Many faithful spouses in an affair will freely admit that they’d like to see their cheating spouse expressing guilt and remorse. There are many reasons for this. First, they want for their spouse to feel many of the negative and hurtful emotions that they’re now feeling because of his affair. They also figure that he deserves every guilt feeling that surfaces. And, even better, if he feels truly guilty, perhaps he will think twice before he cheats again.
Still, when you are dealing with a spouse who is moping around the house and overcompensating for his guilt every day, it can start to wear on you. Perhaps you begin to think that this display of guilt is posturing or overkill. It’s not uncommon for wives to have conflicting feelings about all of the guilt. Someone might say, “I’ll be honest. I like that my husband is hurting after his affair. I like that he feels awful about it and thinks poorly of himself. He deserves all of these feelings. Because what I’ve been feeling has been no picnic in the park, either. But sometimes, his guilt leaks into the whole house. Don’t get me wrong. He should feel guilty. He used our family’s money to buy trips and gifts for this woman. He took money that my children could have used. He lied to me, to his mother, and to our kids. He snuck around like a little weasel. He continued having sex with me during the affair. So yes, he should be eaten up with guilt. But it’s almost painful to watch. He walks around all slumped over and looking like he’s going to cry at any minute. I constantly catch him just staring into space. If we go to a restaurant, he will order salad and water. He will say that he deserves nothing more. He just had a birthday and he insisted that no one buy him any gifts because he said that he wasn’t deserving. If our kids try to show him affection, sometimes he will burst into tears and say that he doesn’t deserve their love. He spends money that we really don’t have buying me guilt gifts. So I’m not quite sure how I feel about this. On one hand, he should feel guilty. On the other hand, he’s a drag to be around. At some point, he’s going to have to meet me like an equal if we’re going to save our marriage. And he acts as if he almost can’t bear to talk to me. How should I handle this?”
If you are in counseling, I’d ask your counselor to handle this. He or she will know the best way to deal with it. If you are not in counseling, I’d highly recommend it because a man who feels this badly about himself is vulnerable to undesirable behaviors and actions. Not only that, but as you’ve already alluded to, if he can’t concentrate on much else besides his guilt, it’s going to be hard to move forward.
You’re right in that some guilt is appropriate and healthy, but so much guilt that it becomes destructive isn’t ideal, either. You could always try to have a conversation like, “you don’t have to order salad and water. I know that you feel guilty and I understand why. But taking it so far that we can’t enjoy a family dinner out is not helping anyone. It’s not great for our kids to see their dad this far down. Why don’t we explore counseling and see what we can do about our family so that this gets better? It’s not helpful for any of us to feel this defeated all of the time. We need to address the affair and to try to move forward in some sort of healthy way for our family, but we’re not going to be able to do that if your guilt keeps you from thinking that you deserve to participate.”
People sometimes ask me if this type of guilt is legitimate or if the husband is just posturing. Many times, it’s totally legitimate. Imagine if you were caught in this type of lie. Imagine how embarrassed and ashamed you would feel. Imagine how difficult it would be to look your kids in the eye. This is what your husband is dealing with, and he has to do it in front of an audience. I’m not saying that he doesn’t deserve it, but it can be a hard situation for everyone.
His guilt can sometimes get better as healing begins. As your husband sees that it might one day be possible for him to take responsibility and to at least begin making up for this colossal mistake, he may begin to calm down with the guilt. I often tell people that the best way to overcome this type of guilt is to become the spouse that your family deserves. Yes, it’s normal to feel like the most deplorable person ever after you’re caught cheating. But when you stand up, face your mistake, willingly take responsibility, and then make every effort to make things right again, then that is a good and honest first step. You can only sincerely fix it and then vow to never do it again. Most people do realize this over time and the guilt diminishes, although it typically never goes away completely.