Guy Winch: Infidelity and the New Psychology of Shame

As often happens while surfing the web, we stumbled across an article that we felt might be of interest to you guys.  This particular one is from Guy Winch, Ph.D., who is a licensed psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid: Healing Rejection, Guilt, Failure, and Other Everyday Hurts.

Please read it and then respond in the comment section as to whether or not you’ve experienced this “new shame” that Guy addresses in his article.

Infidelity and the New Psychology of Shame
Infidelity and the New Psychology of Shame

by Guy Winch, Ph.D.

It’s not the cheater who always becomes the object of our judgment and scorn

Infidelity has always existed but over the past decades, our psychological reactions to it have changed. While scorn and used to be directed primarily toward the person who cheated, today, more often than not, it is also directed toward a second person in the affair triangle—the betrayed spouse, or more specifically, betrayed spouses who decide to stay in the relationship.

Indeed, in recent years, almost every single one of my patients who decided to stay with their partner after an affair has faced the troubling prospect of being judged for staying in the relationship by the very people they rely on most for support and encouragement.

The fact that most people now have the freedom to leave their marriages in the wake of infidelity has created an expectation from those around them that they indeed do so. If they decide to stay, they are likely to hear responses such as, “Don’t you have any self-respect?” “But you’ll never be able to trust him/her ever again!” or “How can you forgive them for what they did?”

This general sentiment against ‘staying’ is often so strong, it can lead to the unfortunate and absurd situation in which the betrayed partner becomes the recipient of greater shame and scorn (for staying in the relationship) than that heaped upon their cheating spouse.

However, by judging a spouse who chooses to stay, we are ignoring some very basic facts about relationships and affairs. First, most couples do, in fact, stay together after an affair. Second, although it takes emotionally challenging and difficult work, many couples are able to mend their relationship and rebuild trust over time. Third, when children are involved, surely it is more prudent to explore the possibility of healing the wounds of the affair than it is to toss away the entire relationship without giving a chance to the mending process.  

International bestselling author and relationship expert Esther Perel addressed this issue in her recent and already viral Ted Talk: Rethinking Infidelity: A Talk For Anyone Who Has Ever Loved. Perel eloquently describes the psychological and emotional complexities that lead to infidelity, how affairs have changed over time, and how healing can take place. She also addresses the current climate of judging betrayed partners when they choose to stay.

The new shame is staying when you can leave. For centuries women couldn’t leave but now they can (the thinking goes), so why would anyone stay and ‘take it’?” Perel goes on to explain, “A marriage is not the sum total of this one transgression. Who know how many less visible acts of betrayal have existed in the relationship? What if the affair happened in the context or years of sexual refusal, distance, or disinterest, which can also be construed as a betrayal of marital vows.

I asked Perel what a betrayed spouse should say to friends who judge them for staying.

“Tell your friends or family members they are not the ones who have to live with the consequences of this choice. Tell them you expect them to be supportive, not to immerse themselves in your story as if it was their own.” 

Do People Still Judge Hillary Clinton for Staying?

I was curious about whether Perel thought Hillary Clinton might still be paying a price for staying married – if she too was a victim of the ‘new shame’.

“Yes,” Perel said, “she is still judged, and way more so by women who think that if she had self-respect she would have left, as there is no way one can love or trust a man who did this to you.”

And yet, an affair does not automatically sever an emotional connection, especially one built over decades, nor does it mean a couple cannot rebound and rebuild, especially when both partners are motivated to do so.

I always tell couples who are seek therapy to heal after an affair that my responsibility is primarily to the relationship not to them as individuals. As long as I believe the relationship can recover and eventually thrive, it is my job to help them find a way to make that happen.

Similarly, it is the ‘job’ of friends and loved ones of those betrayed by affairs to avoid judging them for staying. That is the last thing they deserve and the last thing we ourselves would want were we to find ourselves in their shoes.

Yes, some cheaters are incorrigible and some relationships are doomed but when both members of the couple decide to work toward healing and mending, and certainly when we see them actually putting in the effort to do so, we should not only support them but validate their courage and resilience for tackling the immense emotional challenges they still face.


