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

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

Series: How Could You?

Part 2:  The Thought Processes That Lead to Betrayal

Stephanie and I spent this past weekend at Terlingua with some of our oldest friends enjoying the beauty of Big Bend National Forest. 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-thermally heated pools, each at different temperatures. In the hottest of the pools was a man, and 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 it 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. However, without an understanding of how we disregard morals, we have no strategies for affair or 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.

Let’s face it, our own actions aren’t just determined by our values and morals. If that were the case then moral reasoning and good intentions would suffice in keeping us on the straight and narrow. Furthermore, our intentions aren’t enough to prevent an affair, or relapse, and if they were, most of us would have never cheated in the first place.

Last week we reviewed an experiment where ordinary citizens jettisoned 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% of the population acted in ways contrary to their beliefs of how they should treat fellow humans.

Albert Bandura (1986, 1991) developed a theory he called “the social cognitive theory of the moral self.” Here’s my paraphrase of what he’s saying: moral reasoning is linked to moral action through a self regulating mechanism we’ve traditionally called a “conscious”. Once that self-regulating mechanism is activated we tend to act in a morally responsible way. He suggests “the moral self is thus embedded in a broader socio-cognitive self-theory encompassing self-organizing, proactive, self-regulative and self-regulative mechanisms” (Bandura, 2001).

We all develop a moral self whereby we adopt standards, which serve as guides and deterrents for right and wrong. “In this self-regulatory process, people monitor their conduct and the conditions under which it occurs, judge it in relation to their moral standards and perceived circumstances, and then regulate their actions by the consequences they apply to themselves. They do things that give them satisfaction and a sense of self-worth. They refrain from behaving in ways that violate their moral standards because such conduct will bring self-condemnation.

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.” (Bandura 2002). 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 conscious 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 are, in fact, selfish and in many ways self-absorbed. We avoid acting in ways that cause us to feel any discomfort such as fear, guilt or shame. The anticipated self condemnation which would be activated if moral standards were 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.

Here’s where it all really hits home though: According to Bandura, in order for someone to selectively disengage their moral standards, they must distort what they are doing into something justifiable. You’ll be even more interested to read the methods used to disengage their morals are as follows: moral justification, sanitizing language, exonerative social comparison, disavowal of personal agency in the harm one causes by diffusion or displacement of responsibility, disregarding or minimizing the injurious effects of one’s actions, and attribution of blame to dehumanize those who are victimized. (Bandura 2002).

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 healthy marital and personal recovery. Next week we’ll cover moral justification. If you want to get a head start consider reading Bandura’s article. I look forward to continuing the discussion next week.



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'...


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.

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