Dear Dr. Durlofsky,
I read your blog entry about the differences between healthy and unhealthy guilt today, and I would like to ask your opinion on something.
I am a middle-aged married man. I recently confessed to my wife of 12 years my habit of visiting internet cyber chat rooms and pornography sites. I also confessed to her that several months ago I ran into my high school girlfriend. I hadn't seen her for numerous years and we ended up kissing for about 5 minutes on a bench in public. Although I told my wife about this encounter, I did not tell her that I kissed her too. I do not intend on having an affair. I told my wife that when I visited chat rooms I always made it clear that I was married and that I ended all contact with people I chatted with when it became clear it was going to harm my marriage. ( I did not use the word cybersex in my confession).
My wife was angry when I told her these things. She did not talk to me for about 10 days. She then told me that she was hurt and that she hated the feeling of being betrayed, but she forgave me and that she wanted to leave the past behind. I also made the decision to seek treatment. I gave my wife passwords to all my email accounts and placed my computer in the dining room where there are no doors. So far I stayed porn and chat room free for almost 7 months (202 days as of this writing).
The problem is I am still feeling guilty for what I have done. I know that what I withheld was relatively minor and that none if this has done lasting harm to my marriage. We are in good shape as a couple and family.
My question is this: is what I am feeling unhealthy guilt? I feel I have made some critical changes and done no real harm, but I would appreciate your thoughts.
I want to congratulate on your courage to share this information with your wife and your decision to seek treatment. You stated a few times in your email that you believe "no real damage was done" and you did not disclose to your wife the fact that you kissed another woman or engaged in cybersex. Based on this it sounds like you are minimizing your risky actions and the damage your past behaviors have had on your marriage and your self-concept. You seem to realize you have not been fully honest with your wife and probably with yourself. All of which could be reasons why you still feel guilty. Minimization is a common defense people use when dealing with addiction or feelings that are scary for one to acknowledge.
Re-building trust and forgiving ourselves for past wrong doings takes time and understanding. Although trust can be rebuilt, with lots of hard work, you may need to keep in mind that the reason for rebuilding the trust in your marriage, is the result of your dishonesty.
Exploring your guilty feelings, whether your guilt be healthy or not, should help you to understand the issues and reasons underlying your past risky behaviors. And most importantly, help you to address them in a positive and effective way.
Best of luck to you. Looks like you are well on your way!
If you have a question you would like to ask? Email me at drpauladurlofsky@gmail.