Recovering from the Shame of Betrayal and Divorce

By Linda J. MacDonald, M.S., LMFT

While consulting with a local physician, I mentioned that I had recently gone through an unwanted divorce, knowing he had experienced the same. I will never forget his words, “Oh, the shame!” Instantly, I felt understood.

I’d been a Christian since I was five years old and had waited a long time to find the “perfect” marriage partner for me. After many years of dating a myriad of guys, James completely swept me off my feet. He was smart, handsome, a solid Christian, and best of all, he had a similar heart for ministry as I did. I was certain I had met the right man. I’d never felt so pursued, loved and accepted as I did with James.

Ten years into our marriage, his buddies pushed him to confess he’d been looking at pornography. Naïve about the dangers and degrees of online porn, I accepted his confession, forgave him, and that was that.

One year later, he admitted he was struggling with a romantic attraction at work. I had no idea they were actually “involved.” I missed all the signs, despite being a Marriage and Family Therapist who specialized in infidelity.

I tried every way I could think of to salvage our once-happy marriage, anywhere from kindness to tough-love tactics. Nothing worked.  After two years of drama he filed for divorce.

I was devastated. I suffered Post Traumatic Stress symptoms with nightmares, involuntary tremors, and difficulty functioning in my job.

Along with my very broken heart, I experienced a tremendous amount of shame.

Professional Shame. How could I have been fooled? After all, this was my specialty as a therapist.

Personal Shame over being “thrown away” by a man I deeply loved. Was I that unworthy of love, fidelity, and commitment?

I found that Spiritual Shame was especially acute to me as a follower of Christ. I didn’t believe in divorce. Yet, here I was. I thought that God hated divorce. I wondered, “Did that mean that now God hates me?”

And then there was the Social Shame. One person asked a close friend of mine, “What’s wrong with Linda?” as if I must have some fatal flaw for my husband to fall in love with someone else and leave me.

I attended a women’s retreat shortly after my divorce, seeking comfort from my inconsolable grief. During worship, I saw our pastor’s wife put her arm around a friend of mine who’d been widowed a few months before. My shoulders ached for the same kind of sympathy. Yet, I suffered alone in awkward silence.

I’ve done a lot of reflecting on the shame that accompanies intimate betrayal and divorce.  Here are three of the reasons why these twin-experiences are associated with so much shame:

  1. Intimate betrayal and rejection are personal. They cause us to question our worth, desirability, lovability, and adequacy as women.
  2. They are “stigmatized” losses. There is much disgrace associated with losing a spouse to any outside romantic or sexual involvement.
  3. Divorce and infidelity go against our values as Christians.

Here are some of the ways I found healing:

  1. God’s word became like diamonds to me. I pored over scripture to find:
  2. assurance that the Lord still loved me
  3. verses that countered the many excuses my husband used for his wayward actions
  4. how much the Lord understood and identified with my suffering
  5. I wrote thousands of pages in my journals which the Holy Spirit used to help me cope with and make sense of my suffering (and come to terms with the unsolvable).
  6. I read every book I hadn’t read yet on the topic of infidelity, abandonment, and forgiveness.
  7. I forced myself to connect with friends and attend bible studies, despite feeling hollow inside.
  8. I sought counseling and healing prayer from professionals and friends.

I attribute my greatest healing to the many ways God met me in the years after my sorrowful experience.



Today I wrote a brief article about how an affair-crazed partner comes up with so many “rationalizations” that wound and hurt their spouses. I would like to share it with those who wish to follow my blog.


This is a brief article for a better understanding of the dynamic of rationalizing.
One of the biggest things that I believe can liberate a betrayed spouse, is the TRUTH. “You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.” John 8:32

Often, an unfaithful partner rationalizes his/her sexually immoral mental and physical behavior and then say them in ways that make the faithful one feel “crazy” and invalidated. I trust you fill find this brief article helpful and shed light on the mental assault you’ve experienced from your partner’s hurtful rationalizations. ~Linda

Those who betray and/or abandon their spouses employ many mental tactics to justify their choices and behaviors. The chief way is through a process called “rationalizing”.

Webster defines the word rationalize: “To devise superficially rational or plausible explanations or excuses (for one’s acts, beliefs, or desires) usually without being aware that these are not the real motives.”

American Heritage Dictionary defines rationalize: “To devise self-satisfying but incorrect reasons for (one’s behavior).”

In my research about rationalizing, I’ve come across one of the major theories behind how this process in the human mind works, known as the theory of cognitive dissonance. In essence, cognitive dissonance is when we experience conflicting beliefs at the same time which in turn creates great discomfort or dissonance of conscience and belief.

In experiments it has been proven that when a person’s prior beliefs are in conflict with a pleasurable or rewarding forbidden emotion, the internal clashing between emotion and beliefs (cognitive dissonance) can only last so long. Often times a person may be so swayed by their emotions that they reject their prior beliefs or morals and find a way to justify pursuing the pleasure or good feelings. Thus, a new set of beliefs must be constructed in order to stop a nagging conscience from being tormented by the newly adopted behaviors. These new beliefs are considered faulty but effective rationalizations so the person can live with him/herself.

