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

How Could You? Part III: Moral Justification

How Could You? A Six Part Series on Why We Commit Betrayal with Infidelity

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When it comes to infidelity, the mental gymnastics that must first be employed before the actual betrayal happens is significant.

This week, we'll explore the first of these cognitive distortions: Moral Justification.

Redefining the Behavior

One approach to violating one's beliefs of right and wrong is to redefine the behavior itself. Most people won't intentionally act in ways they know to be wrong until they first have found a way to justify the morality of their actions. This type of "moral justification" allows people to leave their personal beliefs about infidelity intact and experience little to no feelings of guilt. The exception to this approach is someone who has a one-time impulsive betrayal. If it happens more than once, then moral justification has to be employed in order to continue.

Through the use of moral justification, peace-loving people have no qualms using violence as a way to fight off ruthless oppressors, maintaining world peace, honoring their commitment to God and country, or protecting their way of life.

Violence and abuse can be sanctified by the use of moral justification. As famous French philosopher, Voltaire, said, "Those who make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

We see many instances of this throughout history, such as when Pope Urban launched the Crusades by convincing Christians that Christ wanted them to fight and kill the Muslims. This moral justification allowed the Crusaders to commit such atrocities that the effects are still felt to this day. How could good people treat others in such a barbaric way? It wasn't by changing them; rather, it was done by making them believe they were doing God's work. In a similar manner, Islamic extremists utilize moral justification to carry out "jihad." Their actions are justified through the belief that they are protecting Islam from the decadent infidels who corrupt their faith. Bin Laden made his global terrorism about serving a religious duty.

The author of Genesis presents the first example of moral justification. In Genesis 3, the serpent provides a moral justification for Adam and Eve when he tells them, "God knows that the moment you eat from that tree, you'll see what's really going on. You'll be just like God, knowing everything, ranging all the way from good to evil." (Genesis 3:4-5) Once they believed eating the fruit would be a good thing, they suspended what they knew to be right and did what they thought would be better. This is the first and our finest example of moral justification!

Plausible Excuses and Actual Justifications

While these examples are not infidelity related, they do show how moral justification is used to suspend morals and allow for behaviors that would have normally been inconceivable. This certainly isn't an excuse, but moral justifications can provide a well-worn pathway to an affair.

In retrospect, moral justifications seem irrational. However, in the moment, they provide a plausible excuse to abandon love for behaviors that are self-serving.

There are several justifications that I've come across over the years, but here are some of the most common:

  • "I'm a good guy." This distortion is based on what feels like reverse psychology. "My wife/husband deserves someone better than me, so my betrayal is okay. I'm really being sacrificial and doing this for their sake." How crazy is that? But I've heard it time and time again.
  • "I've found my true soul mate." This is the justification of being in love. "If I tell myself I originally married the wrong person, and I've now found my true soul mate, then it would be morally irresponsible not to pursue the person I was always supposed to be with."
  • "I've pretended to be happy for years. I would be nothing more than a fraud if I continued pretending."
  • "Everybody's doing it...it's just a mid-life thing."
  • "As long as no one finds out, I don't see any issues with it."
  • "It's better for me to see a prostitute than to get emotionally involved with someone."
  • "God wants me to be happy, right?" This is maybe the most used moral justification. "He wouldn't want me to continue in a miserable relationship."

What About the Betrayed?

The use of moral justification isn't just reserved for those who've been the unfaithful spouse. Those who've been betrayed frequently use it as well.

I've been involved in hundreds of incidents where the hurt spouse suspended their morals and acted in ways they never would have dreamed possible. Their moral justifications allow them to behave in ways that are also contrary to love and contrary to restoration as a whole.

Take some of these for example:

  • "My mate cheated. Therefore I need to teach them what it feels like by doing the same to them."
  • "It's only fair that they hurt as badly as I hurt. I've got a free pass to treat them however I choose since they cheated on me."
  • "They didn't love me; therefore, I don't have to love them."
  • "They did this first, so none of it is my fault."
  • "How much can one person take? The gloves are coming off now...."

While these reactions are understandable, they are in fact, contrary to love, restoration, and the overall recovery process of the individuals involved and the marriage.

We Betray Ourselves First

Moral justifications allow both parties to abandon their vows and act in ways that are contrary to intrinsic values. If you believe in love, how can eye for an eye, or a tooth for tooth be part of your behavior set?

We forget that people change by contrast–not by conflict–and there's a huge difference between the two. It's not responding in reciprocity to those that wound us that creates change. It's responding with love and compassion that provides the necessary contrast to convict the other party of their bad behavior. If you believe infidelity is wrong, how could you be deceived into thinking cheating is okay?