Again, please leave your thoughts below in the comment section.  Thanks!


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26 Responses to Guy Winch: Infidelity and the New Psychology of Shame

  1. Patsy50 June 5, 2015 at 7:47 am #

    The only people who knew about my husbands EA was our two adult married daughters. They had supported my decision to stay and rebuild my marriage. I remember my oldest daughter telling me ” he is your husband and I will support you in what ever decision you make whether you leave or stay”. I am so proud of them both for how they coped with their own decision to either turn their backs on their father for what he had done or to forgive him which they did and moved forward in their relationship with him.

  2. Had to talk June 5, 2015 at 8:34 am #

    Great article. I’m 3 years past my D day.
    Shame is the exact reason nobody knows about me wife’s EA except 2 marriage therapists and you wonderful people.
    This is also the first time I realized I have something in common with Hillary Clinton.

  3. Tryinghard June 5, 2015 at 9:31 am #

    I read this on the Huff Po. The author is right on target. Look the OW is a slut, whore, home wrecker , non-entity, the cheater is a jerk, a fool, or worse obviously the wife drove him to it, the BS is a bitch, stupid, a foo, desperate. It’s all cliches that won’t go away until the people who judge you and go through the same experience.

    The problem is it’s more insidious. They don’t say it to your face. It’s the attitude, the pity looks, the fake concern, and the cutting you out of their lives. You always wonder who knows. I’ve hired new employees since the affair is long over and inevididably the gossip comes to them. We have new neighbors and I just wonder how long it will take until the gossip comes to them. Lol, we may think or hope no one knows or it will go away, it doesn’t. It’s just too salacious. And soon all those people new to the gossip end up in the same camp as those who first knew about the affair. You’re constantly wondering what they are thinking, are they avoiding me, judging me, deriding me? It doesn’t ever go away.

    • Strengthrequired June 5, 2015 at 6:11 pm #

      Th, your right, it never goes away. The constant wondering who knows and who’s judging me for staying. How they must think I was the one that did something wrong for my h to cheat. We used to have a couple my h knew come around and visit, since before his affair, three years later, I haven’t seen them, we haven’t beem invited to their children’s birthdays or their own birthdays since, however it’s not like I want to now anyway, because of the judging of me. Yet my h still sees them, however through business only.
      There used to be so many people we used to see, that now we don’t. I guess that’s what happens after an affair. Life truly isn’t like it once was. How funny is it, that through the affair the bs is the one that made life difficult, life was cr@p, they don’t want to live anymore years like this, because now they have someone new and exciting. Once the affair is over, they decide that life can go back as normal, like it was before the affair, and all is right with the world. All of a sudden, how they were living wasn’t so bad after all. They live like nothing happened, yet we the bs live like who knows? We live looking over our shoulder, we live with who is judging me for staying? Who now thinks I must have been a horror to live with since my h cheated on me?

      • Rachel June 6, 2015 at 10:13 am #

        I use to think the same thing. Wondering what I did wrong for my ex husband to leave me.
        I can’t even count how many people have told me, your ex husband is an ass! He was inappropriate.
        You’re better off without him.

  4. loveheals June 5, 2015 at 2:05 pm #

    I wrote a personal email to Hilary Clinton after her husband’s infidelities came to light. In it I expressed understanding, knowing why she wanted to stay and why she still loved him.

  5. Eyeswideopen June 5, 2015 at 5:08 pm #

    Wonderful post, just sad that in 2015 with all the knowledge we have at our fingertips, we still have to defend our choices. Wether that decison is to stay or leave after a partner has cheated. I never ever would take the side of a cheater, regardless of whatever baloney excuse they used to try and make it ok about what they did, and I never judged anyone friend or relative because of their choices to say in a marriage/relationship because of infidelity. There are many reasons a person chooses what they want to do. They deserve to be respected about that, not made to feel guilty or shame. It’s bad enough to be cheated on, and the repercussions that follow because of someones choice to cheat, but to then have to defend that choice, etc…. is even crazier.

