Q: My wife tried to make me feel guilty when she left. She angrily blamed me for our divorce despite my desperate attempts to hold things together. I'm not a perfect man, but I loved her and would never have left. But in her mind, I failed so miserably as a husband that she was forced to run around with her boss! Can you believe that? She blamed me for her adultery.
A: Your wife is trying to transfer her guilt to you. Nearly every spouse does something similar when engaging in infidelity. Such people must find a way to deal with the condemnation of their own consciences. They have torn up a home, rejected their spouses, wounded their children and jeopardized their futures. Such outrageous behavior demands an explanation of some sort. Thus, they construct a vigorous defense against moral condemnation, usually by shifting blame to the spouse.
Ask any victim of an affair; he or she has probably heard a version of the following rationalizations designed to handle four specific sources of guilt:
¢ Marital guilt. "I know that what I'm doing is difficult for you now, but someday you will understand that it's for the best. I never really loved you even when we were young. In fact, we should never have gotten married in the first place. Furthermore, this divorce is really your fault. You drove me to it by ..." (insert grievances here, such as frigidity, in-law problems, nagging, overwork or all the foregoing).
This message has a transparent purpose. The first sentence marvelously purifies the motives of the unfaithful spouse. It says, in effect, "I'm really doing this for your own good."
The second sentence is also a beauty. It is designed to serve as an "annulment" to the marriage instead of a cruel abandonment of a loved one. By saying that they should have never gotten married, their union becomes an unfortunate mistake rather than a relationship that is ordained and cemented. Then by putting the remaining responsibility on the other party, the blame is successfully transferred from the guilty to the innocent. So much for wedding vows. Now let's deal with the children.
¢ Parental guilt. "This will be hard on the kids for a while, but they'll be better off in the long run. It certainly isn't healthy for them to see us fight and argue like we've been doing. Besides, I will spend just as much time with them after things settle down as I do now."
Zap! Zap! Guilt over the children is also tucked away. Would you believe that Dad's escapade with another woman or Mom's flight with Don Juan is actually a constructive thing? Pay no heed to the conclusions the children draw about why Mommy or Daddy left, and why he or she doesn't love them anymore, and why the divorce may have been their fault, and why life is so painful and scary. Try to ignore the fact that everything stable has just come unstitched in the lives of some very impressionable and sensitive little people. Guilt over the children can be the toughest to rationalize, but, fortunately, hundreds of books and tapes are available today that will help you silence your writhing conscience.
l Social guilt. "I'm sure our friends won't understand at first, and I can hardly wait to hear what your mother will have to say. But it's like I told the pastor last week, our divorce is really no one's fault. We've just outgrown each other."
If a woman is speaking, she may say: "Besides, I am entitled to do what's best for me once in a while. I've given my entire life to everyone else; now it's time for me to think of myself. Anyway, what's right for me will prove best for you and the children, too."
This line of reasoning is only one of many rationalizations by which selfishness can be purified and made to appear altruistic. Three down and one to go.
¢ Divine guilt. "I've prayed about this decision and am now certain that God approves of what I've chosen to do."
There it is in living color - the ultimate rationalization. If God has taken the matter under advisement and judged the divorce to be in the interest of everyone, who can argue that point further? The conversation is over. Guilt is expunged. Self-respect is restored. Having settled the "big four," every moral and spiritual obstacle is removed. The stage is set for divorce.
- James Dobson is chairman of the board for Focus on the Family, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the preservation of the home.