I have just read a great blog post by CrazyKat on Try Not to Rain on My Rainbow. In this posting she unpicks her understandings of guilt and shame and the differences between them. I agree with Kat that, at the end of the day, it is mainly an exercise in semantics, but language is an important means by which we help ourselves to make sense of our world. We seem to have a propensity for labelling things in order to create order out of chaos, and adultery is certainly a chaotic affair!
Firstly, I consider shame to be more rooted in social stigma (concern for what others think about what I’m doing) whereas guilt is more rooted in personal morals (concern for what I think about what I’m doing). Secondly, I think shame and guilt are key emotions in understanding how to deal with adultery once its messy head has surfaced.
However, it gets mightily complicated as we dig a bit deeper.
My husband feels shame about his adulterous behaviour now that I know. This is because what I think about him is important to him. If I did not know or had ever found out, would he still feel shame? I’m not sure. I can’t help but think that his shame developed via my re-interpretation of events. Reality breaking through the affair fog! My daughter, his step-daughter knows about the adultery (I told her) and this causes him shame. His mother does not know because he is ashamed of his behaviour in her eyes. I suspect that he needed to see his adultery reflected back to him through the eyes of others in order to feel shame. However, what happens if others view adultery as an acceptable behaviour?
My husband met Pig Shit thanks to a couple who were so called friends of ours. I realise now that they were not friends of mine or friends of my marriage – just friends of my husband. They went out on foursomes. Pig Shit and my husband used their spare bedroom to shag. My husband and Pig Shit socialised with two other of his old school chums and Pig Shit was introduced to a male work colleague on a trip my husband arranged to Rotterdam. My husband did not feel any shame in these circumstances. Instead he thought he was showing off! WTF?
If other people are complicit in adultery they are in fact diluting the possibility of shame. I think betraying spouses can divide their social circle into two groups; those that can know and those that cannot know. Those that cannot know would be the ones to make them feel ashamed of themselves.
When the so called friends and I met up for social events everyone acted as ‘normal’. Nobody felt the need to say to my husband that they would prefer not to be compromised. They all didn’t give a shit about his adultery. This normalising of adultery is nasty. It circumvents feelings of shame. When they look on approvingly – why would you feel shame? Or, when society tells you that adultery is harmless fun and that you are entitled to be happy, why would you feel shame?
On the other hand, I feel deep shame about my husband’s adultery. I am bothered by what other people think about my husband and I. It had nothing to do with me but I feel deep shame. As Kat says, toxic shame. I also feel ashamed about staying with him rather than kicking him into the kerb like a dog for betraying me. Why? Is staying together post adultery more shameful than committing adultery in the first place? I could openly share with a stranger the knowledge that I was going through a divorce but could not, because of shame, share the knowledge that my husband has been unfaithful and we are trying to rebuild our marriage.
Interestingly, I feel no guilt about either the adultery or my decision to stay together. I was a committed partner to our marriage and did not know that my husband had decided to have sex with another woman. I am deeply ashamed about this but not guilty. I feel no guilt around agreeing to work on saving our marriage; I believe I am doing the right thing.
My husband does feel guilt, and quite rightly. I even believe that he was capable of feeling guilty at the time of the adultery whilst not feeling any shame for his actions. Guilty but shameless? Possible? I’m not sure about the value of shame as an emotion. I’m not sure that it ever stops the behaviour. I’m ashamed of staying with my husband but it is not enough to stop me from staying. It just makes me feel bad. Makes me want to hide from others.
However, guilt unlike shame does have a silver lining. It triggers remorse. Guilt lets you know that you feel that you have done something wrong. It need not be shameful. It just needs to be something that you understand as wrong. Something you regret. This can lead to feeling genuinely sorry. I don’t believe that all shameful behaviour by default leads to a feeling of guilt.
If other people give you the impression that what you are doing is right and you feel it to be right there will be no shame and no guilt. If other people give the impression that what you are doing is right, but you believe it to be wrong you will feel guilty but not ashamed. If other people believe what you are doing is wrong, but you feel it to be right you may feel ashamed but you will not feel guilty.
The bottom line is it’s all about right and wrong and we have to work this out for ourselves. There is no blue print for a ‘right’ way of living. What is right and what is wrong is a decision we have to make and this decision will be rooted in what our values are which are often shaped and informed by the values of society. I continue to believe that adultery is a heart breaking betrayal of trust that can destroy everything in its wake. However, I believe that the marriage does not necessarily have to be destroyed. Society seems to think that my feelings about adultery are wrong. Instead I should accept that it is a harmless exciting secret hidden in a marriage but should divorce my husband the minute I discover his adulterous secrets. Hence I feel ashamed but not guilty.
Adultery is a mess of contradictory emotions.
Image Credits: Sad Woman Sitting Alone In Room by FrameAngel; He And Friends by Vlado via freedigitalphotos.net