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Spouse Had an Affair? Beware How You Handle Your Anger

To confront infidelity wisely, here’s what helps and what hurts.

Therapists frequently invite those who have been betrayed by their partner to freely let out their anger toward the guilty party. And unquestionably, such an emotional release is ethically warranted. After all, a grave relational injustice has occurred, and victims venting just how infuriated they are with their spouse’s deception is definitely reasonable. Yet if the marriage is to survive, if both parties are to get beyond the affair and rebuild their relationship, the injured partner’s incessantly—and maybe ragefully—berating the offender has to subside. Otherwise, it can constitute the final blow to the union.


First, consider that if in your deceived disillusionment, you’re compelled to push your partner away, virtually nothing beats telling them how awful they are. For as guilty as they may already feel for breaking their vows, being yelled at, slammed, and belittled has the immediate effect of further shaming—and scaring—them.

They know all too well how badly they’ve violated their attachment bond, one that earlier they agreed to when they were so in love with you that they readily entered into what both of you hoped would be a permanent, exclusive union. So later, despite whatever ambivalence they may have developed about the relationship, their acutely felt need to hide their errant behavior indicates they understood that what they were doing was wrong. Unless they’re clearly narcissistic or sociopathic, the way they acted wasn’t in accord with their values or ideals. They may have succeeded in rationalizing their wayward activity, but still, having surrendered to their emotions and carnal appetites would hardly have freed them from inner conflict.

So even though, having been found out, they may be motivated to offer you compassion and support for what they put you through, if they experience you as continually—and punitively—“rubbing it in,” your having seriously punctured their ego may not permit them to. Independent of what your conscious intention may be in letting them know how much they’ve devastated you, your unrestrainedly judging them as dastardly, weak, morally corrupt, and lacking in basic human decency can ultimately compel them to do whatever they can to escape your verbal clutches.

They may now feel so demeaned, so humiliated, by your ongoing caustic comments that they’re too busy licking their wounds to offer you any moral support. So as much as you may desperately need them to “take it” and at the same time be there for you, your shaming them through anger may make it impossible for them to do so. They simply may not have the emotional resources to “team up with you” in your unmitigated attacks on them.

In addition, when your feelings toward them are nothing but venomous, vocally pummeling them with anger and resentment can also scare them off. For unconsciously—and at the most primitive level—they sense your powerful urge to be vindictive and vengeful toward them, to hurt them as badly as they’ve hurt you.

We all have defenses to protect us from feeling bad about ourselves. So given that the perpetrator already knows they shouldn’t have acted out their frustrations or libidinous urges through infidelity, repeatedly rubbing their nose in it will only make them feel worse. And if part of the reason for the affair was that they hadn’t been able to feel sufficiently connected to you, feeling humiliated by you is likely only to increase the gulf between you.

The offender may perceive your disenchantment and disgust with them as valid, and they may intuitively know they need to hear you out. But being chastised is far more likely to impel them to get away from you than comfort you. After all, for a person to feel defensive, yet at the same time offer empathy to the one who’s violently attacking them, is a feat very few of us can rise to. Moreover, the impulse to negate your persistent faultfinding with counter-faultfinding may be irresistible.

Note the irony in all this. If you’re the cheated-upon party, your anger safeguards you from the risk of feeling anywhere as vulnerable with your cheating partner as you had previously. And blaming them protects you from blaming yourself—feeling that maybe you actually deserved their infidelity, that somehow you weren’t lovable enough to keep them from straying. Whatever ancient doubts you may have harbored about yourself were revivified by their betrayal. And learning of their treachery may have validated your worst fears of loss and abandonment. So, in defensive reaction, feeling so duped and victimized, and more vulnerable than you can tolerate, you're driven to fight back—to show your strength by dismissing them as you felt dismissed yourself.

This may be fighting fire with fire. But such a solution for heartache is ultimately a pseudo-solution, for it can’t really help you get what you most want and need. As I’ve noted in many of my previous posts, anger is almost always a secondary emotion, a protective “cover” for far more distressing emotions. (See “Feeling Vulnerable? No Problem—Just Get Angry,” “The Paradox of Anger: Strength or Weakness?”, and “Anger—How We Transfer Feelings of Guilt, Hurt, and Fear.”) Still, it’s the more upsetting emotions beneath anger that cry out for the other’s assistance—to reassure you, comfort you, and tell you that you are loved, valued, and cared for.

But without the willingness both to own and express these more upsetting emotions, it’s far less likely that the other person will offer you the soothing you’re unable to provide for yourself, which is essential to your healing. So beware of constantly blurting out things like: “I don’t want to have anything to do with you, you _______!” [fill in the blank with your favorite four-letter word].

Additionally, if the cheating partner feels compelled to start defending themselves against all your acrimonious accusations, it will be that much harder to prompt them to take full responsibility for violating their vows. Their own emotional survival programs (i.e., their psychological defenses) may well prohibit them from responding in ways that could help you move past the shock and despondency that immediately ensued from their treachery.