  6. 2yearsout June 5, 2015 at 8:03 pm #

    I really appreciate the validation of what I have been feeling. I have told very few. I find it easier to tell strangers. I was at the doctor and the nurse asked me what I had done to lose 30 lbs over the last year. I told her I found out my hus band was having an affair. I am learning to be proud of my decision to stay and keep my family together. With as low as the self esteem is, it is sometimes hard to see that it takes the stronger person to stay than to leave. And it shows that for better or worse was a vow I still hold true

    • showmehowtoheal June 11, 2015 at 2:31 pm #

      Well said 2yearsout. I hope all is well for you and H.

  7. Had to talk June 5, 2015 at 10:41 pm #

    Well said 2yearsout.

  8. TrustingGod June 6, 2015 at 4:20 pm #

    I read a blog post last night about how no one sympathizes with the cheater and all the pain and shame and guilt they’re going through after the affair is over. It made me realize how much more I appreciate this site. While I think it is important to understand what the cheating spouse is dealing with if you are trying to save the relationship, it was annoying to read about how hard it is on the cheater’s self-esteem, and how it can be detrimental in the long run, since they will probably just use another affair to boost the self-esteem that is now lower than before. I just don’t get how the betrayed spouse is supposed to deal with the shame of people knowing about the affair, if they do, and everyone judging the betrayed spouse, if most people perceive the cheating spouse to be a great person, and have to still be concerned about how people aren’t being supportive enough of the cheating spouse. It feels a little like when a teacher reports abominable behavior by a child to his parents, in hopes of getting support so that the child will realize he was out of line and behave respectfully in the future, and then the parents and administrators come into the situation and ask what you did to make the child act that way, because the child’s behavior is supposedly perfect with everyone else. Never mind the fact that you’ve noticed that they are actually just really good at putting up a good front, because the situation is now flipped, and you are asked to sympathize with the child and change all your behavior to support him and understand that he is obviously hurting from your behavior towards him, and that everyone needs to try to help him get through this emotional crisis. Meanwhile, you sit there in shock, wondering what you possibly could have done to make this child treat you so disrespectfully, and shudder at how you have to be the strong adult and cater to the child’s needs, when you thought the child was going to be told that there is no excuse for his behavior, and that he needs to be more respectful in the future, write a note of apology to you, and that you would get to be magnanimous and forgive him. Instead, the child learns that the results of his behavior are that everyone will cater to his needs and try to understand him in hopes that he will develop respectful behavior. And while some people can’t see that kind of situation happening, I assure you that it does, more and more often. It is to the child’s detriment, and it requires the teacher to be not only forgiving, but to admit to causing the behavior, to accept the shame of not being a good enough teacher and person to command respect and love from every child in her care.

    And that’s how I feel a lot of therapists deal with cheating. Yes, the behavior was wrong, it was the wrong response to the problems in the marriage, but if the marriage hadn’t had so many problems, they wouldn’t have been tempted. So, try to sympathize and understand your partner’s guilt and shame about the affair, and be careful not to do anything that will make him/her give up and want to leave instead of working on the marriage. But you–well, don’t expect the cheater to truly understand the pain you’re in or do everything that’s necessary to help you. At some point, they’ll get annoyed at you for not being over it already, annoyed at how their efforts haven’t been enough to make up for their mistake, which they may not even really regret all that much because they were getting their needs met when you supposedly wouldn’t do it, and they are trying to get over the AP, who made them feel things you didn’t and probably never will. Figure out by yourself how to get your self-esteem back by doing things you enjoy and pampering yourself. Supposedly that will erase the shame you have about your body now, that loathing you have for every blemish and stretch mark and new wrinkle, because it was this ugliness that he didn’t want to look at anymore, this body he no longer desired. And even if you need your spouse to compliment you and show desire for you to help you get over this new view of yourself, don’t expect him to, because he doesn’t like how you see him now and had already stopped liking you or seeing you in a positive light, and can’t find the desire for you. Especially since you have no self-confidence, because that is such a desire killer. So, you’re going to have to work on that yourself if you want your spouse to choose to stay with you and work on the marriage, which you do want, have to want, because of the children and how they’ll blame themselves for the divorce or you for not forgiving or will hate your spouse or will become cheaters themselves in the future if they find out.

