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

Social Shame: Have You Been Dishonored?

Social Shame: A 4 Part Series

  1. Social Shame: Understanding the Paralysis of it
  2. Social Shame: Have you Been Dishonored?
  3. Social Shame: Surviving Infidelity Isn't Enough
  4. Social Shame: Four Ways to Stay in it

Over the past couple of weeks I have begun to uncover a previously unexplored dimension of the affair recovery process. More and more, I am beginning to understand how the social dynamic of honor and shame significantly impacts our responses to betrayal and our healing process. How do you go about regaining a sense of honor if you have dishonored yourself or have been dishonored in your marriage?

We talk a lot about how detrimental shame is to recovery, but what I realized is there are two types of shame: the first is the emotion of shame and the second the social dynamic of shame. The first type of shame, the feeling of being shameful, is something we’re all painfully aware of due to our culture’s focus on individualism.

According to Brene Brown:

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.1 

When I fail to fit in or meet expectations, if I don’t accomplish my goals, if I betray another person, I experience the emotional aspect of shame and believe I’m flawed and that there is something wrong with me. Emotional shame is about my personal identity and believes that I am bad instead of that I have done something bad. It’s obvious how a personal sense of shame can be generated by infidelity, and overcoming this type of shame is essential for healing.

“Individualism is the moral stance, political philosophy, ideology, or social outlook that emphasizes the moral worth of the individual. Individualists promote the exercise of one's goals and desires and so value independence and self-reliance and advocate that interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or a social group.”2

In the paradigm of individualism a person’s worth is measured by performance and moral behavior. It is about guilt, innocence, and being true to myself regardless of pressure to conform to family or social groups. Through the lens of individualism, if we appear to do well in life we view ourselves as successful and have a sense of pride. If we perform poorly and if others (or that voice in my head) give me messages that I’m a failure then I may feel there’s something wrong with me and experience shame.

The second type of shame comes from the social dynamic of honor and shame. This dynamic is based on our sense of belonging and status in our family or community.

As Seneca, a famous Roman philosopher said, “Honor is the good opinion of good people.”

Honor is “the worth or value of persons both in their eyes and in the eyes of their community. The critical item is the public nature of respect and reputation.”3 

In 2013, after the Boston Marathon bombing, reporters located the extremist perpetrators’ uncle. On national TV he denounced his nephews saying, “You put a shame on our entire family— the Tsarnaev family. And you put a shame on the entire Chechen ethnicity. . . . Everyone now puts that shame on the entire ethnicity.”4 Relational shame can be ascribed by the actions of someone you are associated with or achieved as a result of your own failure to support the collective good.

Those of us in western culture have trouble identifying the second type of shame due to our focus on individualism. The interpersonal dynamics of honor and shame receive little press in our society, except when there is a case of honor violence, because western culture focuses on the individual rather than the group concept of honor and shame.

The honor-shame dynamic has a relational orientation. Honor is about a person's social value or worth. Honor comes when those around you think well of you. Shame, on the other hand, comes from low public opinion. Public shame leaves you feeling disconnected from those that were once important to you. These dynamics function much like our credit score system, but our social rating system measures the value of one's reputation. Because honor and respect are given in the context of group identity, those associated with that individual or people unit (such as a sports team or company) are ascribed the same honor. The same holds true for shame.

In my opinion I may be the luckiest guy in the world. My wife has been the driving force behind the creation of a library at the Del Valley correctional institute. Due to her tireless efforts, over 800 books a month are delivered to the inmates at our county jail. I remember clearly the day she realized that our county jail (the fifth  largest county jail in the state of Texas) didn’t have a library. She said, “The people who have the means to do something about this don’t have the passion, and the people who have the passion don’t have the means. I’ve got both.” Since that time my sweet wife has accomplished more as a volunteer than a full time staff member could have ever done. In the process she’s received a significant amount of recognition and honor for her efforts. Her story is a great example of what is called achieved honor. The community has a great opinion of my wife. I happen to have the good fortune of being married to her. Just the fact that I’m her husband gives me ascribed honor. When I’m with her people say, “Aren’t you Stephanie’s husband?” and I’m given the same honor she’s received in her efforts to help others.

