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

How Could You? Part I: 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?” 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 good 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.

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.

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 change. Take advantage of the Affair Recovery recourses. If you’re in crisis and want to accelerate your healing, join us at our next marriage retreat at Affair Recovery. Three full days addressing your struggles can accomplish what would normally take months if you’re meeting a therapist once a week. Please don’t delay your healing from infidelity. Get the help you need.



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I've never had an article cause triggers in advance of a follow up article.  This one subject will certainly be a hotbed of responses.

This is THE only lingering question that remains in understanding my wife's affair.  Why would such an incredible person/mother/wife/woman, of such high standards and personal character, compromise all her ethics and family by having an affair? Why would she risk losing it all.  Why would she want to sacrifice every bit of respect for someone who was so obviously manipulating her?  All the excuses in the world don't justify it.

I'm looking forward to the next article. It can't come quickly enough.

Re: Pre-Triggers

Your response is very familiar to me. it was the most difficult thing for me to process also after my wife's affair 5 years ago. It was so difficult to get my head around why she would give so much to a person who was asking her to risk so many things that were supposedly important to her while offering her nothing in return. The affiar partner was a manipulator and generally a failure in many areas of his life. Very tough to process.

Getting past it was not a serial, one dimmensional process. Rather it involved multiple dimmensions and my willingsness to be patient in incrementally understanding each dimmension at different paces.

In time we explored together how our infertility had made my wife feel like a failure within our marriage. Since the affair partner was such a mess as a person, he saw my wife as a highly successful person (and she is) and gave her immensely positive affirmation, something my wife was starving to get. She later described being very suprised by her strong reaction to his attention.

We also explored how her sense of failure became a pattern of her rejecting my affection (remember, she was convinced that she was a failure in my eyes and not in his). This pattern did not feel good to me, but I always thought the loving thing to do was to give her space and let her heal at here own pace. I thought I was being selfless, which made the affair that much more hurtful.

Ultimately I came to see that the affiar was not about me. For a long time I was very uncomfortable with that idea because I so desperately wish her choice would have been about me... would have been me.  But eventually I was able to accept this. Her affair was about her, her pain, her needs and a temporary bubble of relief from those heavy feelings. The affair was a really artificial relationship based upon very shallow infatuation, but that does change the fact that it psychologically offered my wife relief from feeling like a failure, which was a really powerful dynamic for her.

So in order for me to feel safe again, the key was to see her work on herself. And one of the key barometers for me was whether she could work through her own issues enough (we had our work to do together too) such that she could accept my affection again. And she does. It melts my heart when I tell her she looks pretty and she smiles back at be the way she used to. I am very happily married to her today.

Take courage.


Wife who had an affair...

Anonymous - wow.... I'm am so interested to hear more about u and ur wife's story of healing! I had an affair about 3 months ago and am struggling to make good choices!! My husband desperately wants me to work on our marriage and end the affair...and he has been put through hell (by me) as I continue in my struggles! I agree that we (people who have the affair) have our own individual issues and that our marriage also likely has issues.... Please share how u stayed strong and how your wife finally came to sanity about her choices - coming to understand that her affair partner was not really who he seemed At the time - the love of her life.... I am so excited and encouraged to see ur still together and happy!!

Multiple Responses to My Story

I am the person that shared the story of my wife's affair 5 years ago. I hesitated to share because I felt I might be navigating into over-sharing. But in my heart I felt that my story might be useful.

In response to a few questions and reactions to my story:

One key thing that I left out is that I had my work to do to get through the process too. And (I am sure this will be familiar to Rick) I did not like my psychologist at all sometimes. It was a fight at times to get me to focus on me. But the more I applied myself to that, the more I found useful techniques to pursue my own relief. In the end, I could choose to remain a victim or not. And my technique was to visualize that victim mentality I had seen others as remind myself how unconstructive that is. Being a righteous victim has very limited benefit. But for some reason it’s a common instinct to hold on to that. I had to make a conscious choice to let go of that and dedicate myself to my own healing and relief from the intrusive thoughts and images. It is so worth the work!!

