Walking the Narrow Line Between Seeking to Understand and Making Excuses

The Netflix series Mindhunters takes a fascinating look at the early days of the FBI’s research into profiling serial killers. At that time, the overall viewpoint of the bureau was to expend all of their resources on catching these killers after they had committed their crimes. Once they were apprehended and restrained, they were to be ignored, dismissed as aberrations.

Yet the investigators at the heart of this series had a different perspective. Instead of waiting until multiple murders had been committed, they wondered if, by interviewing convicted serial killers and analyzing data, they could instead gain some insight into the conditions that lead people to become monsters.

The powers-that-be were horrified. Why would any attention be paid towards these men? Why would any empathy (even feigned in attempt to gain trust) be extended?

Yet, often behind the brass’s backs, in dark and desolate barred rooms, these men-turned-monsters revealed their stories to the investigators. Watching these scenes unfold, I was filled with alternating revulsion as they described their crimes (and the motivations behind their actions) and compassion as their own abuse and trauma was revealed.

What they did was horrific. And in most cases, what they had endured was horrific. The latter certainly doesn’t excuse the former. Yet it does help to provide some understanding, some context, of how those men could do those things. And that understanding can help to both provide some healing for those impacted and also recognize and sometimes intervene when someone seems to be following a similar pathway.

We all have a tendency to ascribe our failures to external (and often malleable) causes and assign other’s shortcomings to their own internal character flaws. In fact, this propensity is so common, it has even been assigned a name: the fundamental attribution error. In normal life, this can be seen by a student justifying their failing grade by blaming the pencil that kept breaking or because they believe the teacher has it out for them. While at the same time, they may attribute their friend’s poor grade to their lack of preparation and inherent laziness.

(Interestingly, this trends the opposite way with positive outcomes – while you chalk your promotion up to your abilities and performance, your coworker’s promotion may be described as “lucky.”)

Of course, the reality is somewhere in between. We are all a product of our internal selves and our external environment. We are both nature and nurture. Our own actions are born both from within our character and from what we face in the world beyond. And the same is true for those around us, even those that behave in incomprehensible and reprehensible ways.

In our long weeks of convalescence at our home, we have been devouring the Marvel universe shows on Netflix (Daredevil and the like). I’m not always a fan of comic-based entertainment; much of it feels too simplistic and filled with one-dimensional characters. Yet these series are different. The heroes have their demons and the villains have their virtues. No one is all-good or all-bad, just variations on shading between.

And the longer I’ve lived and the more honest I’ve been with myself, I think that’s generally the way things are. And I believe that we can make ourselves better by accepting the responsibility for our own choices and we can make the world better by striving to understand why others make the decisions they do. Not in an effort to excuse them from the consequences, but in an attempt to see the connections and possibly be able to recognize trouble before it becomes destruction.

And this is where I am now when it comes to those that have affairs.

It certainly hasn’t always been this way. When I first learned of my ex’s betrayals, I was livid. Enraged. I blamed him for putting me in that mess and all of my energy was directed towards that end. His pitiful excuses made for his behavior (I can just hear his voice whining to the police, “But I just wanted to be happy.”) only served to feed my ire. After all, he had acted without concern for me. Why should I have any concern for him?

This anger filled me for years. By extension, it carried over to anyone that admitted to ever stepping out on their relationships. Just as foretold by the fundamental attribution error, I ascribed all of their actions to the cold calculations of a malignant soul.

All that anger never altered what he had done. All that condemnation never altered the actions of any cheaters I encountered. All that blame never made me feel any better.

And then, ever so slowly, as my personal pain began to fade, I began to listen.

Not only to those who had experienced betrayal. But also to those who had perpetrated it upon their partners.

I found that some of my anger had been replaced by curiosity – Why are some people compelled to cheat? How do they rationalize the pain that this causes their partners? Are they running towards attention or running away from pain? How do they view their marriages, their spouses? Do they feel guilt or regret? Would they make the same choices again? (If you haven’t read or listened to Esther Perel, she has amazing insights into infidelity. Highly recommend!)

And often their explanations rang flat, mere excuses for selfish behavior. Yet, I also uncovered important information about the pressures we put on marriage, the isolation of mental illness, the anxiety around conflict and the fear of being alone.

And it is only by listening that we can begin to gain some understanding.

Not to excuse. (No matter the reasons, cheating is both a selfish act and a coward’s way out.)

But to gain perspective and insight. (Even in those cases when we can never grasp the why or the how behind the actions.)

So that hopefully we can recognize it before it’s too late and maybe even stop it from occurring in the first place.


