The Bondage of Guilt

Updated: Aug 11


The moment I realized that my ex-husband Mitch was a pathological liar, was the moment that a voice inside of me—a voice I hadn't heard previously, said enough. Enough listening to his stories, his excuses, his carefully crafted way of dancing around explanations until he landed on the sweet spot. When he found the sweet spot, and delivered, he knew I would listen, I would believe, and I would turn the blame toward myself.

It was the moment I instantly recognized the pattern. When I found something suspicious on his phone, Mitch masterfully switched the focus of the conversation to the invasion of privacy I had so egregiously committed. Sometimes he would turn the tables completely and incredulously ask, “Where is this coming from? Are you having an affair? People who suspect it are usually guilty of it.” Instantly consumed with shame and guilt, I’d tuck my tail between my legs and shut my mouth. When will I learn my lesson?


This dynamic played out in hundreds of ways over nearly two decades. Each time I found something, and asked Mitch about it, he flipped it—like some twisted Jedi mind trick. You are the wrong-doer here. My instant feelings of guilt and shame prevented me from seeing this pattern. I simply berated myself further, for not realizing what a dreadful person I was. For not being a good and trusting wife. Eventually when I found things that would cause any normal person to feel suspect, I told myself I was being paranoid and didn’t mention it.



That was before.

After 17 years I discovered an affair that would break the dam and release a flood of lies and infidelities that spanned our entire relationship. Not long before that discovery I recall sitting in our shared bedroom, watching Mitch. He stood primping himself in the bedroom dresser mirror, and casually mentioned he needed to stop by a friend’s place to “take photos of her paintings.”


Our friend Monique was a woman to whom Mitch and I had been introduced by our mutual friend, Brie. Brie’s daughter attended a private-Quaker-ultra-woke elementary school, and was in the same second grade class as our youngest son. Over time Mitch and I began hanging out with Brie and Monique at least three times a week. Most often we’d head to a yoga studio for a class, then hit our neighborhood coffee joint to chat over lattes. At times I would catch Mitch and Monique texting with each other across the table and giggling. “What are you two texting about?!” I asked one day.


“Kids,” Mitch said.


I thought it was strange.


Brie was oblivious.


I kept quiet.


Monique had a deep alto voice, black shoulder length hair, dark eyes, and dressed in all black. Her punk-emo-rock-and-roll style was in stark contrast to my thrown on yoga-pants-and-cardigan outfit. I felt distinctly uncool next to Monique. She was dark and mysterious, with a perfect hourglass figure thanks to a set of fake boobs that were prominently displayed in her tiny bikini-style yoga top. She was the singer in a local start-up band pulled together by Brie’s husband, Dan. Dan was a musician who had been in a commercially successful band before it met an early demise after their lead singer suddenly and tragically passed away. Monique was the lead singer of Dan’s new band. Mitch and I went to see them perform from time to time.

After several months of attending yoga classes with Monique, Mitch began to spending more time alone with her. He assured me this was for professional purposes. Though he didn’t have a day job, and rarely made any money from it, Mitch fancied himself a photographer. He agreed to help Monique by taking some “professional” photos of her paintings. So on this particular day, while Mitch primped in the dresser mirror, he told me that he would be out for most of the day. His focused attention to his appearance caused me a moment of concern. I dismissed it.


Mitch was always helping one person or another.

I kept my niggling suspicions suppressed and responded with “Monique has the body that every woman wants.”

Maybe I was fishing. Maybe I knew somewhere in my deep subconscious that taking photos was a euphemism for something else. Maybe I felt jealous, or insecure.

“Really? I hadn’t noticed,” was his response.

He hadn’t noticed that this woman was like a dark-haired-punk-alternative-emo version of a Bay Watch era Pamela Anderson?!?

I immediately felt bad about myself. I was ashamed. Again.

I had objectified Monique. I had seen her as a body, an object to observe, or covet—even if that coveting was that I wanted to have a body like hers. Because having a perfect body meant that you had all your problems solved. Perfect body, perfect life.


I compared my greedy-objectifying-self to my dedicated, see-people-for-what’s-on-the-inside-and-not-the-outside husband and thought this moment was probably a lesson for me. There goes your paranoia again Sue. Mitch isn’t noticing women’s figures the way that you do. He’s just trying to help out a friend.


Once again I defaulted to putting Mitch on an elevated moral platform, and kept myself securely beneath him.


A few weeks after that day in the bedroom with Mitch, I came home and noticed that for the first time ever, he had left his email account open on the computer. A moment of curiosity lead to a peek at one of the emails sent by someone who called themselves “M.” In the subject line was written “for you,” and the email had an attachment. There were dozens upon dozens of emails (with attachments) from "M", so I randomly chose one.


In a jaw-dropping instant I saw a photo that is burned into my memory forever. It wasn’t Monique’s paintings that were the subject or Mitch’s photographs. The photograph I had discovered was another sort all together, and it was irrefutable evidence of the manner in which Mitch and Monique were spending their time. I felt instantly sick.


Then stunningly clear.

