I read this and found it really spoke to me. I think a serial cheater is a different breed, often characterized by three distinct features. First, is a lack of compassion, for others and frankly for themselves too. Now, work with me for a minute here. In MC’s case, and I suspect many others out there, he chose self-pity over self-compassion. You can read what defines that difference here. And, this leads to the second problem; a life ruled by self-pity. Self-pity is the poison at the heart of so many ills, most notably “I deserve” thinking that is the corner stone of rationalizing the irrational. Third, is lack of integrity. And, I don’t just mean this in terms of actions and words not matching, though that is one important component. I also mean this in terms of a person who has disintegrated themselves into separate selves. In MC’s case this was the organized, intelligent, disciplined, cautious MC he presented to the world and the impulsive, risk-taking, pleasure seeking self he only allowed to exist in his own secret world. Living in one extreme or the other, not believing or allowing that one integrated self, living with moderation, instead of extremes, could or should exist. Here’s the thing, no matter the diagnosis or path forward, I believe that the serial cheater must overcome these very big character defects, which involves extinguishing these poor character traits and belief systems and learning and living integrity, empathy and compassion. They must want to do this, they must choose to do this. We cannot force them to and we cannot make it happen for them. But, if they do not want to do it, then they are not a person who can ever be safe as a partner. It took MC crashing and burning to the ground, for him to realize that his way of thinking, his way of doing, his way of being was a complete failure and to want to do something about it not just to save us, but to save himself. I think this article is a good reminder of what the journey should entail.
“How to Recognize True (and false) Contrition” — by Dr. George Simon, Jr.
A person’s character deficiencies inevitably spawn a host of irresponsible behavior patterns – bad habits that can become easily ingrained and, once rooted, extremely hard to break. Often, these dysfunctional patterns involve forms of mental, emotional, and even physical abuse within relationships. And while many of the character-impaired individuals I’ve worked with experienced periods of profound unhappiness and even a degree of regret over their actions, only a handful made truly significant changes in their once destructive behaviors. But those who truly did address their behaviors and succeeded in changing their lives for the better displayed a rare quality that seemed to make all the difference: genuine contrition.
By definition, personality patterns are deeply ingrained and hard to modify. But that doesn’t mean a person can’t change. People can and do change every day. That is, genuinely contrite people do. This begs the question about what contrition really is and how to know when someone is really experiencing it.
The word contrition comes from the Latin contritus (the same root for the word contrite), and literally means “crushed to pieces.” The contrite person has had their once haughty and prideful ego completely crushed under the tremendous weight of guilt and shame. Such a person has “hit bottom”, not only because they can no longer bear the thought of how badly their actions hurt others but also because of their deep realization of how their usual way of doing things has resulted in abject personal failure. That’s why the contrite person is first and foremost a broken person. And, by definition, only by acknowledging personal defeat can a person become potentially open to reconstructing their life on very different terms. It’s been said many times, but it’s profoundly psychologically true. One cannot begin a new life without laying to rest one’s old self.
A regretful person is not necessarily a contrite one. Regret often precedes contrition but is definitely not synonymous with it. And when it comes to making meaningful changes in one’s character and turning around an irresponsible life, regret is simply not sufficient. The word regret comes from the Old French, meaning “to bewail.” It’s a person’s intellectual and emotional response to an unpleasant or unfortunate circumstance (originally used to characterize a person’s loss of a loved one through death). Anyone can regret something they have done and for a variety of reasons, some of which can be quite ignoble. Even some of the most hardened criminals had certain regrets. They regretted the loss of their freedom. They lamented the fact that a judge was able to exercise power over them and subject them to various unpleasant consequences. Many “bewailed” that the sentence they received was greater than they anticipated or longer than someone else’s who committed a similar crime. A few even regretted their actual actions, but most of the time even that kind of regret had to do with practical considerations (e.g., they didn’t plan their crime carefully enough to avoid detection, or they misjudged the character of their partner in crime who later “ratted [them] out” to authorities). And when expressing their regrets, some were even moved to tears. But tears do not a contrite person make. And mere regret has never been sufficient to prompt a person to change their ways.
