Good evening my comrade!
First things first, and then we’ll get to the meat and sweets of the matter.
First of all, you should consider following and reading Dr. Alexandra Solomon on Instagram, Twitter, or on her website. She also has some insightful videos.
I first met Solomon in a closed Facebook discussion group built around challenging the rigid concepts of relationships and intimacy.
The group is well curated and I have found a resource full of stories of vulnerabilities coupled to professional insight. Conversations are far deeper than the shallow simplified labels and cultural narratives I find elsewhere on social media. The group isn’t a replacement for my inner work, but it definitely provides real therapeutic insights to that work.
Of course, like so much in life, you get out of it what you put into it.
I cannot say enough good things about this group, the quality of the discussions, and the sharing of vulnerable insight by other members. You should check it out.
As such, I can say authoritatively, I don’t see Solomon’s work limited to the narrow band of infidelity. Infidelity is just one of many different characteristics relationships take and it isn’t the only kind of betrayal in those relationships. “We have all been betrayed and we have all betrayed,” tweets Rick Reynolds, founder of Affair Recovery.
“What you’ve done may not be the same magnitude as infidelity,” Reynolds adds, “but we’ve all wounded others.”
As such, I read and listen to Solomon’s work as offering an earnest, research-based, and therapeutic voice on how to build the kind of relationship that works for you and your values.
There is no proselytizing or moralizing from her.
I’m not really sure what would motivate a person spend a life trying to help others, dig into who people are, or try to understand what makes people tick. Regardless of her motivations, I find Solomon’s writings and teaching have helped me better identify the tools to identify what is happening in my inner life. As I’ve reached a more conscious understanding I’ve become better at expressing my inner life through external choices.
Regardless of Solomon’s intentions, repeatedly her words have made an impact on me.
Anyone that has had their infidelity discovered or revealed has been asked some variation of “what were you thinking?” or “why would you?” or “how could you do this to me?”
Essentially, some variation of wording that demands to know a person’s intentions. And as I read over and over, men and women that have betrayed their Love(s), life, and self get caught in the trap of explaining, and then defending, their intentions.
It isn’t until after the emotional fires are doused that we get to the significance of intentions and the nuances behind them. That will take a curious and willing partner. Getting to intentions may take months or years.
What matters is that you remain curious.
Ask yourself “why?”
Find your curiosity and then dig deeper. Whether couples reconcile or separate, the men and women that seem to thrive post-infidelity are those that explore the intentions.
They remain curious.
They work through what they imagine is true and focus on separating the stories they imagine from the truth of the experience…then they unblinkingly own the truth.
A good example of what that exploration looks like is found in Dolly Allen’s post on her husband’s infidelity and narcissism and which I wrote about here a few months into my journey.
Based on these lessons, the best action I took around month four was simply to settle on the clear and truthful answer: I did what I did because I wanted to.
Any other answer was simply nuance, sounded defensive, and opened the door to unresolvable conflicts of opinion and perspectives. Plus, early on most of my explanations were infused with Hero-ing, shame, martyrdom, guilt, and grief plus a bit of smoke and mirrors even I couldn’t see through.
Nearly everything I did in the moments of my betrayal were aligned with my intentions based on my life experiences and what I knew to do. Without getting into the weeds, simply stated my intentions, in no order were to:
- do what I felt compelled to do to prove my value
- not get caught
- fix my mistakes without asking for help (asking for help equated to weakness and neediness and making me vulnerable to abuse and hurt)
- protect people I cared about from pain and hurt
- protect myself from pain and hurt
- not lose my Partner’s respect or passion
Unfortunately, the impact of my actions I chose based on what I knew will never reflect my intentions. Which is why the intentions of the secret-keeping and the escalating series of lies don’t match their impact.
For this reason, I think the statement, “I lied to you to protect us from my actions” is such a mind numbingly difficult truth to digest.
It is why, the truthful statement, “I never intended to hurt you” is routinely greeted with such contempt. Regardless of my intentions, my actions impacted both my partners.
“I love you and I betrayed you,” isn’t gaslighting but feels like it to the other person.
These kind of statements reflects a number of overlapping and true intentions undermined by impactful acts. These statements, and defenses like it, speak to my intentions but don’t speak to the impact of my actions on their feelings or life.
Acts impact other people regardless of intentions. And in their pain and confusion, people impacted will unconsciously make up stories to explain how they feel.