Five Signs That You May Be in Denial

If I had been able to be honest with myself during my first marriage, I would have known that something was wrong.

But I wasn’t honest with myself. Instead, I was doing the adult equivalent of the child hiding under the covers when a strange noise reverberates throughout the house. Part of my brain was acting in an attempt to protect me; keeping me blinded from the truth and providing me with the illusion of security.

At the time (and even in the months following the brutal discovery of what was happening beyond my closed eyes), I wasn’t able to tell that I was in denial. When asked, I would describe in detail the extreme efforts that my ex undertook to keep the truth hidden from me. But I would stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the efforts I went to in order to keep the truth from myself.

Looking back, these are the five signs that suggested that I was in denial:


1 – I Made Excuses

I attributed my stress to work. I brushed off my then-husband’s strange comment to his health-related tension. I excused the rejected debit card as a miscommunication with the bank. There was always a reason for everything, and that reason never had anything to do with my husband embezzling marital funds or seeking another wife.

When excuses, for yourself or others, become the knee-jerk reaction, it’s a sign that you may be ignoring something important. Pay attention to your pardons. If they are frequent, especially with regards to a certain person or situation, it would be wise to consider looking deeper.


2 – My Reactions Were Over-the-Top

When my husband would call and announce that he would be home late from work, I would have to fight back my initial strong response. When he made a minor – and admitted or visible – mistake, I would find myself becoming irrationally upset. And that’s because I wasn’t responding to the situation at hand; I was reacting to what I was not allowing myself to see.

Pay attention to your reactions. If they are consistently rating a 10 in response to a level 2 or 3 offense, your emotions may be due to something else entirely. Take a moment and explore what is really upsetting you.


3 – Certain Thoughts or Topics Were Off Limits

We never talked about what would happen if our relationship didn’t go the distance. We never discussed infidelity or the temptations that all people can encounter. I never allowed my thoughts to wander in the direction of my husband being anything but loving towards me.

When certain topics are in the no-go zone (either between you or even within your own mind), it is an indication that you may be intentionally refusing to explore what is hidden there. Those darkened spaces become the closet where the monstrous secrets can hide until they grow too big to contain.


4 – I Had an Underlying Current of Anxiety

It was electric, a strange buzz that radiated through my entire body. It came on slowly, so it was difficult to say for certain that it hadn’t always been there. It reminded me of the spidey sense I get as a teacher before a fight breaks out – it’s a physical awareness of emotional energy.

Even when our brains are stubbornly refusing to acknowledge something, our bodies are often clued-in. Pay attention to your physical symptoms – elevated heart rate or blood pressure, stomach issues or frequent illness. Your body may be trying to tell you something.


5 – There Was a Disconnect Between Observations and Conclusions

I believed that my husband was a good man. Kind. Caring. And hard-working. Yet there were times that his actions didn’t support those presumptions. So I simply brushed those times aside.

This is confirmation bias at its worst – we make conclusions and then proceed to seek out evidence that supports it and reject any information to the contrary. This is a cognitive distortion that we are all subject to, yet awareness of it goes a long way in limiting its reach. Don’t allow your conclusions to be so entrenched that you ignore any further observations.


Denial seems like it’s a comfortable place. After all, the child hiding beneath the covers convinces himself that there is safety to be found on the bed. At the same time, he is held prisoner beneath the sheets, convincing himself that to step out from the covers would be dangerous even as he constantly worries about what lurks outside.

Instead, if the child throws back the sheets and summons the courage to investigate the strange noise, the worry dissipates as he either discovers that the threat is imagined or he learns the true nature of the danger.

Denial comes a great cost. It provides you with some temporary security and asks for your constant fear in return. Trust that you can face whatever scares you and you will find that your fear fades away.


You Don’t Need to Understand To Be Able to Move On

“I just don’t understand how he could do that to his wife and kids…”

“Her words and actions are so cold. I just don’t get it…”

“How can someone have so little regard for others?”


I’ve been seeing questions like this with ever-increasing frequency, their authors pleading for answers. For some sort of sudden and maybe-even-magical insight that brings clarity to the situation.

It’s natural that we want to understand. From the time we were first learning which sounds out of our mother’s mouth meant that we were being attended to, we have placed an inordinate amount of importance on understanding the world around us. And when the words and actions originate from our chosen life-partner, finding understanding becomes a given, an assumption.

Until suddenly it isn’t.

When one day, that person that you thought you knew so well suddenly seems to act out of character and without consideration for others. The shock reverberates through your body as you stumble through your memories, trying to make sense of this new information. You’re disoriented. Confused.

And consumed with an overwhelming need to understand both why and how this is happening.