Remorse is a prerequisite for contrition, but it’s also not sufficient for it. Remorse is a genuine empathy-based expression of one’s regret over hurting someone else. By definition, psychopaths (alt: sociopaths) cannot really experience any meaningful degree of it, although they are quite capable of feigning it. Fortunately, most people are capable of it to some degree, and having remorse for the injury caused to another is a necessary first step toward real contrition. But true contrition goes even beyond remorse. Genuinely contrite people – their prideful egos crushed and torn asunder by the weight of their guilt and shame – not only hate their “sins” and the pain they inflicted on others as a result of their sins, but also are deeply unnerved about the person they allowed themselves to become that permitted their travesties in the first place. And they necessarily resolve not only to make amends but also to make of better persons of themselves and their lives in a better fashion in the future.
Contrition is that very rare but absolutely essential feature of changing one’s life for the better. It requires a true metanoia or “change of heart.” And even more importantly, it requires work – a lot of very hard, humble, committed work. Reforming one’s character is the most challenging of human enterprises. You have to put a lot of energy into doing it, and you have to feel a deep sense of obligation about doing it in order to maintain the energy to get the job done. And contrition wears a very distinctive face. Truly contrite people behave very differently, even from regretful and remorseful people. And when you know what to look for, you can readily tell the difference.
One of the more reliable outward signs that someone has really experienced a change of heart is their willingness and commitment to make amends. The contrite person is not only “sorry” for what he/she has done but is willing to repair the damage inflicted on the lives of others. Many irresponsible characters will challenge their understandably hesitant to trust again victims with retorts like: “I’ve said I’m sorry a million times now – what else do you want from me?!,” attempting all the while to throw the other party on the defensive for doubting their sincerity. Or they will cite some small efforts they have made over a relatively short period of time and then chide their victims for not immediately accepting those small gestures as concrete evidence of meaningful, sincere, permanent change. Contrite individuals understand that the burden of proof rests with them and that they owe those they have hurt a justifiable basis upon which to resume some degree of trust. A contrite person is willing to do whatever it takes for as long as it takes to regain good standing within a relationship.
It’s one thing to say you’re sorry. But it’s quite another to prove it by how hard you work to change. Behavior is the best indicator that a person is truly contrite and working to really change. Living and dealing with persons of deficient character is always difficult, but many people increase the level of pain they experience in their relationships with problem characters by buying into the notion that if a person says they’re sorry, sheds a tear, or looks unhappy, and appears to mean well, things will necessarily be different. They give too much regard to a person’s regret and sorrow and don’t look hard enough for evidence of true contrition.
A person’s genuine willingness and commitment to make amends is always accompanied by plan of action to accomplish precisely those ends. In short, a person’s actions always speak louder than their words or even their emotional expressions. And I’m not talking about demonstrative gestures that make good impressions on others like going back to church or getting religion once again. The contrite person conducts themselves in a fundamentally different manner than they historically have. They might not do so perfectly or every time. But they evidence a constant effort toward reforming their conduct, and when they fall short they readily admit it and do their best to get back on course.
All too many times therapists as well as the victims of irresponsible characters make the assumption that things are moving in the right direction because the bad actor shed a tear or two about something horrible they did or said they were sorry. But even when sorrow is genuine, it’s certainly not enough to make a difference. Sorrow is an emotional response usually connected to the loss of something. And while it is always painful to lose – especially when losing something of great value – that kind of pain is not in and of itself a reliable predictor of change. Individuals who have been in abusive relationships and who give a lot of weight or credence to expressions of regret and sorrow are most often doomed to an escalating level of personal pain and hardship. And in proper cognitive-behavioral therapy for abusers, where the principal focus is on behavior and fostering fundamental attitudinal and behavioral change, the therapist has to be much less interested in what a person has to say and much more concerned about what he/she is doing to truly correct problematic thinking and behavior patterns and repairing damage they have done. Talk, as they say, is infinitely cheap. And therapy that just focuses on getting someone to express their feelings or communicate their regrets is likely doomed to be ineffective in fostering meaningful change.
Having some regret simply isn’t enough to make a person mend their ways. It takes a lot of concerted effort to overcome our shortcomings. The truly contrite individual works to make amends, to do better, and above all, to be better. That always involves demonstrable, consistent behavior – behavior that can be observed, monitored, encouraged, rewarded, and measured by both the therapist and other parties to a relationship with the troubled character.