It finally happened. Maybe it was the first time, maybe the twentieth. You betrayed your spouse, and they know what you did. And now you feel awful. You want to make it right, to go back to how things used to be before you did the unthinkable.
But even after some time, you don’t seem to be making any progress. Your spouse reacts very strongly to minor things and even things seemingly unrelated to the betrayal. Clearly, they haven’t gotten over it. What is happening?
When your spouse experiences a significant betrayal, it often leaves lasting trauma. And helping your spouse get over an affair is going to take work and effort from you. When dealing with that trauma, you want to make sure that you that the words you say and the actions you take to contribute to their healing and wellbeing, rather than adding to the problem.
One of the most common struggles for a spouse who has betrayed their love one is to be somewhat (or very) defensive when discussing the betrayal.
Why Defensiveness Doesn’t Work
As the offending spouse, it’s very easy to be defensive. You admitted that you were at fault; what more can you do? You’re working on changing yourself to make sure it doesn’t reoccur, so why can’t they realize that and get on with their life?
Many times that defensiveness comes from a good place. You might be trying to calm down your spouse to create an environment more conducive to healing. So you downplay what you did in an attempt to minimize the hurt your spouse is feeling. “It wasn’t so bad,” you say. “There’s still hope for our marriage!”
This defensiveness and minimization is an automatic response, but at the end of the day, it perpetuates the problem. It tells your spouse that you don’t understand their pain, and inadvertently sends a signal that this betrayal may happen again.
It’s a genuine but misguided effort at taking care of your spouse’s pain.
Sometimes this response happens due to ongoing addiction, the very same addiction that led to the betrayal in the first place. And you are still stuck in the first step to recovery. You haven’t accepted your addiction; you are still in denial.
Regardless of why you are defensive, your spouse sees your reaction as proof that you don’t understand the gravity of the situation. In the case of addiction, it communicates that you don’t know how out of control you are, so they are pressured to increase the volume of their accusations to break through your denial. And the more you deny, the more you minimize, the louder they must become. Even apart from an addiction, your defensiveness sends the signal that you aren’t willing to see the pain your betrayal caused.
This cycle can be extremely distressing to both of you and very difficult to stop. To break the cycle, you need to do three things to help you move forward:
1. Admit Your Guilt
Your defensiveness can show up in a few ways. In some cases, it is just a brazen denial of guilt (to the point of lying). In this case, you may hope that by denying all that happened your spouse may not be hurt as badly. That’s nice: but your spouse already knows you’re lying so this approach is not going to work.
In other cases, it’s not about lying but about trying to talk your spouse out of the negative feelings they have around the betrayal. Again, there’s a sincere attempt to help your spouse overcome the profound distress of the betrayal. The difficulty is that this approach also comes across as if you’re actually denying your guilt. It won’t work.
And in other cases, you may be pushing some of the blame back on your spouse: perhaps even going as far as to say if s/he was more sexually available, you wouldn’t have gone looking outside your marriage. Of course, this also comes across as a denial of your own guilt because of the blame shifting involved. It also won’t work.
You have to admit the full extent of your responsibility instead of denying it or blaming the other person for your choices. Sure, there might have been reasons for why you did what you did, but now is not the time to go into that.
Your betrayal has shattered your spouse’s view of both you and your marriage to the breaking point. They are far too vulnerable to consider their contribution to the betrayal right now. There may be time for that later.
Again, this defensiveness can have noble intentions. By spreading the blame, you might be trying to save your marriage or to reduce the hurt that your spouse feels. But this will not help your spouse.
Right now, they have lost their sense of safety and security in your marriage. And every time you minimize, you send a signal to your spouse that you don’t consider what you did to be a big deal. And therefore you don’t think that repeating the betrayal would be a big deal either.
If you don’t own and allow yourself and your spouse to sit in the immensity of what you did, your spouse will likely never feel safe because any denial of guilt is a signal that you do not grasp the gravity of your actions and therefore may repeat those actions. That means they are vulnerable to another betrayal.
When you own your guilt and all of the impact on your spouse, and you do so in an open, honest way, this sends a signal that you truly understand all that you did wrong. That becomes a safety signal for your spouse. Because a person who understands and acknowledges what they did wrong is much less likely to repeat the behavior that caused the betrayal.
How Do They Know This Won’t Happen Again?
In the face of any denial or minimization, the offended spouse will escalate the accusations so that you, the betraying spouse, begin to understand how grievous your betrayal truly was. To counteract this, your spouse needs to see that you empathize with their pain, which signals to them that you are much less likely to do it again.
