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Behavior vs Values - 4/23/2008

Eleanor is a really fine lady.  She’s the quintessential suburban housewife.  She drives carpool in an oversized SUV, has an immaculate house, is a good cook, well-groomed at all times, plays tennis and belongs to the Junior League.  Even more, she can honestly be described as a nurturing, responsible mother.  

There is one chink in Eleanor’s armor.  In addition to her other activities, she is actively involved in a two-year long affair with her best friend’s husband.  This involvement is not without considerable emotional cost to her.  It causes her enormous guilt, creates tension in her everyday life, interferes with her sleep pattern and negatively affects her relationship with her husband, who, although totally unaware of the affair, is very confused as to why she is so frequently irritable, critical and quick to anger.  

Eleanor has resolved to end the affair on far more numerous occasions than she can count.  Over the past 2 years, she has walked away from most of their intimate meetings with a heavy heart, a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach and a promise to herself that she would never again be involved with James, except in the presence of their respective spouses.  It wasn’t that she didn’t enjoy their meetings.  Quite the contrary.  She looked forward to and anticipated them with a sense of urgency that she found difficult to understand.  At the same time, she knew their affair was contradictory to her values.  Still, she repeated the behavior time and time again.  It was confusing to her.  She was fond of James.  He totally excited her sexually, but deep down inside, she knew that, if her husband, Jerry, ever discovered their relationship and left her, she would be emotionally devastated.  Even then, she wouldn’t choose James as a replacement spouse.  He was safe.  He was married and she wasn’t about to get deeply involved with him on a permanent basis.  Still, she could talk with him, because, she rationalized, he listened, unlike Jerry.   He seemed interested in her thoughts and activities and she could open up to him without fear of rejection, judgement or criticism.  That wasn’t the case at home.  There, she walked on eggshells, chose her words with care and deliberation, and often avoided expressing her true beliefs or opinions.  The exception to this pattern of behavior was during periods of anger, when she could blurt out her resentments and say whatever she wished, without fear, probably because her anger was a substitute for courage.

No matter how she rationalized it, her guilt depleted her sense of well-being so much so that her daily functioning was interfered with.  She was depressed, lethargic and had even lost interest in the kids’ activities.  In many ways, she hated herself for her inability to extricate herself from an addictive  relationship that caused her daily guilt and pain.  On occasion, she even wondered if what she was really looking for was to punish herself, but she had no idea why.

In therapy, we spoke about Eleanor’s behaviors and how they were vastly different from her values.  Intellectually, morally, spiritually, she had no difficulty adamantly stating that she believed extramarital sex to be a sin and a betrayal of the trust her husband had in her.  It was a behavior she in no way justified.   She went so far as to say that rather than have an affair, she thought she should have left her husband, divorced him, started a new life and only searched for a new spouse after she was single.  The one thing she knew for certain was her behavior and values were miles apart.  The disparity was confusing to her and left her in the depressed, anxious, guilt-ridden state of conflict I described earlier.   

Eleanor’s situation, oddly enough, isn’t unusual.  All too many of you have probably found yourselves in the same situation, although it didn’t necessarily involve an affair.  You may have awakened to the fact that, on too many occasions, you found yourself hysterically yelling at your children and feeling guilty about your behavior, because the last thing you would condone is emotional or physical abuse of a child.  You may be an individual who finally realized, after far too many morning-afters when you wakened to feel yourself drained, with a throbbing headache, a terrible taste in your mouth and an even worse feeling in your stomach, that drinking was detrimental to your health.  But, in spite of your resolve, time and time again, the behavior repeated itself.  It’s the same with gambling, over eating, under eating - anorexic behavior, hostile outbursts, lack of sensitivity and a host of other inappropriate and socially unacceptable behaviors.  No matter the specific nature of the behavior, you hated it in yourself, promised to eliminate it and yet repeated the actions on numerous occasions.  In every instance your values and judgement were flawless.  Your behavior wasn’t.

I could go on at length about your need to enter psychotherapy, to take lessons in self to understand where your behavior stems from and  why it occurs, but at this moment, I’m not suggesting any of these.  Understand that I believe professional help would be a positive approach to your problem.  However, for the present, you need to curtail whatever destructive action, behavior, attitude or orientation you possess. There is a simple, but pragmatic, way to do so. It won’t necessarily provide you all the answers or supply you with an understanding of self that might leave you feeling more content and better able to live with yourself in the long run. But it will eliminate your immediate guilt, mitigate the hurt you inflict on others and, in the process, increase your sense of self worth, because you’ve chosen to stop your non-constructive behavior.  The pragmatic step you need to take is to alter your negative behaviors by asking yourself one question, “Does the action fit in with my values?”  If your answer is no, don’t do it.  It sounds easy, but it isn’t.  Nevertheless, what other choice do you have?

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