To do so requires first betraying ourselves and what we believe to be right. We'll never be true to others until we first learn to be true to self—and that's not the same as pleasing self. Being true to self is about living consistently with our own morals and values.

These are but small samples of the ways moral justifications are utilized when having an affair.

Here are some suggestions for how to combat moral justifications:

See what you do: Before entertaining an affair, consider the impact it will have on others in your life. Failure to consider the costs allows you to believe it's a “victimless crime” and, I assure you, it's certainly not.

Anti-justification: Instead of telling yourself why this is okay, ask the follow up question, "Why isn't this okay?" Frequently looking at the other side of the coin is all that's necessary to gain perspective. Talking to others who've already been though something similar is another way to gain perspective.

My beliefs: Do you believe it's okay to cheat? If not, then try and identify the moral justifications you might use to travel down that pathway. Be honest with yourself about what you do believe and have the integrity to live accordingly.

Love and compassion: If your goal is to be loving and compassionate, then do a daily inventory of your level of love and compassion to those at home. When loving them becomes the goal, it becomes harder to justify being an unfaithful spouse.

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not good enough is not a good enough excuse

This was one of the first excuses that I heard - “My wife/husband deserves someone better than me therefore my betrayal is okay because they deserve better."


My wife never felt that she was good enough for me (in fact, she was perfect for me). Having an affair was the last thing she should have done, as now she will never feel truly worthy.  It's sad.

It is sad. She obviously does

It is sad. She obviously does not feel good about herself, which led her to the affair in the first place - she got seduced by the attention. Now, how can she recover? What can you do now and what can she do?

I don't know

We are both exhausted from this being a part of our life for more than 1-1/2 years. We've plateaued and nothing is getting better. I don't feel better about what she did, nor does she feel any better about herself. We've both tried therapy, reading and prayer. I've given up on God....he has done nothing for me. In fact, religion only makes it more complicated. Time is the only thing that slightly eases the sting...but it does nothing to mend the broken hearts. We try and care for each other, but the hurt is too deep. We both know it. We just cannot face it. We don't want to face it, but it is inevitable.

I'm in the same boat as

I'm in the same boat as you. Some days it feels better. Meaning I don't remember so I don't hurt. But whenever he comes home (his work takes him away for the entire week), I'm not that happy with him. In fact, his presence irritates me. Irritates me because he doesn't feel better about himself. In fact, I think he feels worse and I just don't have the patience anymore to hold his hand through the BS he created. Well, technically we created, but you know what I mean. I too have given up on God. Not that I don't entirely believe there is no God, but my whole past belief system just doesn't hold up anymore. In fact, it was only when I let go of "depending on God" and "waiting on him" that I started feeling empowered enough to really start working on me. Now, oddly enough (since my whole belief system once told me otherwise), I feel more at peace with myself than I ever did before. I haven't entirely given up on the marriage yet, probably because of our 3 little kids. But I know that it'll end sometime if he doesn't find a way to heal. And maybe the sadder thing about it is that I'm ok with it for the most part.

Betrayed spouse - "Hurting them like I've been hurt"

As the betrayed spouse, I understand how moral justification can hit both sides. The problem with falling into a reactionary moral-justification is the justification wears off and now there are all the feelings from the spouse's betrayal plus all the guilt of your own betrayal.


After my husband told me of his emotional affair with a work colleague I made a pact with myself. I was not going to do anything that compromised my morals, values and principles. I was going to treat him as I would like to be treated. I realized that the only person's behavior I could control was my own. He now has to live with the knowledge that he was unfaithful, he betrayed his marriage vows, his values and his professionalism. He became emotionally abusive in the aftermath of the affair and continued to blame me for some time (more justifications) We are still together and working on our marriage. I am proud of how I have conducted myself. He will have to live with his behavior


I envy and admire YOUR integrity. When I read your response I knew that's the person I want to be. But I don't know how to allow myself to be that person.

integrity who we are

This is what I wrote my wife about my integrity two weeks ago. This is in response to me trying to get the answers i wanted from the affair partner he declined. Interesting enough he guessed on why my wife had the affair also. It was not her reason she gave. read Steven Stosney Living and Loving after Betrayal. It has helped me.

This is who I am, I am an honest man who has tried to live my with not being dishonest. I tried as best as I could to care for you. I may not have shown that I loved you every day the way you wanted but I never went out of my way to cause you pain. I cherished my children they are the best gift that I have. I have put my needs second to the needs of my family. I am joyful in my ability to be a father to my kids their happiness is more important than my own. I have compassion to those who situations are a tragedy through no fault of their own. I have a strong heart and a will to do the right thing.