Dishonor can work much the same way. In the same way I was ascribed the honor Stephanie received for her efforts at the jail, years ago she was ascribed the dishonor and shame I brought on us as a result of my infidelity. In the honor-shame dynamic, how does one restore honor if they’ve been dishonored? In some cultures if a son or daughter dishonors the family by their actions the only way to restore honor is to punish, kill or disown the offender. In our culture, if someone dishonors you by being unfaithful the cultural norm for restoring honor is to extricate yourself from the relationship.

We fail to appreciate the impact of group shame. This type of shame is at the core of every war as nations attempt to restore their honor. A betrayed spouse may forgive their mate, yet continue to shame their mate in an effort to restore their personal honor. Another example comes with a husband or wife who fails to “leave and cleave” in a marriage (meaning they fully leave their parents and cleave to their spouse). The spouse feels dishonored and not chosen. They experience a loss of status and may well feel the in-laws have something over them, leading to a loss of prestige and honor.

When we realize the implications of this social context of honor and shame, where another person can ascribe his or her dishonor to you, it’s easy to see why so many betrayed spouses feel stuck. If they are committed to repairing the marriage, how are they to shake this feeling of shame when it is not inherently theirs, but applied to them by the actions of their spouse and by the opinions of others? The same problem exists for the unfaithful spouse. How do you stand up and take ownership of your mistakes when you feel buried by shame because the public opinion is opposed to redemption?

Western culture’s focus on individualism has not only constricted our ability to see the scope of the problem with shame, but has also limited the pathways back to a solid sense of worth and the rebuilding of reputation. Left to our own limited understanding of how to transform our sense of shame to one of honor, we may punish, abuse, or disown the person who dishonored us. Choosing to forgive and reconcile certainly doesn’t guarantee the restoration of reputation and in the short run, may result in a further drop on the social ranking scale, but the restoration of the marriage vastly outshines the costs.

The honor-shame dynamic plays a significant role in surviving infidelity, but unfortunately this component has been missing in the recovery field as a whole. It’s my goal over the next few weeks to begin to remedy that situation. In my opinion just surviving infidelity isn’t enough. I believe we want to once again feel good about ourselves personally as well as relationally.

Healing is attainable. I’m living proof and thousands of others are as well. I can promise you it won’t come easy, but it can and will come if the right actions are taken to provide the opportunity for transformation. If you’re serious about recovery, I’d like to invite you to join our free First Steps Bootcamp as a stabilizing protocol to implement over the next seven days. If you want to take the next step, EMS Weekend will provide the context for both forgiveness and healing.

 

 

  1. Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Peguin, 2012. Print.
  2. “Individualism.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 November 2014. Web. 3 January 2015.
  3. Neyrey, Jerome H. Honor and Shame in the Gospel of Matthew. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998. Print.
  4. Martinex, Michael. “Uncle Calls Boston Marathon Bombers 'losers'.” CNN. Turner Broadcasting System. 19 April, 2013. Web. 3 Jan 2015.

 

 

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honor

Interestingly enough, this is a major component in affecting my desire to reconcile. My human nature/sin nature has a source of pride that makes me ask myself why I would want to be publicly associated with someone who would so publicly dishonor me. It feels as if I have diminished value. I know that these are not truths, and I know intellectually that society does not dictate my true value. I know that God holds me in a position of high esteem, and that this is where I am to gain my identity.

That being said, I have a desire for my husband to restore me. To publicly put me in a place of honor. To re-ask me to marry him, and to place a new ring on my finger, representing a new marriage. I desire that he speak of me with pride, because the very act of having a public affair seems to indicate that I was not good enough as a wife. I want to reclaim every physical location where my value was diminished as he publicly met with another woman. This desire for restoration in that role is one of the most prominent that I have at this stage of recovery.

honor

Tara, you words spoke what I feel in my heart and have not been able to express. My husband dishonored me so publicly and shamelessly. I feel the restoration should be public and loud and vocal and unashamed. I know that my value is not based on his treatment of me and that God loves me therefore I am valuable. But I feel he needs to let the world know, including the AP, that what he did was no indication of my value as a wife and no indication of his lack of love for me. It was about his own lack of self control and his own sin. And that he is now even more committed to being a husband who honors his wife instead of bringing her shame and heartache.

Well said Tara. Ditto.

Well said Tara. Ditto.

