Saturday, August 12, 2017

Should She Rat Herself Out?

Therapist Lori Gottlieb has returned from vacation. Yesterday, she offered the following letter, a cry for help from a patient who apparently cheated on her boyfriend three years ago and who has been wracked with guilt ever since.

She calls herself, “Holding a Secret:”

I’ve been engaged for six months now. My fiancé and I have been together for six years. We’ve built an amazing life together, but I have a really dark secret I’ve kept from him.

Three years ago, I had too much to drink and made out with a former professor in a bar. Ever since, I feel taken advantage of. I was drunk to the point that I wasn’t thinking clearly but looking back, I wish I had told him no. I never told anyone about this incident but am currently working through this with a therapist.

I’m confident that revealing this to others would cause a lot of chaos in my life. This guy is a big-deal professor at a big-deal university. He is married and has kids. I feel strong in my ability to deal with this by not burdening others with this information. This is the first “adult” problem in my life, but it’s hard for me to move through life knowing how scary and complicated the future will be and how there are so many shades of gray in a world that is dictated by black-and-whiteness. My guilt is all-consuming, and I feel like I need to shout from the mountaintops that I’m a bad person and need to be punished.

I guess I’d just like some reassurance that good people can do bad things and can come back from them. But is believing that a cop-out for bad people?

Gottlieb rightly says that we do not have enough information to draw conclusions, but we do have enough to make a few observations.

First, and most obvious, what does she mean when she says that she made out with a former professor? Is this a euphemism for fellating him in the restroom? Gottlieb seems to think that they kissed at the bar, but I doubt whether she has tortured herself for three years over a stolen or even consensual kiss.

Second, as for the secret… a mildly astute observer would have noted that if she was making out with the man in a bar she was doing so in public, not in private. At that point, the discussion of secrecy is misdirection. The real issue is not what is in her mind but what someone else might have seen. And what that someone else might or might not mention to her fiancé. If, however, she blew the man in the restroom, then only one other person knows what happened. How much can she trust the professor in question? What if she runs into him and his family while she is with her fiancé? What about her friends? One finds it difficult to believe that she never confided in any of her close friends. At that point, the information is in circulation and she does not control who exposes what to whom. HS mentions that revealing the secret to others-- NB, not one other-- would cause chaos in her life? But, if it happened in a bar and if the man in question has already mentioned it to others... then it is a lot less secret than she thinks.

Third, the issue less concerns guilt than the threat of exposure by third parties. HS mentions that she might or might not tell someone else, the man’s wife, about what happened. But this also suggests that someone else might tell her fiancé what happened. We do not know whether or not the man has told his wife and whether said wife might want to avenge herself on the college student who tried to seduce her husband. Somehow or other Gottlieb misses these points.

Fourth, HS talks about the experience in terms that hint at something like an assault.  Whatever else does it mean when she says that she should have said No? Said No to what exactly: did he grab her and kiss her? Did he drag her off into the restroom? Did he stick his hand under her skirt? Anyway HS felt that she had been taken advantage of. To my jaded ears it does not sound like making out in a bar. Then again, was the make out session in the bar something she wants to repeat?  Has she chosen to marry the wrong man? Should she have tried to break up the professor's marriage? As for her need to be punished and her allusion to  third rate BDSM novels, perhaps the issue involves her kinkiness. Does her fiance know that she lusts for bondage? 

Fifth, in this as other similar circumstances, “the better part of valor is discretion.” I am on the record. I do not believe that anything can be gained by her telling her fiancé. Again, this depends on what happened. If she was assaulted her fiancé might decide to take revenge on the man. If she kissed a man at a bar while in a drunken stupor her fiance might still feel that she has betrayed him. The rule I apply in such cases is that if she does not tell him it did not happen and is not relevant to their relationship. If she tells him then it becomes a central fact in their relationship. HS says that telling him would be damage her relationship… so, she should shut up.

Sixth, HS says that she is working through the issue with a therapist. Big  mistake. Doubtless the therapist is not telling her what to do or what not to do but therapy is built on the model of the confessional. It takes it as an article of faith that being open and honest and shameless points you toward mental health. These are built into the therapy model. Therapy will produce a mental conflict between  knowing what she should not do and therapy’s push in the opposite direction.

