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

How Could You? Part II: The Thought Processes That Lead to Betrayal

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
Part 4: Doublespeak and Distorted Comparisons
Part 5: The Secrecy Factor
Part 6: Dehumanization and Blame

Hope for Healing Registration Soon! Space Is Limited!

Designed specifically for wayward spouses, Hope for Healing is a supportive, nonjudgmental environment for you to heal and develop empathy. Over the years, this 17-week, small group course has helped thousands of people find hope, set healthy boundaries and move toward extraordinary lives.

"I just finished Hope for Healing and am proud of the changes that I already feel in myself and my marriage. I found Affair Recovery when I was at the darkest point in my life, and this course has helped me to get myself on a true path to recovery." - S., Alabama | November 2020 Hope for Healing participant.

Spaces fill up quickly for this course. To learn when registration opens back up, click the button below.

Subscribe to Registration Notifications!

Several years ago, Stephanie and I spent a weekend at Terlingua with some of our oldest friends, enjoying the beauty of Big Bend National Park. In the course of conversation, our friend Lynn told me about an incident where he and another good friend, Tom, were backpacking in Arkansas. Driving in, they spotted a sign indicating some hot springs just a short distance off their route. Both decided if they successfully completed their hike, they'd reward themselves with a trip to the springs.

Two days later, on their way back, they drove over to the springs. There were three geo-thermal pools, each at different temperatures. In the hottest of the pools was a man. Two women occupied the other two pools. As they prepared to enjoy a long, relaxing soak in the pools, both women stood up wearing nothing but the suit God had given them.

Lynn asked Tom, "What do you want to do?"

"As much as I hate to miss out on the hot soak, I think we'd better leave," Tom replied. Later, as they drove away, Tom said, "I'm not sure how hot that water was, but it's nothing compared to the hot water I'd be in with my wife if I'd stayed!"

What motivated Lynn and Tom to leave when others may have stayed?

Before I attempt to answer that question, let me clearly state that I am not excusing, or in any way rationalizing, any kind of betrayal in marriage. I'm also not using a light-hearted story to minimize what probably feels like the worst pain you've ever been through. However, without an understanding of how we disregard morals, we have no strategies for relapse prevention—much less long-term recovery. I hope to uncover not only the thought processes that lead to betrayal, but to also offer practical suggestions for staying true to your morals and values in the face of both temptation and opportunity.

Our Moral Reasoning Process

Let's face it, our own actions aren't just determined by our values and morals. If that were the case, moral reasoning and good intentions would suffice in keeping us on the straight and narrow.

Furthermore, our willpower and good intentions aren't enough to prevent an affair or relapse, and if they were, most wayward spouses would have never cheated in the first place.

I'd invite you, the unfaithful spouse, to read that statement again and again till it sets in.

Last week, we reviewed an experiment where ordinary citizens abandoned their values and participated in an experiment in which they believed they were causing pain and harm to another human being. While the experiment was not designed to identify the moral disengagement present when during an affair, it did reveal that 65 percent of the population acted in ways contrary to their beliefs of how their fellow humans should be treated.

The late psychologist, Albert Bandura1 developed a theory he called "the social cognitive theory of the moral self." Here's a paraphrase of what he's saying:

Moral reasoning is linked to moral action through a self-regulating mechanism we've traditionally called a "conscience." Once that self-regulating mechanism is activated, we tend to act in a morally responsible way. Bandura suggests, "the moral self is thus embedded in a broader socio-cognitive self-theory encompassing self-organizing, proactive, self-regulation and self-regulatory mechanisms."

We develop our moral self by which we adopt standards that serve as guides and deterrents for right and wrong.

Banduras suggests that people monitor their conduct and the conditions under which it occurs and then judge it in relation to their moral standards and perceived circumstances. During self-regulation, they then apply consequences to themselves based on those actions. Going forward, they do things that give themselves satisfaction and a sense of self-worth; they refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standards. If they don't operate this way, their conduct will bring self-condemnation.

The Unfaithful Spouse & Self-Influence

Bandura said, "The constraint of negative self-sanctions for conduct that violates one's moral standards, and the support of positive self-sanctions for conduct faithful to personal moral standards actually operate anticipatorily. In the face of situational inducements to behave in inhumane ways, people can choose to behave otherwise by exerting self-influence... Self-sanctions keep conduct in line with internal standards. It is through the ongoing exercise of evaluative self-influence that moral conduct is motivated and regulated. Morality is thus rooted in a self-reactive selfhood, rather than in dispassionate abstract reasoning."

