I’ve been divorced for three years, but still carry a lot of guilt about the end of the marriage. I was unfaithful to my wife while she was pregnant. In my defense, she tricked me into getting her pregnant by not taking her birth-control pills because, in her words, she felt the marriage slipping away and she wanted something to keep us together. I am no longer with the woman that I had the affair with, but I’m having trouble starting any kind of a serious relationship with someone else because my intense feelings of guilt get in the way. Any suggestions?
On the subject of guilt, I greatly admire the work of psychologist David Richo, author of How to Be an Adult in Relationships: The Five Keys to Mindful Loving. He writes that guilt is not a feeling, it’s a “belief or judgment” that “precedes or follows unethical behavior.” Richo identifies two kinds of guilt: appropriate and neurotic. “Appropriate guilt is resolved in reconciliation and restitution. In neurotic guilt there is blame. It seeks to be resolved by punishment and is the response of a scared child within us.”
Richo notes that guilt can be “a disguise for a fear of being assertive, a way to downplay responsibility or a mask for anger. It sometimes is used to avoid an unacceptable truth.” He explains, for example, that during childhood, rather than face the unacceptable truth that your parents did not love you, you might believe that you are guilty of not measuring up to their expectations.
There is a simple, spiritual prescription to heal guilt, according to Richo: “Admit directly to the person involved that you hurt him or acted irresponsibly or neglectfully. Ask to hear about the pain he (or she) feels and listen to it. Thereby you live through the pain and become fully conscious of your behavior and its consequence. Make amends by ceasing the behavior and making restitution to a charity or to a substitute person if the original person is not available.” Then, he says, be certain to congratulate yourself for making an adult choice and following through with it. I would add that it’s best to wait to enter another romantic relationship until after you have resolved your guilt.
I’ve been dating my girlfriend for two months, and Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. I really like this girl, and if all goes as it has been, I could see myself spending my life with her. But she’s a little skittish. Her last two relationships were with men who gave her gifts and sent her roses but ultimately cheated on her. Considering all this, how much is too much? I don’t want to scare her off.
There’s no real way of knowing what might motivate your girlfriend to make a mad dash back to the single life. What you need to understand is that if she does, it has more to do with the emotional baggage that she brought into your relationship than whatever you’ve created to celebrate Cupid’s day. You may want to ask her if she wants to plan the day with you or be surprised. If she opts for the mystery, restrict yourself to selecting two or three special things—like a romantic dinner, a sincere but grounded card or poem that you’ve written to her and a small, tasteful gift or unusual arrangement of cut flowers. Focus your language on how much you enjoy her company right now, not on how you hope to be with her forever. And have fun! Worrying about scaring her is useless. If she leaves, she wasn’t the one for you.