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

Social Shame: Have You Been Dishonored?

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


Two Types of Shame 

Two years ago I started an ever growing discussion on the shame ascribed to both spouses. Today I'd like to share with you a part of my series on shame.

Over the past couple of years 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. A question I have found to not only be defining for couples in crisis but instrumental to their recovery is “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 have realized is there are two types of shame:

  1. The first is the emotion of shame
  2. The second is 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 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 absolutely 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) gives 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.

Many 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 in Moral Failure

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. Public shame creates in you a desire to run and hide for as long as you can. 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.

You Probably Feel Dishonored

Dishonor can work much the same way. In the same way I was ascribed the honor Stephanie received for her efforts at the jail, decades  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.

A betrayed spouse may forgive their mate, yet continue to shame their mate in an effort to restore their own 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 seemingly 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, our EMS Weekend will provide a healing and life changing context for forgiveness and the restoration of honor to both spouses.   



  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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Thank you for addressing Honor and Shame

Rick, I so appreciate you digging into this topic. It is crucial and it is at the crux of what get blown apart in betrayal. Our d-day was 3 years ago. I have purposed to forgive generously, unconditionally and completely from the beginning. But even though I set my heart that direction daily, I still have such a hard time believing this happened to me, and that the man I am loving gave his heart and affections to another. I don't want to shame him, but it is so odd and hurtful to me that in so many ways - he is detached from the reality that "he did it". He has had no emotional response of remorse or shame... only anger when he has to talk about it (occasionally he can talk about it kindly). He would just like for me to "stop hurting" so that we can get on with our lives. I believe there is a shame he does not want to face... so he doesn't.

Shame in the Church context

I appreciate your talking about this subject. Infidelity is the greatest dishonor I have ever experienced on a personal level and it took place in the context of a strong community of faith, there was both social and spiritual shame related to my leaving the relationship. My entire life was changed when I made the excruciating choice to not stay in the marriage. I have met others with similar experiences who were left, like me, starting all over again without the spiritual and emotional support they had built over many years in their circle of faith. If there are others who read this article, I encourage them to continue with the tools that Affair Recovery offers.

Honor and Shame

I feel intense shame over what my husband has done. So much so that I can't (or won't) share this with anyone. How could he? We had been married for 27 years when I discovered his repeated infidelities. Although I understand on a logical level the shame is his, on a heart level, it's forever attached to me. So now my life is a sham, a front I/we put on to save face, and to protect our immediate family. It's painful.
The deep shame he feels breaks my heart, how awful to live with that as he has, all of his life; (it roots back to childhood abuse). I have such empathy for that. But oh the damage, by behaving so dreadfully........oh, the shame.


I was betrayed and it has resulted in a prolonged separation that has been ever so draining. I'm beginning to believe that shame and avoiding the truth is what have kept the relationship at such a drastic stand still. I am mentally exhausted and have chosen to stop trying to convince my spouse that we can work through it. And the statement about detaching from parents/family has also been another issue. On so many levels the family has become part of the problem by remaining an associate of the AP, and my spouse chooses to pretend that none of this is occurring and gets extremely quiet if it's brought up. Yet have a slight protective mode for the family. Only apologizes when hurt is expressed for the families actions. And this whole thing has been one big secret. I am certain many friends and family don't even know as we still associate amongst other friend/family. But I'm getting to the point where I no longer care to live a silent lie. I no longer care if people know. I don't care if people know we are not together. I don't care if the family knows what happened, bcz living in a bubble of shame has gotten me or the marriage absolutely no where. I feel ashamed. A little silly/gullible but I don't feel bad. I think it's just how I've had to process everything

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