In short, people do not act independently of the social realities in which they are involved. Moral choices are the product of interactions between what we believe, our conscience, and social influences we surround ourselves with.

As humans, we tend to act in ways that give us a sense of worth and self-satisfaction. We seek it. We are, in fact, selfish and in many ways, self-absorbed. We act in ways that avoid uncomfortable feelings such as fear, guilt, or shame.

The anticipated self-condemnation, which is activated when moral standards are violated, inhibit those behaviors. And the anticipated benefits stemming from being faithful to our moral standards help guide moral behavior.

I apologize if this seems a little abstract, but without an elementary understanding of how we choose to act morally responsible, it's impossible to explain how we can selectively disengage our morals and act in ways that hurt and destroy those we love.

Why the Unfaithful Must Distort

Here's where it all really hits home.

According to Bandura, in order for someone to selectively disengage their moral standards, they must distort what they are doing into something justifiable. With the backdrop of infidelity, you'll be even more interested to read about the methods used to disengage our morals (according to Bandura):

  • moral justification
  • sanitizing language
  • social comparison
  • disowning the harm one causes by using diffusion or displacement of responsibility
  • disregarding or minimizing the injurious effects of one's actions
  • attribution of blame to dehumanize those who are victimized

While this may not yet make total sense or resonate with your heart, I do believe it will make a lot of sense in the coming weeks. Over the next few weeks, I'll explain each of these methods and offer suggestions to prevent future disengagement and betrayal and to promote marital and personal recovery.

Next week we'll cover moral justification.

If you're in an unhealthy cycle of blame and rejection with your spouse, I'd like you to consider our Hope for Healing course for the wayward spouse. You'll join other people of the same gender trying to understand how they got here while being guided by someone who has been through our program. Stop wasting time trying to fix yourself and be surrounded by the support you need and expert tools.

Hope for Healing Registration Opens Today at Noon CT! Space Is Limited!

"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

Spaces fill up quickly for this course. Click the button below to learn more about Hope for Healing and to claim your spot.

Register For Hope For Healing!

Hope for Healing Registration Soon! Space Is Limited!

Designed specifically for wayward spouses, Hope for Healing is a supportive, nonjudgmental environment for you to heal and develop empathy. Over the years, this 17-week, small group course has helped thousands of people find hope, set healthy boundaries and move toward extraordinary lives.

"I just finished Hope for Healing and am proud of the changes that I already feel in myself and my marriage. I found Affair Recovery when I was at the darkest point in my life, and this course has helped me to get myself on a true path to recovery." - S., Alabama | November 2020 Hope for Healing participant.

Spaces fill up quickly for this course. To learn when registration opens back up, click the button below.

Subscribe to Registration Notifications!



RL_Media Type: 

Add New Comment:


Bad analogy?

I'm sorry but the Lynn and Tom analogy didn't sit right with me. Probably just my mood today..,Maybe, instead of Tom leaving because he would be in hot water with his wife as the apparently motivating factor, it should be more about him choosing to leave because it is not a good place for HIM to be. I'm so tired of people not taking responsibility for their choices and using other people and their spouses as their excuses. Just sayin'...

100% agree!!!!

100% agree!!!!

Agree with this too. Why can

Agree with this too. Why can't people make the choices without pretending they are sacrificing something?

Agree too

why can't it be 'I would rather be with/ honour my partner/husband/wife because I value and respect them...'


Thank you for the article. It is really useful. I still struggle with this in trying to understand how my husband could have done something so hurtful- the lies, the betrayal for such a long time; his affair was over three years long. I know that it is possible to do hurtful things to another person; I am not perfect and have done wrongs to others in my life. It is just difficult to wrap my mind around being able to come home every day to your spouse and lie and lie the way he did to me.

Me too! How do you pack your

Me too! How do you pack your suitcase in front of me knowing where you were really going? How do you call me from the hotel and tell me and the kids goodnight and you love us when she is right there? How is that humanly possible?


