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

The Antidote for Shame: Understanding the Unfaithful

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Are you struggling with shame after infidelity and have no idea how to break free from it? This week, I'd like to share material from our Hope for Healing course for wayward spouses. I believe with these tips and insights in hand, the wayward spouse can begin to assess their shame and make strides to overcome it. Additionally, these materials can be incredibly helpful for the betrayed spouse, as it's crucial in recovery work to empathize with and understand what their mate is going through.

How Does Ego Attack Our Happiness?

It's a safe assumption that, in many ways, the wayward spouse has made their life all about their ego and how they're perceived by others. At the core of ego is a sense of emptiness, which we continually try to fill in life. Ego is driven to find ways of filling our inner void for:
  • Love.
  • Acceptance.
  • Security.
  • Respect.
  • Significance.
  • Assurance.

In order to have our relational needs met, our ego goes about filling this inner void by puffing itself up to obtain the validation and affirmation it so badly craves. It lives in fear of being judged and found insufficient or "wanting."

That's the problem with ego. Even if we accomplish something today, we continue to judge ourselves and put pressure on both self and others to continually stroke our ego. When seeking to understand what happened and address shame after infidelity, the wayward spouse must be willing to confront their ego.

Self-focus and ego drive us to continually prove that we're significant. And the higher we inflate the self, the further we can fall into inferiority if we're deemed inadequate by self or others. Self is competitive by nature; it's continually trying to prove it's superior by comparing itself to others. In his book "Mere Christianity,"* C.S. Lewis points out that competitiveness is at the very heart of pride:

Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. We say that people are proud of being rich, or clever or good-looking, but they are not. They are proud of being richer, or cleverer or better-looking than others. If everyone else became equally rich, or clever or good-looking, there would be nothing to be proud about.

Where Does Shame Stem From?

In recovery work, it's important to understand that shame is no different than pride or superiority. It is still based on the ego's competitive nature, in the way that it tries to meet the needs of our ego through the comparison of self against others. In the case of shame, especially shame after infidelity, we've been judged either by self or others and found wanting. The net result is an ongoing attempt of self-improvement in hopes that our ego will finally be gratified by the acceptance of others.

Marriage is one of the primary places a self-esteem cycle of this caliber plays out. Our ego looks to our mate for validation and affirmation. We want them to serve as a vanity mirror, which reflects our best selves and allows us to feel secure, special and whole. In marriage, however, our mate tends to be more like a magnifying mirror than a vanity mirror; they can reveal all of our blemishes and flaws. As a result, the self isn't validated and our ego can be left wounded.

What we need from our relationships is driven by our sense of who we are. For instance, if we see ourselves as failures, we may need constant affirmation from our mate to feel good about ourselves. Marital expectations determine what we want from the relationship. Here are some other examples:

  • If we believe it's our mate's responsibility to make us happy and we get into a fight, we can feel a much deeper rift than someone who takes responsibility for their own happiness.
  • If we believe we're responsible for our mate's happiness and they're miserable, then we can feel a void of love that comes from their lack of positive response.

I believe marriage is a people-growing machine, both for the wayward spouse and the betrayed spouse, and it's in the less-than-ideal circumstances that we have the opportunity to examine ourselves and change how we respond to life. We have all been betrayed, and we have all betrayed. We've all wounded others. There is a bit of good in the worst of us, and there is a bit of bad in the best of us. How we respond to relational pain and shame after infidelity is largely determined by whether we understand it's not all about us, that life is hard, and that we are not in control of everything.

How Do We Try to Soothe a Wounded Ego?

If we see life as being all about us, we feel entitled to abandon our commitment to our mate and look elsewhere to soothe our wounded ego. Some of the ways we can seek validation are through:

  • Having affairs.
  • Engaging in controlling tendencies.
  • Abusing drugs and alcohol.
  • Going shopping.
  • Watching porn.

Even though we might feel justified in seeking fulfillment through these venues, we might still attempt to hide our behaviors out of a fear of judgment and a loss of self-esteem. And while these behaviors can successfully meet our needs for validation, this satisfaction will only last for a brief moment or season. They come at the cost of our ego when our behaviors are discovered — we're judged for them and seen as a failure. Now, because of our failure, we shift from pride to shame as we compare ourselves to others, but it's still not about a concern for others.

To overcome our shame after infidelity, we might begin working on self-engineering. We might work on our self-esteem, self-control, self-image and self-concept, all in an attempt to once again feel good about ourselves. Once our self-esteem is reestablished, we might look to our mate once again to meet our needs and affirm our image of self. If our mate falls short of providing the level of validation we need to salve the wound to our ego, we're once again tempted to abandon our commitment to them and seek whatever is necessary to fill the hole in our soul. In this cycle, self is far more important than others.

What Is the Antidote for Pride?

The antidote for pride is humility. There's a well-known quote that speaks to this; it says that humility is not thinking less of yourself, rather it's thinking of yourself less. Instead of thinking of all the ways we're superior (pride) or inferior (shame) to others, we must begin to realistically look at our life and recognize that we're no better or worse than others.

