Shame, Guilt & Adultery

guiltThe distinctions between feelings of shame and guilt

I have just read a great blog post by CrazyKat on Try Not to Rain on My Rainbow. In this posting she unpicks her understandings of guilt and shame and the differences between them.  I agree with Kat that, at the end of the day, it is mainly an exercise in semantics, but language is an important means by which we help ourselves to make sense of our world.  We seem to have a propensity for labelling things in order to create order out of chaos, and   adultery is certainly a chaotic affair!

Firstly, I consider shame to be more rooted in social stigma (concern for what others think about what I’m doing) whereas guilt is more rooted in personal morals (concern for what I think about what I’m doing). Secondly, I think shame and guilt are key emotions in understanding how to deal with adultery once its messy head has surfaced.

However, it gets mightily complicated as we dig a bit deeper.

My husband feels shame about his adulterous behaviour now that I know.  This is because what I think about him is important to him.  If I did not know or had ever found out, would he still feel shame? I’m not sure.  I can’t help but think that his shame developed via my re-interpretation of events. Reality breaking through the affair fog! My daughter, his step-daughter knows about the adultery (I told her) and this causes him shame.  His mother does not know because he is ashamed of his behaviour in her eyes. I suspect that he needed to see his adultery reflected back to him through the eyes of others in order to feel shame.  However, what happens if others view adultery as an acceptable behaviour?

My husband met Pig Shit thanks to a couple who were so called friends of ours.  I realise now that they were not friends of mine or friends of my marriage – just friends of my husband.  They went out on foursomes.  Pig Shit and my husband used their spare bedroom to shag.  My husband and Pig Shit socialised with two other of his old school chums and Pig Shit was introduced to a male work colleague on a trip my husband arranged to Rotterdam.  My husband did not feel any shame in these circumstances.  Instead he thought he was showing off!  WTF?

groupsIf other people are complicit in adultery they are in fact diluting the possibility of shame.  I think betraying spouses can divide their social circle into two groups; those that can know and those that cannot know.  Those that cannot know would be the ones to make them feel ashamed of themselves.

When the so called friends and I met up for social events everyone acted as ‘normal’.  Nobody felt the need to say to my husband that they would prefer not to be compromised.  They all didn’t give a shit about his adultery.  This normalising of adultery is nasty. It circumvents feelings of shame.  When they look on approvingly – why would you feel shame?  Or, when society tells you that adultery is harmless fun and that you are entitled to be happy, why would you feel shame?

On the other hand, I feel deep shame about my husband’s adultery.  I am bothered by what other people think about my husband and I.  It had nothing to do with me but I feel deep shame.  As Kat says, toxic shame.  I also feel ashamed about staying with him rather than kicking him into the kerb like a dog for betraying me.  Why? Is staying together post adultery more shameful than committing adultery in the first place? I could openly share with a stranger the knowledge that I was going through a divorce but could not, because of shame, share the knowledge that my husband has been unfaithful and we are trying to rebuild our marriage.

Interestingly, I feel no guilt about either the adultery or my decision to stay together. I was a committed partner to our marriage and did not know that my husband had decided to have sex with another woman.  I am deeply ashamed about this but not guilty.  I feel no guilt around agreeing to work on saving our marriage; I believe I am doing the right thing.

My husband does feel guilt, and quite rightly.  I even believe that he was capable of feeling guilty at the time of the adultery whilst not feeling any shame for his actions. Guilty but shameless?  Possible? I’m not sure about the value of shame as an emotion.  I’m not sure that it ever stops the behaviour.  I’m ashamed of staying with my husband but it is not enough to stop me from staying.  It just makes me feel bad. Makes me want to hide from others.

However, guilt unlike shame does have a silver lining.  It triggers remorse.  Guilt lets you know that you feel that you have done something wrong.  It need not be shameful.  It just needs to be something that you understand as wrong.  Something you regret.  This can lead to feeling genuinely sorry.  I don’t believe that all shameful behaviour by default leads to a feeling of guilt.

If other people give you the impression that what you are doing is right and you feel it to be right there will be no shame and no guilt.  If other people give the impression that what you are doing is right, but you believe it to be wrong you will feel guilty but not ashamed.  If other people believe what you are doing is wrong, but you feel it to be right you may feel ashamed but you will not feel guilty.

The bottom line is it’s all about right and wrong and we have to work this out for ourselves.  There is no blue print for a ‘right’ way of living.  What is right and what is wrong is a decision we have to make and this decision will be rooted in what our values are which are often shaped and informed by the values of society.  I continue to believe that adultery is a heart breaking betrayal of trust that can destroy everything in its wake.  However, I believe that the marriage does not necessarily have to be destroyed. Society seems to think that my feelings about adultery are wrong. Instead I should accept that it is a harmless exciting secret hidden in a marriage but should divorce my husband the minute I discover his adulterous secrets.     Hence I feel ashamed but not guilty.

Adultery is a mess of contradictory emotions.

Image Credits: Sad Woman Sitting Alone In Room by FrameAngel; He And Friends by Vlado via

5 thoughts on “Shame, Guilt & Adultery

  1. CrazyKat1963

    Another great post, MR. Very interesting and of course a completely different perspective from mine. I particularly like this sentence:

    “I’m not sure about the value of shame as an emotion. I’m not sure that it ever stops the behaviour.”

    That’s exactly it for me. Shame is a destructive emotion. It doesn’t stop the behavior, it starts bad behavior in my experience. As one of my blogger friends/commenters wrote on my blog quoted from a recent WNYC radio show about shame, “violence is the attempt to turn shame into self esteem”.

