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The Mechanics of Denial

This was written as a message board post, in response to someone who was wondering about a friend of his who was having a divorce. When questioned about the affair that led to the divorce, the friend apparently just sort of shrugged and said, "It just happened." The fellow to whom I was responding was wondering how in the Hell something like that could 'just happen.' What follows is my answer.

Posted 20 April, 2006, by Cat Grey:
What we're basically talking about here are the mechanics of denial. Everyone likes to think that they're the hero of their own story, or at the very least that they're one of the Good Guys. So, when confronted with the fact that you've done something hideously, horribly, unforgivably wrong - something deeply hurtful - the first instinct is to look for reasons why it wasn't your fault. "I couldn't help it." "We were overwhelmed by passion." "I was drunk/sad/worried about my cat's health/out of my mind at the time." "It just happened."

Summary: "It wasn't my fault."

The obvious and nearly inevitable follow-up to this is: "In fact... it was your fault." Then pick a reason. "If you weren't out of town so much..." "If we had sex more often..." "If you were meeting my emotional needs..." "If you paid more attention to me..." "If we weren't working on different shifts..."

"...Then this would never have happened." (Yeah. Right. Believe that if you want to.)

Affairs almost never "just happen." There's a long, careful courtship ritual in which both parties move closer and closer, all the while studiously maintaining the pretense that nothing is going to happen. Then, when it does happen, they can both act surprised. "My G-d! How did we wind up in bed together with a bottle of wine, a box of condoms, and thirty yards of surgical tubing? I would never have seen this coming!"

Yep. That's right. No one would have seen it coming, except for anyone who happened to be, y'know, looking.

An affair - not a drunken one night stand, but an actual, ongoing affair - requires scheduling, even if no real attempt at secrecy is being made. It might be more flattering (to oneself) to think, "Oh, I just made a mistake - a bad mistake, to be sure, but that doesn't make me a bad person... Oops, I just made the exact same mistake again. And again. And again. And..." but the truth is that at some point the adulterer made the decision to go back. You might tell yourself that you were really just going back to talk to the Other Person, or that you were going to tell them that having sex was a mistake and it wouldn't happen again. You might even convince yourself that your intentions were honorable. But if you keep putting yourself in a situation where you end up sleeping with someone you shouldn't be sleeping with, then your intentions weren't honorable.

Denial and Rationalization. (I picture them like one of those "tastes great! less filling!" commercials.) All these excuses are basically just ways to try to hold on to your image of yourself as a Good Person when you've just done something seriously evil*.

*From either a "G-d would disapprove" perspective, or from an "I've just really hurt someone I care about" perspective, take your pick.