That was amazingly well said

That was amazingly well said and captures how i still feel, a year later. I do feel honored that he chose me and to improve our marriage. God bless you!

Very well said

Very well said. God bless you!!

well stated!

Rick, thank you for opening this door. Tara, thank you SO MUCH for stating what has been in my heart and mind for a little over three years since the latest D-day. (My husband had an affair two years before with the same person, broke it off, and started again when significant life stressors that had nothing to do with me became too difficult to handle.) In an attempt to justify his affair and gain support, he complained to everyone who would listen that I was a horrible, demanding wife who had a personality disorder. I chose to be supportive and our relationship is improving daily, but because of what I assume is shame, he has yet to discuss is false accusations with the people in our lives that matter the most...his parents and my daughter and her husband. It is simply too painful to discuss, so he acts as though it never happened. As to friends, his coworkers and community, he said he told them that I was not the person he painted me out to be, but I feel I live in the shadow of those false accusations. As a result, I have gone from being outgoing and at ease in the presence of people to uneasy and guarded. I don't like the "new me" and long to hold my head high without false accusations and other's opinions judging me.

My feelings exactly

My best friend of 20 years and my wife of 8 years all currently work together. I was introduced to my wife by my best friend. My wife and I was going through a tough time, more so then I even knew and she sought emotional comfort in him. This was easy for her since they shared an office. Now keep in mind these are the most trusted people in my life. They chose to have an office affair for at least 4 months. My other coworkers seen him texting her to talking her into cheating and no one said anything to me on such a matter. I probably would have never found out if I did not do something that I never would have dreamed that I would do and go through her cell phone text messages. I confronted her on the issue and he had convinced her to continue to lie about any kind of an affair, until she decided to step forward and tell the truth. Even after her confession he continued to try to keep the lie alive throwing her under the bus, until the lies caught up with him. To me a friendship if 20 years and a marriage of 8 years means something. The hurt and the lies seem unbearable, but the dishonor and disrepect of the marriages, children and work place goes so much deeper. My wife and I are attempting to work through this and rebuild our marriage, but I want nothing more to do with him. Is this a bad thing me wanting him completely out if our lives?

I'm glad you wrote about this

I'm glad you wrote about this because what I realize, three years out and still struggling, is that what bothers me most isn't the sex they had but the disrespect they both demonstrated toward me. What I need to go forward is not just his declarations of love for me or his desire to stay married to me -- those were there all along. I need declarations of *respect.* Even though my husband is the one who broke promises to me, it was not at all okay for the OW to come on to him and let him show she was available. She knew me and our children. Therefore, what actually hurts me the most is that not only did my husband allow another person to disrespect me and our family in this way, but he encouraged it. I believe his infidelity would be much easier for me to get over if it had been with a woman who didn't know me at all and if he had been the one to initiate it. That may sound crazy to some people, but it kills me that he didn't stand up for me to someone who clearly cared nothing about potential devastating another person's whole family.

Rick, could you write more about this, with some specifics on how to help *heal* these feelings of having been disrespected?

My feelings put into words

I would love more on this - and how to heal from these feelings. It goes way deeper than my husband sleeping with someone else - it is the social shame that is almost crippling. Not being good enough in the eyes of everyone (whether it is my imagination or not it is very real to me).

5 months since D-Day and I struggle every day.

Today's message on Shame, especially social.

Dear Rick, As former clients of your Counseling Center, I could not have written or expressed this phenomenon any better! For my husband and I , the barriers to a complete recovery from our devastation are the social ones, especially in our church communities or support groups during the time of our separation or early reconciliation attempts to bond as a struggling, but reunited couple. Thank you for validating our experience.

