After receiving a number of emailed questions from Betrayed Spouses, it occurred to me that there is an issue out there that I haven’t read much about: When your Wayward Spouse claims to want to save the marriage, has ended the affair, but does not show or state real remorse for what they did. It can be enraging and confusing.
When your spouse isn’t showing any outward displays of guilt such as these, it may be particularly upsetting because it seems to show a lack of sympathy, caring, or remorse, and has you thinking he or she is likely to repeat the experience once you calm down and some time has elapsed. You may wonder how you can fix a relationship where the cheating spouse doesn’t appear to really “own” the wrong he or she has perpetrated.
I see it on blogs and message boards too — Former (or current) cheaters who absolutely feel justified in what they did or are doing and indicate no remorse. Curiously, they are mostly female cheaters (which is a different subject). I had one write me and told me that she regretted being caught, but did not regret the affair. And why? Because she said that since most marriages experience infidelity, that she “expected” her husband to do it (but to her knowledge has not), and therefore, it didn’t seem so bad that SHE did it. Really? I was a bit stunned by this illogical justification for spousal betrayal. But she was quite certain that she did not regret the affair. Fair enough. People have different points of view, that’s for sure.
That being said, certainly I have read about lots of female Betrayed Spouses stating in absolute anger and frustration that their cheating husbands have shown zero remorse for their affairs too. But that aside, how can this be? How can one try and save a marriage and not outwardly show remorse for the affair?
However, I know this as a virtually lead-pipe lock and truism: If a former cheater OPENLY STATES REPEATEDLY THAT THEY HAVE NO REMORSE WHATSOEVER for the affair, it’s very unlikely a marriage can be saved. When they show no remorse at all, despite ample opportunity, especially in the immediate aftermath of affair discovery, you have an issue. Your marriage is like over.
Remorse is critical. Remorse is one of the real pillars of marital reconciliation. A leg on the stool that cannot be comprised unless the whole thing should collapse. If your spouse truly does not feel remorse for this huge stab in the back and massive deceit, you should leave them. It’s one thing to discuss “why” the person chose to have an affair (which may or may not point back to huge gaps in your marriage) and you should have this conversation — but don’t let the “why” be confused with “justification.” There is no justification for an affair. It’s wrong. And if the cheating spouse doesn’t see it that way, you’re marriage is done. You’re toast. They are a sociopath and a narcissist and you can only trust the fact that they will do whatever is best for themselves and not you.
However, total lack of remorse by the cheater is not typical. The vast majority of cheaters DO feel and show remorse, especially initially. But maybe not to the level and depth that their Betrayed Spouse would like. Which makes them wonder — “are they really sorry? Will they do this again?” The lack of adequate, meaningful, specific and deep remorse, however, may not indicate they aren’t actually remorseful! Instead, it may indicate many possibilities.
Here are some common reasons why a spouse may not show or state open remorse for cheating:
1. Your spouse doesn’t think they were really cheating. To me, this is more common than you think. But you say, “everyone knows what cheating is!”, but do they? I’ve seen it on the blogs. Sure, if you are balls deep inside a woman (or a man is fully engaged in your mouth or vagina), yeah you are cheating. No doubt there. But what if it was one small, drunken kiss? Or an emotional sort of connection only? Heck, I’ve seen people here who swear that their spouse masturbating to porn constitutes cheating! (that one is bizarre to me, and indicative of some other personal issue on the part of the “betrayed” spouse in this case). Another ran a blog for a year, whining about how less than two weeks of “steamy emails” between her husband and a woman constituted cheating and turned her life upside down and how she could never get past it, despite the fact that she admitted she was a workaholic, avoided sex and fully neglected her spouse. And for the record, yes, emotional only (non-physical affairs) are wrong and do constitute “cheating” to me, but in her case, most of us felt that she was engaged in a vast, vast overreaction to what had occurred, failed to acknowledge her own role in the neglect of her spouse, and frankly ruined her marriage unnecessarily. But that’s a different topic!
So depending on the circumstance, relationship “boundaries” and what constitutes “cheating” have never been fully agreed to or even discussed constitutes a real problem. People assume their partner knows what they consider to be “cheating” but sometimes they don’t. This is a discussion every couple should have early on. If you have different definitions of cheating, you could be headed to trouble. In these circumstances, the probably-cheating spouse will be very defensive and not agree with you that they cheated. And therefore, won’t show remorse. I think this is not the most common circumstance.
2. The Cheating Spouse is engaged in an “exit affair.” They used it to get out of their marriage. They have already decided the marriage is over and the affair was the method to do it — they found someone whom they wish to be with more than you, or have at least proven to themselves that there is indeed “something better out there” for them. And they want out. The affair is the self-proof they need to take that final step. So of course, they feel no remorse for cheating. It was just a means to an end.