    I suppose every case is different, but I don’t see why I have to try to overcome my own sense of shame at not being good enough, my shame if others find out and judge me for not being good enough, and still have to be concerned about the shame the cheater feels, the reason he will not help you to heal, and just wants everyone to forget about it. The terrible thing the cheating spouse feels is called suffering the consequences of his/her actions. It’s the thing he/she should have considered when the cheating started. It’s what he/she deserves. But the shame and pain I feel–how do I deserve that? I can only accept the shame of my own poor, unloving behavior. The rest just feels like shame thrust upon me.

    • Scott June 8, 2015 at 1:28 pm #

      “problems in the marriage” Right, they assume there are problems in the marriage. Also a logical fallacy. The problem is the cheating spouse. The marriage could be great, bad, fantastic, whatever. It has nothing to do with cheating. Cheating is a selfish act, by a selfish person, the actual circumstance is irrelevant. Cheating is like murder. The act stands alone on it’s own as an action and a representation of the character and flawed thought process of the perpetrator. Just like killing, or raping, or beating a stranger is a horrifying and senseless act, so is infidelity. The marriage didn’t make anyone do anything. The marriage is what the marriage is. There’s two individuals, and a marriage of those two. When we act as individuals, the marriage suffers some, but when we completely leave the situation, marriage isn’t cause of the issue. It’s that choice that is the issue. People have choice. It’s that simple. And if that choice is to ruin another person’s emotional well being, create abandonment and other issues for their kids, and become a pariah to friends and family, then by all means, have an affair. But it’s not up to me, and it shouldn’t be the job of therapists, to make crappy excuses or try to put lipstick on the pig. That’s the cheaters issue, not mine.

  9. Tabs June 7, 2015 at 12:53 am #

    I’ve always wondered if I should have left, even if temporarily, I really wish I had the fortitude to just up and leave the marriage the same way my CH left ours. But the shame of telling everybody my H found a younger girl closer to the age of his daughter was something I couldn’t bear. A very close friend will no longer have anything to do with me after she saw my H with the OW. It was punishment for something I had no control over. I really could have used an old friend, too.

    • Tryinghard June 7, 2015 at 9:42 am #

      I’m sorry your “friend” decided your husbands affair was too much for her and decided to end the friendship. I’ve had it happen too. Not only friends but couples as well. It hurts I know. You lose whole social circles. I think sometimes your problems hit too close to home for many people. We just don’t know about their problems.

      In my case I couldn’t have kept the secret quiet if I wanted to. She worked in our family business. My son worked there too. Offices are hotbeds of gossip anyway. Office staff quit because of what they saw between her and him.

      I know it’s weird and just another shame and embarrassment but I figure if those people who have quit being friends with me over his affair and how I reacted to it choose to leave me out, well they were never really friends with or for me anyway so no great loss.

      Just as there have been many lessons learned about trust and love, choosing wisely who I let in my life as a trusted friend is just another one of life’s lessons thanks to my husbands poor choices. I hope you find a new BFF soon.

    • Rachel June 8, 2015 at 6:16 am #

      Then she isn’t a true friend.

    • Gizfield June 8, 2015 at 2:43 pm #

      Tabs, one thing I have learned is that just because you have known someone a long time or have a shared history ,(work, church, school, kids, etc) with them they are not necessarily a friend. Many of these people are actually Acquaintances, just like the Facebook category. They will be there for superficial stuff but when the #$@+ hits the fan, they will be long gone. Unfortunately, you don’t usually realize this till it does hit the fan. I.e. when you need them and they are flying out the door. I heard the average person is lucky if they have three true friends in a lifetime.

  10. TheFirstWife June 7, 2015 at 9:40 pm #

    I worked for a divorce attorney for 6 years. I always vowed if I were married and my husband cheated it was a deal breaker. Marriage over.

    My husband had an EA in 96-98 before they were called EA. They were friends and nothing was going on. I called him on it often but since I had no proof I had to drop it

    Fast forward 2013 and now there is an EA/PA. He admitted to the current OW about the grad school EA.

