Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

How Could You? Part VI - Dehumanization and Blame

Series: How Could You?

Part 6:  Dehumanization and Blame

Ever done something you’re really ashamed of? Not just a mistake, but also something that when you look back on it you can’t believe you did it? I have. When I asked myself that question something came to mind from 1970. If you ask yourself that question what comes your mind? What I remembered was a time I made a racial slur. I was sitting in Mr. Gibbon’s biology class and Tony, the boy in front of me, was making fun of the writing on the back of his chair. It said Sally + Manny = Love. Since Manny was Hispanic he suggested I cross out love and put half-breed. Without thinking I did exactly that. Not because I agreed, but because I thought Tony was cool and wanted his approval. It’s something I’d never done before or since, but it’s something I regret to this day. I knew it was wrong; why did I do something like that?

There are two more contributors to moral disengagement I’d like to cover: dehumanization and attribution of blame.


These two practices of moral disengagement are based on how we view those we betray or mistreat. Hopefully we were raised in families where we experienced joy and suffering along with those we loved. It’s that experience that teaches empathy and allows us to experience life with those around us. Being able to relate to the joy and the suffering of those with whom we relate is part of being human. However if we’re able to blind ourselves to the human characteristics of people then we’re less likely to relate to them and vicariously experience their pain. It other words it's difficult for us to mistreat those we respect without experiencing their pain, but easy to act in harmful ways if we dehumanize them.

For me to write a racial slur on the back of Tony’s desk was easy as long as I looked at Manny as something lower than myself. If for just a moment I had considered how my comment would have made Manny and Sally feel then chances are my conscience would have stepped in and I would have refused. Instead I allowed myself a moment of racial bigotry and violated my own beliefs to make myself feel better.

Dehumanization is a much bigger deal than most of us realize. During wartime, nations cast their enemies in the most dehumanized, demonic, and bestial images to make it easier to kill them (Ivie, 1980). The process of dehumanization is an essential ingredient in the perpetration of inhumanities. The same is true of infidelity. The injured spouse frequently is confused at how their mate could do this to them, but if the unfaithful spouse divests their mate of human qualities by focusing only on their faults, they effectively dehumanize them and limit any empathetic response. When dehumanization is in play there is little, if any, consideration of the impact their betrayal will have on their mate. Self-censure for cruel conduct can be disengaged by stripping people of human qualities. Once dehumanized, they are no longer viewed as persons with feelings, hopes, and concerns but as subhuman objects (Keen, 1986; Kelman, 1973).

The same principle can hold true to those responding to a betrayal. By labeling those who are unfaithful as nothing more than cheaters they effectively dehumanize them, paving the way for additional inhumane treatment. To run your mate over with a car or to inflict bodily harm on a loved one requires seeing them as subhuman. To consider hurting someone you consider human evokes self-censure which prevents hurtful actions.

Attribution of Blame:

Of all of the previously mentioned ways people suspend their morals and values by having an affair this may be the most damaging of all. Blaming one’s mate or circumstances not only pushes away any guilt, but it allows the perpetrator to become a faultless victim driven to their hurtful actions out of necessity. Guilt can be avoided by viewing their hurtful actions as forced by circumstances rather than a personal decision. By placing the blame on others or on circumstances their actions not only become excusable, but they now feel self-righteous and justified in the process.

Even worse, justifying our hurtful actions is even more damaging than a situation in which the perpetrator takes responsibility for his or her actions. When offenses are not cloaked in self-righteousness, the perpetrator bears the responsibility for what happened. However, when victims are convincingly blamed for the hurtful actions of others they may come to believe the negative portrayal of themselves. (Hallie, 1971). Justifying one’s actions by blaming another is more likely to create self-contempt in the victim than those instances where the perpetrator takes responsibility for their actions. Witnessing someone experience mistreatment for which they are held partially responsible can also cause others to look down on them. (Learner and Miller 1978) The devaluation and righteous indignation created by blame provides even greater moral justification for ongoing abuse.

