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How do you reconcile your feelings for someone accused of sexual misconduct?

How do you reconcile your feelings for someone accused of sexual misconduct?

December 7th, 2017 by Chicago Tribune in Features
Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie arrive at the 72nd Annual Golden Globe Awards show at the Beverly Hilton Hotel Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015 in Beverly Hills, Calif.

Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie arrive at the...

Photo by Tribune News Service

Matt Lauer hosted NBC's "Today" show for two decades. Since 1997, he has been a part of morning routines. His face accompanied the day's first cup of coffee; his voice took viewers through the morning headlines. He was a staple of the lives of millions of people, and then, quite suddenly, he wasn't.

The circumstances that prompted Lauer's abrupt departure only added to the shock.

"How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly?" asked Lauer's "Today" co-host, Savannah Guthrie. "I don't know the answer to that. But I do know that this reckoning that so many organizations have been going through is important, it's long overdue and it must result in workplaces where all women, all people, feel safe and respected."

Guthrie's voice shook slightly as she delivered the news. She clasped hands with Hoda Kotb, who occupied Lauer's usual seat on the "Today" set. Guthrie expressed support for the colleague who came forward to accuse Lauer of "inappropriate sexual behavior," while also saying she was heartbroken for Lauer, whom she called her "dear, dear friend and partner." Those two sentiments might seem at odds, but as workplaces across the country go through this "reckoning," as Guthrie described it, many might find themselves feeling similarly conflicted.

So, how do you reconcile your love or affection for someone with the revelation that he or she has behaved badly?

Clinical psychologist Stanley Goldstein said learning this kind of information about a loved one can be shattering not just for the relationship, but for one's personal identity as well.

"It arouses all sorts of things," Goldstein said. "It causes them to  think, 'Who is this guy that I thought that I knew? If my judgment was so poor, how can I judge anything he tells me, or how can I judge anyone else in the future?' It causes the person to seriously question who they are and their abilities."

Vaile Wright, clinical psychologist and director of research and special projects at the American Psychological Association, said there's no real research on what to do if your loved one has been accused of bad acts, whether that's sexual assault or driving drunk or infidelity. But in all of these situations, people have to process being presented with information that contradicts what they thought they knew about someone.

"We go through one of two processes," Wright said. "Either we say to ourselves, 'Look, this new information is incongruent with how I see this person, and so I will dismiss it.' Or we take the other approach. 'This new information makes me uncomfortable, but I'm going to figure out a way to change how I see the person, so that I can balance both these sides.'"

If you decide to accept the truth of the new information and try to deal with the discomfort, Wright recommends being patient in working through the inevitable emotions.

"Give yourself some time to process this discomfort and this cognitive dissonance that you have. Allow yourself to feel these conflicting emotions without judging yourself one way or the other," Wright said. "Then you have to decide how you want to move forward. Do you want to maintain a relationship with your loved one even if they've committed a bad act?"

Plenty of things could factor into that decision. The severity of the act itself, the strength of the relationship and the degree to which a loved one has expressed remorse all play a role in how to move forward. And to complicate matters, emotions may change over time, Wright said.

For those who don't know Lauer personally but feel a strong connection after watching him for years, it's still a process to work through cognitive dissonance. Whether or not people actually know a celebrity, they still trusted their instincts to form conclusions about that person, according to Goldstein. So enjoying Lauer's reporting—or the comedy of Louis C.K. or the commentary of Garrison Keillor—can cause similar feelings of discomfort once someone is confronted with accounts of the behavior.

"What does differ, though, is your ability to have a conversation with that person," Wright said. "To confront or express your disappointment and then to somewhat reconcile that. You have no ability to do that when it's a celebrity you don't actually know. So in some ways, it feels even less in your control."

But Wright's advice for moving forward is still the same: Allow time for processing, and then decide if that person can still provide the enjoyment as before.

"Can you still appreciate someone's comedy, their books, their commentary—in the case of Garrison Keillor. Can you still appreciate that those are part of that person while not dismissing or denying that this person engaged in bad acts that are not in line with your values?" Wright said.

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