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

Social Shame: Four Ways to Stay In It

Social Shame: A Four-Part Series

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Untransformed shame leaves you forever tied to the pain, and pain that's not transformed will always be transmitted. The thought of hanging on to our shame and the related pain may seem absurd but, tragically, it seems to be the norm rather than the exception. What happens when you don't know how to deal with shame after infidelity? First, let me summarize what we have learned about shame thus far, and then I'll answer the question.

There is a difference between guilt and shame. Guilt stems from doing something bad while shame is "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”. 1 Guilt is more likely to lead to healing behavior and shame is more likely to lead to hurtful behavior. When we feel guilt, the emotional distress of remorse causes us to examine our actions which creates pressure for us to confess, apologize, and make amends. Taking responsibility for what we've done makes us a better person, our marriages safer, and our community a better place.

As we've mentioned in our previous articles regarding shame, there are two types of shame: Individual shame/honor, which is based on personal achievement or failure, and social shame/honor, which is ascribed to us by those we are associated with. If someone we're associated with does something shameful, we are dishonored and ascribed the shame associated with those actions. We experience either a perceived or actual loss of reputation, social standing, and value in the eyes of others.

When people feel ashamed of themselves, they are not particularly motivated to apologize or attempt to repair the situation, especially if their shame is the result of another person's actions.

"Shame is not an emotion that leads people to responsibly own up to their failures, mistakes, or transgressions and make things right. Instead, they are inclined to engage in all sorts of defensive maneuvers. They may withdraw and avoid the people around them. They may deny responsibility and blame others for the shame-eliciting situation. They may become downright hostile and angry at a world that has made them feel so small. In short, shamed individuals are inclined to assume a defensive posture rather than take a constructive, reparative stance in their relationships."2

Now back to our original question:

What happens when you don't know how to deal with shame?

There are four likely responses that a person who is unwilling or unable to deal with shame may experience after infidelity. You'll see that the repercussions extend much further than the individual person.

1. Self-contempt:

Attacking yourself and putting yourself down only deflects the shame, leaving it untransformed. We loathe who we are and may even become suicidal, believing that if others knew the truth, we would have no value. People with self-contempt take responsibility for what happened but fail to be responsible. When the women came forward accusing Bill Cosby of sexually molesting them 40 years earlier, people asked why anyone would wait 40 years before coming forward. Self-contempt is the culprit. To deflect the shame they experienced as a result of the molestation, they took responsibility for what happened and blamed themselves for being in that situation in the first place. Their shame prevented them from being responsible, doing their civic duty, and exposing the offense. Dealing with the shame would've required being vulnerable, exposing what happened, and risking what others would think. In my opinion, if these women had known how to endure their shame and expose what happened, then others may not have been harmed.

2. Others-Contempt

The second way of maintaining shame is by attacking others and putting them down as a way of building yourself up and restoring your honor. While it may feel as though seeing the other person as subhuman and worthy of nothing but disdain will transform shame, in reality it's just the opposite. Laying your shame at the feet of another is about as effective as having your mate take antibiotics to heal your kidney infection. Shame can only truly be transformed by walking through the pain, not by transmitting that pain to another.

3. Withdrawal

When we experience the intense pain that comes from the belief that we are somehow damaged and no longer worthy of belonging, withdrawal may be your natural response to avoid the pain, but it leaves shame untransformed. I believe the best definition of courage is, "wanting to live so badly that you don't care if you die." Imagine being a soldier trapped behind enemy lines. The only way to survive would be fighting your way through the enemy lines. Survival would require wanting to live so bad that you're willing to take the risk of dying. Courage is facing that fear and doing what's necessary to save your life. Responding to shame by withdrawing robs you of life and leaves you disconnected from the relationships you so desperately need. It may hide the shame, but it never transforms the pain.