Also, I would share that a key to recovery was that both of us really wanted the marriage. I can imagine that this is not always the case. And for me, it naturally took a significant amount of time for my belief in her desire to build back up. But I had to remind myself to intentionally look for evidence of her working to save the marriage. It’s weird, but as much as I wanted to see that, as soon as I saw it I just wanted to question it which actually was an obstacle to what I really wanted. I had to learn to see her effort for what it really was and not let my reaction to the trauma prevent me from getting courage and optimism from seeing her work.

Another thing I would share for both spouses in the situation is that anything you can do, anything at all you can do to get a break from the emotionality is very, very helpful. In my novice view, I think this must be a very personalized process in terms of how a couple or a person individually might make this happen. But in my experience, it’s so important. Not easy, but important.

Lastly for now, my encouragement is to believe that on some levels that you and your spouse can eventually share a common perspective of what happened. This was so hard and for me and was the first major obstacle I had as the hurt spouse. I was so angry that she just could not get it. Now I understand that her experience was different, what she was feeling, experiencing and remembering was just as intense but so very different from what I was going through. And I just wanted her to get over herself and see me. This was natural but ignorant. She had a lot going on personally, and honestly, in the immediate aftermath, she had very little bandwidth emotionally to process what was I was going through… and I was demanding that immediately! But it just was not humanly possible. And now on many levels we look back at that time as just a very, very sad chapter in our history. It’s so much less now about betrayal and a vacancy of loyalty; it’s about a sad chapter for us. I love her and I actually feel sympathetic to what she was going through at the time. I never imagined I would feel that way.

I want to be clear that I am sharing this as encouragement and not as a set of expectations that any person should just apply to his or her own situation. I think the recovery process is very common in some ways and very personalized in some ways. My prayers for each of you!

I dont know

Sometimes I wonder if I am just conforming because I dont want to be alone or if there is really hope for my marriage. My wife was caught a couple of years ago and with much patience she finally ended the emotional affair about 6 months ago. She couldnt let him go because she was sure our marriage was going to end and they were going to start a new life together even though he was married. He was really good at making her feel special which is a big fat key point I lacked in our amost 20 years of marriage. I feel like a complete jerk for doing her wrong and now that I want to make things right I wonder if she is just staying with me because she has nowhere to go or what. She wont go to counseling with me, she barely tells me she loves me (which I'm not sure if she's in love with me), as well as other things I wont get into to. There are times I feel her love but there are other times that I feel neglected as well. I know I'm not the only one feeling this way and I feel the original posters response was indeed as good as any I've read here. Truth be told, I'm just not sure where to go. Do I stick it out or do I call it quits before I get too deep and she gets too comfortable. Trust me, I love this woman more than anything but I would like a marriage, the emotional commitment, the physical affection, being cherished, not really a roommate. Like the OP says, do I really just let her heal on her own? Do I let her be and hope that someday she'll come around? I am so confused and hurt still that I just dont know what else to do.

Re: I Don't Know

(I'm the person that is 5 years in recovery with my wife)

I feel your pain. It's very hard. And it really stinks to be alone with those thoughts and questions.

I can only share what I experienced as it relates to a few questions you raised. For me, I had to find a barometer that worked for me, and I had to learn that it could not be how I felt moment to moment. I worked to see that the best indicator for me as to whether the relationship was becoming safer for me was that she was working on her self and becoming increasingly able to accept my affection. This is different from "letting her heal on her own" as you put it.

Also, in order to work to save my marriage, I had to become comfortable with not knowing what the outcome would be. That's tough too. But she had her work to do, her choices to make and those had to be owned by her and I had to accept whatever outcome came from that. There was a period in which I was anxious that the work she did with her therapist would result in her realization that the relationship was not right for her. And I would want a full report after her sessions as to assess my own vulnerability to further hurt. That was not healthy at all.

The more I focused on myself and learning to develop my own voice about what I felt that I needed to feel safe enough to keep working, in my case, the more free she felt to work on herself. It was as if once I freed her from owning my emotional state, we started to make progress... and part of that was her feeling more free to focus on her self. But that does not mean that we did not work toghether with our therapist to establish an agreement around her accountability to me (and us to each other) as we each did our work.

My story is that eventually we both started bringing healthier persons to the relationship than maybe we ever had.

In my view, there is no assurance for a betrayed spouse in this process as much as we all have felt that we deserved to have that "given back to us"... but this is my story. 



