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

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

thought processes that lead to affair

Series: How Could You?

Part 2: The Thought Processes That Lead to Betrayal

Several years ago Stephanie and I spent a 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 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 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.

Their Self-Reactive Selfhood

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.

Why the Unfaithful Must Distort

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.

With a backdrop of infidelity, 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’re a betrayed spouse and looking for ways to help heal yourself, consider our Harboring Hope course. It’s the only course of its kind in the country: a safe place for betrayed spouses to heal with other betrayed spouses from an infidelity-specific approach, with a protocol purely devoted to your restoration.




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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!!!!


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.

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.

Exonerative social comparison

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