For example: it’s easy to play the victim and justify your affair if you tell everyone your mate is controlling. Even more, the efforts of the hurt spouse to change and become less controlling only add greater justification for being unfaithful and potentially increase the sense of righteous indignation. Not only that, but by blaming your behavior on their being controlling, others will look down on the victim and also blame your spouse for your infidelity. It’s easy to justify verbal or physical abuse if your mate has cheated on you. You can be righteously indignant because you’ve never done that to them and you would never be acting this way if they hadn’t betrayed you.

But in the long run we’re all responsible for our actions. We will either see others as human and act according to our morals (even when we’re hurt) or we will see them as less than human and act with no regard as to the impact of our actions. The choice is ours.

If you would like help not only making this choice but accountability to stick to it even when you’d rather hurt your spouse than love them, consider EMS Online. Registration is open. Go to EMS Online for couples



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I experience being dehumanized because I was the cheater. Now, inspite of all my efforts, I am the scum of the earth and am made to pay for every single day by verbally being torn down. I know that the loving thing to do is to pray for my spouse to find peace and healing in their heart. It is evident that my past actions have been very hurtful. Yet I work on improving myself everyday, being aware of my actions, being committed to my family and doing the right things. I do this without anyone knowing. But I will pay for this forever because now the dehumization is on the foot of my hurt spouse and nothing I do will make that better until they decide to change that.


What if the cheating spouse has not opened up, has not disclosed everything?  It is very difficult to forgive when you know your questions are not answered truthfully.  Some questions are completly ignored.  I get answers such as "I don't know" and  "I don't remember".  

11 years later

think that this article and the ones before that really help to pinpoint what happens when when people cheat. They give concrete examples of the misguided thoughts that allow those who cheat to deflect responsibility and live a lie. Until I decided to own up to this, I am afraid that the behavior could continue. Thank you Rick.

Take him to get a lie

Take him to get a lie detector test. That is what I did and was the only way I could feel like I got to the bottom of everything. I believe you need to know 100% what you are working with in order to make sound decisions for yourself and children. Still if my husband said the sky was blue I would have to look outside for myself in order to believe it.

How right you are!

You are absolutely right.  What they consider controlling is simply their resentment of the fact they are not free to do anything they want without hurting someone.

How right are you..

As the betrayed spouse, I could not agree with you more. Thank you, your comment hit the nail on the head and was right to the point. It's what I am always trying to spit out to my spouse when we argue but can never really explain it in such a simple way

I see clearly now

To be completely honest, I did not want to read this article, because after almost 3 years since the affair I had, my husband and I have been able to get back what I took away. With God's help, mercy, and grace our marriage has been restored. I didn't want to read this article because I feel like he and I have come so far, that some times I guess it's too painful to look back at the things I've done. I hate who I was, I hate that I didn't have boundaries, and I hate that I called my husband things like controlling and manipulative. I didn't realize then, that what I was doing was dehumanizing him. I have apologized for so much, and yes he has forgiven me, but I have never said the words "I am sorry I dehumanized you". I now feel that I need to do that. Earlier this week, out of the blue, he asked me "do you have a second phone?" It caught me off guard, and in the past I would have gotten defensive, but God calmed me. I remembered what he's been through, and how recovery has been as hard for him as for me. I answered "No, I do not have a second phone. What brought that on honey?" and it was then that I realized that this is another one of those times (coming fewer and farther between now) where he had been having a rough day, and he remembered how he felt like such a fool. He does not want to be a fool again, and so he needed to check. I'm so glad that I didn't get defensive. I told him that I understood, and that I love him very much. Later that morning when he was at work, I sent him a text message reminding him that I am still his faithful, loving, 100% committed, 100% truthful wife. I don't take him or his forgiveness for granted, He is amazing to me and I know how very richly blessed I am by God to have this mercy. Thank you for letting me share, and thank you for this article!

Re: I see clearly now...