The most extreme example of such rationalizing that I found was in the Nazi commanders during World War II. The Germans had been humiliated devastated by their defeat and ensuing financial losses during World War I and the Great Depression. Hitler began to study the theory of eugenics and survival of the fittest to support the idea of the German need to weed out perceived weaker or faulty humans in order to purify the genetic pool and create a super race (of the German people). He rose in power and began disseminating propaganda to the masses and especially to his military leaders to falsely slander and scapegoat the Jews and the infirmed. In turn, the Nazi leaders told themselves lies about the worth, value, danger of the Jewish race in order to feel “OK” about abusing and murdering millions of Jews. These rationalized beliefs were so strong, many leaders refused to admit the genocide was wrong despite being confronted with physical and photographic evidence of their atrocities at the Nuremberg trials for war crimes.

Infidelity or the notion thereof usually conflicts with a person’s religious or moral beliefs – at least in the beginning. If a person toys with the idea long enough or gets tempted by a touch or look, he/she may act out yet feel terrible about what he/she has done. Yet, if he/she keeps engaging in these wrong behaviors, the dissonance gets louder and creates so much internal havoc, the person may decide to dispose of their prior principles and embrace new beliefs that are more friendly to the pleasurable behavior.
Examples of such rationalized beliefs are:
• “God is a God of Love and Grace. Surely He would never condemn me.”
• “I couldn’t help myself.”
• “I was miserable in my marriage.”
• “I deserve to be happy for once in my life.”
• “I’ve been living for everyone else. Now it’s MY turn (to take care of me, or do what I want).”
• “It couldn’t be wrong if it feels so right.”

The following are a list of precursors that can make a person more vulnerable to being unfaithful to their marriage partner:
1. Prior wearing down of the conscience through viewing pornography.
2. Expanding into online chat rooms, dirty-online conversations, e-mailing nude photos, etc.
3. A parent’s immoral behavior and endorsing the same (directly or through modeling) in a growing child.
4. The use of alcohol or drugs. These tend to lower a person’s inhibitions to cheat.
5. An inability to process emotions in a healthy way can lead to acting out after a crisis of some sort, such as the death of a parent (especially if there are a lot of unspoken hurts with that parent – the death may squash the dream of someday hearing the missing “I love you’s” or the affirmation or validation never received by that parent).
6. Hanging around friends of dubious reputation who make light of the topic of infidelity.
7. Midlife crisis where multiple, unresolved conflicts, issues, fears of aging surface – typically around the late thirties or early forties. Some delay their midlife crises into their fifties and sixties when their children are adults and there are fewer perceived barriers to keep them from acting out. Those who do this in their twenties or early thirties usually married young.
8. A tendency to avoid conflict.
9. A tendency to avoid emotional intimacy.

One factor that increases the susceptibility of a person to great self-deception regarding infidelity, is the cocktail of hormones that get released when a person steps out of the marriage into the realm of the “forbidden”. Below is a quote from my e-book, “Who Will You Become?”:

“Scientists have found that romantic highs are fueled by mood-lifting neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine. However, the strongest cause of your current euphoria is a hormone called phenylethylamine. This particular hormone is released during fresh infatuation and resembles the chemical make-up of morphine.
These neuro-chemicals have distorted your sense of reality. You are, in essence, under the influence of drugs.
Right now, you may think your eyes are finally open and you feel more alive than ever before. Yet you do not realize that your eyes are seeing through tainted lenses and your mind is in a hormone driven fog. What seems like mental clarity and finding the love of your life is really an illusion created by the chemicals in your brain. These neurochemicals feel so good, they create a false contrast with your marriage. Only you don’t know it yet.

Barriers intensify romantic feelings.

Proverbs 9:17 “Stolen water is sweet; food eaten in secret
is delicious.”

If you are honest, you most likely had some of these fluttering feelings when you were dating your current spouse, or you wouldn’t have married him or her. But those feelings are long gone and can’t even compare to how wonderful your experience is with your newfound love.
Again, there is a reason for that. As Pat Love explains in her seminars, research has shown that the more “forbidden” the relationship, the more intense the effect these hormones have on the brain. When you are engaged in a web of secrecy, intrigue, stolen moments and breaking-all-the-rules – these barriers fan your emotions to a peak not possible in normal, everyday life with a spouse. What you are experiencing is the result of stolen goods. It is simply not realistic to compare a secret, outside romance with a legal, seasoned marriage.

Please bear in mind that this intensity won’t last – particularly once the barriers are gone. Someday your feet will come back to the ground and suave, clever, wonderful you – the “you” that you blame your current spouse for squashing – will in time fade back into ordinary you. And, once your hormones die down, your lover will become a flawed person, just like your current spouse is, who will most likely irritate you in one way or another.”

Betraying spouses are deluded and out of touch with reality and need some “tough talk,” so that is why I wrote that particular e-book. Continuing with this article, please read on.
I have found that sometimes the most tempted sound the most adamant about how wrong it is for anyone to be unfaithful and the most condemning of others who act-out in this way. Some may sound like they are super “religious” and would never stoop to such a thing. They do this to deflect from their own invisible guilt, injuries from past sex abuse, a parent’s immoral modeling and/or propensities to fantasize about other women/men which lay hidden beneath the surface.

All this to say, infidelity and rationalizing go hand-in-hand. It is a matter of survival. Otherwise the tempted would cling to their moral convictions and find the strength to resist, or else they would commit suicide. There is no other way to engage in unfaithful acts and live with oneself, unless the wayward find a way to crucify their consciences and/or justify their illicit behaviors.