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

The Antidote for Shame: Understanding the Unfaithful

Are you struggling with shame and have no idea how to break free? This week I'd like to share material from our Hope for Healing Course for Unfaithful Spouses:

Ego's Attack

When seeking to understand infidelity, the wayward spouse must inevitably be willing to confront their ego.

It's a safe assumption that in many ways, the unfaithful spouse has made life all about their ego and how they are perceived by others. At the core of ego is a sense of emptiness that we continually try to fill in life. Ego is driven to find ways of filling our inner void for love, acceptance, security, respect, significance, and assurance. In today's world the ego goes about filling that void by puffing itself up to obtain the validation and affirmation it so badly craves in order to have our relational needs met. It lives in fear of being judged and found insufficient or 'wanting.'

That's the problem with ego. Even if I accomplish something today I continue to judge myself and put pressure on both self and others to continually stroke my ego.

Self-focus and ego drive me to continually prove that I'm significant.

The higher I inflate the self the further I can fall into inferiority if I'm deemed inadequate by self or others.

Self is competitive by nature. It's continually trying to prove it's superior by comparing itself to other people. In the book Mere Christianity, CS Lewis points out the competitiveness that 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 person. 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. 1

Grappling with Shame

"Shame" is no different than pride or superiority. It is still based on the ego's competitive nature, trying to meet the needs of our ego through the comparison of self against others. In the case of shame, 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 my 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. My ego looks to my mate for validation and affirmation. I want him/her to serve as a vanity mirror, which reflects my image and allows me to feel secure, special, and whole. However in marriage my mate tends to be more like a magnifying mirror, revealing all of my blemishes and flaws. As a result the self isn't validated and my ego is wounded.

What I need from this relationship is driven by my sense of who I am.

For instance if I see myself as a failure I may need constant affirmation from my mate to feel good about myself. Marital expectations determine what I want from the relationship. For instance if I believe it's my mates responsibility to make me happy and we get in a fight, I'll feel a much deeper rift than one who takes responsibility for his or her own happiness; or if I believe I'm responsible for my mate's happiness and they are miserable then I'll feel a void of love that comes from my mate's lack of positive response.

There is a bit of good in the worst of us and a bit of bad in the best of us.

I believe marriage is a people-growing machine 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. What you've done may not be the same magnitude as infidelity, but we've all wounded others. How we respond to relational pain, whether we are in the role of betrayer or betrayed, is largely determined by whether or not I understand it's not all about me, that life is hard, and that I am not in control.

The Wounded Ego

If I see life as being all about me, I feel entitled to abandon my commitment to my mate and look elsewhere to sooth my wounded ego.

I'll seek validation though things such as affairs, power, control, alcohol, drugs, shopping, porn, etc. Even though I feel justified in seeking fulfillment through these other venues, I'll still attempt to hide these behaviors out of a fear of judgment and a loss of esteem.

These behaviors can successfully meet my needs for validation, but only for a brief moment or season. They come at the cost of my ego when my behaviors are discovered and I'm judged for my behavior and seen as a failure. Now, because of my failure, I shift from pride to shame as I compare myself to others, but it's still not about a concern for others. To overcome my shame I begin working on my self-engineering. I work on my self-esteem, my self-control, my self-image, my self-concept, all in an attempt to once again feel good about myself. Once my self-esteem is reestablished I again look to my mate to meet my needs and affirm my image of self.

When my mate falls short of providing the level of validation I need to salve the wound to my ego, I'm once again tempted to abandon my commitment to my mate to seek whatever is necessary to fill the hole in my soul. In this cycle, self is far more important than others.

Pride's Antidote

"The antidote for pride is humility. Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less". 1

Instead of thinking of all the ways I'm superior (pride) or inferior (shame) to others, I begin to realistically look at my life and recognize I'm no better or worse than others. That we're all people and each has equal right to be here. It's accepting the reality that I've probably been much more difficult to live with than anyone that's ever irritated me.

Humility is about letting go of the belief that I know what's best.

It's accepting the reality that what others think is as important as what I think. Humility isn't about shaming one's self; it's about getting outside of self to bring life to others so you can legitimately feel good about who you are.

The antidote for shame is self-forgiveness and self-acceptance.

Instead of beating yourself up with whatever is on today's agenda you accept yourself "good enough, as is, 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 let who you are be enough. 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're ready to move out of shame and are looking for a process-oriented approach, register for Hope for Healing today at 12:00 PM CST!

  1. Lewis, C.S. (1952). Mere Christianity. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

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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!

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.

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.

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