Re: multiple responses

Your post was so thoughtful, forgiving. How long did it take to get to where you are now? D "day" for me was spread out over 5 months from July to December 2012- he watched porn, had at least 6 sex partners & many more he kissed, sexted, texted, called, took pictures of, sent pictures to, was attracted to & interested in. He's expressed regrets, says his thinking was not right, he loves me. But...although I'm in therapy there are many days I question how I can live with this, too many triggers, too many other women. I divorced my 1st husband over 1 infidelity, why do I want to subject myself to this & the possibility it could happen again?

Your response

I cannot thank whoever you are enough for the response you gave.  I couldn't have felt more connected to what you wrote.  It was like reading an explanation of what I couldn't figure out for myself.  We too, were going through fertility treatments.  Our final IVF treatment failed two weeks before his short affair.  I love him and we are trying to start our marriage over with our eyes open this time.  It is difficult because I have the same questions and torments as you do but I pray God will provide the answers and your experience is now a healing part of that.  I have read every book on the shelf to help myself decrease my pain but your answer told me what hundreds of books couldn't explain.  You are a piece of my finding peace again.  Thank you for taking the time to write this. 

Thanks for your response.

17 months since discovery and floods of triggers, anger, self doubt, therapy, study, medication and pain. I've come so close to just ending my marriage. You just did more for me in your one response than anything or anyone else ever has. Thank you for your response.

Thank you

Thank you so much for sharing this. I am holding on to hope I can repair my marriage to my wife. I have always felt that it was about me, but what you said here gives me a new perspective thank you.

Take courage

Well said. Well written. Thankyou.

They do it because: - they

They do it because: - they assume they will not be caught. - they have disengaged from the marriage and think they do not care if they are caught. After all they have found the *real* love of their lives.

Exactly! This is the missing

Exactly! This is the missing piece of the puzzle I am trying to put together. I can't wait to hear what comes back. As hard as I have tried I can't figure this piece out. I used to feel so greatful when my girlfriends would talk abt what they would do if their husband had an affair. I "knew" beyond a shadow of a doubt that I didn't have to worry. I was so wrong. My husband had an emotional affair, which for me is the worse kind. With a one night stand I think, over time, I might have been able to work thru the pain. Please don't get me wrong, both are so painful and there is never an excuse for infedility. But maybe a one night stand might mean he was missing physical intimacy in our relationship but his EA means he was missing the emotional intimacy. And dealing with that by having an affair makes no sense to me. I will be on pins & needles waiting to hear what you find out.

Me too!

I haven't even read the article yet, but I could have written every word of your comment!



It's been over a year and I

It's been over a year and I still wonder how the man I know and love could have an entirely different personality hidden from me. It felt like my husband was jeckyl and Hyde. And he lied so flawlessly. So flawlessly that I'm still not sure what to believe. If I didn't know then how will I know now?

Re: It's been over a year and I...

Hello M in Texas,

Just about everything you wrote can apply to my situation too, even down to the time frame. The justification is insane, it has been tearing me apart.

You say Jeckyl and Hyde, you are so right!  I have been saying similar too: "body snatched."

Keep your chin up, and lean on Jesus.

C in Texas


The question remains unanswered for me as well. My beautiful wife of 15 years whom I adored; whom everyone adored - why would she? how could she?

good timing

This exact question is what I am struggling with the most. It is extremely difficult for me to imagine that someone who is not only capable of this kind of betrayal, but acts on it, is capable ever again of acting in a way that exhibits full integrity. And the larger question for myself is do I really need to spend, or owe him, the time and potential risk to find out. I look forward to the next few articles, but wish that this one had more. I am borderline desperate for some glimmer of understanding and hope that the person I knew to be my loyal, trustworthy, kind and caring husband still exists. Right now the man I see before me is a stranger capable of causing indescribable pain.

This too is my lingering

This too is my lingering question. How could my husband of over three decades, the father of our eight children, a deacon in the church, and the one I looked up to for his Christian integrity fall so far? It just doesn't make sense. How could he live a lie for eight years before I finally found out because God told me? Even with that I wanted to argue with God that it just couldn't be. He would never do that. But God is truth, and so was His word to me that day 19 months ago. How could he then continue on with the lie for another five months? Praise God, he finally saw what he was doing, and we are on the right path now. I could never have imagined being on this journey, nor could I make it without my Lord.