“The brain tries to make sense of what is happening in the body on a physiological level by making up a story,” says Deb Dana, LCSW during her interview about the Polyvagal System on Therapist Uncensored. “Stories follow [nerological] state.”
While true that my intentions are informed through my knowledge, habits, skillset, and life experiences, this truth doesn’t excuse my actions or relieve others of their impact…but it has taken a lot of therapy and self-reflection to own the truth without needing outside validation or acceptance.
The reality is I seriously doubt intentions matter much to others and the more I argue and explain intentions the more I am seeking approval and overlooking the impact my choices have on their life. The more I try to explain it was “never my intention” to hurt them the less I am listening to what they are actually saying about the inpact.
My intentions speak to my truth but it has taken a lot of patience, writing, and self-reflection to accept that my truth is no one else’s burden.
I started to write, “my intentions don’t matter to others if my choices don’t align with their impact.” However, generally “my intentions don’t matter to others” is probably more accurate.
By deferring to my intentions I am essentially saying, “Yes I hear you hurt, but you shouldn’t hurt because that wasn’t my intention.” It carries the same intentions when someone say, “If you really cared you wouldn’t have cheated.”
In both cases one person is denying the truth of someone’s feelings and trying to argue them out of their experience. In this sense both people are operating from what I call Gaslighting Lite perspective.
Gaslighting Lite is arguing perspectives, opinions, and intentions without respect for the other person’s perspectives, opinions, and intentions. It is an attempt to have you agree my way is best and have them disregard their own intentions and impact. It is the “If you loved me you wouldn’t do XYZ.”
Regardless of the intentions, Gaslighting Lite will have impact too. Unlike pathological gaslighting, Gaslighting Lite has no intention to make the other person crazy, but probably will anyway. I see a lot of this in the rooms of AA and Al-Anon. Well meaning people arguing who hurts worse and who is impacted by the behaviors of the other more.
I recognize that in my rush to defend my intentions against contempt and criticism at times left me overlooking and minimizing the impact of my choices on my life and the lives of the people around me.
Even if that isn’t my intention.
If you betrayed your Love(s), life, and self many people will often reject the truth of your intentions. They will understandably focus on the real and imagined impact on them, their lives, and their self. People focus their experiences through their pain and minimize the impact on others.
As Joel Mark Witt and Antonia Dodge discuss on their Personality Hacker podcast, Your Emotions versus My Emotions, “We have a tendency to give preference to our own experience and dismiss others.” It doesn’t make people bad, it makes people human.
As such, the impact of my choices in a unconscious relationship will generally trump my intent.
I was reminded of this as I recently read a post from Solomon. Her post about intention versus impact resonated with me (and with Solomon’s permission I posted her original thread below) and I wanted to take a few minutes and talk about how intent and impact played out over this temporary moment in my life.
First of all, owning my behavior is owning both the truth of my intentions and the real impact of my behaviors. Understandably, with infidelity many people will experience a real and imagined impact often coupled to imagining intent. The reality is, “Somebody’s behavior can hurt you,” writes Solomon, “WITHOUT them intending to hurt you.”
Initially, and for months after the end of my relationship I mistakenly defended intent against people committed to misunderstanding, misinterpretation, drama, and rumormongering. The rejection, silence, and contempt of people I considered family, friends, and community left me even more defensive fueling their ghost stories of maliciousness and narcissism.
My defensiveness and pursuing understanding was an attempt on my part to find understanding and intimacy. My pursuing and her distancing contributed to reenergizing the pattern.
I would reach out with something vulnerable, Painter wouldn’t respond and then a day or two later Warren or one the flying monkeys would post something or send me a note calling me a monster or some other nonsense.
And of course, I would respond defensively.
This cycle of reaching for a conversation and the emotional blocking from interlopers and splitters went on for months until I just decided to ignore them. Nonetheless, their behaviors and Painter’s silence increased my sense of isolation and unworthiness.
As Solomon writes:
When someone who matters to you won’t engage with you on an important topic, two things are true at the very same time:
1. The cycle of reaching and blocking sucks! It hurts like hell. You feel like a fool for “putting up with this crap.” You feel lonely and devalued.
2. Unless you’re partnered with a sociopath, hurting you is rarely the motivation that drives the defensiveness.Dr. Alexandra Solomon
When it appears so systematic and organized it is difficult not to believe it has intent.
