A common roadblock to rebuilding after an affair is the relentless emotion of shame in the betrayer. Most people are aware of how painful an affair is to the betrayed spouse, but few are aware of what it does to the spouse who had an affair. I’ll try to give a nice concise summary. Commonly the betrayer starts with guilt and a harsh critical voice of self-hatred. Many times betrayers refuse to think or discuss the affair because doing so brings up such strong feelings of disgust that is directed at themselves. They are in pain when discussing it because they do not want to see their injured spouse struggle with the devastation they caused and they don’t want to think of themselves as someone who could do something so inhuman. Once guilt has crossed the line into shame, spouses who had the affair commonly feel repairing the marriage is hopeless.
Guilt says “I feel bad about what I did.” Shame says, “I am bad, because of my actions.” People who experience shame commonly feel embarrassed, unacceptable, inferior or inadequate about themselves. Shame is a problem when rebuilding the marriage for one specific reason (and there are others), it causes people to hide and withdraw and makes it difficult to be vulnerable with their spouse. It creates a barrier to intimacy. It’s believed, “If only you knew how bad I was you’d reject me.” Shame also makes it difficult to recover from an affair because the betrayer is so distraught they don’t want to discuss it or talk about any aspect of the affair. Typically the spouse who has been betrayed has a need to discuss the affair and ask questions to make sense of it. The shame filled betrayer commonly has a problem discussing the affair. Often it makes them sick to their stomach to think about their actions. It’s believed, “Why talk about it when I’m disgusted by it and it hurts you?” Clearly this can lead to a couple experiencing a negative cycle every time the affair is discussed.
Shame usually crystallizes for most betrayers after the affair is over. Guilt and shame can be experienced while the affair is ongoing. In fact it may be what causes the betrayer to end the affair.
Commonly Shame is Experienced Like This:
- Feeling uncertain and insecure
- Being afraid to be seen as stupid or incompetent
- Feeling inferior
- Feeling like you don’t fit in
- Feeling like an imposter
- Feeling unwanted and rejected, ineffective or deficient.
Someone who is experiencing shame may say something like this, “I don’t like him crying, I think I hurt him enough, I feel I let him down. I don’t feel adequate for him. I’ve done nothing, but pull him down. I’m convinced you'd be better off without me. I’m afraid of discussions about the affair coming back up. I know I need him, but he is better off without me.”
The antidote to shame is self-compassion, and the adoration and praise of the non-shamed spouse.