Much Ado About Remorse
Remorse. If you venture onto most infidelity support sites, remorse is high on the list of ‘Right Things’ required for reconciliation after an affair - remorse is seen as the key ingredient in the Magic Reconciliation Recipe. It’s often expounded as:
- The cheater must feel remorse.
- The cheater must be able to identify the wrongs for which they are remorseful.
- The cheater must demonstrate remorse by making amends for their wrongs.
- Remorse + empathy? That’s a reconciliation home run.
It’s perhaps unsurprising that therapists, marital recovery programs, and support sites suggest that remorse is a foundational building block for reconciliation. It makes sense - successful reconciliation with a remorseless cheater isn’t possible. So far, so good, right? But are you being lured by dangling Remorse Carrots, and is remorse as pivotal as it might seem?
Guilt vs Shame and Regret vs Remorse
It’s useful to understand the differences between guilt and shame, and regret and remorse, even in simple, brief terms like this:
[Remorse] It’s a moral response to a moral failure and as such, it arises out of a sense of guilt.
Dr George Simon, Ph.D
Even a casual cruise-by of most infidelity support sites will garner information on two clear fronts:
- remorse -not regret- is the keystone to reconciliation
- it can be difficult to identify true remorse
While we will explore later if remorse is -in and of itself- essential or if there is something else to focus on, Number 2 is also a really tricky little sucker. It’s particularly tricky because it can be easy to confuse remorse with other things: guilt, regret, or plain old manipulative acting/deceit. Hanging hopes for reconciliation on a cheater’s remorse is problematic - how does one know if it’s real, and even if it is real, how does it change anything?
Remorse Carrots: known Pixie bait
Let’s look at how easy it is for Pixies to chase after Remorse Carrots.
Most cheaters go into full-on damage control mode after discovery, keen to avoid the icky consequence of divorce and determined to head the faithful spouse off en route to the lawyer’s office. The cheater who wants to avoid sacrificing their marriage for their affair often declares that they are completely willing to ‘do what it takes’ to keep their marriage intact - that so many are willing to continue to deceive and manipulate to achieve that goal is the problem. It doesn’t take much for a cheater to find a handy checklist of how to reconcile. Unfortunately, many Pixies are unwilling to believe that the cheater’s actions post-affair (including their declarations of remorse) might be motivated by the same thinking that was motivating the cheater during the affair.
The Pixie’s resolute intent to save and fix their marriage makes it easy for a cheater to gain some traction in avoiding divorce without changing their thinking one iota. Armed with the ‘4 Requirements of Remorse’ and coupled with even the most cursory research into reconciliation, it’s easy for the cheater to lay claim to their devastation and remorse and dangle the carrot of reconciliation in front of the Pixie:
- Feeling Remorse
- Their upset may well be genuine, but is it upset at how this has or might affect the cheater, or is it upset about the damage and pain they’ve caused someone else? Regardless, for a Pixie it’s still a temptingly dangled carrot. Why? Because Pixies like to interpret any upset as pain, empathy, and remorse and therefore the catalyst for change. Pixies also LOVE to fix things … and fixing their cheater returns centrality, importance and a warm glowy feeling to the Pixie in the short-term. Yes, a cheater’s upset is a very tasty carrot indeed, and one that Pixies chase with gusto.
- Identifying Their Wrongdoings
- Cheaters can very easily express sentiments about gaslighting, betrayal, wrongdoing, and their pain about causing such hurt and harm. This can be artfully punctuated by self-flagellation, self-recrimination, and drama-filled declarations of being unworthy and the spouse deserving better than the cheater. In my direct experience with cheaters, their language is very often gleaned from infidelity support sites and trotted out to placate their spouse while the cheater continues to nurse their rationale about how they were driven to their affair because of <insert whatever>. Impassioned declarations about the pain and remorse they feel for their actions, and their promises of change, mistakes, and undying love? It’s a mighty tempting carrot on the end of that stick, let’s face it.
- Demonstrating Change
- There are very few cheaters who don’t resort to excusing or justifying their affair: Yes, their childhood may well have been awful. Sure, they might claim they are a sex addict, or that they have FOO issues, or are afflicted with a special kind of brokenness that made them cheat. They might even believe it and feel awful that their ‘issues’ forced them to cheat, so they rush off to talk therapy to ‘work on themselves’. Is this really demonstrating change or are they simply turning it all into a carrot - i.e. the potential of them being fixable and therefore no longer a cheater? This narrative about remorse, recovery, and redemption is particularly alluring to Pixies, who nibble on that dangled carrot as if it’s caviar.
