Revenge Affairs

Discovering that a partner is having or had an affair is emotionally devastating. Mates who have experienced it report deep emotional pain, humiliation, self-doubt and a sense of incredulity about having been so profoundly betrayed. This crisis calls to question most of the basic tenets of their fidelity, monogamy and commitment. It also raises doubts about the partner, the couple’s union and the betrayed spouse’s options.

According to the 2002 U.S. Census Bureau Infidelity Statistics, “22 percent of men and 14 percent of women admitted to having sexual relations outside their marriage at sometime in the past. 17 percent of divorces in the United States are caused by infidelity.” Regardless of the veracity of these admissions, infidelity is an immensely traumatic event for a union established upon trust and loyalty.

Emotionally wounded mates often seek reasons for the betrayal. They belabor the answers to many questions, such as: How could their formerly trusted and idolized mate act in a deceitful and dishonest manner? Who is to blame? Can trust ever be restored? Is the relationship salvageable? Can they truly forgive this betrayal? What role, if any, have they had in contributing to this deception? Are they lovable enough?

The betrayed mate’s despondency is so profound, that some either elect to or are swept into an affair themselves to “right the wrong” or to “level the playing field.” For some, since the contract of the union has been violated, they feel entitled to act out as well. Others, in their distress become angry enough to want to punish the partner by their own “revenge” affair.

Trying to inflict upon a spouse the pain one feels may be an instinctual childish impulse, actualizing it defies most people’s code of moral development. Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg of the University of Chicago, identified in 1958 the Six Stages of Moral Development:

1. Being obedient to avoid punishment (Small children).

2. Self-interest orientation- I do what is best for me (Schoolchildren).

3. Conforming for social acceptance by the peer group (Adolescents).

4. Law and order morality- Being obedient to sustain a functional society (Late teens and adults).

5. Democratic orientation- changing unjust laws (Middle twenties or later).

6. Principled conscience – Doing what is right even when it is not self-serving (Gandhi, Martin Luther King).

Most people accomplish the first four stages, the fifth is reserved for special leaders and only exceptional individuals achieve the sixth step.

A “revenge” affair regresses one to a very immature stage of a first or second level of moral processing. The adult feels violated and acts as a hurt small child who is entitled to harm another to even the score for the injustice. As entitled as the betrayed partner may feel, a “revenge” affair damages both spouses and may doom the couple’s union.

To deal with a spouse’s infidelity:

  • Accept that two wrongs do not make a right.
  • Live to your higher moral development.
  • Seek professional help for both of you and your union.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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