I get exactly what you are saying.  The cat got out of the back for me also nov 16, 2010 and yes his was for along time too>  3 years.   I too cannot understand after 25 years of marriage coming home everyday and lying to me.  To me i can maybe understand a period of time of poor judgement but 2 years  i what I call turning it into life style not a moment of poor judgement and I do think there is a distinct difference but no one says anything about that am very frustrated



The reasoning of the study are valid. However it is a more sophisticated way of saying that a person does what they want to do at any given point in time. Unfortunately this is true for all of us. My wife decided she wanted to commit adultery more than not bring unbelievable pain into the lives of those that loved her. Her parents, my parents, our brothers and sisters and friends. The bottom line on these actions is that they are done by people that are incredibly selfish and feel entitled to their own happiness over everything else. Sadly my wife and others actually feel like someone is intruding into their personal business when they are discovered.

Moving Forward

How do you get them to tell the truth? As without admitting to the truth there is no way forward. I've seen so many success stories when the other is willing to admit the truth, the challenge is when even when confronted they don't admit, just turn it on you being the bad one making a mountain out of a mole hill.

How could they do it

Actually this article makes perfect sense. The principles are very familiar since I lived through it. Abreviated form: follow every desire and fantasy you have then adjust your moral compass to allow it, that way if someone doesn’t like being treated like dirt well it must be their problem.

Thanks for condensing that

Thanks for condensing that into something understandable.


Is obvious there's justification and that some awful, sad way this was justified. I have heard the craziness. What makes me so sad and so hurt and I've been trying to understand is; why do people want to do this, before youconvince yourself it's ok, you may first be dying to do it. That part hurts the most. My husband got in his head that sex with me was not what he wanted but sex with other women. I don't want sex with anyone that I don't love. I only love my husband. But he broke my heart in that he wanted sex with others. That's hurtful.

Trying to understand his mind set is making me crazy

I tried to understand this article but my brain has turned to mush trying to understand how he got here. He is a good Christian, knows the word even better than I and he says he was looking for positive affirmation or attention on affair websites. If he had not gotten caught would he still be there? How could he get there in the first place? Through porn, also a newly discovered secret. Our sex life was good, I liked sex more than him, now our sex life has been damaged tremendously and my heart is still trying to see if can be mended. Trust of anyone anything in impossible. His 1st wife cheated on him, I am so confused. I told him he has made me feel like a rape victim. Someone that has had unspeakable harm done to them, out of their control and against their will, unable to stop the harm. Now trying to figure out how to live with the brokenness of their mind and body. Dealing with the triggers, intrusive thought and trying to do just daily tasks is almost impossible. Left wondering if the new normal is something they can live with if they want to live at all. If they do, so as to not ruin their Children's lives will they ever feel safe, be able to heal, trust anyone. Ever even feel normal. These last four months seem like a heel on earth, with a pain that goes so deep that I wonder even if God heal me this time. My first marriage ended this way and left me with two small boys, that i had to life for. They have now grown almost and everything is different. My love, my life, my everything is broken.

I am so sorry you are in this

I am so sorry you are in this predicament. I am so well. It is so easy to lose hope and yo despair. I am only 7 months into this. But most days o try to live up to my values and keep trusting God. Prayer is really the only thing that calms me. At least I know I am a good person because "God doesn't make junk" I don't have any answer, just want you to know that you are not alone. God bless all of us.

I’m so sorry that you hurt so

I’m so sorry that you hurt so much. My wife who is a Christian, cheated on me as well. Time does not heal the pain even though others say it does. To this day she only gives me bits and pieces of her affair. I wish I could move on.

Bits and oieces

I feel your pain and am so sorry you have to go through this. My partner and as the same ‘can’t remember’ was his first and last defence. It’s was a 4.5 years affair. She a serial AF. Against ALL of the advice when the AF contacted me out of the blue over 2.5 years later and eventually stated she wanted to meet - I did. I got every last gruesome detail. She had saved every email, text and voice message and brought them to the meeting. She is a barely functioning alcoholic, a weak and lonely person. He was just calculating and took his chance when it appeared and chased it. The detail made me physical I’ll buy am I glad I know it? Yes. Now when he tries to sanitise what he did I can state what actually was said or done. Less often now strangely that so know the detail because I have no gaps or uncertainty which was driving me insane.
Perhaps read the pros and cons of getting in touch with the AF or sit back and wait until they contact you. Good luck and if no improvement - walk.
A final point: judge her by her actions not her intentions. They show just how much she is willing to sacrifice herself to help you both heal.

