What is the difference – ethically speaking – between a common criminal and a man (or woman) who cheats on their spouse? I’d argue very little.
Human values are formed by internalizing social norms, which is how we each come to decide what makes us a good – or intrinsically valuable – person. These norms are shared among the people within a society and become the basis for laws and ideals about appropriate human behavior. For example, I think most people who favor fair play and integrity would agree that defrauding widows of their life savings is wrong and never okay. If only there were such a hard and fast rule about marital betrayal and robbing a family of one of its most vital members.
Alas, adultery is casually glossed over as being little more than a nebulous or murky part of the nuances of adult love relationships. It’s not. It should be called out for what it is: a violation of a person’s sacred honor, and an egregious breach of the most personal of human covenants. The harm that it causes is so monumental and far reaching that no single part of the victim’s life remains untouched by it.
In my studies, I’ve learned about a little-known crime theory called ‘Neutralization Theory’ (NT). It aims to identify and define what kind of justifications criminals use to rationalize their bad behavior.
As soon as I read about it, I realized that it also fit the behaviors of cheaters like a glove. So what is the commonality between criminals and adulterers? Rationalization of unethical behavior.
Rationalization of bad behavior is necessary, because without it, offenders can suffer from what’s known as Cognitive Dissonance (CD). CD describes the mental discomfort that takes place when one’s actions don’t meet up with their words or beliefs (unless you’re dealing with an a-typical mind, such as someone with anti-social personality disorder…they could care less).
But, the typical human psyche craves consistency. The mind has a hard time maintaining a belief about being a’good person’ while their actions reflect that of ‘arsonist’. So, criminals ease the discomfort that CD brings using excuses in order to neutralize that dissonance.
This is where Neutralization Theory comes in. It lists the most common rationalizations that criminals use in order to excuse or minimize what they’ve done, and goes on to describe what can happen if these justifications are used in the long-term.
So here they are, in all of their splendor. Follow along as we seamlessly segue between ‘criminal’ and ‘cheater’…
Changing the narrative starts with changing one’s vocabulary. Fill that lexicon to the brim with flowery euphemisms, because you’re gonna need ‘em!
Criminal:Yes, it’s true that I broke that guy’s arm because he owed money to my boss. That doesn’t make me a felon! I’m just a mischievous scamp.
Cheater:I won’t argue that I banged my son’s teacher on school grounds. That doesn’t make me a bad guy! I’m just a free spirit following my bliss.
Condemnation of the Condemner:
The offenders maintain that those who condemn their offense are doing so purely out of spite, or are shifting the blame off of themselves unfairly. After all, who do you think you are to play judge and jury? You’re nothing but a hypocrite. Everyone’s got skeletons in their closet. Judging me is soooo dark ages…
Criminal: Yah, so I collected on the debts for my boss. But everybody’s on the take, even the cops and the judges. You’ve probably done the same thing, or worse!
Cheater: Yah, so I lied to my wife and told her I was working when I was actually in a hotel room with a high-priced hooker on our marital dime. Everyone does it, and you have no right to judge me. You’re no saint. For all I know, you’ve done the exact same thing, or worse!
Metaphor of the Ledger:
That terribly bad thing that I did was balanced out by that really good thing that I did. Everyone’s got some plus’s and minus’s in the columns of their ledger, I mean am I right?
Criminal: Yes, I shivved my cell mate, but I gave Crazy Larry all the beans off my lunch tray. It balances out.
Cheater: Sure, I cheated and gave an STD to my wife, but I sponsored that girl scout troop last year so they could all go to camp. It balances out.
Denial of Responsibility:*
The offender will propose that they were victims of circumstance or were forced into situations beyond their control. When arrested emotional development takes place at the age of 13, they’re 13 forever…
Criminal: Downloading a few terabytes of pirated music is a victim-less crime, so why should I have to be carted off to jail over it? It’s not as though anyone got hurt.
Cheater: Get with the times, y’all. Everyone has affairs, and if they say they don’t, they’re lying. Why are you trying to shame me? H Dubs and I didn’t plan on falling in love. I’m not responsible for how that made you feel.
*Abdication of responsibility is especially unattractive in the male species, and justifications of this kind may cause the injured female party vomit violently in response. Just sayin’.