I idealistically believed that if my former partner heard my intention was not to hurt her, it would aid healing and she would feel safe enough to talk with me. My intention for the first year was to own the truth, demonstrate my commitment by taking responsibility, and defend our life together against outsiders.
My actions didn’t have the impact I had intended.
Intent is nuance and for many partners any attempts at discussing nuance will not be heard as anything other than blame shifting, entitlement, justifying or some other confirming bias. It took months of reflection and therapy to accept that nothing I did or said was going to be heard because my former Partner and her friends had already decided.
For example, around week three, after she had received a few weeks of text messages from my former partner, my friend Mary said to me, “You keep trying to put out the fire and someone else is throwing accelerant on it.”
I still can only guess at the intent for texting messages to a women I had known for three years professionally and she had met once. However, there is no way to navigate intent if we cannot talk about it and I am left only with stories I imagine and the impact on my life.
I know it is human for hurt people to hurt people and the people we hurt are dealing with their own struggles. When other people are hurting they rarely have the emotional resources when navigating infidelity to soothe other people’s hurts or match intentions to choices.
Sometimes they lash out to shift the pain elsewhere. They blame the Other Partner, they blame friends for not telling them, they blame mental health issues they imagine, and they blame themselves for not seeing what was happening.
The truth is I am the only person responsible for where I stick my dick.
No one else is to blame or is responsible and until the conversation is focused on responsibility for the impact of my choices we cannot get to the intentions. As Brene Brown discusses in her book, Braving the Wilderness, until we get to intentions there is no hope of transforming the conflicts in the relationship.
As such, that doesn’t mean I have to believe what others say about their intentions but in order to move forward I have to admit, there is no way to actually know someone’s intentions.
Just as I cannot prove how I feel, I cannot prove my intentions. Especially if there is no effort to bring the impact of choices into line over time with my stated intentions. For example, if I say to you, “You are the one. You’ve always been the one,” but continue my betrayals its becomes harder to accept my commitment to my stated intentions.
As such, I encourage you to save conversations about intentions for therapy and with those that stick around through the experience, caring enough to be curious.
Try to only confide in individuals that can help you identify the needed skills to bring actions more in line with intentions. Seek out individuals self-aware and mature enough to appreciate the nuances between intentions and impact. For me that was a therapist, two specific friends, and bunch of insightful authors and teachers.
For you that could be a priest, nun, counselor, or mediation teacher.
Find someone outside the dynamic that recognizes the significance of empathy and compassion to help you navigate your shame and pain. Find someone with a growth mindset that will help you grow. Confide in people that will help you navigate the nuances so you are making conscious choices bringing congruency to your intentions and the resulting impact.
Finding those people will probably be a process of trial and error. It will take time and intention to find the person that will both challenge and listen to you in appropriate measures and offer constructive insight.
As tempting as it might be, I don’t recommend your Other Partner unless that is where you want to be. Actually, I still don’t suggest your Other Partner.
Your Other Partner has have their own intentions too. If they accepted the role of Other Partner, they probably don’t have the best insight into the relationship between their intentions and impact when it comes to you.
Frankly, the nuance of your intentions is for the people that love you enough to ask questions and respect the vulnerability. As I’ve learned from Brene Brown, that is going to be two or three people at the most.
Brown reminds me, “Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege.”
Be sure those people are worthy of the privilege.
As I’ve written elsewhere, “Why” I cheated, kept secrets, and told an escalating series of lies is an overrated question. As I talk and read betrayed partners, few of them believe the answers provided regarding intentions.
It just becomes a sticking point to argue over while the meat burns.
Not being defensive is difficult. We all want answers to what hurts us and it is easy to feel like the person that hurt us should be willing to take the hard questions and explain without being defensive. There is no explanation for why I chose my actions that will make sense to the people I hurt.
Especially when they don’t want an explanation but simply someplace to park the blame. There is just so much pain early. Any explanation of intentions distracts from the three questions that matter.
After all, when a house is burning down the fire department doesn’t roll up asking “why did this happen.” Instead they focus on putting out the fire. As the person that overtly and covertly betrayed my relationships it is my role is to take the heat, help put out the fire, and then figure out what I need to do to respect my truth and intentions.
