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

Social Shame: Surviving Infidelity Isn’t Enough

Social Shame: A Four Part Series

Part 1: Understanding the Paralysis of it
Part 2: Have you Been Dishonored?
> Part 3: Surviving Infidelity Isn't Enough
Part 4: Part 4: Four Ways to Stay in it

Imagine this: On Super Bowl Sunday, I walk out of my friend's viewing party and fumble drunkenly behind the wheel of my car. On my way home, I hit and kill a pedestrian on his bicycle. I choose to announce my pending jail sentence in this newsletter because I know the news will soon be picked up by national media.

How would you feel about your association with Affair Recovery?

Would you feel concern and compassion for my plight, worried that something must be wrong for me to do something so heinous? Or would you feel contempt and disgust, declaring me a fraud? Do you see me as shameful? Am I someone you want to call to give support? Would your reaction to that news cause any sort of shift of your opinion of Affair Recovery?

Would it make you feel even more fortunate to have found Affair Recovery and joined an honest community of broken people working to become whole again? Would you see our material as even more relevant or would the perceived value of our materials take a nosedive? Does it make you more excited to share Affair Recovery as resource for those struggling with infidelity, or would it make you want to keep your association with Affair Recovery to yourself?

Would you want to unsubscribe from our mailing list?

Your reaction to the above scenario is a great example of what we refer to as the honor-shame system, further explained in "Have You Been Dishonored?" If you're associated with Affair Recovery and I do something shameful, then you may feel the social shame that is ascribed to all who are a part of our community. Our reputation and sense of worth isn't just tied to personal achievement; a social rating score that is determined by the people systems we are associated with also determine our positive or negative feeling of self-worth. Your response to the scenario above would also determine what happens to your social rating score. If you separate yourself from AR then you maintain your honor. If you support me then you are likely to be ascribed my shame.

Recovering from an affair is about more than just surviving infidelity; it's about overcoming the social shame associated with infidelity. It's having a good reputation and once again feeling you can hold your head high. It's about being someone that people want to be associated with, rather than someone people seem to avoid.

Our sense of value and worth is based on the sum of two parts: Personal identity derived from beliefs about myself as an individual, and social identity derived from perceived belonging or association with our relevant social groups.

Before we proceed let me once again define these concepts:

Guilt is a cognitive or emotional experience that occurs when a person believes they have violated either their own standard of conduct or a moral standard and bears significant responsibility for that violation.1 Guilt is based on the belief that I've done something bad; it is not about me being bad.

Shame, on the other hand, is an identity message. It's about who you are, not what you've done. It's the difference between "I did bad" and "I am bad". Brene Brown defines shame as:

The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.2

As explained in "Have You Been Dishonored?", we are dividing shame into two separate categories. The first is personal shame based on the western concept of individualism, and the second is social shame based on the eastern concept of the honor- shame system. Just as we are unable to see the air we breathe, western culture's lens of individualism throws a cloak of invisibility over the honor-shame dynamic, making us unaware of the role it plays in our lives.

Personal Shame:
Individualism measures a person's worth based on personal performance in life. If you are strong, overcome adversity, are successful, and live according to your moral code then you'll be respected by others and can feel proud. If instead you are weak, fail to overcome adversity, and violate your own moral code, then most likely you'll have little or no respect and feel shame, believing you are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

Social Shame:
This is based on our perceived value according to the people groups we belong to. For instance, if you are a citizen of the United States you are a part of that people group, and are ascribed the honor or shame that comes with belonging to that country. If you are a citizen of Brazil and your team loses the World Cup, the shame of losing is ascribed to all citizens living in Brazil. Much of our reputation and social rating score comes from family, our circle of friends, church, or civic organization(s) we belong to.

For example, several days after the news of my affair, Stephanie went to a bookstore in search of resources to help her understand something about affairs. Just asking where she might find resources on infidelity caused an intense feeling of shame. She knew the woman helping her could see she was married to someone who had cheated on her and as a result was flooded with shame. This shame was not because of something she had done, but was because she was now part of a shameful marriage instead of a respectable one. Social shame isn't based on personal failure; it is ascribed to us by the people groups we belong to.

This week we'll give examples of how social shame is ascribed to those who have been betrayed. Two people have graciously written their experiences to help reveal how social shame is communicated. The names and places have been altered to protect their identities.

Case #1: Michael and Cindy

What happened?

Michael, a therapist, was arrested for an alleged inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old girl.

Cindy's Story:

When the news of Michael's arrest hit the media, life as we knew it ended. In our case there was no hiding the accusation. Just the act of leaving the house was overwhelming. Not only was Michael being judged for what he had done, but the reactions of others caused me to feel the same shame he was experiencing. It was clearly communicated by those close to us that my choosing to stay with him made me an accomplice and caused me to be just as shameful. This was communicated in many ways.

At a high level, the state of Missouri told me I was a poor and unsafe mother because I wasn't divorcing my husband. For me to be a woman of integrity and character who was safe for her own children I had to leave their father. They labeled me as unfit and even threatened to take my children away. (Note from Rick: Some of you may agree that Cindy is unfit for not leaving her husband, but I can assure you that wasn't the case. Michael posed absolutely no risk to his kids. Even sadder in my opinion was the fact that no one even wanted to talk about what had happened. Reality was defined by the media, not by the facts.)