    Still hear b/c of our children but I have my own internal struggle every day. I do love him and he is a good person but his last mid life crisis w/ a person 20 years younger has pushed me to my limits

    Next month will be 2 years from DDay 1 & 18 months from DDay2 (same person).

    I struggle with all of it. My CH is trying very hard but I feel used & abused by all of it. I keep trying to stay positive but so harshly judge myself for being naive and stupid and trusting.

    So I don’t feel judged at all by others but harshly judge myself. I feel like a coward for staying. My therapist told me I don’t really want a divorce b/c I have stayed and worked so hard to get past it.

    Yet now I feel stuck on some things. And my internal struggle does not help. And yes I harshly judged Hillary Clinton for staying. But I know politics has more to do with her choice. But I now view her choice very differently.

  11. Tabs June 8, 2015 at 5:31 am #


    I work with my CH, too. Thank goodness we have a small office. I would have quit if anybody found out about the affairs. The work day was long enough trying to keep up the “everything is great” facade. It was because of my friend that I decided to not confide to anybody else my problems. As you said, choose wisely who you tell.

  12. Scott June 8, 2015 at 12:56 pm #

    As strong minded as I am about my own decision, I really have nothing against or for someone staying in a relationship. It’s their own choice. There’s another website that claims if you leave, you’re weak, and if you stay, you’re strong. I think it’s a horrible mindset to claim anyone is right or wrong, courageous or weak because they stay or go. It’s what you want and need, what you can and can’t live with, and what you want from life and marriage. Once you are betrayed, if you survive it, and don’t do anything illegal, I think you’re a friggin hero. Period.

    I take exception with some of the “terminology” of the article:

    “First, most couples do, in fact, stay together after an affair.”

    Statistically, this might be true. I know couples that coexisted for a decade after an affair, then divorced. On the divorce papers they claimed irreconcilable differences, so the statistics aren’t easy to actually drill down into. There’s a variety of reasons people don’t leave. Kids, money, comfort, safety, etc. One friend of mine is with his cheating wife who CONTINUES to cheat, because he won’t leave, and he stays for the kids. It’s insanity. Dr. Winch does not quantify, nor do most therapists, that staying together doesn’t mean success. Having a roommate doesn’t mean you have a marriage. I’d like to see the statistics on people who stay together and believe their marriages have improved or at least returned to a good place, not just ‘they stayed together’. And all that said, the tough truth is, you can spend several years working on the marriage and several years dealing with the pain and hurt of infidelity. And it takes real effort, not just words. Actions make the difference. Most of the work has to come from the unfaithful, and again, if they took the easy way out and had an affair, it’s a leap for those people to do the difficult thing and do the hard work. More power to those that do. I’m skeptical when I read “most couples stay together”, sounds like throwing hope into the face of the betrayed spouse. Please, what’s the reality?

    “A marriage is not the sum total of this one transgression.”

    Esther Perel is a…okay, my personal feelings aside, this is a terrific slap in the face to anyone who is betrayed by infidelity (but then Esther doesn’t really care much about betrayed spouses in my opinion). Infidelity is not a transgression. You didn’t overdraw your bank account one time. You didn’t forget to take the car to the dealership for that tune up you had scheduled. You didn’t get a little tipsy at the christmas party and barf on your bosses shoes. You cheated on your life partner. You lied. You betrayed.

    That’s kind of a big deal. And how does Esther know it was once? Twice? Ten times? Is each sexual act a singular “transgression” we just have to get past and focus on all the other emotional stuff? How does one ferret out that which is lie in that emotional connection, for the sake of committing the betrayal, to that which is truth? (I love you honey, I’m just going to pop over to my friends house for a little bit, you are the best, I just think you’re the greatest husband/wife, I’ll be home soon – so what in that exchange is truth? Where is the actual emotional honesty?) Esther never seems to quantify the massive amount of toxic weight a betrayed spouse has to jettison just to function on a daily basis, nor does she seem to remember there’s actually two people involved. And for some, infidelity is a heart smashing deal breaker. For others, they can compartmentalize and excuse some of what happened and look past it. But in NEITHER case is it a ‘transgression’.