As a sidebar I will mention, taking responsibility doesn’t mean I accept abuse, or financial and emotional blackmail. Especially for women that have been accused of infidelity, physical and financial abuse is a legitimate danger. Men tend to suffer emotional abuse. Be aware, taking responsibility can often seem like excusing bullying, harassment, and abuse.
I can be the best fireman in the world but that doesn’t matter if I’m the one that started the fire. Even if my intention was simply to stay warm, I still started this fire. My actions had impact on other people’s lives.
I realized early, probably unconsciously and before I cheated on my ex-wife, I wanted a different kind of relationship. I just didn’t have any of the skills to communicate and I didn’t believe my partner would listen. My intentions were to simply find a place where I could feel important, wanted, valued, and heard. It was never my intentions to hurt her.
But I did.
Regardless of my intentions, my choices impacted my ex-wife and caused her a great embarrassment and humiliation. Regardless of my intentions, my choices impacted my last partner and caused her a great deal of embarrassment and humiliation.
If I’m being honest, how they responded to their pain makes perfect sense.
How they chose to act, regardless of their intentions, had an impact on my life too. Nothing about infidelity happens in a vacuum. Every choice, regardless of intentions will impact other people.
Other people’s intentions are rarely malicious, but the impact might feel like it is.
THe Bread and Butter
Also, I’m going to mix metaphors.
Infidelity will blow circuits.
It will overwhelm and sink a relationship. People will run for lifeboats or fire axes…sometimes running to lifeboats with fire axes. All in an attempt, as Solomon writes, to “defend themselves against stuff that overwhelms their ability to cope.”
And this “defensiveness creates relational harm AND their defensiveness reflects internal pain.”
When I started my betrayal of my ex-wife and my former partner I was defensive. I was most likely unconsciously defensive for months leading up to discovery. I look back at pictures in the last year and I cringe at the rememberance of momentary defensiveness tucked between wonderful experiences.
In ways I think my defensiveness was habitualized because I knew the pain was coming. Whether the intention is acknowledged or not, the betrayal, secrets, and lies orbiting infidelity is about avoiding pain.
No one intentionally chases pain.
I’ve yet to talk to someone owning their infidelity that didn’t at some level loathe themselves for their failure of integrity. It isn’t entitlement or justification, it’s defensiveness & shame. We know we failed to honor our intentions. We know it will impact other people.
I think this is really why we don’t want others to know.
However, until I was willing to confront the “direct line to a core wound / pain point / historical echo” that infidelity reveals all I had to protect myself was defensiveness.
“No pain,” adds Solomon, “no defensiveness.”
Reflecting on this paragraph reminds me of a few things.
First, when I am in a charged moment and acting defensively I am:
- creating relational harm
- reflecting internal pain
Of course, when the ship appears to be sinking, and the klaxon is banging I may find it impossible to step back to find perspective but my intention is not to wound those around me regardless of their perspective.
Secondly, if I am talking to someone and I see they are responding defensively, and I meet their defensiveness with contempt or criticism that is about me. It is not about their defensiveness.
Frankly, if I am conscious of the truth that people responding defensively are in internal pain, and I still greet their defensiveness with contempt and criticism, that is an act of cruelty.
I am essentially saying, “I recognize your defensiveness means you are in pain and reflects a pain point or wound but I don’t care, and I’m going to press my advantage. I’m going to put pressure on your wound.”
However, if I stop and acknowledge the truth of their pain, I impact the entire pattern.
Which is, always my intention. Well, almost always.
The sweetness of this moment is I am without secrets. I don’t have to live defensively and therefore can make the time to learn how to do better next time.
As such, based on Solomon’s post I am going to take few actions.
First, when I see someone is defensive I will recognize their intentions and not internalize the impact. I will respond with generosity and graciousness.
If it is appropriate to the relationship I will remain curious and ask them.
I won’t make up stories.
Secondly, I will try to be more conscious of what is happening with me when I am aware I am being defensive…and not tell them to “pound salt” if they ask why I am being defensive.
I will remain curious and ask myself, as soon as possible, “Why was I defensive? What pain am I trying to avoid and hide?”
Reflecting on Solomon’s post and applying it to my ex-wife certainly helps me understand all of her anger and defensiveness. The impact of her choices hurt and tore open old wounds but I recognize that was not her intention.
Thirdly, I’m going to try and confront defensiveness with compassion and empathy, not with contempt or criticism.
