You know that you sleuth, spy, and snoop to find out the truth about the betrayal in your relationship, to validate that what you have been told about the betrayal is true, and to begin to integrate the new experience of betrayal into your understanding of your life story. Sherlocking in these early phases of the healing process is about seeking safety and trying to find the edges of the betrayal so it can be contained and you can know the whole picture of what you are dealing with.
But sometimes Sherlocking behaviors continue way past accessing and validating the truth. You may not have found any new information or heard any contradictory details for months, yet you are sure there is something you don’t know about, something else to discover. So the hunt goes on.
Maybe your continued Sherlocking looks like that of a client I worked with several years ago who found her husband’s first step (a detailed written history of his sexual behavior presented as part of his recovery in a 12-Step program). This several page document outlined a 30-year history of betrayal. My client read and re-read that document for months on end, poring over every detail in ways that repeatedly and permanently seared the betrayal into her mind and heart.
Sounds unhelpful, right? And it was. But she just couldn’t stop herself.
If Sherlocking is only about seeking safety by accessing and validating the truth, then why didn’t my client stop her sleuthing, snooping, and spying once she received full disclosure and knew the scope and depth of the betrayal? What kept her stuck in Sherlocking behaviors, particularly when staying in Sherlock mode increased and deepened her trauma symptoms, making the entire experience more painful and more difficult to heal from? What was she doing? And if you find yourself in a similar situation, what are you doing?
Well, let’s talk about that. Because here is what we know to be true about ourselves as humans. Our behavior is intentional. Even when it is unconscious and we are unaware of why we are doing something, we are doing it for a reason. So, let’s look at what I like to call ‘Sherlocking Beyond Reason’ is really about.
Avoiding Overwhelming Feelings
One primary reason we Sherlock Beyond Reason is to avoid overwhelming feelings. Let’s say you are a betrayed partner who has gone through the process of discovery and you’ve received full disclosure about the cheating. Your partner’s disclosure included new details and information that they honestly presented despite their fear of doing so. And they answered your countless questions both in and outside of therapy, spending hours talking with you and trying to provide you with the information you need. Even though all the evidence suggests they were fully honest in their disclosure, you have continued to Sherlock. You have not found any new information, and when you talk to them no incongruent or contradictory details surface. It appears that you have received the entire truth about the scope and depth of the betrayal.
Yet, in spite of all of this, you are just sure there is more. There is something he is lying about, some detail he hasn’t disclosed, some tidbit you don’t yet know. And you cannot get this thought out of your mind. You think about the ‘missing information’ obsessively, reviewing and replaying conversations in your head, trying to find the clue that will reveal…something.
When you are stuck in a cycle where Sherlocking behaviors continue despite a lack of evidence that they are still needed, you are no longer sleuthing to access or validate the truth. The purpose behind your sleuthing has changed. Now these behaviors are about helping you avoid overwhelming feelings that you don’t know how to handle.
Staying focused on what you might not know, staying focused on the idea that there might be another detail of some sort that will surface, staying focused on the ‘what if’ scenario helps you avoid the actual reality in front of you. It’s like looking out to the horizon to see if a storm might be coming later while all around you lies the wreckage of the tornado that already struck. Basically, looking for more information is used as a way to avoid confronting your feelings about the information you already have.
And lets’ face it: The information you have is devastating. To emotionally connect to feelings of betrayal is like touching a red-hot burner of pain in the center of your heart. The pain is overwhelming and the anger you feel is frightening. What if your feelings destroy you? What if you can’t feel them and still function? What if it is all too much for you to bear? This fear of being overwhelmed by the pain is why it is sometimes easier to keep your attention focused on what you don’t know instead of facing your feelings about what you do know.
In next week’s post, we will discuss another reason you might choose to Sherlock Beyond Reason – avoiding the vulnerability of feeling safe.