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

How Could You? Part III - Moral Justification

Series: How Could You?

Part 3:  Moral Justifications

When it comes to cheating, the mental gymnastics that must first be employed before the deed is done are significant. This week we’ll explore the first of these cognitive distortions: Moral Justification.

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 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 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 de-humanizes 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.

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, but in the moment they provide a plausible excuse to abandon love for behaviors that are self serving. For instance, one distortion used to justify an affair is based on being 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. Another justification is that of being in love. “If (I tell myself) I married the wrong person and I’ve found my true soul mate, then it would be morally irresponsible not to pursue the person I was always supposed to be with.” How about “I’ve pretended to be happy for years. I would be nothing more than a fraud if I continued pretending.” “Everybody’s doing…” “As long as no one gets hurt it’s okay.” “It’s better for me to see a prostitute than to get emotionally involved with someone.” Maybe the most used moral justification of all is, “God wants me to be happy right? He wouldn’t want me to continue in a miserable relationship.”

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. “My mate cheated therefore I need to teach them what it feels like by doing the same to them.” Or, “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.” While the reaction is understandable, it is contrary to love, restoration and the overall recovery process of the individual and the marriage.

Moral justifications allow both parties to abandon their vows and act in ways that are contrary to morals. If you believe in love, how can eye for 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 like kind 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 my own morals and values.

These are but a small samples of the ways moral justifications are utilized with having an affair. Combating moral justification is 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 been 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 how you’ve done at being loving and compassionate to those at home. When loving them becomes the goal it becomes harder to justify being the unfaithful spouse.

If you’d like to speak to someone else who’s been where you’re at I hope you consider joining the AR community. 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.

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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.

Integrity

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

Integrity

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.

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.

Justification

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.

justification

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?

What type of affair was it?

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