Aaron came into my office seeking a divorce because he found out that his wife was having an affair. She had ended the extramarital relationship but he still had to get the divorce, because his first wife had been unfaithful as well, and he had vowed never to tolerate that kind of betrayal again.
Did Aaron really have to get a divorce? He seemed to think so, but I thought he was at a choice point. Of course he could get a divorce, for any reason or no reason, but he didn’t have to. He could make other choices, like taking her back without reservations, or going to counseling to see whether his behavior had any part in the infidelity of two women he loved. He couldn’t pretend it hadn’t happened, but that didn’t mean he “had to” divorce her.
Sometimes people imagine that if they allow themselves to acknowledge a feeling, or a thought, they have to do something about it. Not true. You can let yourself admit that your wife is an alcoholic or that your husband spends all his free time on internet porn sites, without having to act upon your knowledge. You still have a choice, even when you acknowledge the truth to yourself. In fact, admitting the truth gives you the freedom to choose.
This belief, that seeing the truth compels action, is at the heart of denial, a process by which we pretend to ourselves that what is true doesn’t really exist. It is a good defense mechanism and one that can be enormously helpful in dealing with life events that shake our foundation—for a while. Then, slowly, we begin to wrap our minds around reality, and we begin to adjust our behavior to the truth. We begin making decisions consciously, instead of unconsciously.