A little over five years ago, I learned that my husband had been cheating during the entire 20 years of our marriage. We separated, and after a learning curve, we have maintained a friendship. When I first learned of his behaviors, I understood that he cheated because he wanted to. But the only answer I ever received from him to my question of why he cheated was always, “I don’t know.” Shortly after learning of his actions, I stopped asking him the question, “Why did you do it? ” because the answer was always, “I don’t know.”
Is it possible for someone to do something and not know why they did it?
— N.W., Las Vegas
Explaining human behavior is possibly the most baffling, contradicted, mysterious (not to mention obsessive) of the human philosophical inquiries. My prejudice, of course, is that’s because human beings are, in their nature, baffling, contradicted and mysterious.
Is it possible for someone to do something and not know why they did it? Ho, boy, howdy! Make no mistake! Absolutely. More often than not. The answer to that question is a big, big “YES.”
Let’s use homicide as a ready example. It’s always fascinated me that, statistically speaking, most murders aren’t committed by The Bad Guys. Most murders aren’t committed by organized crime members, gang members, convenience store robbers, et al. Something close to 68 to 70 percent of all murders in American are committed by … people who know each other. People obliged in fiduciary , interpersonal relationships. Colleagues. Neighbors. Family members. Spouses. “Crimes of passion,” we call them, where an hour earlier it would have never occurred to the murderer that he was capable of or thinking about murder.
And as the police escort the handcuffed Regular Joe (or Josephine) to the patrol car, many of these people will say, with utter sincerity, “I don’t know why I did that.”
Later, the news media will say, “Regular Joe had just discovered his wife’s plan to leave the marriage with the children …” Yeah? That’s a reason? Not even close. I know that because lots of people receive the news that a spouse is dumping them … and they don’t kill anybody! “I got very, very angry,” a murderer might say. Well, duh. But here’s another explanation that doesn’t explain. Lots of people get very, very angry, and they don’t kill anyone!
You make my mind wander back to childhood. I see my mother’s face, confronting me about hitting my little sister. “Why did you hit your sister?” she demanded in a loud voice.
I shrugged, helplessly. I said, “I don’t know,” more than a few times. I cried. As an adult, I often fantasize about magically transporting my adult, post-educated self into that 7-year-old boy. Then he would have an answer: “Because she pissed me off! She wouldn’t take turns with the ball! And, as the young primate, bundle of instincts that I am, I reacted. In the moment, I really enjoyed it. I can’t describe to you what a rush it is to be bigger and stronger than she is! To have the power to make her cry, which anybody deserves who won’t share a ball.”
I might add: “And if that answer doesn’t work for you, then it’s because I’m a really bad person.”
Now, that’s my stand-up comedy answer, which, if distilled, really means, “Seriously, Mom? Why did I hit her? That’s rhetorical, right? You’re not seriously looking for information here, are you?”
Back to extramarital affairs, aka adultery …
Ask yourself, N.W., what your ex-husband (now, a maintained friend) could possibly say to you in answer to that question.
— I was horny.
— I enjoy sex.
— I’m essentially a selfish person.
— I was bored.
— I was mad at you and wanted to hurt you.
• I’m not very bright.
• My narcissism convinces me I’m above the rules.
• I needed to have my ego massaged and shored up.
• You are/were/had become a total disappointment in the bedroom.
• I was willing to risk everything to see that particular woman naked.
• I couldn’t bring myself to tell you I didn’t want the marriage, so I “sacrificed” myself, assuming the role of The Bad Husband, knowing you would then have to dump me.
• You had become sexually unattractive to me.
• I was drunk.
• My therapist says that I have undue “anima projections” and that my unconscious struggles with the archetype of “The Waif.”
• I have an underdeveloped masculine ego-identity.
• Did I mention I really like sex?
Is there an answer he could provide that would make your soul say, “Ahh, now I can be at peace.”
I’m not making fun. I’m saying two things: 1) The best, even most accurate explanation doesn’t explain much, and 2) “I don’t know” might well be more informative in the long haul. It might mean, “I stand crushed, trembling, shaking my head in a kind of tortured awe before the rubble and devastation cause by my own choices. I didn’t want any of this. It’s all beneath me. But I chose it. And contemplating that contradiction will occupy some part of my soul for the rest of my life.”
Yes, it is possible for people to do things and not know why they did them.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns also appear on Sundays in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. Contact him at 702-227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.