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

Part 1: Why We Commit Betrayal With Infidelity
Part 2: The Thought Processes That Lead to Betrayal
Part 3: Moral Justifications
Parts 4 through 6 coming in the following weeks!

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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 by redefining 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. By distorting their actions through the use of "moral justification," people can leave their personal beliefs about infidelity intact with little or 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 absolutely has to be utilized.

Militaries have used this technique since the beginning of time. The conversion of civilized citizens to dedicated fighting men and women isn't done by altering their morals or their personality; rather, it's accomplished by providing a moral justification for killing.

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 for protecting their way of life.

Violence and abuse can be sanctified by the use of moral justification.

As Voltaire said, "Those who make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities."

Pope Urban launched the Crusades with the following impassioned moral proclamation: "I address those present, I proclaim it, to those absent. Christ commands it. For all those going thither, there will be remission of sins if they come to the end of this fettered life." He then dehumanizes and bestializes the Muslim enemies: "What a disgrace if a race so despicable, degenerate, and enslaved by demons, should overcome a people endowed with faith in Almighty God and resplendent in the name of Christ! Let those who once fought against brothers and relatives now rightfully fight against the barbarians under the guidance of the Lord."

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 making them believe they were doing God's work.

Islamic extremist utilize moral justification to carry out "jihad." Their actions are justified through the belief they are protecting Islam from the decadent infidels who corrupt their faith. Bin Laden ennobled his global terrorism as serving a holy imperative. "We will continue this course because it is part of our religion and because Allah, praise and glory be to him, ordered us to carry out jihad so that the word of Allah may remain exalted to the heights." Through the jihad, they are carrying out Allah's will as 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.

Plausible Excuses & 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 provide a well-worn pathway to an affair for the unfaithful spouse.

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 and labeling ourselves a "good guy." "My wife/husband deserves someone better than me, therefore my betrayal is okay because they deserve better. 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 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 mid-life..."
  • "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; frequently, those who've been betrayed 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, therefore 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 it's not my fault."
  • "How much can one person take? The gloves are coming off now...."

While these reactions are understandable, it is in fact, contrary to love, restoration, and the overall recovery process of the individual 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, 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; rather, 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 cheating?

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.

However, combating moral justifications are relatively simple. Here are some suggestions:

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 evaluating your level of love and compassion to those at home. When loving them becomes the goal, it becomes harder to justify being the unfaithful spouse.


If you'd like to learn more about the recovery journey of others and see real life stories of those who have been where you're at and found healing, consider joining our Recovery Library Membership. We all need safe people to talk to and we do everything within our power to provide that safe place where it's possible to rationally explore your alternatives. If you're looking for help on how to diffuse the justification process, you'll find our EMS Weekend to be one of the most professional and expert-driven environments in the country for those struggling with infidelity and/or addiction. We are already sold out for January and February, but consider signing up for our March weekend. Spots sell out quickly.

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Enlightening

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.

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.

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