Because of what my husband had done and the fact that I stayed with him I lost all of my oldest friends. They no longer felt comfortable with me being a part of the group. The loss of those relationships really hurt, and made me feel I was no longer desirable even to my friends (the affair obviously made me feel this way too, but this was a different kind of wound).

All but three of our circle of friends would have nothing to do with us. They were appalled at the charge and didn't want to be seen associating with our family. Each time I ran into one of these people I felt both anger and shame. Because I was still with my husband I was treated as if I were a leper.

Our church informed me that I was welcome to attend, but that my husband was not. I think they were worried about how it would reflect on them. Their decision made me feel untrustworthy and foolish for not foreseeing the issue our church elders would have with Michael's attendance.

I was surprised to find our neighborhood didn't ascribe that social shame. Michael went door-to-door to everyone in our cul-de-sac, looking them in the eye and telling them what happened. He apologized for any difficulty his presence in the neighborhood caused them. Maybe it was because Michael talked with them or the fact that they had not been as closely associated to him as our friends, but they supported us and stood with us. They are one of the few groups that seem to respect me and validate me. I felt my reputation as a good mother and wife increased.

The response of our family was somewhat mixed. Michael's family was amazing. Although it was painful for them to walk through this with us they were there through it all and treated me with honor and respect for my choice to stay with my husband. It made me proud to be a part of his family. My parents were divorced and remarried. My father, the first time he saw Michael, came straight up to Michael and hugged him telling him how much he loved him. Dad was with us every step of the way, giving us encouragement with no sense of judgment. That made me proud of my dad. My mother wanted nothing to do with Michael and made it clear that as long as I was with him we couldn't have a relationship.

The pain of being judged by the community, our dear friends, and my mother crushed me. It seemed I could only live five minutes at a time. But in the midst of my pain I clearly heard God tell me to hang on because He would give me a new circle of friends.

After my husband was released from prison we began attending a new church. The first thing Michael did was go to the pastor and the elders. He shamelessly told his story and asked if they would be comfortable with his attending church. We were amazed by their response. Not only did they welcome us with open arms, but they honored us by supporting us, loving us and placing us in roles of leadership. It was that acceptance and love that began to restore my sense of integrity, dignity, and honor.

Case #2: Matt and Shirley

What happened?

Matt was a minister at a church. He is a sex addict struggling with voyeurism.

Shirley's Story:

The first time Matt's sexual addiction came to light, the expectation of our church was for us to stay together - period. I believe to do otherwise would have made me the bad guy. At the same time I felt shame because it seemed people questioned what I had done to make him act out.

When I first found out about my husband's infidelity, I went through every emotion possible, but felt better believing I wouldn't have to walk this alone, that my friends would support me as they did when he told me he was a sex addict. I had no idea that the personal hell I was walking through was only going to get worse.

In the initial moments of our friends finding out, I felt nothing but compassion and love. That feeling was so short lived; I quickly noticed how uncomfortable our friends became around us. It left me feeling as though I was falling deeper and deeper into this black pit, and was losing a piece of myself with every passing minute. I suddenly knew what the black sheep felt like. My husband and I were in ministry at the time, when we made the church staff aware of my husband's infidelity, the response we got confused us even more. There were some who were so loving and willing to walk through this yuck with us, and others who went into self-protect mode. We knew that my husband needed to take some time out of ministry, but I was going to continue with our commitment. I received a call from our pastor informing me that the church had decided that because of my husband's sins I shouldn't be in ministry either. I sat again in shock, not even a week out of discovery, realizing that I was no longer an individual person. I was now identified by my husband's infidelity and no longer identified as woman of integrity. I was hurt by my husband's actions, but it was almost more painful to me when I realized that people we trusted the most were almost scared of us. The church later rectified their actions and realized they made a mistake, but the damage was already done. Not only did I lose my dignity, identity, and self-worth when I discovered my husband's infidelity, but I lost the respect and honor of others. My friends didn't view me for me anymore, but defined me by the situation - which I didn't even choose!

The only friends that stood with us were our friends from another city where we had once lived. We are only eight months out from discovery and I still feel the shame that was heaped on me from what my husband did.

As my husband and I work on our marriage, I'm feeling more pride in our relationship and working on my personal issues is making me feel better about me, but I still feel shame when I'm in public. I don't know how to regain the respect and honor I felt before his relapse.


These are only two stories, but I believe the majority of those dealing with infidelity have similar stories and suffer from social shame, which is so often overlooked and misunderstood. In future articles I hope to give you not only ways to overcome your personal shame, but also ways to restore your sense of dignity and honor in your own circle or community. If you are suffering with personal shame or shame ascribed to you by the actions of your spouse, consider attending EMS Weekend. You'll walk through recovery step-by-step, and be joined with people who understand exactly where you are and the pain from which you are working to heal.

  1. "Guilt." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 27 December 2014. Web. 26 January 2015.
  2. Brown, Brene. Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York: Peguin, 2012. Print

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