Slippery Slope

As complex as this is to understand, I appreciate the topic. I have wondered many times how it is possible that I could have engaged in such an immoral act, considering that I thought I was a relatively normal, happy, married woman who believed in God and was wanting to grow closer in my faith and to my husband. I noticed as the affair progressed, that I began to view my husband in a different light.... almost as if he was a complete stranger who had no emotions. Dehumanizing him and looking at all of his alleged "flaws" made it easier to justify my affair, as well as eased the pain of shame and guilt that I carried with me at all times. I began to drink every night and take Xanax to help with my anxiety, which allowed me to feel nothing. This in turn, drove me deeper into the affair and helped me numb out. The more my husband didn't notice the change in me, the more I would lean into my AP for emotional support and advice. I assume that with the majority of affairs, the only other person who knows its going on, is the AP. I made the HUGE mistake of gauging my decisions and behaviors on what my AP thought about me, not what God thought about me, or what was right/wrong. It's living with a day to day mentality, not being able to think clearly or see that in the end, you will lose everything because of your choices. For me, it had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with wanting desperately to feel loved and needed and connected. You are who you are, by virtue of the company you keep. Affair partners are two peas in a pod telling each other it's OK because or endless excuses. The reinforce within one another that with them it's "different" or they believe that finding happiness outside of their marriage might actually help fulfill them within their marriage. I know it sounds psychotic, and it probably is but it feels like reality when you're in the thick of it.It's a very dangerous place to be, and definitely where you want to find yourself. I am so grateful to have found your website and the resources you offer. It has been 3 years since D-Day and I have been struggling so much with wanting to understand what happened and how this could have happened to me/us? You are helping so many people. God bless you!

Hang in there. I have been there

Hi all. Please if you love your spouse and he is remorseful, please hang in there.

My husband had an affair 6 years ago. Thing are almost back to normal. Because of his ongoing transparency, I trust him a little bit more each day. I will never trust him in the innocent childlike way I once did. But I can trust but verify.

Also, it took my husband at least six months to stop with all the justifications and blaming, etc. One day he came to be and got down on one knee and apologized and asked me to forgive him. He was finally out of his dopamine haze and he realized what he had done and what he almost lost.

He is actually a better husband now. Cleans up more, never goes out on a boys night out, anymore. He is also totally transparent and calls and sends a photograph from his phone, if late.

It took a while, and we are still a work in progress, but things CAN get better, if you both want it to.

I’m so glad to read this. I

I’m so glad to read this. I am 3 years from finding out my husband went looking for and carried out an affair with someone he walked away from 30 yrs ago. I still don’t understand why. Why he went looking for someone he left. Why he then pursued and carried out an affair and why/ how could he lie to me and act so normal. I don’t trust him and I still explode every now and again - because I don’t understand and the comments
“I don’t know why I did it- I don’t know what I was feeling” etc just do not help. Of course you know what your feeling when you get into bed with someone.
It is not an accident. You didn’t screw up. It was a very conscious decision made knowing exactly what you were doing and why. And frankly, it is insulting to try and deflect your reasoning.
I could go on ( obviously it is still very much a hot topic for me) but I will stop here.


This is a descriptive word that helps me understand how my husband could continue having affairs with me trusting him during the years that he was having his affairs. I trusted him while I was out of town for one or two nights a week while working. I would call or text him to let him know about my whereabouts. He knew my schedule. I thought I knew what he was doing, too. Little did I know that I was actually giving him the space and time to have his affairs. I wanted to believe that if I was being transparent, he was being transparent, too. I don’t believe that I will ever be able to trust him again. His behavior has even been making me look more closely at some of my more casual friends. When one of his affairs was with someone I confided in, it makes it extremely hard to trust anyone. I don’t believe one of my younger friends is safe for me after she said she would never violate my marriage with my husband. I don’t want to be around someone who can say that off the top of their head in a casual conversation with me. I don’t even know where that comment came from in our conversation. Will there always be a cloud of suspicion from now on?

Exonerative social comparison

Please elaborate on this. I want to make sure I am applying it to my personal situation correctly.