So, when your anger operates to protect you from future vulnerability, what’s the probable outcome—not just for you but your partner as well?

To begin with, both of you will end up feeling like victims. Your rancor toward your partner may have eased desolate feelings of emptiness and powerlessness. Nonetheless, they’re still there, only partially camouflaged by your anger. But now your partner is also trapped in feelings of helplessness and victimization—not by your cheating on them, but by your unending verbal assaults. Needless to say, the longer the two of you actively defend against these negative feelings through some sort of tit-for-tat, cyclical blame game, the more such mutual recrimination will make each of you feel further alienated from each other.

This added damage to your union can be irreversible and lead to longstanding bitterness—if not outright divorce. The affair may have come about because of a growing disconnectedness between the two of you. Later, fighting or feuding about the infidelity can broaden this disconnection, sometimes to the point of permanent hostility and alienation. And that’s particularly lethal if there are children involved. For, however unwittingly, your marital impasse will entrap them as well. They can wind up confused, anxious, depressed, or angry without fully understanding what’s happening to them.

The solution to this marital dilemma is neither simple nor straightforward (though interested readers can find dozens of articles on the Web that offer many detailed suggestions). Undoubtedly, there are instances in which the betrayal is a deal breaker, particularly if the relationship has been hanging by a thread prior to the affair’s being discovered. But if the bond between you, though badly shaken, remains more or less intact, there are viable countermeasures that can begin to repair what in the relationship has been broken.

Given what’s already been described, the crucial "fix" is for the betrayed partner to sufficiently trust themselves and their partner to allow themselves to be vulnerable, and explicitly share not their self-protective anger, but their profound pain and disappointment. And rather than simply blaming their partner for their feelings (i.e., mercilessly dumping these feelings on them), letting them know—and without degrading or excessively guilting them—that they need concretely to demonstrate their contrition through remedial action.

As Susan Heitler astutely observes in “Recovery from an Affair”:

Crying, which indicates vulnerability, generally can be tolerated and heard by the betrayer more readily than accusatory anger. Most spouses have limited long-term ability to tolerate the intense blame, accusation and fury that are normal during the initial period of shock.

Sustained anger tends to intensify rather than ease the hurt of a betrayed spouse, slowing his/her personal recovery. Showing the partner "look how much I'm suffering" can feel tempting for purposes of punishment or guilt induction. Ultimately, however, punishment and guilt-induction tends to be counter-productive.

Having the courage to share what’s beneath their anger, the person (more likely the wife than the husband) might say something like:

"I realize you may have felt neglected by me—‘cause of how stressful my job has been, and all the demands of our children, and everything I have to do around the house. But still, when I started to get anxious and began wondering whether something was going on that you weren’t sharing with me—‘cause of all your excuses for coming home late, and breaking so many of our agreements, and making business trips that really didn’t make much sense to me, and then—on my own—I found out you were cheating on me, can you understand what a stupid idiot I felt like to have trusted you and let myself be “taken in” by all your denials? Like my feelings didn’t mean anything to you, that you really didn’t give a damn about me—or about us. . .

"Can you get how devastating all this has been for me?! Your affair has left me just heartbroken, and I really don’t know how I‘m going to recover from this. I feel so removed from you right now, so hurt by you, that it’s hard for me to even look at you ..."

Such words represent a genuine admission of sorrow and vulnerability. They’re not about angrily excoriating the perpetrator, but giving them honest feedback as to how extremely harmful their behavior has been to you. And such an assertive, but heartfelt, admission is far more likely to win their respect—maybe even admiration—than a no-holds-barred verbal whipping of them. So perhaps the most powerful solution to convincing the guilty party to directly confront their betrayal is to disclose the excruciatingly painful impact it’s had on you. Such sharing is what’s most likely to draw the other’s empathy and compassion—as well as the best guarantee that their betrayal won’t repeat itself in the future.

As far as the erring party is concerned, given their positive motivation to right what they’ve so seriously wronged, the main question is: Do they possess the skills to adequately comfort and care for their victimized partner? Because many individuals, particularly males, are seriously lacking in this area. In general, empathy is much more developed in women than in men. And the way girls and boys are typically reared explains why so many men are unable to be there for their wives, to stay “present” for them when their wives most require their understanding and support.

Short of enrolling in an empathy training program, these straying men can at least attempt to look at their partner as tenderly, as caringly, as they themselves would need their wives to if they had been cheated on. And mostly, it’s about listening without in any way defending themselves—and certainly not bringing up any of their spouse’s own shortcomings.

Later on, there may be time to talk about how they too have felt ignored, deprived, or abused in the relationship. But now what’s exclusively called for is that they make every effort to emotionally identify with their partner’s devastation and convince them that they’re truly, deeply sorry for what they’ve done. And that they’ll make amends, doing everything in their power to regain their partner’s trust.

And unless their betrayed partner has unequivocally crossed the line and determined to exit the relationship, there’s still hope that, with or without professional assistance, what has been broken can—slowly but surely—be repaired.

© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All rights reserved.

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