Unexpected Guilt after an Affair: Understanding and Overcoming Cognitive Dissonance
During the healing journey, it's normal to see many positive changes in our lives, particularly after breaking free from a challenging relationship.
A surprising emotion often surfaces – 'unexpected guilt'. This puzzling emotion manifests itself as cognitive dissonance, an internal conflict resulting from holding two contradictory beliefs at the same time. This discord is felt when we're clearly in a better place, having established a new relationship, made progress in our work, and uncovering fresh possibilities, yet simultaneously, we find ourselves laden with residual feelings of sympathy or regret towards our former partners.
Overcoming a difficult relationship is an accomplishment in its own right.
It signals your strength and resilience, your ability to step out of a state of daily dysfunction and forge a path toward improvement. You find yourself in a position where you can genuinely wish your ex well, be it a new partner, a career promotion, or any positive changes. The paradox of it all is that you might find yourself experiencing more unconditional love towards them than you did while you were in the relationship. This ironic situation often stems from the self-growth and healing process that you've had to embark on to recover from the betrayal and heartbreak you once endured.
The newfound confidence in yourself and your boundaries forms a crucial part of this journey. It's a revelation of sorts, where you realize your limits are not where you thought they were. You can now trust that you can handle difficult situations, and even though these situations are not necessarily desirable, they no longer hold you back. The worst thing that could happen, you've learned, is experiencing a negative emotion, and even that, you can handle it.
An essential result of this confidence is the re-establishment of trust in your life. Without a doubt, trust in others is important, but even more crucial, is the trust you have in yourself. Recognising that you cannot control others helps you understand that the trust you thought you lost in your partner was more about your ability to trust your own judgement. This trust is built on your ability to make decisions with the information available at that moment. It's tempting to want to beat yourself up for past errors but, you cannot know what you do not know therefore, offering yourself compassion for earlier choices is a far more empowering way to utilise these lessons moving forward.
As humans, we can often understand something logically, we can comprehend it. This doesn't mean that we no longer experience seemingly unrelated emotions though, so when you see your (ex) partner suffering, this can sometimes lead to an unexpected feeling of guilt.
Societal expectations might suggest you should feel avenged, even derive some satisfaction from their pain. This stems from the belief that they should experience at least the same turmoil you did. But on reflection, is that really helpful?
How would witnessing their suffering improve your well-being? Especially if you have children together.
Why shouldn't they be the ones to suffer?
Some might argue that it's only fair for them to suffer in the same way we did. However, it's essential to question if such feelings align with the values we desire for ourselves. After all, aren't compassion, self-care, understanding, and patience more beneficial and in line with our growth?
Reality often presents a different picture. It might include feelings of pity, sorrow, and sadness, even a desire to reunite. This could be further compounded by certain actions from your ex-partner, such as love-bombing, constant communication, painting rosy pictures of the future, or manipulation. These behaviours might have been craved by your former self, the one still hurting and longing for change.
As you progress on your own healing journey there might become a disconnect between what your past self craved, what your current self desires, and what would be most beneficial for your future self. This unexpected cognitive dissonance can be challenging to navigate. You're grieving for your past self, feeling sorry for your ex, and experiencing relief at no
longer being that vulnerable person desperate for change.
Simultaneously, guilt can arise from being in a better place, leaving them behind in some ways. This guilt is amplified when much of their suffering appears self-inflicted. Don't forget, however, that it's pretty normal to feel this way, you could even consider it acceptable. Instead of feeling guilt over their choices, consider channelling your emotions into compassion for their experiences.
Perhaps it's not been too long since you wished pain and discomfort for your ex (maybe you still do a little), but now you understand it makes no real difference to you, your well being or how you actually feel. If you're honest with yourself, particularly if you're still together or have children, these feelings won't benefit your current or future relationships.
In conclusion, experiencing unexpected guilt in new relationships can be a daunting reality for many of us. However, recognizing these emotions and transforming them into compassion for yourself and your ex can significantly improve your healing process. While the journey might be laden with cognitive dissonance, the reward is a stronger, more self-aware version of you, better equipped to navigate future relationships.
If this whole concept has got you thinking differently about your partner after betrayal, I'd encourage you to listen to the podcast episode 6 'Unexpected Guilt' where I explore this topic further.
Remember, healing is not about the destination. It's your journey and you get to take it one step at a time and trust me, every step counts.
By Luke Shillings, Relationship & Infidelity Recovery Coach