It might seem strange to be focusing on the betraying spouse. After all, they weren’t the ones who were victimized. However, if the betraying spouse does not grow as a result of the wrong they did, that leaves their betrayed spouse vulnerable.
So yes, it is vital for you, the betraying spouse, to help your partner cope with the fallout of your betrayal. But in the aftermath, you too must focus on your own healing process as well. In this way, you take tangible steps to safeguard your spouse from the possibility of betraying them in the future.
Balanced Coping is Important
Betraying your spouse opens up your marriage to many interpersonal conflicts for you to address. How you choose to cope with these conflicts will largely determine the future of your marriage.
One common tendency might be to focus solely on the needs of your betrayed spouse. It’s easy to devote all your efforts towards calming them down. The risk in this approach is you keep yourself from dealing with the fact that you betrayed them. You don’t address why you did it in the first place, much less how you can prevent yourself from repeating the past.
Or you might even ignore the effects of the betrayal altogether. You act as if nothing happened, turning a blind eye towards the elephant in the room. You think that perhaps the storm will pass, and life will go on as it did before.
Or you might take it to another extreme and focus all of your attention on yourself. You become so self-absorbed in your frustration and even self-pity because of the realization that you have betrayed someone. You force your spouse, intentionally or not, to take care of you instead of leaving them room to deal with their own needs.
This is where balance comes in. In the aftermath of your betrayal, you will need to accommodate both your spouse as well as your own issues. Despite the tension between the concern for your spouse and concern for yourself, you cannot simply focus solely on one or the other. To address both, use an integrated, balanced approach.
Having balanced coping is necessary for the long-term health of your marriage. In the first days following betrayal, your spouse will need extra attention to help their healing process. But as they heal, start concentrating on your own journey of growth so that you do not repeat the betrayal.
In cases of severe or even profound betrayal, it is ideal if both of you have your own individual counselors, with a third counselor who sees you as a couple. This way, you each have someone on “your side” helping you grow while a neutral third party can help you navigate the crisis between the two of you.
Dealing With Shame and Guilt From Betrayal
When you do something you are not proud of, shame and guilt are two very common emotional reactions. They help regulate moral behavior by increasing your self-awareness and stress, helping to make it more difficult to do things that go against your own values.
However, researchers have found that guilt and shame also influence how you handle problems in your relationship. As a result, it’s important to understand how to deal with these emotions.
How do you see yourself? When you’ve done something you deeply regret, how do you see your character and identity? After you’ve betrayed someone, shame may tell you that you are a betrayer, a cheater, an immoral person, or something like this.
Shame makes you feel hopeless because it talks about you as if this is who you have always been and always will be. It frames your betrayal as more than an act: as an integral part of your identity.
While it is crucial to recognize the magnitude of your betrayal and its effect on your spouse, it is more important to focus on the behavior and consequences rather than on shame-based identity motifs.
Rather than pushing you to change and to become a better person, shame paralyzes and prevents you from growing. It disables you, blocking your capacity to do better or make things right.
Because it is such an awful feeling and disabling internal voice, you may try to do whatever it takes to silence it. You might blame your spouse or others so you can prove the accusations wrong. Or you might avoid your spouse altogether, so you don’t have to listen to the shame.
Or you might yield to the accusations, believing that you are the shame-based label you (or others) assign to yourself.
The problem is that shame prevents you and your spouse from problem-solving. It inhibits any effort to reestablish intimacy because if you are only and entirely the person shame makes you out to be, you will naturally want to hide this from your spouse.
However, problem-solving and intimacy are necessary for your marriage to heal and move forward. Shame pushes you away from your spouse at precisely the moment you should be trying to rebuild your connection.
Sometimes the most difficult person to forgive is yourself. This exercise will help you deal with the guilt and shame you feel, giving you the hope you need to move forward. This exercise is available for all of our supporters on our Patreon, so head there and see what steps you can take to find forgiveness for yourself.