3. The Cheating Spouse has huge grievances against their spouse. Serious anger. They feel neglected, abused, misunderstood, unwanted and undesired by you for years. They may even feel they tried every possible tactic to get your attention before they launched their affair. Their affair was the only available means to them to get their critical emotional needs met since you would not. Therefore, they feel no remorse, even if it constitutes a massive betrayal. This is common Wayward Spouse thinking and again it confuses the “why” with “justification.” You can’t talk some Waywards out of this type of thinking. They may be correct — maybe you ARE a shitty spouse. But that doesn’t justify anything except leaving you. Certainly it doesn’t justify an affair, although reading the blogs, for many it seems to. It’s backward, screwed-up thinking, but common. They won’t leave you, but feel no remorse fucking around on you or having an emotional affair either. It’s almost like their affair, in their mind, is revenge against you. This is bad thinking. But anger on their part is making it impossible for them to realize the huge betrayal they have perpetrated. They will not feel remorse.
4. The affair is still going on, or they are still on the fence about it and you. If the affair is still going on, the Wayward Spouse is unlikely to feel much remorse. They still want it. Even if they claim it’s not still going on, it might be still raging, but driven further under ground, or on a reduced level. But still going on nevertheless. It’s hard to feel true remorse until the cheater has fully separated themselves from their lover. This is that well known term, ‘the affair fog’. Infatuation with the lover is a chemical addiction. It actually changes the way our brain functions to enhance pleasure and make us obsessively tied to the lover so that all other considerations seem like faint background noise. Seeing yourself and your actions with 20/20 vision and feeling remorse for this massive betrayal of your spouse is probably the furthest thing from your mind.
Or they literally may still be on the fence. They may long for the affair and their affair partner, even if they have cut off contact. They aren’t really sure what they want at this point. You. Their affair partner. Neither of you. Shell-shocked and confused, they aren’t likely to feel remorse yet. Remember, they have feelings about the affair too. They must work through them first before they can feel sorry about anything except being caught.
5. They feel remorse, but are the type of person who can’t apologize. My father was like this. I don’t know if I ever heard him say “I’m sorry” to anyone. Not his wife. His kids. Close friends. Even when he was 100% in the wrong and it was obvious. It’s just not in his DNA. He would callously instead pass it off as a joke, or as if it didn’t matter. Or his usual response was to say something like there was something worse in life than what he just did. He wasn’t a bad person, I just don’t think it was in him. For people like him, admitting that they have done something wrong is too much of an assault on their self-esteem. Sometimes people who have trouble feeling remorse also have trouble saying “thank you” and experiencing true gratitude. Both remorse and gratitude humble us. But some people experience humility as humiliation — a feeling that is so crushing that it is avoided at all costs. So they probably are feeling great shame and remorse, but have a hard time expressing it as it feels like a reduction on their self-esteem and dignity.
To this day, I have a hard time admitting guilt or remorse. It started with the atmosphere I grew up in.
6. It’s a sign of self-preservation and a massive internal denial of the truth. As Katie Lersch wrote, “Let’s think about this for a second. When a person begins the road toward cheating, there’s a lot of stop signs and considerations along the way. There are likely several times when the little voice inside their head asks them what they are doing and warns them that they’re about to cross the line. So, they are usually standing at a crossroads knowing deep in their hearts that what they’re doing (or about to do) is wrong, selfish, and hurtful. In order to move on and do it anyway, they have to come up with some way to justify their actions.
There are many ways that they will justify their cheating. They’ll tell themselves that they aren’t getting what they need at home. They’ll tell themselves that you don’t understand them. They’ll promise themselves that it will only be one time, has nothing to do with you, and tha t no one has to know or be hurt. They’ll fool themselves into thinking that no bad will come of this, because they’ll handle the issue and return to you as if nothing has ever happened.
As you can see, there’s a lot of lying to themselves happening. They either can’t or won’t see this for what it really is – their attempt to restore their self esteem and to feel on top and desirable again. Many people use an affair as a diversion or a smoke screen as to what is really going on inside them or what is really going on in their life. But, who wants to be honest about this and admit to themselves “I’m going to participate in the loathsome act of cheating on my spouse because I’m weak, selfish, insecure, and don’t like or respect myself very much right now.” As you can imagine, this kind of self talk is quite rare. No one wants to admit these things to themselves and even less people want to admit these things to their spouse.
So, in their own minds, they have to set it up so that the cheating is no big deal and they keep this charade up, even when they’re caught: “It’s no big deal. She didn’t mean anything to me. Why are you overreacting?” Deep down, they know these words are loathsome. They know they are lies. But, admitting this would be admitting that they were deeply wrong. And, they already taken the leap in their mind, way back when. Very few people are willing to do a complete 360 now. If they did, they’d have to admit what they’ve been trying to hide from themselves all along.”