Out of the blue

Here's one for the text books and you will find nothing like it on the Internet. In 1973, my husband donated his sperm to a married friend of mine, behind mine and her husband's back. A few days after went to the clinic to donate his sperm, he asked her if she had went to the clinic for the artificial insemination. She said no. According to his confession to me about what happened, he said he felt relieved because he realized he shouldn't have done it. Uh duh. He should have automatically said nope to her request. Within a couple of months after the insemination the couple moved to Los Angeles where they were originally from. When the child was born we were asked to be the God parents which we accepted. Me of course not knowing what had taken place behind my back and my husband being stupid as not to put two and two together. Another Duh. For several years we would go see the couple and the child. Holding her and loving her, buying her Xmas and birthday presents. The woman and the child even came to ourhouse to visit a couple of times. All the while knowing that the child was my husbands. How is that for a stone cold bitch. After a few years we lost contact with them. In 2015 woman died. A few months ago the child who is now 45 did a DNA test for fun. How many lives have those tests ruined? She contacted my husband to tell him he was her bio dad. Cruelly I was not able to have children. My husband gave someone else a baby and I got nothing but a broken heart. He spilled his guts to me a couple of months ago and I have been trying to not lose my mind. I don't even have the satisfaction of spitting in the woman's face. She's dead. But her husband is still alive and I would like to tell him. As you see he was my husband's best friend. My husband is very remorseful, but I doubt that I will be able to forgive him. The best I can do is try to move on with our marriage and try to heal from the betrayal.

Part II: Conscious?

It's difficult to fully legitimize the concepts presented here without questioning the vocabulary used. 'Conscious' means basically 'awake'. The word that should be used here is 'conscience', which is the moral self-regulating mechanism that you seem to stress within the rest of the article. Please don't confuse the two!

Clarification for a nitpicker.

I'm thinking that in the written summary you mean "conscience" not "conscious."

As in "let your conscience be your guide."

Am I correct in that?



Those points all give me as a

Those points all give me as a BW a great sense of relief as all of those things are currently being used by my unfaithful and I can see that buried beneath it all is his pain and his inability to deal with the shame of his poor choices. One day he will say sorry for it I believe. It's good to know it's not actually the real reasons for the affair but the false justifications to help him cope with it.

Could you give concrete examples, please?

Really interesting information, and, It would stick a lot better for me if you gave concrete examples for each of them. Please? Thanks.

Excited for this series!

Looking forward to having more of a working vocabulary to understand my husband’s state-of-mind while unfaithful. Thanks, Rick!

I don’t get it…

As the betrayed spouse, I would assume that every betrayed spouse on here is looking to safe their marriage. Otherwise, we would be the unfaithful spouse. And the goal of this program is to get us to look past the fact that our spouses cheated! They chose a different person than us when they were given the option. And in some cases, like mine, they are the ones that pursued, an option wasn’t even necessary for them. They were actively looking to have an affair! Now…I’m supposed to just settle and give up all my values and what I think is right and wrong and forgive them just to keep my family together!? I’m supposed to settle!? Why? Where is their punishment?

Dear Traci,

Dear Traci,
I'm post 9 years, and I just NOW can think about all that happened and not feel a stab of physical pain. We stayed together, but it took years of pain, tears, more lies, counselors, moving out, moving back, etc.... Give it time. If your spouse really loves you and is remorseful, it is possible to work through it. Definitely not easy!!! There has to be total transparency and authenticity. As the betrayed spouse, I don't put up with any of the b***shit. Your spouse MUST put you at the top of the list and prioritize your relationship. If he can't do that right away, give him time, but don't let him make you feel bad doe bringing it up "all the time." You have that right. You didn't ask for this pain and suffering, but he did. He must deal with the consequences of his actions, and put YOU at the top of his list.
As I said, it takes time and the patience of Job, but it is possible. I'm sorry you're in so much pain. This journey has been the worst pain of my life.

Give it LOTS of time.

Give it LOTS of time. Recovery can take years! I'm post 9 years, and as you can see, I'm still on this site. The pain does dim, but yes, your spouse needs to have consequences. He/she must be willing to make YOU their #1 priority. Transparency and honesty are key.
Sorry you're in pain. It's the worst pain I've ever felt, and I never want to feel that way again. May God be with you on this journey.

What type of affair was it?

Our free Affair Analyzer provides you with insights about your unique situation and gives you a personalized plan of action.
Take the Affair Analyzer

Free Surviving Infidelity Bootcamp

Our experts designed this step-by-step guide to help you survive infidelity. Be intentional with your healing with this free 7-day bootcamp.
I would highly recommend giving this a try.
-D, Texas