The Healing Library > Articles > Compartmentalizing the Affair by the Wayward Spouse
Compartmentalizing the Affair by the Wayward Spouse
The ability to compartmentalize is a double-edged sword...
On the one hand, it's a GOOD thing, a self-defense mechanism that our highly advanced human brains have invented to deal with the reality of our complicated lives without going stark raving mad. A great example of good compartmentalizing is how people can react calmly in an emergency - they can put aside the horror and overwhelming fright and pain for long enough to do something about it. Cops, EMT's, and combat soldiers are great examples of people who can compartmentalize a horrible situation that would send the rest of us screaming for the hills.
Why do they compartmentalize? Because something is more important than the fear and pain and shock - getting a job done. And if they didn't, they would be unable to do that job effectively.
But that ability also has a dark side - we humans can use it to do great evil and box up the consequences and guilt, hiding them away so we don't acknowledge the horror of what we're doing.
Why would we do that?
For the same reason a cop or soldier does it - our brains have determined that something else is more important than the consequences - we need something that is so necessary and vital that our brain says "well, this is a very bad thing, but it's something I need." So it figures out how to box up the guilt and pain and horror and stick it away so we can continue our behavior, thinking we're gaining some good from what we're doing, and not realizing that we're actually selling out our own character, our morality, our souls, and devastating all of those close to us in the process.
In reality, there is little difference between a habitual cheater and a serial killer when it comes to the ability to compartmentalize, it's just a different level of what can stay in that box and what can't.
A serial killer is capable of stuffing MUCH MUCH MUCH more guilt and pain and shock into his box than any cheater. He must, because his crime is exponentially more severe than the crime of infidelity. ' But on the other side, most normal people aren't able to stuff the huge burden of infidelity into their relatively small boxes. They either get scared off at the first hint of infidelity, or they come close to it and get a huge scare, or maybe they even go forth and do it but can't deal with the guilt and pain and it comes spilling out almost immediately.
Others of us - those of us FWS's with a more frightening past - got so good at compartmentalizing that it became a way of life.
I found that my ability to compartmentalize carried over from my cheating on my wife to other things...bills, work ethic, the needs of others...
I got behind on bills and didn't worry much - I slacked off of things at work and didn't care - I was sometimes boorish and insensitive and didn't realize it or care.
The only difference between me and a clinically diagnosed "narcissist" is that my behavior was learned and reversable, where with a true Narcissist it's hard-wired permanently.
Why did I shove away the guilt and pain of what I was doing? How could I go be with an OW and then come home to my W and snuggle with her in the bed without screaming "MY GOD WHAT AM I DOING TO THIS BEAUTIFUL WOMAN???!!!"
The A's were more important. The high that I got from the attention of OW...the "rockstar" life, the cool attitude, the charm and character... I "loved" those more than I loved my wife.
Something was empty inside of me...something dark and needy, something that couldn't be satisfied, a part of me that hated myself and didn't trust that I was good enough...and that black hole needed to be fed. The light from the shining star of my BW wasn't enough, it needed more. And frankly, 1000 OW wouldn't have done the trick. Becoming a mega-celebrity rockstar wouldn't have done the trick. NOTHING would do the trick, except one thing:
And I couldn't do that, didn't know HOW to do that, didn't want to face the demons and acknowledge that I didn't love myself.
So instead of doing that, I tried to find validation in love in everything and anything else - externalizing my self-worth in the words/eyes/arms of others.
And in order to get that "fix" and not deal with the horror of what I was doing to my BW and my M, I had to compartmentalize. And I had to be DAMN good at it, too.
And I didn't get it, for years...until I finally was faced with the undeniable proof of what I had done and what it had caused and where it all came from...
A story revealed by the facts of my A's coming to light after D-Day, advice from forums such as SI, help from my IC, family, friends...and the pain and devastation in my BW's eyes and voice...and finally, through self-examination and introspection.
I finally faced my ability to compartmentalize, and faced the demons holding the boxes open, waiting for the next sin to be whisked away. And more importantly, I faced the demons of WHY CHEATING WAS SO IMPORTANT TO ME.
And I had to fix things one at a time...
First, get rid of OW, change my lifestyle to shelter myself, start to tell
the story to people who cared (BW, IC, family) and who had been there
(fellow SI'ers, etc.)
Second, fix the ability to shove things away...every time something happens, I stop myself and analyze "what? why? where? who?" to determine where it came from and what it means. Even something as simple as telling a funny story to co-workers is scrutinized - "why am I telling this? To appear cool, to make people think I'm witty and charming??"
And last...and the part that will take the longest and the most work...the
part I'm diligently working on now...
Fix me. Fix my emptiness. Fix the thing in me that didn't love myself enough to respect my own morals, nor the bonds of my marriage, nor the love and respect of my beautiful, loving wife.
Once I've fixed that - then I'll be safe again. It's not enough to say
"I'll never cheat," because that's external and the compartmentalization
mechanism will kick in, and I'll be back at square one.
It's not enough to say "I just won't compartmentalize" because the beauty AND horror of the ability is - you don't really realize it's happening until it's over!
No...you have to fix the thing in you that subconsciously said "I need to learn to compartmentalize because I'm about to do really bad things."
Whether it's unhappiness in your marriage...self-esteem issues...abuse issues...sexual addiction...the ability to compartmentalize is not the disease, it's the symptom of the disease.