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

Social Shame Survey Results: Betrayed Spouses Experience More Social Shame Than Unfaithful Spouses in the Wake of Ashley Madison

betrayed and social shame

The emotion of shame is so strong that it can drive us to take drastic actions. For example, in Arizona in October 2009, Faleh Almaleki murdered his 20-year-old daughter, Noor, by running her down with his vehicle. He did this because he believed that she had shamed the family by becoming too Western and refusing to marry a man he had selected for her in Iraq. In February 2011, Almaleki was convicted of murder and sentenced to 34 ½ years in prison.1

One might think killing your 20-year-old daughter for shaming you might be a bit extreme and uncommon, but how many marriages are also executed as a result of the shame brought on by infidelity without attempting to see if there’s anything worth salvaging? Isn’t that how honor is typically restored, you extricate yourself from the one who shamed you? But once divorced, how many, like Almeleki, find they’ve been sentenced to years of sitting in an empty, lonely room?

Before we dig into our shame survey findings, I must express my deepest condolences for those affected by the Ashley Madison hack. This event puts social shame in the forefront of our society with millions of the websites’ users’ information open to the public. I’m deeply concerned about how this shame will impact the next generation. This shame impacts our sense of worth, integrity, honor and prestige that we had spent a lifetime building. Unless work is done to restore honor, the shame generated by the betrayal can be like a cancer that slowly destroys our marriages. However, it’s not as hopeless as it feels. It is my hope that affected couples will address the betrayal and courageously be a light to others who are in darkness. Life can come from this death. We’ve seen it in thousands of couples.

Survey Findings: Social Shame from Infidelity

Over 2,000 people responded to the Social Shame from Infidelity Survey we conducted a few weeks ago. I am amazed by how many people took the survey and honored by your participation, yet I hate that you qualify to be here.

The survey showed the primal reaction to separate and distance ourselves from the person who shamed us is so strong that 75% of betrayed spouses reported feeling ashamed for staying in the marriage right when they discovered the infidelity. This type of shame that is ascribed to us by the actions of another is called vicarious shame. We define vicarious shame as “the intensely painful feeling created by a perceived loss of reputation, respectability, and dignity, resulting from the shameful actions of someone with whom you are associated.”

It turns out betrayed spouses experience the most social shame vs. unfaithful spouses even though they did not commit the infidelity themselves. The survey revealed that 61% of betrayed spouses feel they experienced more social shame than their unfaithful partners. Additionally, the majority of unfaithful spouses agreed with this sentiment, as 70% of unfaithful respondents said betrayed spouses feel the most social shame.

As Brené Brown, Ph.D., made famous, shame is a self-worth injury. Considering an overwhelming majority of betrayed spouses, 95% to be exact, said they felt a loss of worth as a result of the infidelity, it’s safe to say this concept holds true for vicarious shame as well. Sadly, this type of shame has the potential of leaving the betrayed spouse forever orbiting around this event never to experience a new life of meaning and purpose. This doesn’t have to be the case. Worth and value can be restored, but it takes intentional effort and specialized help.

One of my concerns about the release of the Ashley Madison users’ identities is people scanning through the list trying to find others they know who were involved with Ashley Madison. The survey revealed even when betrayed spouses were around people who didn’t know about their mate’s infidelity, a clear majority reported that they felt ashamed. To make matters more difficult, 75% reported their shame left them feeling isolated from those who were once important to them, the people from whom they need support and empathy.

Restoring Honor

Contrary to primal reactions and cultural beliefs, it’s not shameful to stay in a marriage; in fact it can be quite honorable. Choosing to face the shame and work on the marriage for the sake of your children is honorable. Choosing to hang on, as painful as it can be, to see if there’s anything worth salvaging is honorable. Love acts in the best interest of another and trying to love even when it’s underserved is honorable. Even when there is betrayal, if their heart is soft, choosing love over self-protection can make all the difference. For the unfaithful spouse, being loved in response to their lovelessness can be life altering. I can’t stress this enough.