Humility is realizing that we're all people, and that each of us has equal right to be here. It's accepting the reality that we've probably been much more difficult to live with than we might ever realize. Humility is about letting go of the belief that we know what's best. It's accepting the reality that what others think is as important as what we think.

Humility isn't about shaming one's self; it's about getting outside of self to bring life to others so we can legitimately feel good about who we are. The antidote for any form of shame, whether it's shame after infidelity or something else entirely, is self-forgiveness and self-acceptance. Instead of beating yourself up, I hope that you can begin to accept yourself as good enough, just the way you are. You have to forgive yourself for being a disappointment in your own mind. You have to quit striving to be good enough and, instead, let who you are be enough.

In recovery work, overcoming shame requires destroying the power of shame by continually exposing it to safe people. As you get beyond the shame, you'll find an amazing ability to have compassion for others. If you are ready to move out of shame after infidelity and need a process-oriented approach, please consider registering for Hope for Healing today at noon CST. I know what you're going through is scary and incredibly difficult, and Hope for Healing can help you begin to tackle your ego and set boundaries to heal yourself and those you've wounded.

Hope for Healing Registration Opens 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.

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Comments

Shame

Beautifully written

Shame

What if my spouse won’t let me get past my shame. The affair ended 6 months ago. I ended it. I confessed a month later to my husband. Now he’s so bitter & resentful that we can’t move forward. Now what?!?

Now what

I understand that it’s tough when their anger or hurt seems to get in the way of our repair. I’ve in those same shoes. One thing that I was reminded of and will need to see again is that I don’t get to dictate her anger. I caused the hurt and anger. She isn’t trying to shame me- and just right now I’m think I’m probably shaming myself. I twist her words and show how she’s digging at me.... really she’s just crying out for love and I missed the chance... again

Good luck

Bingo

Bingo

This is our cycle

This describes very accurately what happens when I try to talk to my husband about how his emotional affair has affected me. I have gone from being a happy, cconfident women with many interests to being a shell of my former self. I have severe depression and anxiety, even to the point of trying to take my own life four times in two and a half years. For the first year after discovery he minimised, deflected, blamed and raged at me as I tried to get my head around what had happened. It's almost as if he thinks my distress exists just to attack him and make him feel bad. He doesn't behave like someone who understands the consequences his behaviour has had on me, my health and wellbeing. He doesn't show genuine remorse, he thinks everything will be fine so long as I never mention it. (The bit in the article about ego and everything being about and for his needs struck a chord). I can never get him to see how hard it is for me, how I struggle through sleepless nights and feel so low and hopeless during the day.

If he would ever show real empathy things could be so much better for me but I really struggle with feeling disregarded and treated like a nuisance just so he can feel better. I know the sort of responses that would help me but he won't listen. Effectively, I have to drag myself through each day feeling awful just so he "doesn't feel bad about himself". We operate in a way that suits him but doesn't help me in any way. Surely since his emotional affair was all about him and his "friend", he could try to understand that continuing to make everything about himself keeps me stuck in a place of hurt, loneliness and isolation, feeling unloved and not cared about. Sometimes I'm "allowed" to talk but he quickly becomes irritated, impatient and sarcastic. Has anyone managed to find a way to get their unfaithful partner to find a way through their egotistical responses in a way that makes us, the betrayed spouse, feel loved and cared about after having our lives devastated? I really am giving up hope by now.

No Remorse for Emotional Affair

This could’ve been written by me 3 years ago. My husband also had an emotional affair, but for all I know it was also physical as I since discovered that he is a chronic liar. I was always asking questions; questions that really were never answered. One day I suggested he go talk to his dad and maybe he could help him see things more clearly: how to fix things. He came home and jumped down my throat after only telling his dad I was harassing him for trying to help out a female friend. He said his dad told him he needed to put a stop to it, etc,. He said that he was tired of my bullying and that he wasn’t going to take it any more and that we were not to discuss what happened ever again and we were going to move forward! This coming from a previous “nice guy”. I called his dad and told him that his son had been seeing a woman for at least 5 months every weekend behind my back and secretly texting her, stealing money out of My purse to give to her, etc. He was told None of this as hubby was trying to protect his reputation. My father In Law said he would’ve given him what for had he known......So, a year passes and my husband Never shown any remorse, never begged for my forgiveness and to this day says he didn’t do anything wrong! 2 years later because I never could show him any great attention because he never truly seemed sorry for what he did, he became jealous of my cats and filed for divorce. He said it was him or the cats, cats that I have always had since he’d known me. Again he went to his parents and told them some outrageous story that made them agree he needed to leave me and his daughter. I never knew what he told them, but I guarantee none of it made him look bad, none of it was about his part in the failing of our marriage! Instead of owning up to his contributions to our marriage going south and trying to work on our problems, HE Filed for divorce and has been gone 9 months. He cowardly abandoned his family. So, unless you can get your husband to admit what he did was wrong and hurtful and maybe seek counseling, you may end up in the same boat as me. I still believe if my husband had seen my side of things and had been openly honest and communicate his feelings and truly listen to mine, we could’ve had a stronger marriage. Instead he chose to bail and I am left to pick up the devastatingly broken pieces. I wish Divorce On No One!