    I think in my case we are dealing with very distinctive personality types with me and my husband. I actually have quite high self esteem and I am someone who gets things done. I am a fixer and a doer. The therapists seem to think one of the main reasons my husband was attracted to me as a life mate was because he knew that when he fell apart, I would be there to hold everything together. And I was. And I did, until d-day. At first, in my trauma, I felt humiliated. The broken me felt like surely I should have known, or surely there was something I had or had not done. But I quickly got past that (I mean, of course I still have bad days). My parents did a really great job of shaping me into a self sufficient, emotionally healthy person… or I was born with it, or both, who knows. On the other hand, my husband’s feeling of shame started when he was a small boy. He started hiding behavior he thought was bad. He still thinks “he is a bad boy.” A narcissistic mother and arrogant absent father can do that to you, I guess. His addiction is insidious, they think the addictive behaviors probably set in at about 10. His feelings of shame allowed him to hide his secrets and also to shut down other emotions such as empathy when he was in his addictive state and also when he was acting out. I still ask him all the time how he could sit in bed with another woman and lie about me. It blows my mind. He wasn’t bolstered one way or another by friends or family because NO ONE knew about his secret life, except the women and they are so broken as to not count in the scheme of things. He cared not at all about what they thought about him. Even though he felt guilt for his behaviors, shame overrode the guilt and he just kept telling himself he was bad and there was nothing he could do about it, and he had no idea why he was doing what he was doing, because he didn’t feel like himself. Shame is very destructive and that is why I do not associate with it. It scares the shit out of me. My husband’s shame had a life of it’s own. He still feels shame every day. I feel sad, and alone, and some days angry, but not shameful and of course not guilty. I didn’t do anything. And, if “adultery is a mix of contradictory emotions,” addiction is a bloody mess.

    1. fairytalefailure

      This conversation is fascinating. Instinctively, I feel like I would agree that I feel shame related to staying after his infidelity, but I completely agree with the things Kat said about how her husband suppressed his feelings because of constant shaming and then experienced guilt and not shame. Also, our dynamic was similar, in that the rest of the world sees the image he projects of being a strong, self-confident man, but he has always seemed to feel safe letting me take care of him, and, as you say, knowing I would fix things if he needed it, and I always have, until now. And if I think about it, I may feel shame for staying, but I think it’s actually something I would more accurately describe as sympathy shame for him. Like I don’t want our family and friends to judge him and not be able to forgive him once I have decided to. This is mine to forgive and I know they would feel protective of me and think he was not good enough, and that hurts me for him. So I think it’s not really shame related to myself, but wanting to protect him from others, even though that’s crazy because he did this to us. And he hasn’t asked me to not tell anyone, and has said it is my decision and I can do whatever I need to do. But it breaks my heart to try to relive it with others and to justify our family to them and to try to get them to see when I think he’s a good man, especially in the beginning when I wasn’t sure I was staying, moment to moment. Anyway, the guilt and shame conversation is interesting and complex, and much like I feel nervous for my own children and I feel it as though it’s for me, I think I may be taking on his shame. Love is so complex, and affairs muddy the waters even more.

    2. marriagerecovery Post author

      Kat, many thanks for your insightful response. I’m still grappling with my thoughts on this. I’m beginning to think that shame is perhaps one of the most powerful influences on life because of the young age in which we learn to feel shame. I also agree with you that shame makes you want to hide – it’s the only response available isn’t it. And yes, I also agree that we can’t consciously shut down selective emotions instead we unconsciously shut down all emotions. I’ve also been reading a book by Adam Phillips (discovered from responses by Iris to my blog) and have become fascinated by the idea that it is possible to not actually recognise our feelings when we have them. For example, as a child, your anger may not be allowed. Your parents will not allow any manifestation of anger to surface. So, you develop a different strategy, often withdrawal. The problem is, you then do this so many times that you forget what the feeling of anger is, instead you feel like you are withdrawing. If you can’t recognise your feelings it’s an impossible situation to be in I think.

      I’m interested in your idea that shame overrides guilt. I’m going to ponder on this. I must admit that if I think about addiction it certainly makes sense. A member of my extended family is an alcoholic. It’s been a problem for much of her life and for the lives of her children. When she drinks she hides it. Both the drink itself and the behaviour. She disappears almost. However when she has moments of sobriety her guilt rises and you can tell that this is what prompts her to think about changing. However she doesn’t. Complicated. very, very complicated.

      I love your researching and analysis. So glad we’ve met up Kat.

  2. horsesrcumin

    Great analysis. I do still feel shame. In the form you speak of. Not guilt. I don’t really think I ever felt guilt. Not even when the blameshifting occurred, when others asked what I did to “make” him cheat. I felt anger at that. Not guilt. I wish like hell I didn’t feel shame. Without the shame maybe I could stay with him. I feel ashamed that I stayed so long. And I know not to feel that shame. But I can’t seem to stop it or reshape it.

    Hearing your perspective on shame, Kat, helps me understand why you appear so much more capable if healing than I feel. I know the humiliation and judgement of others has been the driver of me socially isolating myself, and my new social anxiety. Thank you both for such excellent unpackings of both concepts ♥

    1. marriagerecovery Post author

      Thank you for your response. I’m starting to recall my feelings of shame when I was a child. It’s quite painful. I wanted the floor to open up and to disappear. I would feel shame for the most ridiculous things, for example I had to often wear hand-me-downs that were rather unflattering and the girls at school would make me feel ashamed. I didn’t have the confidence to rise above this. It crippled my potential. I think that these experiences created the woman I am now. I cannot shop in thrift stores and would not wear anything that was not new to me from the beginning. However, I also dress quite flamboyantly and confidently and can brush off any of the stereotypical comments of ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. I know how I want to look and how I want to feel and that’s that! Perhaps stronger parenting or more personal insight may have prevented my childhood tribulations – but, in the end I think it made me stronger.


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