So what can a husband or wife who has been unfaithful do to restore their mate’s honor? Here are the top 7 of 13 answers betrayed spouses chose on this multi-select question:

  1. 84% Commit to and participate in long term recovery work     
  2. 69% Accept responsibility of their infidelity to others    
  3. 61% Defend me to anyone who would be critical of me
  4. 58% Speak highly of me to others in public         
  5. 56% Openly acknowledge my sacrifices for staying to others   
  6. 53% Clearly communicate to their affair partner that I am the chosen one    
  7. 41% Make amends to my family

If you are similar to 84% of other betrayed spouses who want your mate to commit to and participate in long term recovery work, start small. The easiest (and cheapest) way to start on this journey is to take the free First Steps Bootcamp for Surviving Infidelity. It’s pretty much an online guide with 100+ pages of content and a full-length video of a mentor couple who was in as big of a mess as it can get. You’ll take a big sigh of relief when you have a clear plan and learn that you’re neither crazy nor alone in this journey.

Finding New Life for Your Marriage

The problem with untransformed shame is that it leaves you forever tied to the pain. As I always say, pain that is not transformed will be transmitted onto others like children, siblings and spouses. Individuals and couples can and do recover their honor. In reality, as hard as it is to believe, there can come a day when there’s no shame or regret, only a sense of wonder at how the worst thing that has ever happened became the best. There is amazement at how such a consuming feeling as shame can be transformed into a new sense of honor.

Our past participants who now have incredible marriages are often approached by newlyweds, who know nothing about their history of infidelity, and are asked, “How can we have a marriage like the one you have?” After pausing, they just smile and respond, “I appreciate your compliment, but you would never want to go through what we have to to get here.” Couples can ultimately end up happier if they address the infidelity and process the toll it has taken on their lives. Based on pre-test and post-test research, 72 percent of AffairRecovery.com’s participants report being happy in their marriage one year after taking the EMS Online course for couples or attending the EMS Weekend intensive.

Infidelity can serve as a catalyst to take marriage to a place you never imagined possible, but we would never wish infidelity on anyone. My hope is that couples won't just leave a marriage because there's been betrayal but instead be willing to explore whether there's anything worth salvaging. I pray couples won’t let the pain of the shame stall their forward progress because if they press through the shame they can learn to love in ways they never imagined.

If each spouse wants to experience the restoration that is possible for themselves and their marriage, consider attending the EMS Weekend or taking the EMS Online course. However, I do want to give you a heads up that since the Ashley Madison mess, courses have been filling up quickly and EMS Online sold out last week within a few hours after registration opened.

1Mischke &Werner 2015.(2015-01-01). The Global Gospel: Achieving Missional Impact in Our Multicultural World (Kindle Locations 1378-1380). Mission ONE. Kindle Edition.



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The media is beating some couples to death. All I have seen is negative statements about Anna Duggers choice to stay in her marriage. But my question is how does the shame of the unfaithful effect the marriage?


What if the unfaithful does not want to do anything or explore any possibilities, not because he is particularly happy with the outcome of his infidelity but due to his own family of origin issues?
there is nothing the betrayed can do is there?

Help understanding...

These two things were listed as ways to restore honor.

*Accept responsibility of their infidelity to others.
*Openly acknowledge my sacrifices for staying to others.

I am the unfaithful spouse. We are six years out from my cheating. I did a terrible job of taking responsibility in the first years. I did make statements to others (friends and acquaintences) accepting responsibility for cheating and expressing appreciation for my husband staying within the first year. I don't think it had much of an impact on my husbands sense of shame, probably because I had such difficulty accepting responsibility in general. On these two points, what form should my actions take at this time?


Time to time I Dream things that have happened. I'm at the Intrepid crying. Three years of counseling and medication. A loving father and husbands cheats even as I care for him during cancer treatment and multiple hospitalizations. I missed and grieved my husband. He abused me verbally. My daughters left. He drank even during chemo. We renewed our vows. He's still blaming. When will he truly appreciate me and love me. I miss him so much. He is going to church and a men's group. It's still easier to blame me with his health being what it is....I chose to stay and lost friends and family. I trusted God. I still do for each day. I want vengeance on women who hurt my college aged children (even calling one). Who does these kinds of things to others? I ask God to bless each woman but I also want them to learn what they did to my family. The pain it caused. Stop calling us!

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