Here is my wish going forward,
I wish to be kind and compassionate to you,
I wish to be able to listen and be there for you,
I wish to be less emotional when I am disappointed by my expectations.
I wish to be giving you my time and effort to improve our relationship.

I want to talk to the people who have survived this, I need to talk to someone who was betrayed and has a better marriage. I cannot think how this will ever be the truth for us. My feeling are now very different from when I discovered the affair. I have gone through hope, fear, loss, humiliation, anger, grief, resentment and hurt, and not much is left that is connected to you emotionally. What is left is the last stage detachment. It is the opposite of love.

Wife astray too

ConfusedMan...I'm sorry for your pain but can relate with what you have written. My D-Day was 3 months ago. When confronted she was sorrowful, but now looking back wasn't sorry for the affair, she was only sorry I found out. She says it isn't physical so in her mind she has done nothing wrong. She works with this guy and he is only her "special friend". He is manipulating her. Though we are continuing in therapy she isn't showing much effort to get free nor making her way through the fog...from my perspective. She is Egyptian...deep in de-Nile.

But I'm not the one who cheated. I'm going to, like you, hold onto my integrity, and seek health for myself and my kids. I love her but I've stopped pursuing her, or trying to control things that I really never was in control of anyway.

I hope that you are getting healthy yourself and things have improved since you posted. Let us all know how it's going. Hopefully you've found that mentor couple you believe you need. I have surrounded myself with supportive family and friends, and wise counsel from therapists and pastors. My faith in God has deepened. Out of this nightmare I will rise up a better man regardless of what my wayward spouse decides. Hopefully she recognizes the path of destruction she is heading down sooner than later or it will not end well. Much prayer needed.

if only

if only the steps you listed to combat moral justification were taken, so much hurt, so much wounding, so much loss of trust, so much damage...so very much damage would have been avoided. so many losses. if only..... but.... thus it is so.... now what? hope to heal... slowly rebuilding.... taking the time to grieve the losses.... look to the one who was betrayed in the most heinous fashion..Christ and hold tightly, walking in His steps...eyes fixed on Him. and the support of others who have walked this path before... how invaluable are they to healing.

So true

Well written as usual, Rick. You cover what leads up to an affair in the mind of the unfaithful spouse and I heard a couple of those excuses from my unfaithful husband. His excuses were not who I knew or believed about my husband and angered me because they made no sense... Also, when I was able to separate myself emotionally from his irrationality I was able to think about the possibility of reconciliation. Of course, my husband needed to give me room to go through the emotional chaos ... Unfortunately, he failed to empathize with me and detached from the remorse of his own actions... I would be left holding the bag of his crime because once he stopped, he wasn't going to wait for me to get over my emotions. We have not been able to reconcile because of his insensitivity.

I have heard every

I have heard every justification that anyone could possibly hear. Forty six years of cheating and lying takes a lot of self denial and a lot of justification. The unfortunate reality is the lies and denials have continued in "recovery" so there is no real recovery only "his" way. I do not believe my spouse ever began our marriage with any moral convictions he just pretended to the world to be someone he never was.

I feel the same way

I am right where you are. Recovery only his way, but I am not recovering.  One thing that is hard for me is my mother went through this, and I never dreamed I would be here dealing with this.  So sorry, but you are not alone.


I've been reading these blogs for months but I don't think I'm ever going to feel better. This is too hard. I just don't feel any hope. Ignoring my emotions, making idols out of my children, investing every single thought into them, in other moments of quiet time the noise in my head is too much so I listen to audiobooks. 33 of them since November. How he justified any if this just doesn't matter really. I don't care. Something was lost and I can't get it back.

The biggest justification

The biggest justification is that those who are unfaithful believe they are 'in love' with the other person. In reality they are in love with the experience of being the center of attention and of being worshiped. They are in love with the experience and not the person. They simply confuse the two. Authentic love has no place in affairs.


