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.


Four Surprising Emotions You May Experience When You’ve Been Cheated On





In droves.



The tears were surely a testament to that.


Fear of what was to come?

In every moment.


Those were some of the emotions that I experienced when I discovered that my first husband had been having an affair. None of those feelings surprised me; they were the emotions I would have expected to follow the gut-wrenching discovery of betrayal.

But they weren’t the only feelings that I experienced. And the others caught me off-guard. Here are four unexpected emotions that you may experience after the discovery of infidelity.

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