Searching for the “lightbulb” moment…

As a teacher, I live for the “lightbulb” moments, those times when the math that was a struggle suddenly becomes clear and comprehensible to a student. Those moments are magical, where confusion and frustration are instantly transformed into mastery and appreciation.

When my first husband disappeared, I expected, that with enough effort and practice, I would experience my own “lightbulb” moment, where my shock and bewilderment would be replaced with understanding and I would be able to see and comprehend how he could have made the choices he did.

I believed that reaching this understanding was crucial for me to move on, much like my students have to demonstrate mastery in order to advance to the next level. I expected this understanding to place the event within a larger context, to provide meaning for the pain and motivation for the cause of it.

But no matter how hard I tried, understanding remained elusive. I knew much of the “what,” but little of the “why,” much like a student that simply memories material for the exam without fully comprehending any of it. I finally reached two realizations:

1 – I was attempting to apply rational thought to irrational actions. I simply wouldn’t be able to understand because there wasn’t a logical motivation or explanation for what had occurred. It is simply not possible to make sense of the senseless.

2 – Part of my struggle to understand originated from the fact that I couldn’t fathom, no matter the circumstances, making the same decisions he did. My brain couldn’t go there, even as a purely cognitive exercise. You cannot understand what you cannot even imagine and sometimes an inability to comprehend is a reflection of your character.



There is the person and there is the perspective…

“Who was I married to?” I questioned myself endlessly after his double life was revealed. I felt violated, like I had been assaulted by this stranger masquerading as a loving husband. I wondered if he had always been this way or if he had undergone some dark metamorphosis. I turned the options over and over again in my mind until the edges of him grew soft like a stone polished in a tumbler.

I simply couldn’t reconcile the view I had of him with the person he now appeared to be. And without a doubt, he held much of the responsibility for that disconnect. He deliberately and consistently hid behind the persona he had constructed for himself.

But I also had manufactured an image of him and allowed cognitive bias to filter out information that didn’t match my viewpoint. Part of my drive for understanding arose from the dissonance between my construct of him and the reality that had burst through the projection. Yet what was needed was less comprehension and more assimilation between the person and the outside perspective.

Strangely, it became more about understanding my motivations and choices than about wrapping my brain around his. After all, your own mind is the only one that you can observe from within. You may as well take the time to get to know it.


Assimilating the new information into your story…

It felt like walking into the movie theater as the film reached its climactic scene. I saw the explosions, felt the vibrations of the aftermath, but had no knowledge of what had advanced the story to that point. Even worse, I thought I had signed up for a romance flick only to discover that it was actually a crime drama.

At first, my energy went into trying to piece together the parts of the narrative that I had missed. What caused the conflict? What incited the destruction? The action without the background felt meaningless, a sucker punch out of nowhere.

Part of the need for understanding was driven by a desire to have the story make sense, to have defined antecedents for each behavior and to have clear consequences for every wrongdoing. I wanted the “bad guy” to pay and the “good guy” to come out ahead.

Eventually, I realized that my ex was a particularly crappy script writer, since he elected to leave his character’s motivations unclear. I decided to take the matter into my own hands and, picking up where he left off, create meaning from the wreckage. I may not be able to reach an understanding about his choices, but I could make sure that my decisions were guided by a larger purpose.

I never found understanding, I created understanding. You cannot change what happens to you, but you can always adjust your view of it. You may never be able to assemble all of the pieces of your past, but that doesn’t stop you from building your future.








Learning to Trust Again: How to Deal With the Triggers

In my experience, the most persistent side effect of being cheated on is the unrelenting and underlying uncertainty if you’re responding to your intuition or over-reacting to something from your past. I have often had internal internal arguments where one side, afraid of being caught unaware again, is pulling all of the alarms, screaming that the sky is, indeed, falling and the other side is calmly dismissing these fears, reassuring me that the danger is only an echo from the past. This can manifest as an inability to trust others, but really it comes down to learning to trust myself again.

There are times when the triggers are activated because of a legitimate and present concern. At those times, it’s important to listen to your gut and pay attention to its warnings. And there are other times when the alarms were pulled too soon, acting more from perceived danger than from a true emergency.

The problem lies in knowing which voice to listen in which situation. Dismiss all warnings, and you open yourself up to betrayal again. Listen to every advisory and you’re preventing trust from ever building (and also making yourself crazy in the process).

Here are five questions that I’ve learned to ask myself over the years to determine if I am being triggered by a true threat or merely the fear of one.  And, as with everything, practice makes better.


6 Truths You Need to Know After You’ve Been Cheated On