Your experience sounds familiar

Sheila M. My husband also calls me a "bully" if I want to talk about what happened. I also get accused of harassment or "going on at him". I can only conclude that our upset genuinely causes them distress. It's like when you tell off a child for being naughty and they cry because you are angry with them. I think some people never get beyond that stage of development and weirdly it's often the unfaithful ones who are like that. They're quite childlike in their approach to life and rarely think of others. They don't understand how to listen without judgement and think that their little "mishaps" are not worth the emotionally devastating consequences to their marriage so our feelings almost become a crime against them and we are punished for it. The thing they did that caused it all gets forgotten and the focus becomes the behaviour of the betrayed spouse. I'm sorry your marriage didn't work out. If someone is very self centred it can be hard for them to understand another's feelings. I am seeing a therapist, my husband thinks he's fine as he is. (He could really benefit from examining his motivations and attitudes with a professional but he refuses to do it). I really hope things improve for you. Best of luck.

Same question

I am also looking for an answer to exactly the question you ask at the end of your post. The experiences and feelings you describe are the same that I have had and am having. I am also feeling hopeless. I am sorry that you have had to go through this, and I hope that you find an answer that brings you peace, safety, and hope.

Sheila M and So Sad

I see a psychotherapist to help me get through this. She once suggested that it could be a problem with emotional maturity. Think about what happens when you tell off a child for something they did. The child will start crying, not because they understand and care about why you're upset and angry but because you being angry with them makes them fear you don't love them anymore and that scares them. I'm not saying we married children and should accept them as such but it does seem that type of personality has a tendency to be selfishly impulsive and not give much thought to how their actions impact others. They respond much like a child called out for bad behaviour. This is what I see when I try to talk to my husband. I think I'm trying to get him to understand how he hurt me, he sees the distress but feels blame rather than sympathy. It's an impasse I'm still trying to get through. How to talk to him without triggering the blame feeling. Of course he is to blame for the initial affair but it's how to move forward to be able to talk about feeling hurt and make him understand I'm expressing how I feel and wanting him to listen with understanding, even if he feels bad talking about it.

Hang in there

If Only:
Thanks for sharing your feelings as the betrayed spouse. I'm on the other side of it, learning how to be empathic and consider my spouse's emotions. I realize patience is hard, but I'm thankful my spouse gave me time to come around. Through individual counseling, AR videos and especially my Hope for Healing group, I'm finally starting to "get it" as they say.

I'm a believer and my spouse kept saying, "you don't get it" to me. And for long that was true, I didn't get it. I was so focused on myself, I did not consider anyone else or any long-term impacts of my behavior or choices. One day I while watching an AR video, they talked about having a heart for your spouse and I knew I did not. I prayed that God would give me a new heart and love for my spouse. And I believe that was a pivotal moment, on the spot things did not change, but over the past 8 weeks, I can see God at work in my heart.

I've had to do a lot of self-reflection, asking some very tough questions. This has helped me realize what, inside of me, led to my poor choices. The material in Hope for Healing has been incredibly revealing to help me understand the impact of my actions and how to help me recover as well as support my mate.

Hang with it, there is hope. And thankfully many great resources out there too.

I am sorry for what you are

I am sorry for what you are going through. It sounds exactly the same response I got from my husband. For 5 years after the discovery, he reacted like this. He had periods where he was nice and didn't want to lose me, but he never 'got' it or felt empathy, I was good as long as I pretended to be happy and made sure I never made him angry. After 5 years and realizing that this was really dangerous to my mental and physical health (not to mention abusive) I said I was done and leaving. I was very serious and I did not expect any change. Low and behold he started to go to counseling on his own. Miracles have happened since he took responsibility for himself and his actions. He can now see and hear from me all my hurts. I hope for you that he will take responsibility, without it, nothing will change. Hoping for you. Also - I wish I had not stayed in the abuse as long as I did as now I have many more wounds and mental health things to figure out.

Understanding the unfaithful

AMAZING!! Thank you for your words. This is exactly what I was looking for and now I’m sure I will make it!!

Pride and Shame

Could you make a video explaining how the betrayed should best handle the unfaithful as they are in the pride/shame phase?

Article on Shame

After infidelity by my spouse, life has never been anywhere close to the same - and that is now closing in on 9 years ago. I have never been able to understand either the things she has been doing - which in my world have been anything but helpful, and the things that it seems to me she needs to do if we are ever going to find true healing and restoration - which no matter how obvious it is set up for her to do, she just will not do.

This article NAILS it. It has (FINALLY!) opened up a door of understanding in terms of what is going on. I so appreciate what this article has said. I guess the next question is, "What now??"

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