Dear Joesgirl - I appreciate your perspective and sharing your experience.  I am the betrayed one. It's been 7 months since the first disclosures started dribbling in & I think the last ones came out in January.  It was both heartening and dismaying to hear that "rough days," where feelings and questions like your husband asked, can still come up after 3 years.  So I'm not crazy to have those thoughts continue to pop up and to have doubts after a comparatively brief time. 

I also feel like a fool, not only for being lied to and cheated on but sometimes I feel foolish for staying in this relationship.  When we go places I worry we will run into one of the many women he had sex with - I'm sorry I can't call them affair partners, that's just too sanitizing.  He has, like you, taken responsibility and wants us to work but is only now starting individual counseling (I have been going for several months; we did a few sessions of couples counseling but the insurance money ran out).  He tries to be patient with my doubts and questions but I get the feeling sometime he doesn't think it's productive and he's not totally invested in going to counseling for himself, he thinks it's for me.  Did you ever feel that way toward your husband?  How long did it take for you to understand and accept his perspective?  Thanks for your thoughts.


this is true, my husband had

this is true, my husband had an affair, and is there having the affair. he states that the reason why he's having this affair is because I pushed him away. which is not true I was advise by my doctor to get my stress under control, before had a heart attack or a stroke. during this time my husband was but then another city. unfortunately I found out about it. he is very mean and nasty to me, he blames me for everything that has went wrong in his life since we've been together. and yet for some reason he think he's a fair is right. my husband is a big believer of the Bible, and would not break any of the commitment. but all of a sudden, he has lost faith and believe what he is doing is right. how can you possibly justify his actions.


Hi there,

I'm with a lot of shame the cheating spouse, with all the regrets I could possibly imagine. We are in a recovery fase with just over a year of the disclosure of my affair. The dehumanising process is being used by my husband when he is hurting, and following it comes the blame, he blames me for every fail he had end every frustration of his life. It makes him blind towards me, he only associates me with the negative, but on the other hand he is still with me. I know that I'm the one responsible for his sorrow and I'm trying to find a way to rebuild our marriage, but I'm struggling at the moment. Some times I believe it would be nether to give up, but the feelings we have for each other is so great that I can't take that step. Any thoughts in how I could help myself and my husband to change our attitudes and focus in life now? Thanks for your posts, they are really helpful.

This is an excellant article.

This is an excellant article. It was so eyeopening to me and I felt the light bulb go off. My husband pastor had a three year affair with a woman in our church and we are almost a year out and doing very well in our healing process. This really helped me understand my invisability with him and the reasons (at the time) that he justified his affair. He has never blamed me since disclosure and has taken full responsibilty for his actions. I can't wait for him to read it as I am sure it will set off some light bulbs for him too. Thank you so much!

The most powerful statement...

In other words it's difficult for us to mistreat those we respect without experiencing their pain, but easy to act in harmful ways if we dehumanize them.

Interesting. This one sentence says it all, our spouses not only dehumanized us but did not respect us. Somewhere, somehow, there was a disconnect from us and they stepped outside of the marriage and they did it with no regard as to the impact it would have on us, our marriage, or our family. Lack of respect...so how in turn are we the betrayed to respect them once that trust has been broken and from what I have seen many people deal with this devastation over and over and over again with the same spouse. Insanity! That to me seems like the kid who plays with matches and is warned not to do it yet he does it over and over and over again, eventually he will get burned and possibly burn more than just himself and don't you think those in authority over that kid are a little bit to blame for not insuring the child's safety by putting the matches away for his own safety?

Let's think about that for a while...

As the betrayed husband, two

As the betrayed husband, two years into recovery, perhaps the hardest thing about this whole mess has been to not dehumanize my wife and do unto her what she did to me, which was to dehumanize me and thus  disrespect me at the profoundest level. I have fought deep urges to "give her what for", do to her what she did to me, but, by the grace of God, I have refused to quit being a Christian precisely when it has been hardest to do so. I often gaze at her and ask God to help me see how she herself has been a victim of Satan, to see her as a human, in God's image, who fell. I never thought the greatest test of my faith would come from the betrayal of my own flesh, my wife. I would have suspected it come from some rabid atheist or bigotted neighbor, but no, it came from the deepest, most precious thing in my life, which was my love for my wife. My faith and hope in heaven is being tested as never before; in fact it is often the only thing keeping me decent and loving in my marriage. I do pray however, that God takes this deeper and helps me regain the free, spontaneous love I once had for her.

