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Several years ago, I had an affair and have kept it to myself all this time. I’m still filled with guilt over it and I put myself down any time I think back on the situation. What makes it worse is that my partner thinks nothing like that would ever happen to us. I recently mentioned this to my best friend and asked them what I should do. They told me to keep it to myself, but I’m not sure. What should I do?
Guilt is a very corrosive feeling. Just like poor eating or exercise habits, emotional turmoil can have profoundly negative effects on our health, so let’s commit to moving to a better place, one way or another. If you ask around, everyone will have an opinion, but they’re not always helpful or applicable to your situation. Ultimately, the person you need to ask is yourself, so let’s start with these three questions:
1. Can you let go of these toxic emotions without sharing your past behaviour? Some people can easily leave the past in the past, without having to discuss it, while others need to come clean with the truth in order to move on in a healthy way.
2. What led you to take this course of action? Sometimes affairs happen because of irreconcilable differences or deficiencies within the fabric of our primary relationship, but not always. Sometimes affairs happen because a person is addicted to getting needs met outside of themselves, through external validation. It’s important you identify the reason for the affair to ensure it doesn’t reoccur and then get to work addressing the issue, whether it’s within yourself or within the partnership.
3. Are you still committed to your relationship? People are always growing and changing, and sometimes the contracts we agreed upon years ago don’t fit with who we are today. Blair and I exchange vows each year on our anniversary, which calls us to recommit from a place of choice, not obligation. We rarely see people in a place of employment sign a contract and then work within it for 35 years. As we grow, it’s important that our contracts do too, so maybe it’s time to have an honest discussion about your needs within the relationship.
Like a garden, relationships require ongoing attention and care. If we neglect them or become too busy to tend to them, weeds can creep in and suffocate the flowers. It sounds like the affair and your ongoing guilt are the weeds encroaching on the flowers. I invite you to practice self-compassion by easing up on the harsh judgments about yourself. Instead, spend some time acknowledging the things you do in your relationship to nourish the blossoms, I bet it’s a lot.
It’s important before we take any action in life to step back and see the big picture. With that in mind, is telling your partner going to improve your relationship or cause confusion and turmoil? Yes, perhaps there was a lapse in judgment by stepping out of the container of your relationship, but part of being human is doing things we’re not always proud of.
My direct Dr. Phil questions to you are: are you still engaging with someone outside of your marriage? Or are you wanting to continue? These are questions you need to ask yourself in order to become clear on your direction. If the desire still exists, I strongly suggest you seek counsel to find out what is motivating that longing.
Sometimes the negative impact of an event can be so drastic that it becomes the turning point that ensures it never happens again. Guilt can help us stay on track in our lives when we compare something we’ve done — or not done — to our personal values. Perhaps your guilt has served its purpose, and if so, you may no longer need it. In terms of your self-loathing, I remember many years ago, walking along and having one of my usual conversations with myself. On this particular day, I was reflecting on some not-so-nice things I’d done in the past. With each step I became filled with more and more self-hatred.
I clearly remember stopping and saying to myself, “What are you doing? You’re no longer there, you’ve grown beyond that behavior.” I was able to apply my cognitive therapy techniques and replace the self-flagellating dialogue with, “I am in a new place now.” I offer you this same affirmation to replace your feelings of remorse and guilt — you’re in a new place now. This was an experience you had. Learn the lessons and move on.
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Blair Abbass and Jenny Kierstead are certified therapists, award-winning educators and partners in life and business. They are the co-founders of Breathing Space Yoga Studio/Teacher Training, Yoga in Schools and Girl on Fire. They have been married for 17 years, but who’s counting.