I feel the same way. This is just too hard and I feel no real hope that he will change. He has shown no real remorse, wont tell the truth about what happened, has become verbally abusive and physically intimidating, occasionally physically abusive (spit in my face!!). He has been going to anger management since March, yet these things continue. I am losing hope that change is possible. He ignores it all, unless I am asking questions about his emotional affairs and then he gets angrythat I ask. It has been 8 months since I confronted him on the last EA ( he had this one 18 years after he had the first one with the same coworker...Im no longer sure it was ever really over all these years) and he has watched me suffer, cry upstairs almost every night, and lose over 30 pounds to the point that my health is endangered. I have recently moved out on the advice of my therapist. Husband justifies it by saying I "neglected" him and when I ask HOW?, he can't tell me. He says she "listens to him about the country" (we have acreage and he likes to farm...not my cup of tea, but I do listen to him if and when he chooses to speak to me). I no longer feel that things will get better and I have lost hope and fear that I can never feel the same about him. I am going to do a separation for a few months and watch his actions so I can feel that I have tried everything. Maybe a miracle will happen and he will change. If no change, my lawyer is standing by and all it will take is one phone call to say "File!" We live in a no fault state and 50% of everything is mine. If nothing else, hitting him in the finances will bring about some change, probably just not the kind he wants. I hate to lose my high school sweetheart, the father of my kids (all grown), and a 35 year marriage, but I have no more energy to try to find and renew what he took from me when he selfishly decided she was worth more to him than me and our marriage. So sad...crying as I write this.

My thought is if your

My thought is if your marriage is so bad that your are considering an affair why not have the guts and just leave? Why have an affair first? Why not try to improve things? If you are unhappy and you are not willing to make it better, leave. Or if you believe that it can't get better, leave. You see it in the press all the timeand in my husband's career the fire dept. My husband and I witnessed this very thing time and time again. Did his witnessing it all the time make it easier? Was it a macho/hero thing? Did our discussing it and me rendering a verdict of how cowardly I thought it is to have an affair have no impact? Or is it what counted on? Did my husband use this as an excuse thinking I would leave and he could say it was me that gave up? People who would go into burning buildings to rescue perfect strangers. People who would face unknown dangers. Brave men and women.Do they have additional factors that come into play? Can we include other "heroes" Police, doctors, military? Is it the heavily dominated male jobs that shape their responses? My husband says he cannot show me remorse, guilt because he has been trained to get on with the job and not let emotions get in the way. So I say ok then, lets get on with the healing, he balks. He says its important for him to have an emotional connection. I say ok here's some steps from me, our therapist, books, websites that will help us. He rarely looks at them occasionally he will do one only at a time and never for along. As surprised as I am to say it I am willing to stay in our marriage if we could work it out. Am I the problem? Not accepting leaving as an option till I have done all I can do? Or do men in my husband's line of work have extra problems with affairs because of factors of their profession? I do not mean this as a slam against fire personnel. I do ask, can anyone relate?

Please expand

“(The exception to this approach is someone who has a one-time impulsive betrayal. If it happens more than once then moral justification absolutely has to be utilized.)”

I feel like my world has fallen apart and believe me when I say my husband’s one night stand completely ripped my heart in two. He knew exactly what his plan was that night. It was well thought out. I now have to live with an STD. I feel like So many things I read make it sound like I should just brush it off since it was a one time thing. Can you expand more on the above statement?

Hope I can help

I think the article is trying to say moral justification is sometimes used in one night stands but as in the case of multiple one night stands or full out affairs moral justification is a must forf the cheater in order to continue his actions.

So in your case your husband may or may not resort to using moral justification to excuse his horrible actions.


My CS had a similar justification to the "I'm not a bad person, I'm a good person." He just couldn't see what he had engaged in was an EA and always went back to the justification that he was "a good husband and father, fixed the plumbing, mowed the lawn, didn't go out to bars with his buddies, was always home in the evenings after work and weekends, wasn't an alcoholic or abusive."
He didn't need to go to bars, sure, he was home in the evenings and weekends, but still managed to deceive me.
I didn't leave. He wouldn't leave the house. I attended counseling with him that led to nowhere because he stood his ground that "he is a good person." So we just tried to make the best of what was an awful situation for me. That was seven years ago. This month I will mourn the memory of a second Dday as he again deceived me from the comfort of our own home, NO bars, NO secret rendezvous, he tried to facilitate a relationship with MY co-worker by secretly stealing her phone number from my phone, must have followed her home and showed up with a gift. I still thank God she immediately contacted me by this very uncomfortable situation. And guess what, he doesn't fully see how awful his actions were because they didn't lead to anything and "he is a good person because he fixes things around the house, he's home." That justification is just pathetic. He can never be trusted or loved again. It is just over. This 'good' person destroyed a family. We (my children and myself) are all damaged by his actions but we have each other and hopefully will be able to heal, he literally has NOTHING now.


This is a brilliant series Wayne! Thankyou.