- Add Empathy
- This is the added bonus of, “I feel your pain and I am ashamed that I caused it.” Let’s add in the common pleas to not divorce in order to keep an intact family and avoid the kids experiencing the pain of a divorce, followed by repeated declarations of remorse about the risk to the family’s well-being - that’s Golden Carrots for eager Pixies.
When the cheater has followed Steps 1-4, the Pixie tells themselves that all is well in Magical Reconciliation Land. They happily skip from carrot to carrot, framing it all as progress and ‘healing’. The cheater and the Pixie are both relatively satisfied with the result of the carrot dangling: both avoid divorce and the Pixie breathes a sigh of relief that this means everything will be okay. Except it rarely is.
Gold Medal Pixies and Remorse
The trouble with Pixies is that they are predisposed to see almost everything as reconciliation-positive: they are Gold Medal Champions in confirmation bias. Pixies are known to rationalize clear red-flag behavior into something that allows them to stay in the reconciliation game. Pixies sound like this:
- “Her continued affair while our family falls apart is evidence of the depth of her brokenness.”
- “Yes, he lied, but it was the first lie in 6 weeks, so that’s evidence of progress isn’t it?”
- “She hasn’t contacted me for days - she must be taking some time to reflect upon her behavior, how deeply she has hurt me, and how to save our marriage.”
- “He cries when I mention divorce - that’s remorse, right?”
Given the Pixie’s propensity for reworking reality into something more palatable, it is hardly surprising that they attach quite firmly to signs of cheater upset as evidence of remorse. The problem, of course, is that outward signs of upset are not synonymous with remorse.
Furthermore, Pixies are completely bought-in to the idea that remorse is the single most important factor in reconciliation, even when the most fervent of Pixies are harboring doubts:
- Is my cheater showing regret and upset at getting caught, or are they feeling guilt for what they’ve done?
- Is my cheater remorseful because of how they have hurt me, or are they upset because of how this is hurting/inconveniencing them?
- Are my cheater’s declarations about their upset, remorse, and change genuine, or are they telling me what I want to hear to keep me from leaving/filing?
Contrition and Change
So if it’s so tricky to detect real remorse, is it all it’s cracked up to be as the Reconciliation Prime Directive?
For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the cheater’s remorse is real remorse and they are genuinely torn up about how their actions have affected and hurt those around them. Many cheaters do feel genuine remorse for their affair, for deceiving and putting their spouse at risk, and for behaving egregiously in order to conduct their affair. Yet it is still reasonable to ask the question: what does remorse change?
The source of a cheater’s affair and attendant conduct is the cheater’s mindset. Even if the affair is over and the remorse is genuine, how does it -by itself- change the cheater’s mindset post-affair? It doesn’t. Abusers, for example, often do feel utter remorse and self-loathing, yet they repeat their abuse ad infinitum. Does the lack of change in their worldview and behavior mean that their remorse isn’t genuine? No. It simply means that remorse does not necessarily motivate changed thinking, so it is reasonable to assume that the behavior will repeat in the future.
If remorse isn’t actually the magical Prime Directive Pixies are often led to believe, where does that leave those who want to reconcile? If we remove remorse from the Pixie’s ‘Change Identification Toolkit’, what else is left to work with?
Smart Pixies will see how easy it is for the cheater to dangle Remorse Carrots. They’re not fooled by the cheater simply declaring remorse. Newp, not them - they have researched reconciliation and they know that actions not words are the real indications of change. Yet we still see so many Pixies claiming their cheater’s change (and remorse) through ‘actions not words’ - these are some we encounter:
- my cheater is being nice and trying hard to show me I’m loved and that I am their priority
- we want a vow renewal ceremony so my cheater can recommit to me and declare their continuing love
- we want to have another baby to strengthen our bond and family
- my cheater buys me expensive gifts to show me how much I mean to them
- my cheater helped write and send a mean no contact letter to the affair partner to help me gain trust and move past it all
- they’re willing to sign a post-nup to show me how sorry they are
- my cheater is willing to go to therapy to work on themselves
Of course, none of these things are evidence of remorse per se - but even if they were, so what?
Does remorse alone change their worldview and ethical framework? No, it doesn’t. Remorse requires some internal angst on the part of the cheater but that’s a pretty easy box to check: Okay, they feel badly, they are upset, they are desperate to avoid divorce, they declare their love, they apologize, they start to do their share of the housework, and they no longer go to their basket weaving Meetup - check. All well and good.
However, even if we allow that these types of actions evidence genuine remorse (they don’t), how do those actions lead to successful reconciliation? They don’t. The number of failed reconciliations actually evidence that these actions are not indicative of the kind of change required for successful reconciliation.