Slm

I am only 8 months out from d-day. But I totally understand these feelings. I feel shame although I did nothing wrong. I have always had a very public view of people that cheat. I have been very vocal about it in my home and personal life. I would never cast a vote for any political person if they had cheated because if they can't or won't honor a vow they made to the person that they professed to wanting to spend their life with and to God then how could I expect them to carry honor into their office? My husband was well aware of my views. My best friend was the other woman to a married man and as much as it hurt me to end that friendship I ended it. I told her I could not support that sort of lifestyle because it conflicted with my morals and the things I valued in life. My husband watched my struggle and pain from ending that friendship. Yet he still made the choice to have affairs. He and I are working to restore our marriage. But one of the hardest struggles I have faced or am currently facing is knowing that he did not share in my value and moral system. He knew my feeling about this subject and still cheated. I most days I feel like all the things I thought WE valued, all the morals I thought WE agreed on, where just a big fat joke to him. I feel like I am married to a stranger. Actually I am married to a man I would not take a second date with. Part of my attraction to my husband was the morals and values I thought we shared. He has disgraced himself and our family. I asked him if the way he has treated me was so acceptable then would it be okay for our daughters boyfriend/husband to treat her the same way? He said that was different. I said how? I am someone's daughter!!
I hope these articles to address some of the ways that I feel because this is a major roadblock for me. I am just not sure I can overcome the shame and having to lower my standards to remain in my marriage.

Great Article!

Rick, you have described this issue very well--thank you. I want to be married to an honorable man. And I want to be seen as an honorable woman.

I'm wondering if this is pride?

Maybe I should just be willing to be married to someone who is not honorable. And be content to be thought of as joining his side in dishonor?

It's all so sad and disheartening.

Our community has definitely felt betrayed by my husband. I pray that at some point, he can be reconciled. I know this would be a miracle.

I want to be able to be happy whether I'm honored or not and whether he's honored or not. But I feel that it's only logical that God's highest desire would be for our honor to be restored in our community. Maybe that is a pipe dream here on this earth. For now, I feel that I must continue to concentrate on the fact that God loves my husband and I regardless of our behavior.

That gives me great comfort.

Thanks so much for the insight. It has helped me to understand myself better.

Thanks

Very few know about his 7 years of betrayal. He says he is now committed to fidelity in the marriage even though he doesn't believe i monogamy. . I feel his actions and lies so disrespected and dishonored me I feel there is something wrong with me to settle for a man who would do this to me. He can be a model husband and I still feel intense resentment. It's over 2 and a half years since the discovery. Forgiveness and Acceptance seem impossible while i feel this gaping wound still bleeding. It is about restoring. Please discuss from the hurt spouse's perspective.

Shame

The way society looks at affairs is disheartening. If so and so cheated on his wife she mustn't have been meeting "his needs". Urgh!! How that comment infuriates me! Cliched comments like that shows an outsiders ignorance to what is often happening behind the scenes. Unfortunately, an uneducated public is what we, as the injured spouses, have to deal with. This brings heavy levels of shame. Just being associated with my husband in public is hard. I never wanted to be with a man like him. Now, if I want to keep our marriage together, that is exactly what I've got. It's a horrible feeling. I had no choice in the matter. He did it to both of us. Both of us pay with the shame but I didn't do anything wrong. Oh, to pay for the sins of another. How painful. Any suggestions you can give will be appreciated. Thank you for your support

Dishonored

I think you've struck the mother lode with this topic. I struggle with the dishonor and disrespect demonstrated by both of them toward me, our family, and our marriage. Forgiveness only goes so far. I need to be made whole.

Affair

I am enjoying reading the experiences and emotions of couples affected by cheating spouses. I am in a emotional state of mind, difficult to accept the unexpected of the one person I felt I could count on. We are in counseling but the fact still remains he shared intimate time and space with another woman, denying that it was sexual. This affair has disrupted my marriage and family, sometimes I question why can't I just focus on our making our marriage work as he says that he wants to do, then I question why did he become involved with another woman in the first place, he knew it was wrong, what did he think it would do to our marriage? I cry often unexpected, and question if we will make it through this?

Shaming from all sides

For me the shame is coming from all sides. It is crippling, like another commenter said. I feel shame that I was and still am not good enough. I feel shame that he still doesn't love me "out loud" for everyone to hear and see. I feel shame for trying to save my marriage, when so many people are pressing me to end it. I feel shame for trying to trust him again and shame for the times when I don't trust him and should have. I feel shame that I let this happen to me. I feel shame that I have always thought affairs were wrong, that there was no excuse for it, but here I am defending him and what he did, to my family and friends. I feel shame when I speak of what happened and shame when I try to hide it. I feel shame that I did not do well enough with my own life to be able to take care of my children on my own. I feel shame for taking him for granted in the past when I should have protected our relationship better. I feel shame for taking any of the blame and shame for not taking enough of the blame. I feel shame for even writing this post.

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