How To Deal With Shame
When you default to the idea that you are a horrible person, period, this stops you from uncovering how you came to betray your spouse. While shame is painful, it is also a simple coping mechanism to turn to, particularly in the immediate aftermath of the betrayal.
Because a betraying spouse tends to minimize a betrayal, the betrayed spouse may even overcompensate to make sure that you know what you did. This compounds the effects of shame but also can prevent healing because then you don’t need to address future steps of change; you simply are terrible. End of story.
This is why it’s important not to become paralyzed with shame. Once you admit what you did, then what your spouse really needs is for you to figure out your stuff so that you don’t repeat the betrayal.
What were the actions, beliefs, and decisions that led you there? Did you make excuses along the way? Hide things from yourself or others? Lied about things? How did you come to make those errors in judgment?
You can begin to adopt a healthier perspective by recognizing that you are more than the poor choices you make. Be careful not to minimize, but instead, carefully examine the wrong you did to prevent it from reoccurring.
By understanding where and how you failed to keep your own values, you can learn how to make better choices moving forward.
As you leave behind your shame, you will find a place where you can really examine those choices. And this will bring you face to face with guilt.
This isn’t a happy place. It’s certainly not enjoyable. But it’s a lot more productive than shame. While shame focuses on who you are, guilt takes a look at what you did. Where shame says, “You are and always will be an adulterer,” guilt says, “You hurt your spouse by committing adultery.”
Even a shift in language like this might seem like a subtle change, but it is crucial. When you feel guilty, you realize the situation is no longer hopeless; you can change! Instead of disabling you further, healthy guilt motivates.
Guilt helps you contextualize your betrayal as something finite rather than something infinite. You are able to see how your betrayal affected others, not just what it says about you. This promotes empathy and accountability. Researchers have found that guilt “leads to higher-quality solutions to crises, is associated with constructive anger-management … and controls and inhibits (restrains) actions that are likely to cause harm.”
Thus overall, guilt is more effective in helping your marriage heal after betrayal. This is hard work, but good work to do.
How To Deal With Guilt
While guilt is certainly an improvement over shame, you do need to be aware that not all guilt is productive. Healthy guilt should help you make amends and navigate the recovery of your marriage.
However, just as shame paralyzes you, there is a kind of guilt that can do the same. Maladaptive guilt dwells on the past and gets stuck there. Healthy guilt, also known as adaptive guilt, accepts that what you did was wrong but instead focuses on improvement and forward progress.
It says, “What I did was so wrong, but I will work towards making it right.” It helps you make the necessary changes in your life to prevent repeating the past.
Learn to see yourself as someone with the capacity and means to make things right. As you rebuild your marriage, continue to move forward. Be honest enough to admit your faults, embracing the guilt, but always look towards a hopeful future so you do not foster shame. Focus on owning what went wrong and then on making things right.
Adaptive guilt doesn’t avoid sitting with the consequences of your betrayal. It is uncomfortable but beneficial to feel the effects of what you did so that you can turn those difficult feelings into productive action. It will allow you to make amends, commit to recovery work, and to extend compassion and empathy to your betrayed spouse as they deal with their grief.
If you set aside your shame and move towards (and even embrace) your guilt, you will be able to courageously confront your past failure and start building a future where your marriage can heal and thrive once more.
Behrendt, Hadar, and Rachel Ben-Ari. “The Positive Side of Negative Emotion: The Role of Guilt and Shame in Coping with Interpersonal Conflict.” The Journal of Conflict Resolution 56, no. 6 (December 2012): 1116–38.
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Behrendt and Ben-Ari.
Sack, David. “5 Ways to Silence Shame.” Professional. PsychologyToday, January 13, 2015. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/where-science-meets-the-steps/201501/5-ways-silence-shame.
Behrendt and Ben-Ari.
Behrendt and Ben-Ari.
Selva, Joaquin. “Why Shame and Guilt Are Functional For Mental Health.” Professional. PositivePsychologyProgram, August 21, 2018. https://positivepsychologyprogram.com/shame-guilt/.