    I get the feeling from articles like this that the faithful are continually painted with the Scarlet F. If you leave, you are damned by people like Perel who think you should just minimize the whole thing and move on. Or, if you stay, then you have the stink of staying on your body, as if you agree that cheating is just fine. Whether you stay or leave, it’s a ton of work, it takes herculean emotional courage, it’s not fun or funny for one minute, you have years and years of collateral damage, and not one of these clowns ever seems to recognize the horrible toll it takes on a betrayed spouse. Transgression indeed.

    Once again, the betrayed pay the price.

    • showmehowtoheal June 11, 2015 at 2:39 pm #

      Thank you Scott. Words of wisdom, while trying to save (its worth it right now), or not (if he shows no change over time….what time?, ..our story will only tell that)….save the last 30 ….ok, I guess 28 (per length of CH/OW)…. 😉

  13. TryingHard June 8, 2015 at 3:12 pm #

    Weak, strong I agree it’s what works for you and in some cases one or the other partners didn’t have a choice as to whether or not they wanted to be divorced. There’s blogs too that call you a fool for staying, weak, chumped, whatever. I find something useful in most blogs. Take what I need and leave the rest. And I agree no matter what your choice or situation it’s a ton of work to get back to what some consider normal, if life ever was.

    And don’t judge me because what I did on DDay 1 and 2 may or may not be construed as legal or illegal 🙂 OOOO I wish I could tell all of you the really crazy things I did but I’m not quite sure what the statute of limitations is in my state :/

  14. TrustingGod June 8, 2015 at 4:15 pm #

    Thanks again to Scott for being the voice of reason. I hope to someday sound as strong and clear-headed as you do.

  15. Tabs June 8, 2015 at 10:26 pm #

    Wow Scott. You just put into words what I’ve been thinking for the past 3 years.

  16. SoManyTears June 13, 2015 at 3:23 pm #

    I am ashamed. Ashamed that I mistakenly believed my CH when, while dating, he promised me he’d “never do anything to jeopardize this relationship”. Ashamed that, when I said my wedding, vows I meant them and he did not. Ashamed that his family thinks something MUST have been wrong for him to cheat on me for 15 months with his ex girlfriend. We had NO problems in our marriage before he cheated. He and I BOTH agree. This was something HE did. I had NOTHING to do with it. Being happily married for 10 years only to have the rug pulled out from under you because of infidelity and lies is horrible! He wants to stay married. He HAD a good wife. Why wouldn’t he want to stay? I want out, but since I now know his secrets, he threatens me. He will not be without me. He will be around every corner. I feel like my husband died and some horrible man that looks like him is in my home now. He says he loves me. How can the man love me if he could tell another woman that he wished he’d never married me and always wanted to be with her? I feel like I am his “golden egg” and he would look very stupid to lose me, but he doesn’t really love me. I am ashamed I am still with a man that obviously doesn’t love me, lies, betrayed me, put my health at risk, used me and did not keep his promises. He promises NOW he won’t ever hurt me again. How can I believe him THIS time? I do not believe a spouse can really love you, when the marriage is more than wonderful, and cheat on you. It makes me sick! I’m ashamed I’m even in this ordeal.

  17. Gizfield June 13, 2015 at 3:31 pm #

    So Many Tears, I didn’t read all your post. I didn’t need to. You didn’t do anything wrong. You do not have anything to be ashamed of. Your husband is another story. This is 100% on him. Make him own it. Stop taking responsibility for his crap. He is being a selfish, immature jerk.

  18. Jen November 15, 2015 at 9:08 am #

    Of all the searching, hours trying to connect with others or something, this article really resonates with me.

    The stories shared, I connect, I lived, I share the sentiments. My husband cheated with someone who attends the church Once our home church. He is completely denying it. I however have proof and have not revealed it as yet.
    Our lives are in turmoil but judgement the disgrace felt the mountain ahead to climb at times seems unbearable.

    We have two beautiful young children that will be so turn apart by this. I keep finding strength through them truly.

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