I’m just going to say it. Shame is omnipresent in response to and in recovery from infidelity. It’s unavoidable. It’s unavoidable for the betrayed spouse and it’s unavoidable for the unfaithful spouse. Learning. Coping with shame is difficult but it’s also transformative. I’d like to share with you I’ve learned how to improve my coping skills in recovery from my infidelity.
Trigger warning: This post is primarily aimed at the unfaithful spouse and talks about shame felt by the unfaithful spouse. The following post might trigger unhelpful thoughts and may also be difficult to read. I advise you, therefore, to consider whether you’re in a place to read it before you scroll down the page. (My wife’s written a post about coping with shame as the betrayed spouse which you can read here. I sincerely hope you find it useful.)
Coping with shame starts with understanding its roots
The shame of my actions hit me like a sledgehammer to the head when my affair was discovered. Every second of every minute of every hour of every day carried more shame than the last. I thought I knew what shame was but I really had no idea. Similarly, I had no idea how shame would shape my recovery as a husband, parent, and everything else.
I started to address my shame when I was binge watching Affair Recovery’s YouTube channel (which you can find here) and stumbled across a video in which Samuel talks about overcoming shame (which you can watch here). This led me to an article Rick Reynolds published on Affair Recovery’s website about understanding shame (which you can find here).
Rick’s entire article is a mood but the following passage strikes more hammer blows to the head. This time, however, the hammer’s inscribed with the times in which my wife correctly told me I’d spent my life playing the victim:
It’s a safe assumption that in many ways, the unfaithful spouse has made life all about their ego and how they are perceived by others. At the core of ego is a sense of emptiness that we continually try to fill in life. Ego is driven to find ways of filling our inner void for love, acceptance, security, respect, significance, and assurance.
This has been a groundbreaking discovery. I, like everybody else, had experienced shame before I had an affair. We’ve all done things of which we’re ashamed. We all, furthermore, will do more things of which we’re ashamed. What I know now, however, is that I’ve consciously allowed my ego (driven by shame) to direct harmful behaviours in a destructive quest for validation and affirmation.
Show up and start rebuilding your life
Samuel’s video starts with an incredibly powerful quote from Anne Lamott. I, like Samuel, don’t know a lot about but, also like Samuel, found it incredibly helpful.
I decided that the most subversive, revolutionary thing I could do was to show up for my life and not be ashamed
This quote is incredibly helpful for me because one of the most transformative actions I’ve taken in recovery from infidelity is owning and taking personal responsibility for the things in my life for which I should be ashamed (you can read my post on taking personal responsibility for your affair here). The act of confronting myself as an unfaithful spouse, humbling myself, and recognising that I’m still a person truly changed my life.
The thing is: I committed adultery. I cheated on my wife. I’m an unfaithful spouse and I did those things. I’ve been ashamed of many things in my life but nothing will top the shame of cutting my wife’s heart into a million pieces and putting the remains in an organ grinder. As Samuel points out, though, showing up for the life you’ve created resisting the temptation to retreat into shame will transform your healing (and hopefully your spouse’s healing too).
The most important thing in my life right now is simply to show up for my wife, show up for my stepson, show up for my pets, show up for my family, and show up for my friends. My absolute priority is to show up for the people who’ve loved and supported me. They’ve supported me when I’ve needed it the most and deserved it the least. It’s vital that I start living my life with them at the centre of my actions and decisions.
Some tips for coping with shame
- The first thing I’d wholeheartedly recommend is to get yourself some quality help that’s external to your spouse. Please let me be real with you here: your spouse doesn’t give a shit that you’re ashamed of yourself. You cheated on them and your future together. That was your choice. There’s plenty of support out there from psychological therapy (UK readers can find NHS services in their local area here) to machine learning-based psychological therapy apps (e.g. Youper). You can also look for support groups online (or in person) or digest other online resources such as Affair Recovery.
- The second tip I’d like to offer is to understand and own what exactly it is of which you’re ashamed. It’s easy to say you’re ashamed of yourself when you’ve been caught behaving like a weapons-grade prick. You’ll say that so much it’ll lose meaning quicker than the time it takes to read this post. Transformative healing for me has come with understanding and owning the specific mistakes I’ve made. I’ve owned the ways in which I disparaged my wife to my affair partner, got more and more irritable and dishonest with my wife, behaved with increasing hubris and arrogance, and, ultimately, cheated on her.
- The third thing that really helped me cope with my own shame was to prioritise time to recognise and document the things in your life of which we can be pleased. I plead with you to look as you’ll find something somewhere. Pain and misery is all around you. I know how easy it is to retreat into shame and throw pity parties for ourselves. Pity parties don’t do anything to support us and they sure as shit doesn’t help your spouse or your relationship.
I sincerely hope some of this helps you. I can empathise with how difficult it is to look in the mirror and, at best, have a cheap pop at yourself and, at worst, want to end your life. We don’t want that for me anymore, though, and I don’t want it for you guys either. Please support your spouse but please support yourself as well.