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

How Could You? Part I: Why We Commit Betrayal With Infidelity

Why We Commit Betrayal with Infidelity

Series: How Could You?

Part 1: Why We Commit Betrayal With Infidelity

Two weeks ago a woman screamed at her mate, “How could you?” She went on to scream more of the same questions we’re probably all pretty familiar with by now: “How could you do this to our family?” “How could you jeopardize all that we’ve built together and worked for?” “How could you put the family at risk?” “How could you do this to not only me, but yourself?”

I remember, as the tears ran down her face and he hung his head in shame, asking myself “Why would you?” From all reports he was a decent guy and she a good woman. They seemed to have it all; beautiful children, a well off life style and yet he had done something neither of them ever imagined would happen. Why?

Did he lack character? Was there something amiss in his moral development? Perhaps there was some sort of deep childhood wound at the core of his betrayal? Even so, I’m sure countless others have suffered similar wounds and they’ve not betrayed their mates with infidelity.

Betraying Their Own Morality

There is a looming question that I’d like to begin to unpack and address over the next couple of weeks. It’s not just how does someone commit a betrayal of infidelity on their mate, but more specifically, how do they betray their own sense of morals and values? How do they suspend what was at one time a core value held dear to them, allowing them to have an affair or engage in behavior that once would have repulsed them?

In 1961, psychologist Stanley Milgram (Milgram obedience studies: Stanley Milgram, Behavioral Study of Obedience, “Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology”, 67 (1963)) sought to discover the personality profile of those individuals in Nazi Germany who had marched millions of Jews, Poles and misfits of their society into the gas chambers. Social psychologist estimated that only 1.2 percent of the population would fit that profile. To identify these individuals an experiment was conducted where subjects were told they were part of an experiment determining the effectiveness of negative reinforcement in learning. Their role was to administer an electrical shock to a student in the adjacent room each time the student failed to supply the correct answer to a problem. Each time the student failed the voltage of the shock was increased. While the subject couldn’t see the student, they could hear a recording of what they thought was the student in the next room, screaming and begging them to stop.

To begin the subjects were given a 45 volt shock as an example of what the first shock felt like, the same one that they would give the student upon missing the problem. They were also told the student had a heart problem, but the electrical shock would pose no danger to the student. With each missed problem the subject would raise the voltage and flip the switch. (Remember, the student was not actually being shocked.) Many of the subjects paused at 135 volts and questioned the purpose of the experiment. Eventually, if the voltage levels exceeded 315 volts, the subject would hear nothing as he or she continued to raise the voltage, cruelly flipping the switch when they heard no answer to the problem given.

If at any time the subject tried to stop the experiment a scientist in a lab jacket would inform him the experiment required him to continue. This was done up to four times. If the subject requested to stop the experiment a fifth time, the scientist would finally stop the experiment. Otherwise, the experiment stopped only after subject had given the maximum voltage of 450 volts.

Is There A Monster In All of Us?

Milgram believed that he would have to go through several hundred subjects to find those few individuals who would administer the maximum voltage. As it turned out, 65% of the subjects would inflict the maximum level of shock and pain! Milgram had not found a few sociopaths who would give their souls to a totalitarian and brutal cause; rather he found a potential monster in all of us.

Why would “normal” American citizens act in the same way as Nazi guards who participated in putting millions to death? Why do we place such a premium on the approval of others even when they are strangers?

Some of you may be asking what this has to do with infidelity, but if a majority of “normal” people in Milgram’s experiment were able to suspend their own sense of humanity to the point where they believed they may have killed someone, is it too far-fetched to see how individuals might also commit the betrayal they never thought possible?

“Edmund Burke’s aphorism that, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing’ needs a companion phrase: ‘The triumph of evil requires a lot of good people, doing a bit of it [evil], in a morally disengaged way, with indifference to the human suffering they… cause.’” (Selective Moral Disengagement in the Exercise of Moral Agency: Albert Bandura 2002)

Over the next few weeks we’ll explore the process of moral disengagement and how individuals abandon what they believe, betray their loved ones, and allow themselves to act in ways they never thought imaginable. We’ll also look at ways to stay true to what you believe.

If you find yourself in a situation where the unimaginable has occurred, there is hope both for recovery and for understanding. Take advantage of our Affair Recovery recourses. If you’re in crisis and want to accelerate your healing, join us at EMS Weekend and finish this year with tangible hope and clarity. Three full days addressing your struggles with expert therapists who have been through infidelity before personally, will absolutely bring about restoration to you and possibly to the marriage.   



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Am I a Nazi or a student in a

Am I a Nazi or a student in a social experiment? I don't want harm to come to my wife. I actually still love her. Or at least I love what she used to be before I destroyed her. She was so strong; I didn't think leaving would phase her. I didn't think she needed me. I had made up my mind that I should leave long before. I told her I wanted a divorce before I had the "affair". I hesitate to use that word as I was leaving, not trying to sneak around and come home to her. I didn't do it well. I found someone that wanted me. Someone that I was sure absolutely needed me. I just wanted to be needed again. Straight out the door and into the arms of someone that was so supportive. Thinking about my ex wife keeps me up at night. I think the most helpful thing I could do is tell her that I don't love her. Maybe tell her that I never did. Can you tell if that would be a mistake. I can endure that pain if you think it will help her.

What about the other 35%

I read this and understand the ways the 65% could stray from their morals but what about the percentage that don't. Rather than assuming we can and just accepting that why not highlight why a percentage doesn't. As the survivor of infidelity, I wonder why we continue to use the anyone can betray at any time mantra which appears to allow the betrayer to get the fast pass out with no analysis of person. I am really wanting to know why there are those who don't betray when given all the same opportunity. We revel in the reasons why they can and do betray, rather than the study and rejoice of those who do not. It's too bad that we all want to star at the train wreck, but fail to attend to the beauty of the meadow on the other side of the road.

I totally agree. I'm so tired

I totally agree. I'm so tired of hearing the "we could all find ourselves in the midst of an affair" but some of us never do!! We are all equally human, equally sinful, have similar opportunities to cheat, similar numbers of invitations to cheat, attraction to others outside of our marriage, times of boredom and disappointment within our marriage, yet some of us remain committed and some of us don't. Those of us who remain committed aren't pretending we are any more holy or less sinful than those who cheat, but there is something to it. It would be nice to study it, as the previous person suggested, so perhaps we could at least pass down the skills and strategies to our children. My daughter just asked me, "mom, is there something wrong with dad for him to do this, or is it just selfishness?" What gives some of us the ability to selflessly respect God and our spouse so greatly that despite the cost to ourselves we have chosen to never cheat?

Great article, but I have had

Great article, but I have had multiple affairs, I can see how the first time and believe that I am learning about myself, gaining knowledge and tools to heal and protect my marriage at all cost thru the “Hope for Healing” but how does this article apply to multiple affairs?