Where appropriate, I will say out loud to myself, or to others, “Sorry, I/You am/are defensive. From your response it seems you might hurt and I recognize that I/you are not intending to harming the relationship. When I/you are ready I will listen but there is no reason to keep arguing when it harms me/you and our relationship.”
I see that this approach might allow the impact of the conversation to match my truest intentions. The intention of my defensiveness is to avoid my pain. The intention of my heart is to grow into a deeper and more meaningful intimacy.
The Empty Calories
As I reread this post, the internal tapes all start telling my how “namby pamby” this sounds.
The internal voices declare saying it out loud and writing it down opens me up to ridicule and contempt. It feels idealistic and it’s a waste of energy and time. But feelings are data, not directives and these voices are simply defensiveness.
I’m defensive with myself.
The reality is this is a practice and there is no perfection. In a growth oriented relationship errors and mistakes will be met with generosity and graciousness.
Even the ones that hurt because in a growth oriented relationship people know harming one another is never the intention even if the impact carries pain.
Intent versus Impact
Their defensiveness creates relational harm AND their defensiveness reflects internal pain.Dr. Alexandra Solomon
When someone who matters to you won’t engage with you on an important topic, two things are true at the very same time:
- The cycle of reaching and blocking sucks! It hurts like hell. You feel like a fool for “putting up with this crap.” You feel lonely and devalued.
- Unless you’re partnered with a sociopath, hurting you is rarely the motivation that drives the defensiveness.
This is what therapist call INTENT versus IMPACT.
Somebody’s behavior can hurt you WITHOUT them intending to hurt you.
Here’s the deal: people defend themselves against stuff that overwhelms their ability to cope. Shit that feels emotionally charged. Shit that holds a direct line to a core wound / pain point / historical echo.
No pain, no defensiveness.
Where do you go from here?
- Make sure you’re taking care of your side of the street (see previous post about how to invite a hard convo).
- Remember: Defensiveness is data. See what happens when you shift to curiosity. Can you help me understand why this conversation is hard for you?
- Bring in a couples therapist. We are legit trained in this stuff, and we have some mad skillz!!!!
Relational self-awareness is a learned skill, and your partner may be in Relational self-awareness 101 while you’re working on your graduate degree in this shit. There’s even a word for it: ALEXITHYMIA. Inability to name your feelings. Depending on someone’s cultural background, gender role socialization, personality, family of origin, etc, they may well be more unskilled than obstinate.
What might help you muster a bit more patience and curiosity?
Healthy relationships require partners to be responsive, accessible, and empathic. Some of us just need a bit more remediation than others!
5 thoughts on “14: A Love Letter to the Betrayers – Intent vs Impact”
Hi Sean. I know I’m not the intended audience here, but I feel a need to point out where I think the issue of intentions goes awry as far as many partners are concerned. Can someone really argue that they didn’t intend x or y result when that result was both predictable and arguably inevitable? Imagine that I am standing in my driveway. You see me standing there and you deliberately hit me with your car. Ignore, for a moment, the actual impact on me. Take that out of the analysis. Is it reasonable for you to exit your car and say “…but I didn’t intend to hurt you”? What else, exactly, did you think would happen? It seems, especially to a betrayed partner, unrealistic to look to intent when there was little chance of any result other than the one that occurred.
In my bit of the world, I had to believe that my husband didn’t actually intend to destroy me with his behavior, otherwise I would not have stayed with him. I also, however, believe that his intentions were foolishly misguided BS because the consequences were way too predictable and inevitable. Both can be true.
I hear what you are saying BA.
I cannot prove intentions. It doesn’t matter what others imagine and choose to believe about my intentions. Only I know what is true about my intentions.
And as Solomon writes, “Somebody’s behavior can hurt you WITHOUT them intending to hurt you.”
I think that’s a tough pill for people to swallow, especially people stuck in a rigid emotional worldview. They have no room for nuance because nuance scares them.
Learning better boundaries allows me to step away from the stories people are projecting into my intentions. Sometimes I can even do it on a loving way without being defensive.
I cannot grow if I allow myself to be defined by other people’s stories.
Early on, what matters is impact. Amends begin and end with impact.
This is an important topic for me so there are a few more posts behind it.
Also, “foolishly misguided” is not the same as “willfully malicious.”
Also, I’ve learned the intention of vengeance and the impact are congruent making the vengeful willfully malicious.
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