Denial of Victim:
The offender believes that the victim deserved whatever action the offender committed. In other vernacular, she pulled my hair first!
Criminal: It’s true, I firebombed ACME surplus for the insurance money, but they got paid too so they actually came out ahead. They’re a big greedy outfit anyway, and they’ve got it coming to them. Besides, they’re not going to go under because I burned down one measly little warehouse…
Cheater: People get divorced every day. No damage was done to her. What is everyone making such a fuss about? Look, right there. See? She’s upright and breathing in and out. She’s fine. Leave it to her to be dramatic and use phrases like ‘soul rape‘ and ‘PTSD‘. Give me a break.
An offender will deflect blame for their actions by rationalizing that they deserve to ‘reward themselves’. Narcissism is at the heart of entitlement mentality.
Criminal: I work hard, and I needed a reward. No one else is going to look after me, so I’m gonna take the cash from the cash drawer and use it on a much needed vacation for me, myself, and I.
Cheater: I work hard, and I deserve to be happy. So I will sacrifice innocents at the alter of my ‘happiness’, and firmly tuck this mantra into my bonnet: I have the right to be happy, to insist that I be happy, and no amount of pain foisted upon others shall stop me from finding my ‘happy’. Amen.
Appeal to Higher Loyalties:
The offender suggests that his or her offense was for the greater good, with long term consequences that would justify their actions (such as protection of a family member or friend).
Criminal: Yes, your honor, I WAS the robber at the Allentown Bank that day, but I HAD to shove an AK in the teller’s face and make my way to Fiji with $800,000. You see, my dad is sick, and his insurance won’t cover a life-saving operation. You can’t get mad about that, can you?
Cheater: Don’t you understand? Yes, I lied to you hundreds of times and put you at risk for STD’s and abandoned our kids and spent marital money on another woman, but it wasn’t my fault. You see, I did it for true love. You can’t get mad at true love, can you?
So…what happens when you spend the bulk of your adult life using justifications like this? Read on…
There are so many things that the betrayed suffer through, but none so profound as the anguish that results when coming to grips with the truth that, NO, their spouse is certainly NOT the good man or woman they believed them to be.
Actions, not words, reveal the true character of a person. Risked my health? Lied to me thousands of times? Duped me, abandoned me bodily and financially, and abandoned your kids to fatherlessness? Those are NOT the actions of a ‘good’ human being.
But then, to add insult to injury, it’s as if the cheater hasn’t gotten the memo.
They sleep without struggling at night. They happily engage in the adoration of a new partner. They gaze upon themselves in the mirror with pride. So, how is it that they can know that they’ve done these despicable, egregious things to the most vulnerable around them, all while laboring under the delusion that they’re a real swell guy?
It’s easy to leap to the conclusion that they are a sociopath, but that may not be it at all. As I said before, the psyche craves consistency. Cognitive dissonance is only eased by rationalizations; those rationalizations don’t go so far as to allow the mind to believe two diametrically opposed truths (I’m a dirtbag AND I’m a swell guy).
Here’s the answer: a LIFETIME of excuse-making can result in what’s known as ‘Doublethink’. They’ve used justifications and rationalizations for so long and in so many circumstances that the psyche finally does adjust to believe both realities.
For those of us lying awake at night wondering how it is that he could pilfer our entire 401K, or take out a second mortgage and buy the affair partner a condo, or cease contact with their 7 year old child AND STILL APPEAR HAPPY AND CAREFREE IN DOZENS OF SELFIES ON FACEBOOK, we may now have the answer.
He’s spent the entirety of his life making excuses so that everyone around him would buy into the ‘good guy’ narrative, while simultaneously doing despicable and disgraceful things. After years of conditioning his mind, it’s happened:
He’s finally bought into his own crap.
So be vigilant, dear friends. Be mindful and alert. Sometimes we lock our door so the bad guys can’t get inside, but all the while we’re sleeping next to one. So be listening, but most importantly, be watching. Behavior – not words, not justifications, not excuses, not rationalizations – will always tell a truth that nothing else will.
This post ran previously in 2016
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Techniques_of_neutralization. Later additions and revisions have resulted in as many as 12-15 total neutralizations being associated with NT. The 7 that I’ve detailed above are those that are the most interesting to me personally.