It is so hard to think about what he has done. How could he turn his back on our children? How could he turn his back on me? More importantly, how could he turn his back on God?

This is something that has

This is something that has been driving me crazy too. I have asked my husband this question but he cannot seem to answer it. Our counselor told me that the answer will not make sense to me because he was not thinking logically at that time. I can't wait for the next article!


In my case I was involved with pornography for many years. It went against all of my values. I kept telling myself that I was going to stop and that this time would be the last time. I prayed and made promises to God. Yet I also made so many excuses for my behavior. I minimized, rationalized, justified, compartmentalized, etc. They were only pictures. I would never do this in real life. I'm not really hurting anyone. etc. I'm so sorry for having lived this way. So sorry that this "monster" lives within me. May I put him to death today and tomorrow. May I learn from yesterday's mistakes and let the Lord's light transform my heart and my actions today!


Even through  years of recovery of the nightmare of my husband's affair, That question still haunts me.

He is a christian family man who demonstrated his love for me and his children. I look forward to future articles to try and make some sense of all this.

painful questions with seemingly no answers

These are the same questions that haunt me. How could a wonderful, caring, Christian husband of 30 years abandon his family these past four years for a secrete lifestyle of ponorgraphy, strip clubs and ultimately have an affair with someone who was a swinger? How could he use all of our savings to live this lifestyle? Why was I so willing to believe him when he said he was traveling for work? Even though I see he is working hard to change, how do I know if I am safe? We tried counseling...he used the time to lie and distort the truth to the point where all the blame was placed on me. A year later, he expresses regrets for things he said and did and wants to come back, but my nagging fear is that if it happened once and I didn't recognize it, how would I know if I the "monster" has returned and I am in danger again?

My spouse behaved in a

My spouse behaved in a similar way but when I look back his behavior changed-even though I didn't know what he was doing, he became critical of me, short tempered with me and the kids-so there were signs something was off. You don't need to worry about trusting him-you have to trust yourself. There are always signs and if u start to feel unsafe-or that something isn't quite right-trust yourself to distance yourself from him. I allowed myself to be treated badly, thinking if I was just a better wife things would be ok. I can't control him or change him but I can get away if I'm not feeling safe in our relationship-that's my ticket to peace.

Your story is very similar to

Your story is very similar to my own. I pray that God will give you wisdom to know when to trust and when to question. Going through betrayal is hard enough the first time, be cautious so that you don't experience this pain again.


Like the others who have posted here, your follow-up to the question of "why" someone who has always had strong moral values would stoop to having an affair needs to be explained. I look forward to your future articles on this topic. For me the cheating, mostly an emotional affair, was bad enough, but the dishonesty involved is what is hardest to "get over." I just can't get any kind of an answer to "why" that makes any sense.

This truly helps me

This truly helps me make sense of why my husband had cheated on not just me but his ex's before me as well. He has this overwhelming thought that he is going to get hurt by me just like two of his ex's had cheated on him he felt the need to do it before I could ever do it to him. He completely lost all sight of who he TRULY was with his ex and he still isn't fully over the pain she caused him. It's like he feels as if every woman is out to get him so he went to a hooker the ONLY one who didn't actually care.


One thing I read a few years ago on this topic said that there is no logical explanation for illogical behavior. And something I have struggled with is what kind of a person am I who would do such a thing and hurt the woman I love and the God I love so deeply? While in the middle of it all the only thing I thought about was my own emotional pleasure at that instant. And of course I never thought about getting caught nor about the consequences of my behavior. I am so thankful today to have received a second chance.

That explains a lot...  my

That explains a lot...  my wife during the course of the affair was able to go through the process of adopting a 5 year old girl with me...  This child had a lot of issues with lying, and my wife would give extensive lectures about why it's wrong to lie to people...  She was also teaching sunday school at our church up until a week prior to D day, and went on with our lives as if nothing was going on, leading a great example in public...  however, in secret, while at work she was in constant contact via text and phone with her AP (who was also married with 4 kids,) and met up with him for almost a year...  I often ask myself how was she able to sleep at night, much less in the same bed as me...  She was a good person, with morals and values that even I envied!  Fortunately, we are reconciling, and building the marriage we have always wanted...  not easy, but this article really has helped me come to some form of understanding...  looking forward to hearing more about moral disengagement in the coming weeks...