4. Avoidance

Avoidance is the fourth approach that keeps people tied to the shame. Drug and alcohol abuse, denial, and thrill seeking are just a few of the ways people avoid addressing their shame. While shame's sting may fade over time, the shame itself still festers just under the surface, waiting to break out. Ultimately, when avoidance is the coping mechanism for shame, you will need more and more of what doesn't work to keep your shame shoved down below the surface.

My dream for those involved with Affair Recovery isn't only that people recover from the impact of infidelity, but that they also find a new and more meaningful life. It's about the restoration of dignity and once again having the good opinion of oneself. This doesn't come if shame remains untransformed. Shame's prison will prevent you from being authentic and vulnerable, thereby cutting you off from deep and meaningful relationships. If you have been unfaithful and need infidelity-specific help in your journey, I hope you'll consider taking a courageous step and registering for Hope for Healing. Want to be reminded about this registration? Sign up for these notifications by entering your name, email address and clicking Subscribe. In the meantime, be sure to check out our FREE First Steps Bootcamp to jumpstart your healing journey.

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"The sooner after D-Day you can become involved in Affair Recovery, the better. I went from not being welcome in my own home to sharing a bed with my wife once again — much sooner than I expected. EMS Online helped us to communicate effectively, and Hope for Healing really helped me understand the issues I have with myself. Meeting strangers that are in the exact same situation as you is so helpful. They become your friends and confidants." — E., Pennsylvania | April 2021 HFH Participant

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I'm the betrayed stuck in shame

I am the betrayed in our relationship and we are 18 months past d-day. I have felt so stuck in making progress in healing from my husband's betrayal. The explanation of shame may be my sticking point, I am overwhelmed by shame. I have read all of Brene Brown's books and they have helped, but Rick's explanation of shame as it relates to infidelity speaks volumes to me. I plan to take this insight into my counseling and hopefully get unstuck from this lonely & painful place.

I've read the articles in

I've read the articles in this series as well as all the comments with great interest. I am so looking forward to hearing what Rick has to say regarding how a betrayed spouse's honor and dignity can be restored from "ascribed shame".

I don't feel particularly

I don't feel particularly ashamed myself, but I do feel shamed, not just by my UH's actions, but moreso by the response of those around me. The women at my church (informed by a once-trusted pastor) avoided me as if I were contagious. My best friend left me to deal with the most difficult part of my life alone. As gossip has travelled the grapevine, women in other areas of my life have become "so busy" and "just can't make it" to any get togethers now. I don't know if anyone in my family is aware, but the whispers and sideways glances suggest they just might be.

I don't want to withdraw or avoid people or feel contemptuous, but how do you handle the shame thrust upon you when those around you withdraw and avoid you? How do you not feel contempt for those who abandon you in the time of your greatest sorrow?

Not feeling contempt

I had a hard time as well not feeling contempt for those in our small community that shunned and abandoned us. In our case, it was my husband's work place where he was fired for sexual harassment. Unbeknownst to them, the woman who accused him of that was equally involved. Fortunately for us, our true, close friends stuck by our side. Five and a half years later, we are still shunned and ignored by certain people.
I finally came to the conclusion that those people were in our lives for a season, and it was time to move on. God knew our true hearts, and that's all that really mattered.
Hold your head up high, make new friends, and move on. And if you have the courage, confront those you lost, and tell them you miss their friendships and wish that you could talk with them. I did that with one of my friends, and we are on the same page now. Not as close as we once were, but the uncomfortableness is gone.
Best of luck to you in this journey that we didn't ask for.


I chose to tell noone in my personal circle and now that time has passed, I am thankful for that decision. I am sure there are people who know but since the AP lives in another town, she can deal with that. I really believe I am better off venting to this blog or to my counselor or the lawyer I consulted with. I am thankful that our situation happened far away. It helps when the Ap is a stranger. I cannot imagine the pain that would come from the betrayal of a female friend. I pray doubly for those wives because women should never betray other women. This I know for sure: My marriage is forever changed and I no longer believe in forever marriages. However, I refuse to carry shame for someone else's mistake.

4 steps out of shame

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