Great series! But would be

Great series! But would be great if one of the videos touched on how some unfaithful spouses seem to be able to do all or some of the above subconsciously. I am nearly a year past d-day and my husband still maintains that although he was, as mentioned here, someone who could never fathom himself having an affair, once it started there was no conscious justification, no weighing, no guilt ever (until after), and no real realization of what he was actually doing until DDay. His compartmentalization was so iron clad that his mind was able to protect him and just never go there. He never even thought about the morality of it so never needed to overcome it. I’ve asked enough questions on here and read enough to know, despite a lot of disbelief I’ve had, that this is possible. But I‘m curious how this info would apply in that case...

Infidelity and sex addiction

My husband has cheated both sexually and emotionally so many many times he got caught after 54 years of marriage.

There is often MORE underneath the surface than just the affair

I can relate to your disbelief. My husband had a 6 year affair, 12 year porn addiction and told me he was leaving me in 2014. I fought hard to keep us together and he "admitted" many things - but never really confessed with any remorse or had conviction that caused him pain. He honestly felt nothing but sorry. It bothered me. It also kept me from being able to trust him, even though I was choosing to forgive him. Well, 5 years later it turns out that he never stopped communicating with the AP (no wonder he felt no remorse) and we are now in a completely different therapy for his sex addiction and disassociative behaviors. Uhg!!! All I can say, is that if you don't feel that you have gotten to the bottom of it - I assure you that you have not. Hang in there. I am still fighting for our marriage - but it ain't easy.

He never had guilt

My unfaithful spouse had no guilt during the whole ordeal. He even tried to fake guilt after he saw how upset I was. He also like your spouse felt nothing was wrong until he was exposed. I think that’s what hurts the most, to know they could cut off all feelings for you just like that. It doesn’t make me feel any confidence that he won’t do this again. I’m shocked at his level of coldness. I am 9 weeks past the original DDay and 6 weeks from the second windfall of pain. I’m afraid my spouse has no moral compass to speak of.

very helpful

Oh this so makes sense. Since discovery my husband has done minimal recovery, and now we have been distant for months.
I am ready to re-engage with him if he would do his own work. But we barely talk about anything except to get day to day things done. Your comment on the video makes me think the distancing is his response.
Also the cleansing fits. My husband often takes LONG showers.


What about the person that can do it over and over again ? When is this a personality disorder and not just your everyday cheater? I have seen so many videos you all put out. But you all need to answer the question , when do you run for the hills. When do you know what your dealing with might be a full blown personally disorder? Please, please address this

Great series

Thank you so much for sharing this series! It has given me a better understanding of how/why my husband cheated...is still cheating.

All the phrases of him justifying his bad behavior are things he has said or done! He is constantly telling me I should get the kids a new father. It upsets me to think I should just give up after 21 years of marriage. That he deserves another man's wife.

I'm looking forward to the next part.

Moral justifying by the betrayed

I like this talk very much and it helped me understand. Especially about the distancing and the way we can all tend to morally justify.
I would like to make a distinction about the "ways" that betrayed spouses may act in ways that are contrary to their morals v's the ways the unfaithful do. It seems that the PTS that is inflicted so violently on we, the betrayed causes us to explode in "pain." Thus our reaction may be primal and very defensive. HOWEVER, the unfaithful didn't react into an affair. They thought and cultivated ideas, then behaviors, and feelings and CHOSE TO systematically act. There is a big difference between the two. I think this nuance should have been expressed!

Contrast often doesn't work either

I'd like to believe you that contrast (you maintain loving, moral, high ground, that calls them to be a better person) changes people, but I don't. Maybe sometime 25 years in the future they finally get there--when they finally grow up or hit bottom or have an NDE or whatever it takes--but it isn't the contrast that got them there, until they have some sort of internal shift FIRST, and then the contrast finally has a structure to hang on. Until then, and what I see 70-90% of the time where one person manages to remain loving, kind, considerate, etc., is the other person simply continues their bad behavior - because they can; because no-one is going to stop them; because they know they can get away with it.

Many people fail to understand that part of being loving is holding people accountable and refusing to accept poor behavior. Perhaps you could add that to the curriculum: how to remain loving, moral, compassionate AND maintain impeccable boundaries; that consequences ARE part of being loving, etc. No, it isn't Betrayed's job to save Unfaithful. But if you're going to preach taking the moral high ground, please equip people with the skills and perspective they need to do it well. Thanks.

Every single one of the

Every single one of the betrayed responses sound like my BS. He even had a revenge affair.

Nicely done

Good read on the Moral Justification. So often those large heinous acts (like infidelity) are prepared for in the little justifications we make along the way. On both sides.

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