She has written to another therapist seeking help. She knows that therapy is hurting her and threatening her impending marriage. She wants to hear from another therapist that she should say nothing. And yet, her problem is that if this fact becomes exposed by someone else, against her will, then what should she say to her fiancé.

If you miss the fact that this might all be revealed despite her… you have missed the point of the dilemma.


David Foster said...

She says *she* feels taken advantage of...but if they were both drinking a lot, why was she taken advantage of any more than the professor was?

The key question, I think, is whether she is truly attracted to her fiance (sexually speaking) strongly enough to make proceeding with the marriage a good idea, or whether her desire for the professor indicates that she was subconsciously searching for someone who turned her on more than her boyfriend.

James said...

Big deal. She needs to tell her fiancee (no names) and say she's sorry (and mean it) if he leaves or goes off the deep end, better to know now and learn. There is always a price for everything you do and this is a great time to learn that lesson.

James said...

To add to the above. She should not tell anybody else. The wrong thing he did is for him to deal with not her.

trigger warning said...

Tell him.

Ares Olympus said...

Myself I find the guilt most interesting. And some people will feel guilt at very small things, perhaps she kissed the prof on the cheek, before the prof took things further, and she didn't resist or resist soon enough. Or perhaps Stuart is right and they went somewhere private for something more.

I wonder what a catholic priest would advice? Can you confess your sin to a priest, and accept a punishment, but never tell the fiancé what happened? I can't guess what a priest would advise, not can I guess how much information he would need to be able to correctly judge her penance.

A simplest way to judge, without knowing more details is to ask her, to ask her how she'd feel if her husband did something similar behind her back. What would she want to know? And what assurances would she need from him?

My inner therapist might guess she is feeling "bad" because a part of her wants to experience being "bad" and wants to better understand how that feels, and how that guilt can be ended. I'm assuming if she told her fiancé, she'd want him to punish her in some way. And maybe a part of her thinks he's too good, and she would prefer if he punishes her by some equal "making out" with someone else. At least then they could be bad together, and forgive each other. Or maybe she wants him at least to be jealous, and if her transgressions were in public, it might be better to confess them than to have him find out second hand.

But overall the whole issue isn't about him, but can she trust herself? Does she have to be like Mike Pence and never be alone with another woman, and never drink in public without his wife? Or can she flirt sometimes when its fun, and stop things soon enough to not feel guilty the next day. Overall, I'm for the experiment, and young women probably should probably even do some role-playing with trusted friends, and learn how to be assertive, and get feedback for her "external self awareness" to hear how she's seen, and compare to the signals she thinks she's sending. And mix in some alcohol too, just make sure the trusted male friend knows it's just a game!

JPL17 said...

I find "Holding a Secret's" story more than a little strange. One the one hand, I agree with Stuart that she should be more concerned than she apparently is that a third party may expose her secret.

But on the other hand, whatever happened between her and her former professor happened 3 years ago, and no one has blabbed her secret for 3 years. I would think she's therefore substantially less at risk of being exposed now than she was 3 years ago, and will be even less at risk 3 years from now. Why doesn't she just repent her mistake of 3 years ago, resolve never to get drunk around other men ever again, and dedicate herself anew daily to her future husband?

The fact that she's not adopting that attitude, and is instead still racked with guilt after 3 years over an infidelity that may not even rise to the level of "having sex", makes me suspect there's a lot more going on emotionally within "Holding a Secret" than she lets on.

JPL17 said...

P.S. When I suggested that Holding a Secret "repent her mistake of 3 years ago", I did not mean that she should confess her mistake, at least not to her fiance or anyone else outside the secrecy of the confessional booth. One can repent a mistake without confessing it to the world.

On the issue of confessing to her fiance, I agree with Stuart 100% "that if she does not tell him it did not happen and is not relevant to their relationship ... so, she should shut up."

Shaun F said...

I read Lori's response. It pretty boiler plate. I often wonder if the people in therapy who write these letters are on prescription drugs. I can't honestly say I've known a guy involved with a woman in therapy where it has ended well. However, look what you've involved yourself with.