And the only way for this to happen is through fully owning what you did and the impact of what you did. You have the face the harsh, ugly reality of your betrayal. By doing this, you show them that you are ready to change.
Steer clear of cheap apologies that throw the responsibility back on them (“I’m sorry you feel that way”) or apologies that minimize your responsibility in what happened (“if I was wrong, I apologize”). Your apology must be sincere, heartfelt, and unconditional. Only then will your spouse see that you are more interested in protecting them and your marriage rather than yourself and your ego.
Fully admitting fault can be incredibly counter-cultural. When you get in a car accident or find yourself in a legal situation, you never want to accept blame or guilt. Admitting guilt makes yourself very vulnerable, but making yourself vulnerable signals to your spouse that you don’t see them as an adversary or someone who wants to use this against you.
You are on their side, and you are fighting for them and for your marriage.
2. Demonstrate Your Remorse
Showing remorse is not the same as admitting guilt. Remorse goes beyond simple cognitive strategies and uses emotion to understand and acknowledge the effect the betrayal has had on your spouse.
Authentic remorse is the most critical part of a genuine apology. Remorse is “the transgressor’s distress over the effect of their misbehavior.”
When you understand why your betrayal was wrong, you can admit your guilt. But when you can understand the depth of the hurt caused by your betrayal, you can demonstrate remorse.
When you betrayed your spouse, you disconnected your desire for the wrong behavior from its consequence. You had to stop feeling like you were betraying your spouse to do what you did. Remorse reverses this process, reconnecting the betrayal (desire) to its emotional impact (consequence).
You need to (re-)open yourself to the pain that your spouse feels by using empathy to engage with that pain. Only then can you allow yourself to feel the natural response to an action you regret. When you genuinely understand how your betrayal hurt them, you can start to help your spouse feel safe once more.
Don’t Play the Victim
As the betrayer, it can be easy to give in to self-pity in these moments even in order to compel your spouse to comfort you even though they were the one who was betrayed. However, this stops the healing process for them because instead of focusing on and dealing with their own pain, you distract them towards deal with yours.
Yes, your pain is also real. Yes, you need to heal as well. But betraying your spouse has wounded and hurt them to the point where it is completely unfair to add the weight of your own recovery on them as well.
Find someone else to talk to about the sadness and disappointment in yourself. A therapist, a pastor, God, a friend. But don’t selfishly force your betrayed spouse to be concerned with your hurt as the betrayer.
Remorse is about your understanding of the impact on them. You also need to express that you understand the impact and show sincere regret as well as a willingness to make it right.
Being sorry is the first step. Now you need to show your spouse that you are truly remorseful, that you sincerely apologize for what you did. This guide will help you put together a meaningful apology that helps you and your spouse move forward. Join our Patreon for access to this and resources like it.
3. Show Your Willingness to Make It Right
Now that you have understood and acknowledged the impact of your betrayal, now that you have emotionally connected with the consequences of your betrayal, it is time to make amends. It is time to make it right.
Making amends is not the same as “going back to how it was.” This is not advisable nor even wholly possible. After all, you can’t take back what you did, and even if you could, you wouldn’t learn from the experience by doing so.
After genuinely apologizing, the next step to helping your spouse towards a sense of safety is to show real, lasting change. To make amends, you need to change your behavior, maintain that change, and address things you overlooked or dismissed previously.
While it is crucial to promise to your spouse that you will change, you need to be careful about what you promise. Sometimes to please or to appease your spouse, you may vow to do anything and everything but this is rarely something you will be capable of completing which will lead to further disappointment.
And if you fail to live up to your promises, you will have betrayed them again. It will be harder or even altogether impossible for you to regain their trust. So you need to be mindful of the promises you make, ensuring that you have the desire and determination to follow through on your commitments.
Be sure to remember that these promises cannot be merely temporary. One of your spouse’s greatest fears (particularly regarding addictions recovery) is that you may change for a week or two (or even a few months), then slowly but surely revert to your old patterns of behavior once more. They fear having their hopes raised only to be disappointed again.
So making it right requires keeping it right. To show your spouse that it is safe to trust you again, you need to demonstrate consistency and commitment. Trust is built by reliable behavior over time. Take stock of every priority in your life and adjust your lifestyle to show that s/he is of the utmost importance and significance to you.
Your betrayal showed your spouse that you valued something or someone more than them. Making amends means valuing your spouse and your marriage above all else once again. And by doing that reliably over time, you can prove that you are a person they can choose to trust.
 Bono, G. “Commonplace Forgiveness: From Healthy Relationships to Healthy Society.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 29, no. 2 (2005): 82–110.