they are doing.

The basic thinking here is that punishment leads to correction. They hope that in an effort to avoid the pain of guilt, they will avoid the behavior that produces the guilt. The question, of course, is does this really work. The quick answer? No, not really. Think about it. If feeling guilty really prevented certain behaviors, the fast food industry would have been bankrupted a long time ago. And if punishment really did lead to correction, then our prison population would instantly drop by at least 70% because that’s how many prisoners are repeat offenders. And in the case of your friend, as guilty as he’s been feeling, has that stopped him from seeing you? No, it hasn’t. So what this tells you is that guilt does not prevent us from doing anything… only from enjoying it.

Bottom line?

1. Guilt is not a fact. It’s a feeling. The facts (or behaviors) are not what create guilt. It’s a person’s interpretations of those behaviors. For example, if a person thinks that “getting angry” makes them a bad person, they will feel guilty every time they experience anger. (Notice it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.)

2.Guilt is mind-created. So in order to cancel guilt, a person must be willing to change the thinking that produces guilt. In other words, you cannot save him or release him from his own guilty mind. He must do this for himself. But if you can be a good friend, then it might be a good idea to point him towards some tools and resources to help change his mind.

My recommendation?

Have him read my article on this site called Ending the Guilt, Blame, and Self-Torture. But remember, the actual “release of guilt” will not happen just by reading about it (no more than a person can learn how to swim just by reading about swimming). In this case, it’s the doing and the practicing, plus learning the right strategies and techniques, that will make the real difference for him. And to make sure he has all that, I highly recommend you direct him towards my audio coaching session called Forgiving Infidelity and Releasing Pain. It’s one part self-forgiveness coaching and one part guilt-canceling strategies, all designed to do one thing: to show him how to embrace self-forgiveness for his mistakes and ensure that guilt no longer controls him.

The result?

You will get to witness him undergo a quiet transformation as he discovers he has far more capacity for self-love and self-forgiveness than he ever thought before. I have faith this helps.