The cheater may be blocking out the guilt and related emotions because it is too painful to feel them, or have difficulty accepting he or she has done wrong. This is why you may think your cheating spouse isn’t suffering any guilt: your husband or wife may be having a hard time actually working through those guilty feelings, the suffering you are experiencing, and the other damage caused to you, to your relationship and possibly to your family.
7. Showing remorse keeps the issue out in the open and the cheater really just wants it to go away and move on. The shame and guilt of being caused are a nightmare. You’re beating yourself up. Your spouse is beating you up. Maybe your ex-lover is too. It’s the worst possible time. You are shell-shocked, confused, and are filled with incredible guilt and self-loathing. And you deserve most of it, if not all of it. What the cheater wants is the anger, the yelling and recriminations to stop and as soon as possible. They know they screwed up and they want to move forward. They are tired of being punished. They want this all to go away as quickly as possible. So, they clam up. They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to give you the details because they know once they do, you’ll only become angrier and more distant. They would rather avoid this and are making the mistake of remaining tight lipped and cold. This thinking may be misguided and counter-productive, but it’s rational in a way. Stating/showing remorse just opens up the topic. Again. And there you are, on the carpet once again, being forced to face your choices and the pain you’ve inflicted. Who goes and looks for that?
So what do you do? Well, for some cheating spouses, they are already on the way out the door and you will never get remorse. For those that firmly believe that having an affair was justified, you’ll never get it either. Most of them are frankly very selfish, narcissistic people and honestly they won’t be a good partner for you or anyone. So you won’t get remorse there. All blame for their character flaws and poor choices will be fully shifted to you. They will not take shared responsibility for the affair ever, and thus, will never feel and show true remorse.
Also, if you have truly abused your spouse — emotionally or physically, or both — or overtly neglected them, you won’t get remorse. And frankly you shouldn’t expect it. For some of you, the affair really was a direct result of your actions as a spouse. Few will be sorry if they had an affair on a truly shitty spouse.
However, for the majority of cheaters, you will get the remorse. Maybe not exactly as you wish it or when you wish it, but it will come. For those spouses, there is hope. And here’s a perspective on what you might do:
First, you must make it clear that you need your spouse to show remorse in order to heal and move on.
In order for your marriage to heal, the cheater must own his or her active part in the wrong-doing before he or she can have feelings of guilt. And they need to show it and state it as a precursor to healing and forgiveness.
As Katie Lersch wrote, “Often, before you see any remorse, you must demand it. You have to make it very clear that you will not entertain saving the marriage or consider moving forward until you know that he’s deeply sorry and that he understands exactly what this has done to you. Ask that he sit down and allow you to share with him what you’re feeling and what you need. Make it very clear that this is not going to begin to go away until he starts talking. He’s only delaying what must happen anyway and he needs to understand this.
Be Patient. I absolutely understand why you want and need to see some remorse. If he/she isn’t sorry for the cheating and even feels justified about it, then they may just repeat it. And no one wants to go through this kind of humiliation and pain again. But it may be important for you to understand that much of the time, a lack of remorse is actually just posturing. Your Wayward Spouse knows that they are in the wrong, but he/she doesn’t want to place themselves in a situation where they feel that they are in a position of weakness. He doesn’t want you to ask too much of him. She doesn’t want to have to endlessly explain herself and her poor choices. And they don’t want to have to make amends for the rest of their life to you. They have a lot of feelings to work through and you need to support this, not pinch it off. Only by taking the volume down a level, and creating a safe environment where they can feel that they can open up to you about what’s going on inside them is real remorse likely to occur. Remorse initially may just be a way of stopping the yelling and getting you off their back while they are in a living hell of your fury and anger. But that’s not true remorse. This sometimes only comes later. With distance. Time. Understanding of themselves and of the situation they got themselves into. Only if they feel that they can share their deepest, most vulnerable feelings to you without fear are they likely to recognize the horrible thing they did to you and to themselves. Support it with patience, even if you feel anger.
I don’t mean to imply that you do not deserve this remorse or that you should not continue to press for it. You do deserve it and you should continue to ask for it. But, not seeing it immediately is not an indication that you can’t save your marriage or that your marriage isn’t worth saving. Actually, some of the most indignant and seemingly non caring spouses can be rehabilitated, can eventually coaxed to release their remorse once they feel safe to do so.
Sometimes, it is all in the way you say things. I know that it can feel unfair that you have to approach him or her in roundabout and gentle ways when this is all his/her fault anyway. But at the end of the day, does it really matter how you get what you want? If certain words, phrases, or approaches will get the remorse that you want, then to me, the end justifies the means.
In reality, you simply can’t know what is in someone else’s head or heart, or hear someone else’s inner dialogue. Your partner may be suffering immensely on the inside, or may be in a state of denial regarding his or her actions.
So tread carefully. Insist on remorse, but in a loving, patient way. You will get further.
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