I really admire you. Your

I really admire you. Your ability to forgive and move on is fantastic. I presume that your wife is trying to understand how she made such a terrible decision. I wish you both luck. I wish we were like you.

This does make sense

My husband too carried on with life as usual--teaching Cub Scouts and leading our boys through lessons of how to live morally and to choose friendships that will encourage you to live to your values. I told him last week it concerns me that he could live with us, teaching our children, coaching their teams and loving me all while cheating. How is that possible? Should it scare me more than the wayward spouse that has disengaged fromt their family life and believes they no longer love their spouse? I think so. I think it is harder to wrap my head around a man that can deceive everyone in his life with the lie of an affair but continue to value the morals and good character.

This does make sense...

This behavior describes my wife. 6 years of cheating with 2 ex boyfriends. Sexting, texting, phone calls, meeting up with...even going out of town on a weekend trip with one of them.
I can remember nights when she would get off work and wouldn't come home until the next day and act as if nothing was wrong. My kids would be scared wondering when she'd come home.
I probably had sex with her after she'd been having sex with her so called friend. It's truly disgusting. I asked questions about the affair that fell on deaf ears. I had to sift through emails and texts to put it all together. She even sent nude photos to these men. Never did that with me even when we were dating. He doesn't want her and the other just wanted sex and photos.
I feel like I have been taken advantage of. She apologizes and she is trying to work things out to make our relationship stronger. But I will never be able to fully trust her because I now know what she is capable of doing. She led a double life and pretended for so long that I don't trust her. Some days I feel like leaving. Other days I feel like doing the same thing back to her. If I can last 8 more years (both kids will be adult age) I plan to leave if things haven't changed. I told her that if she ever cheated on me again I would walk away and never look back. I would never wish this emotional train wreck on even my worst enemy! It's been the hardest most draining thing I've had to go through in my life.
I pray every day that things get better. I feel as though I forgave pre maturely. She was not honest in telling me what I needed to know. She hid a lot of things from me and denied when confronted with the hard evidence. Some days I look at her and I wonder what I married.
How am I going to make it?....

My first thought sadly after

My first thought sadly after reading this was that how much less painful being shocked with 450 volts of electricity would be than dealing with my husband's affair.

I feel your pain

I think that is a great way of putting it. I feel and know your pain. Keep at it. It WILL get better! We can do this because God heals, loves, and cares for us!

So confused, so angry

As I read this article, tears streaming down my face, the weight of another's choices press down on me like so many bricks...do we ever really get an answer to the why's and how could you's? I have gotten so desperate retrospectively that I realized I was literally handing my mate all of the tools he needed to begin to fix this and telling him the things I wished or wanted him to say, which of course when parroted back to me were utterly meaningless as they came from my heart, not his. I really don't know what to do anymore. He wants to "move forward" and "get past this" but refuses to do any actual work to rebuild trust....His actions are not matching his words and it is killing me one day at a time. My heart goes out to every one of you here. I wish you luck and love....

I don't know if anyone will

I don't know if anyone will see this to offer up answers, but here goes. When I discovered my husband was again (or still) involved with his AP for the third time in 2.5 yrs, I told him I wanted him out of the house. He complied and has been gone for 8 months. He tells me occasionally he wants to try and work on our marriage but never follows through. He continually tells me that I'm the one who threw him out of the house and is so angry about that. Have any of you worked thru this? I have asked him to come home many times and told him I wanted him to come home but he usually just says I'm the one who forced him out of the home. I wonder if I ruined any chance of recovery by doing that? Can this fact alone be overcome? I tell him Im not asking for a guarantee that the marriage will work, just a chance for that. Meanwhile, he quit seeing his AP once, but has started seeing her again I'm sure. He says he's working through things. It's been 8 months! How long does he need? I wonder if I'm a fool for even wanting to try, much less how foolish I am for continuing to offer him my love and grace. I feel like I'm drowning in my pain waiting for something that may never happen.

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