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  • Writer's pictureDr. Keri Clark

Behaviors Make Sense Even When They Don’t

It is very hard to understand behaviors when they are hurting us. Whether it is our own self-destructive patterns or the actions of those we care about. It is easier to be guided by our pain and anger and react with denunciation and blame. While these may be perfectly natural and fully justified responses when the behaviors go against our moral compass and hurt us, they don’t help us to make sense of what has happened. Every behavior, no matter how frightening or aversive, can be properly understood if we dig down deep enough. It is essential to grasp that understanding how a behavior makes sense in context is NOT the same as saying it is okay or that we agree with it. It is possible to get to a place where we see how a behavior makes perfect sense, that it is not okay and absolutely must change, and that these truths are not mutually exclusive.

Every behavior, no matter how frightening or aversive, can be properly understood if we dig down deep enough.

In our clinic we see countless people who have been deeply hurt from infidelity and other various types of betrayal from their partner. As a human being, I feel tremendous empathy for them and want with all my heart to help them. As a professional, I know that I must avoid the temptation of telling them things to make them feel better even if they might not be true. That is one of the biggest differences between the lay people in our lives that we look to support us by taking our side, and a professional who helps us hear the things we need to hear, instead of what we want to hear. It makes for a convenient narrative to simply label the partner who betrayed us as bad person, a narcissist, or a sex addict. There may be varying levels of truth to all these labels, but they don’t provide the justice we deserve that can only be found in understanding how someone we thought we knew so well could hurt us so deeply.

I always encourage people to entertain the possibility of 2 things: good people can do bad things, and someone can love you and hurt you. It does not mean for a moment that those things are okay or that we have to put up with them. However, it opens the door for taking a curious mindset and really finding out where your partner went astray. The notion that a behavior may make perfect sense in context and yet also be completely unacceptable is a difficult one for most people to get their mind around. However, once you do, the world opens up in a way that allows you to truly make sense of you experience.

When we live through a traumatic experience, we are left with challenges to certain beliefs we used to have about the world. When we experience betrayal or infidelity trauma, we are left with challenges to beliefs we had about our partner and our relationship. Often in our pain we move to beliefs that are simply opposite of what we thought to be true. If we used to believe our partner truly loved us, we may shift to the belief that our partner never loved us. If we formerly believed our marriage was a symbol of lifelong love and commitment, we may shift to the belief that it was all simply a lie. While these new beliefs may offer an explanation of our partner’s behavior and the perception that we can understand our world again, they may make us even more miserable, as we are left to live in a world where it is not safe to trust, to love, or to be vulnerable.

It may be difficult to look beyond these simple explanations. It may seem incredibly unfair to have to do so. Indeed, it is unfair to have to do so. To suffer the aftermath of another’s betrayal is fundamentally unfair. However, if we can find deeper and truer understandings of what has happened, there is great healing power available to us that can help to grow stronger as individuals and often as couples.

Suggested Exercise to practice thinking of different explanations for behaviors:

The next time someone does something that makes you angry like driving too slow in the left lane, try to think of at least 3 GOOD reasons they may have done that.

For example:

Someone driving too slow in the left lane.

Automatic thought may be: “what a jerk, they think they own the road.”

Alternate explanations: “they are having the worst day of their lives and are simply distracted,” or “they are on their way to a birthday party for someone they love and have a cake in the car and don’t want it to get ruined” (a client gave me that second one)

Driving is an excellent place to practice many skills. One of the first things I did when I became a psychologist was to work on curing myself of road rage using the same skills I teach others.

It’s an elderly person who is doing their best.

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Am I A Sex Addict? Dr. James Olsen


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