I'm a cheater with no impulse control!

I feel terrible when I stray, but I can't seem to stop!

Published March 30, 2009 10:10AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

I'm traveling on family business, so there will not be a column tomorrow, and this whole week could be touch-and-go. But I'm thinking, because it's no fun to be out of touch, why don't I just blog on Open Salon?

Just have to think of something to write about.

If I can find something interesting, I will write about it. Things on the plane interest me. Things in the airport interest me. I wonder if they will interest you.

— CT

Dear Cary,

I have always loved reading advice columns. I can't explain why except I enjoy knowing I am not alone. I never planned to write in to anyone until I read your column on the person with the 60-hour-a-week job sucking the life out of her. I didn't really have that problem but your answer inspired me to want something better, to improve myself in ways I have known I need to. My problem is I don't really know what causes me to do some of the things I do.

I am a cheater in relationships. I am loving and give everything I can to my partner and consider his feelings in every way, but every once in a while I have someone give me attention that feels good, and I cheat. Right now I am with a very good man. He respects me, cares for me in small ways, and gives me freedom to be myself. Even though I am happier with him than I have been in, well, maybe ever, I cheated. I felt like a piece of shit afterward and hope it doesn't ruin what could be the best thing I have had. I do not intend to tell him because I do not believe it would help anything, but I do not want to fall into my routine of getting away with it and doing it again when the situation may arise.

I have no impulse control. Cheating is a big problem as a result, but it is not the only one. I can go on a spending binge and then realize I am broke for the next two weeks. I may go out thinking, "Hey, I'm just going to have a little fun with my friends," and I end up so drunk I fall on my butt and break it. (Yeah, I literally fractured my tailbone.) The thing is, I analyze everything to the last detail and think of every possibility, but every once in a while it seems I just turn my common sense off. I let the euphoria of whatever is happening now overule any reason I shouldn't do it. I know this, and yet I can never seem to stop myself in time. What is wrong with me that I can't seem to use my brain when it is most important to do so?


Dear Brainless,

What if you were to say, openly, that you have no impulse control? What if you were to say, "I have absolutely no impulse control. If I go into that bar, I'm going to get smashed. If I look at that guy, I'm going to sleep with him"?

Why not see what happens if you come out of the closet with your lack of impulse control? It might have a kind of prophylactic effect.

For instance, if you told a man you were attracted to that you had absolutely no impulse control, would he take advantage of you? Or might he feel a bit sheepish about taking advantage of a woman who admittedly has absolutely no impulse control? If you told a bartender that once you start drinking you can't stop, would he pour you drink after drink, or might he see fit to keep an eye on you and cut you off? Not that you couldn't purchase an arsenal of whisky and lock yourself in your apartment -- but it's an interesting concept, is it not? By saying it out loud, you drain some of its power. You also bring into awareness all your actual feelings; surprisingly enough, out of those feelings may flow some impulse control. You might not call it impulse control, because it will not feel like a clamping down but like a release. It may feel, strangely enough, like one more impulse being acted on! It is the impulse to tell, to reveal. But in revealing, you enlist the help of others.

If you do this, you may also find that you actually do have some impulse control. You do make decisions; you do choose one impulse over another. For instance, when you feel the impulse to drink, you feel other impulses as well. You also feel an impulse to pour out the drink and walk away. But if you really want the drink, then you suppress that impulse. The impulse to flee, or to pour the drink out, may be considered an impulse of conscience.

This shows that you do have the ability to suppress impulses and act on a plan. It's just that some of those plans are disguised as impulses. The infidelity, the drunkenness: If you look at them, you will see that they do hatch as plans. Perhaps you do not form these plans out loud. But certain thoughts have been in your mind about "what you might do" or "what it might be like" or "I wonder what would happen if." These thoughts are not just idle speculations. They are unvoiced plans. So these indiscretions of yours are not completely impulsive. They are more like plans you are carrying out -- but secretly, in such a way that they are even hidden from yourself.

These plans you are carrying out, however hidden they are from you, may indeed be exactly what you want to do. But because you feel that it is not OK, you carry them out surreptitiously; you act as though these things happen to you with no warning, as if you were overtaken by some alien impulse against which you had no defense. You do have a defense!

Maybe you were not meant to be monogamous. Maybe your professed inability to control your impulses is just your way of dealing with a very censorious and overly controlled social network. Maybe you feel that if you are going to be who you really are, you have to come up with some excuse, because it is basically not OK for you to be you.

If we are indeed born into innocence and formed by forces over which we have no control, then why must we torture ourselves for being as we are? We did not make ourselves. We came into this world with nothing, utterly dependent, and it is a baffling, strange and often contrary world indeed, full of obstacles to us, full of things we don't understand, a world insensible to our magic, in which we are forced to go to school and obey and not touch this and not touch that and get up at this time and do this and do that, while inwardly we glow with opposite passions. We do our best to reconcile these things for the supposed benefit of others, to stop our mouths when we are about to say something hurtful even if it is honest, to bend to the course, pretend that we take pleasure in what others take pleasure in. We pretend. We do our best to fit in. But why is it that the predilections of the majority should be our sole governor?

What about those of us who are genuinely different?

What kind of a society is it in which those do best who deaden their impulses and bow down to the rules and fit their brilliant, amazing lives into the tiny chutes of education, family and career that have been set out for them since birth? What kind of society is it that endlessly exhorts us to willingly enter these antiseptic canals of cold destiny and come out in the end like manufactured products to aid only in the enrichment of the rich, the powerful, the rule makers? -- when nothing about it makes us happy or contented or even more secure? Why is it always we who are different who must apologize and make way for the supposedly correct and righteous majority? Why is it we who must amend and conform to fit the narrow, icy mold offered to us?

And who exactly is offering us this mold with supposed generosity and kindness? What benefit accrues to us, in fitting this mold? It is mainly safety we gain, is it not -- and the absence of dark threat? And what kind of system is that which offers us the choice of abandoning who we are or else face dire threat? Is that the kind of society we live in, one that trains us not to aspire to brilliant hopes but only to fear dire consequences? Is that not a system of extortion?

I wonder what the world would be like if it were OK for you to be you, exactly as you are.

Sometimes when we say something like this, people say, "You can't just do whatever you want," and so forth.

But maybe if you asserted your difference, you could find your way; maybe the world would expand a little to accommodate who you are. To unapologetically assert just who you are does not mean that you stubbornly refuse to change. Quite the opposite. Rather, by first accepting that you have no impulse control but that there's nothing really terribly wrong with you as you are, you open the way for some compassionate, deep change. You go from there.

So you have no impulse control. So what? What help would it be to a dancer to have great impulse control? What help to a musician? What help to me, for that matter? What am I doing right now if not responding to impulses, the impulse to speak, to let it fly, to give voice to my buried outrage, my hurt sense of difference, my deep and warm solidarity with all others who are different, who feel the cage, the lash, the deadening, impulse-killing pedagogy of order and conformity, the eraser-filled punishment afternoons of elementary conditioning and propaganda and indoctrination, the whole force of education having been dedicated only to crushing whatever impulse toward beauty and pleasure and sensation remains in the child, whatever dreams remain of the desire to fly and to flee, to sever the ropes of gravity and regain that dimly remembered majesty we once swam in and were a part of and beheld daily as our birthright?

Cheating? There's stuff in here about that.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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