This is profound for me

Not sure if you ever frequent these pages anymore since I see "Anonymous" posted this 3 years ago, but this comment hit me hard because, even though my wife had an emotional affair for 2 years, and it has been one year since I exposed this to our head pastor (her affair was with the youth pastor whom she worked with at our church), I am still trying to heal and get over the disrepect at the deepest level. She still never says she loves me (she says by staying and working through individual and couples counseling that this is her sign of commitment) and she still doesn't touch me in ways of snuggling, holding hands, kissing, hugging or giving me words of affirmation, so it is very hard at times to wonder just how committed she is.

Just like "Anonymous" in this above message, when I was going through the darkest days of my life battling two long bouts of unemployment over a 3-year span, I never for once thought my wife wouldn't have my back and be there for me emotionally and spiritually. But instead, she sunk into her own pit by disconnecting with me (she said she was for years even before the unemployment hit), so she has disconnected over the past 5 to 6 years and now is trying to "fall in love" with me again. I know it is her choice and it is her relationship with God that will lead her to wherever she ends up with how she will treat me going forward in our marriage.

I can only hope and pray that some day she will cherish, love and respect me (none of which I have felt for years upon years now in our 22-plus years of marriage and have killed my spirit and led to resentment and bitterness on my end). While I have sunk into Christ's presence during this long and grueling process and sought His peace and love (which I know is why this whole ordeal was probably ordained way beforehand so I could re-establish my relationship with Christ), it has so hurt my relationship with my wife and I pray that some day we can truly reconcile and build a better marriage covenant!

It's been over a year since

It's been over a year since my ex-husband admitted to an affair and left us. I was 5 months pregnant with our third child at the time. He told me he didn't love me and blamed me, saying I'd made him miserable, I didn't pay enough attention to him, etc. He even said the baby was a mistake. The OW left her husband and their two kids. After the long divorce -- he adamantly refused counseling of any sort to fix the marriage -- he wasted no time in moving in with her. Now my boys, even the baby, are forced to have overnights at her house. My ex definitely has no empathy for me and what he's put me through, he continues to treat me like I'm the one who had the affair and left him pregnant. He's hateful and definitely has dehumanized me and the kids. He even blames me that the kids are bad when they are with him. He also seems to have no concern for how the kids feel about the whole situation. What does it take for someone to realize or acknowledge what incredible destruction and pain they've caused? Everyone tells me the affair relationship won't last and when it ends, my ex will change his tune. I don't feel as though I can forgive or heal when I'm still dealing with a monster who is not sorry or guilty in the least but is continuing to twist the knife in my heart ever deeper...

How could I?

Looks like this series has been posted a while. Most comments are 4 years old. You read my mail on how I talked myself into the most selfish and destructive acts of my life. I justified infidelity because it was a way to deal with "my" problem without bothering my wife about it. It was going to help our relationship to get it out of my system. I missed out on sowing my wild oats when I was young, so it's ok to do it now real quick before I'm completely erectile disfunctional... Minimized it with sanitized language--these are sex professionals in a legitimate business enterprise. No relationship involved, just a business transaction--fee for service. I cloaked it in secrecy--what my wife doesn't know won't hurt her. Until it's no longer a secret. And I guess it never stays a secret. And there are ways it hurts even when it is a secret--you (I) just don't see it as clearly. I finally truly believe the Lord disciplines (and outs) those He loves. Thank God he loves me, but goddamn I hurt my wife. And I did my share of blaming-if only she hadn't done this or had done that, I wouldn't feel this way and HAVE to act out (More minimizing language for your list)

These mind tricks are clearly bullshit in retrospect. Would God that I had recognized them as such so much earlier.

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