The discovery of Mitch’s affair with Monique was the worst, and the best thing that ever happened to me. It rocked my world, destroyed my foundation, my family and my trust in everything around me, especially my trust in myself. But Mitch’s infidelities went far deeper than Monique. Over the following few weeks I discovered the truth about Mitch. It had been years. Nearly two decades of lies and affairs, punctuated with emotional and psychological abuse that left me consistently feeling ashamed and responsible when I found signs of his misdeeds.


Mitch’s constant gas lighting delivered me into a daily existence of self-doubt and crazy-making.


When I discovered who I had really been married to all of these years, I was brought to my knees. But I was also delivered to the moment I knew that I was not crazy. I had never been crazy. I felt sharp, conscious, and alert. Strong and resolute. The previous seventeen years fast-forwarded through my mind, just like you see it in the movies. Years and years of the many times I had known in my gut that something was up, flashed before me in chronological order. As clear as if they happened yesterday.


Everything suddenly made sense.


I got to work like a veteran detective on a new homicide case. I ransacked the house and found mountains of evidence. I hacked his emails and read through his sexually explicit conversations with hundreds of strangers he'd met through the internet or by placing online ads. I delved deep into his electronic existence of lies. He pretended to be someone different for each person he was interacting with. I could not wrap my head around what I was seeing. I was unable to comprehend who this man actually was.


I emailed "friends"—friends like Monique and let on that I knew about Mitch’s infidelities. Nearly every day for a week or two I received phone calls from these women, crying and expressing remorse for what they had done.

And once again I blamed myself. For not seeing what was right in front of my face. For not trusting my intuition. For trusting these women had been friends. For believing every negative thing that Mitch told me about myself.


What was wrong with me that I was so completely naive and clueless?

But this time, my new clarity allowed me to be curious about blaming myself. Why was my knee-jerk reaction to search for what I had done wrong. My curiosity lead me on a search. What I found is that I am not alone in this.

Women in particular learn to feel responsible when others feel bad. The moment Mitch found a way to be the victim (you’ve invaded my privacy! Wait, are you having an affair?) my sense of responsibility kicked in. Women often assume the role of emotional care-taker. We do everything we can to turn the difficult feelings of another person around. When those feelings are expressed as anger or blame, we turn on ourselves, berate ourselves and vow to try harder.


We commit to fix ourselves so it won't happen again. When it does happen again, we judge ourselves further. The cycle continues.




The cruel irony is that we come to rely on these abusers to “teach” us the way. We can’t see that they are using us to satisfy their need for power and control. Pepper in some sexual deviancy here and there and you’ve got the makings for some seriously devastating situations.

This all starts very early in life. From a very young age, children learn to take responsibility for the emotional state of the adults around them. As children, we feel responsible when parents or caregivers are angry, depressed or out of sorts. It’s a natural survival adaptation that works to some degree when we are young. The unpredictable mood swings, or an adult's inability to emotionally regulate catches us off guard. We instantly blame ourselves. We work to learn what makes our caregivers “happy” and we do our best to deliver. We feel we must do this, because any sign of rejection or displeasure from a parent feels profoundly life threatening to a child. We need our care givers to love us in order to survive.


This adaptation sticks. We carry it into our adult lives. When an abuser spots this, he’s hit pay dirt.


This particular adaptation effects men and women alike. It served us when we were children, but as adults it can keep us in abusive or unhealthy relationships. It locks us in a place of self-hatred and self-loathing. As kids we don't distinguish between normal parental mood swings and traumatic experiences. I have heard time and time again, stories from women who have been brutally sexually assaulted, or physically and/or sexually abused as kids. The common denominator is not anger or sadness, it is self-judgment. This turns to self-loathing and then hopelessness. Too often it leads to death by suicide.


Letting go of this responsibility is like freeing yourself from the chains you didn’t even know you were dragging around—until they are gone. Letting go of this responsibility requires that we compassionately understand why it developed in the first place. We need to get curious. We can understand the purpose it served, and we see that it is clearly not serving us as adults.


We can stand in the path of another person's ire. We can be an empathetic witness, without taking responsibility or defending ourselves.


Even if we are being blamed.


Even if they say things that hurt.


If someone hands you a fork, you decide if you want to put it on the table or poke yourself in the eye with it.


The torrent of Mitch’s betrayals held back by a meticulously constructed dam of lies let loose on my life, and in an instant destroyed all that I thought was real. But in the end helped me see myself clearly. That clarity saved my life. In turn I became passionate about helping others. Because I know that when our life is reduced to rubble, we can sometimes spot a moment of clarity. That clarity helps us see ourselves differently. When we see ourselves differently, we can change our lives.


A life free from the bondage of guilt, shame and inappropriate responsibility is an empowered life. And a resilient life. A resilient life creates room for new things, including more love and joy. Best of all, when we see ourselves through a compassionate lens—not despite what we've been through, but because of it, we gain a second chance at a truly mutually loving and respectful relationship.

Thanks to Mitch, my second chance is the best gift I have ever been given.


Suzanne Jones is the award winning author of There is Nothing to Fix: Becoming Whole through Radical Self-Acceptance.


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