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Recovering From Infidelity: Shame, Guilt, Anger and the Search for the Villain


4 minute read

If you’ve been paying any attention to the Hong Kong news, you’ll know all about Andy Hui being caught on video misbehaving in the back of a car with a woman other than his wife, and his tearful press conference that followed.

Infidelity is hardly uncommon, but most couples have the luxury of trying to repair the damage — assuming they choose to do so — in private. Andy Hui and Sammi Cheng, however, will have to work on their marriage in the spotlight of a public that is hungry for every detail, and vociferous in their judgements. The catastrophe in this high profile marriage has disturbed many people: I suspect it’s shaken our faith in love, trust and goodness. And for those who have suffered from a partner’s infidelity, worry about being cheated on or perhaps have even themselves cheated, the scandal is particularly painful.

Some people enter romantic relationships without any intention of remaining faithful. Right from the start, they’re cheating on their partner. Sooner or later (and it’s usually sooner) they get caught, and eventually the relationship ends.

This article isn’t about those people.

Rather, it’s about those who enter relationships with no intention of cheating. From the start, they are attracted to their partner, feel close to them, and have no trouble resisting temptation when it presents itself. But time passes and one day they suddenly realize that they’re doing something that will deeply hurt their partner and possibly even end the relationship if it comes to light. It might be an emotional affair, where they’ve become close to someone without sexual contact. It could be a full blown, intimate affair, or it might be just sexting — sexually charged conversations, perhaps with utter strangers. Or just downloading a dating app.

And when those activities do come to light, it’s as though an emotional nuclear bomb has gone off in the relationship. Both partners are swamped by feelings of betrayal, anger and hurt on one side, and guilt and shame on the other. And if the relationship doesn’t immediately crumble under the impact of these feelings, the couple may well end up in a therapist’s office.

After any kind of infidelity, most couples immediately designate a villain and a victim. The villain — the cheating partner — has lost any moral standing and must take whatever punishment is dished out. The cheated upon partner is clearly the victim and is both rightfully enraged as well as devastated by the betrayal. Friends and family, if privy to the situation, generally sign on to the victim-villain narrative.

And some couples never move beyond this narrative. It’s certainly a tempting one. After all, it’s pretty hard to agree on who started most martial spats, but it’s very clear who strayed from the marriage. But guilt, shame, anger and hurt are not good foundations for ongoing relationships. And couples that don’t get past this are unlikely to be able to rebuild. The negative emotions on both sides prevent true intimacy; after all, how close can a ‘villain’ feel to their partner while feeling guilty? Similarly, how can a ‘victim' ever let themselves be vulnerable to a person they’re still angry at, or don’t trust?

The couples that do recover and prosper following an infidelity are those that see beyond the black and white of villain and victim. They do not whitewash the fact that one partner chose to stray and that this was a betrayal. However, they eventually shift the blame from the individual to the relationship and try to understand each other.

It’s a truism for therapists that when one party strays, it’s very often (although not always) because there was something wrong in the relationship. Human beings need intimacy, and when they’re not finding it, they tend to seek it (or seek a substitute such as sex) in other places.

But given human nature, the simple statement “There was something wrong in the relationship” may only shift the search for the villain. The blame no longer falls just on the husband for having an affair; now it’s the wife who became so engrossed in raising the children that ‘caused’ the husband to seek affection elsewhere, so she has to share the blame. Or it’s the husband who became so obsessed with work that his partner ‘inevitably’ became close to another man, meaning that he’s partly at fault too. To the injury of betrayal is now added the insult of being blamed for causing that betrayal. No wonder this concept of “there was something wrong in the relationship” arouses such intense emotions.

Getting past the victim and villain narrative means giving up the search not only for blame, but also for ‘who started it’. It cannot be an attempt to redistribute blame. Looking to place responsibility for the infidelity will only arouse defensiveness and resentment in one party or the other.

That is not to say that no one needs to apologize. Yes, one party betrayed the other, apologies must be made, and trust must be rebuilt. That is the first task. After that must come an understanding of what went wrong in the relationship.

A typical scenario: After starting a family, the husband focuses on work, the wife on raising children, and the husband has an affair. Most people would put the blame on the husband. But perhaps the husband had an affair because the only person he felt close to was his wife — and he felt ignored by her as she focused on the children, making him desperately lonely and unhappy. But she focused on the children because he didn’t step in to help her as much as she wanted. But he didn’t help her as much as she wanted because when he did, she criticized him for the way he did it. And she criticized him because she was sleep deprived and anxious that he was too strict with them. And he was strict because that’s the way he was raised, and because he was worried about financially supporting the expanding family and didn’t have the emotional energy to be patient. And he didn’t tell her he was feeling ignored because he saw that she was stressed about the children and felt guilty demanding more attention. And besides, isn’t this just what everyone goes through — mothers focus on their kids and fathers should just accept it?

Where’s the villain and the victim in this scenario? I would suggest the relationship was at fault, not the two individuals. Learning to negotiate for attention, discuss child care strategies and burdens, ensure sufficient sleep, and table financial anxieties would go a long way toward keeping this couple connected. And while blaming a relationship gone awry may not be as morally clear cut (and satisfying) as condemning one partner as the adulterer, it’s far more likely to ensure a stable and loving relationship for many years to come.

Tim Hoffman 

M.A. Mental Health Counselling

Psychotherapy in Hong Kong

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