I simply cannot count the number of times during my professional career when people who had done something horrible felt badly about it in some way afterwards. Often, they felt badly every time they repeated the same behavior. Having some regret simply isn’t enough to make a person mend their ways. I also can’t count the times that those affected by another’s misdeeds were so swayed by the wrongdoer’s display of tears or a claim of regret that they unfortunately helped “enable” that person to avoid real change. Therapists can be unduly swayed by such displays as well. Sentiment never stripped anyone of their character defects.
The bottom line is that most cheaters like themselves sufficiently well that they do not consider their affair as evidence that they have a serious ethical, character, or worldview problem. Most cheaters DO feel badly when their spouse is hurt by the affair - but remorse for that does not prevent the recurrence of harmful or dysfunctional behavior.
Rather than focusing on whether the cheater feels remorseful, let’s instead focus on acts of contrition which are more than small gestures of action and easy words. Real contrition is motivated by a fundamental alarm and horror at who the cheater sees in the mirror that leads to an overhaul of who the cheater is at their core.
True contrition looks like this: the person can no longer live with themselves and becomes invested in making of themselves a better person. It can’t be an “acceptance of responsibility” spoken on the lips accompanied by a steadfast refusal to pay the price (and not merely the price of public embarrassment) of duly earned consequences. It can’t just be crocodile tears of remorse openly displayed but which aren’t accompanied by a change of one’s typical style. It can’t be the mere broadcasting of regret that’s not paired with clear action to make amends. True contrition involves a change of heart. It’s humbly reckoning with oneself, the deficiencies in one’s character that allowed the person to indulge in the misbehavior in the first place, coupled with a firm commitment to exorcise those character defects so that the errors are not repeated.
Dr George Simon, Ph.D
A cheater who is truly remorseful for their choices and behavior will work to change the aspects of themselves that gave rise to it. Change will be material, evident, and further reaching than just affair behavior - it will radiate into every aspect of how the cheater navigates their relationships with others and their path through life.
Carrot and Stick: when remorse carrots fail
As the Magical Reconciliation Pixie soon discovers, Remorse Carrots -while tasty at the time- provide only temporary satiation. Determined Pixies will be lured along by the promise of the next carrot, and the next, and the next, until the carrots have a distinctly rotten flavor to them. For many Pixies, the only flavor that will stop them chasing after the next carrot is another affair and they will accept and tolerate everything up to that point. For many more, even another affair doesn’t deter them.
Unfortunately, a cheater claiming remorse and upset and trotting off to some talk therapy sessions with an under-qualified and ineffective family therapist, is generally creating a Divorce Avoidance Plan. A Divorce Avoidance Plan is characterized by the maximum benefit to the cheater with the minimum amount of work. It’s also easily identified by a Pixie flitting about on their Pixie Wings, feverishly rationalizing between huge bites of Remorse Carrots.
Those following the well-trodden and highly unsuccessful traditional reconciliation path will no doubt be familiar with how quickly carrots can be replaced with the stick. The stick can easily appear in response to Pixies:
- not getting over the affair quickly enough
- pointing out that the cheater didn’t sign the post-nup
- complaining that the cheater no longer does <insert whatever ‘improved cheater’ actions were promised>
- being upset that the cheater ditched date nights in preference to nights out with ‘friends’
- feeling insecure and continuing to demand transparency from the cheater
- wanting more effort from the cheater
- sensing that the cheater hasn’t really changed
- being seen as a barrier to the cheater’s own agenda and jollies
- making choices that are either detrimental to the cheater’s position or not consistent with the cheater’s agenda
BAM! Out comes the stick.
How does the stick manifest? Usually by anger, criticism, blame shifting, passive-aggressive behavior, leveraging financial power, complaints about never letting the affair go, cruel remarks, locking phones and changing passwords, complaints that despite all the therapy their needs are still unmet, power struggles, threats, and maybe even a new affair (or the continuation of the old one). These things can escalate into threats about divorce, finances, and child custody - and the cycle of abuse continues. Let’s face it, this stick tends to be more like a whopping great big mallet than a stick, and leaves injuries to match.
As many unfortunate Pixies have learned to their cost, the flip side to the carrot removes all doubt about the authenticity of the Remorse Carrots in the first place.
Pixies often follow the traditional path of looking for signs of remorse, empathy, and transparency, but none of these things are evidence of the kind of change to the cheater’s thinking and view of the world from which their infidelity arises. To reconcile successfully, it has to be contingent on the cheater’s fundamental, material, and measurable change, NOT remorse.
Carrots can be healthy and delicious - when well-cooked, well-seasoned, and served as part of a tasty and satisfying meal. The kinds of carrots that are dangled on the end of a stick to keep you heading in a direction of someone else’s choosing? They are only delicious to donkeys and asses - you are neither.