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Infidelity: Consequences of Punishing the Offending Partner

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In this article I want to focus on one particular aspect of recovering from an affair: punishing the offending partner.

I am frequently asked, “How long is this pain going to last?!” That’s impossible to answer, but I do know one way to shorten the life span of your pain, and perhaps shorten the recovery process. What’s my secret? If you’re punishing your partner, stop. Why? Because punishment can slow the recovery process, thereby extending the pain you are working so hard to reduce.

In my office, I frequently hear the injured party telling their partner, “I want you to hurt for as long as possible, just like I do. You’re just going to have to take this punishment and deal with it!” The punishment begins in a wide variety of forms that ultimately prolong the injured party’s pain. In the early stages of recovery, dishing out punishment seems to provide the injured party a semblance of control after feeling profoundly powerless, helpless, and deeply wounded.

The Downsides to Punishment

First of all, punishment can lead to bitterness in one or both partners. Bitterness is swallowing a poison pill hoping the other party will die.

Second, it delays recovery due to the need for more repair. Punishment causes additional pain to a relationship already suffering on several levels. More pain means more recovery work. More recovery work takes more time. Inflicting emotional pain in someone else seldom leads to relief from our own pain because our brains are simply not wired to do that.

Punishing the offending partner means the injured party is working at cross purposes. For example, let’s pretend you are the injured party. Part of you wants to stop feeling so terrible and get your life back, perhaps save the relationship, or try to figure out whether or not the relationship even can be saved. Another part of you wants your partner to suffer, so you punish them. But punishing your partner, although understandable, only adds more pain to the relationship. The pain you feel as a result of the affair is real, deep, and pervasive. Adding pain to one side of the relationship while simultaneously trying to reduce it on the other side simply will not work. It is impossible to repair something that is simultaneously being damaged.

Alternatives to Punishment

  1. Realize that your desire to punish is normal, but it’s the consequence of your own pain.
  2. Understand that purposely causing pain for pain’s sake in your partner will not relieve your pain in the long run, even if it seems to provide a short-lived sense of satisfaction.
  3. Talk with your partner in detail about your pain! Expressing your pain gives you a greater likelihood of being heard and understood. It also provides an opportunity for your partner to experience their own pain derived from losing your trust, damaging their credibility, and losing their integrity, not to mention the realization that the relationship is in jeopardy. Punishment may divert them from facing those important issues and emotions.
  4. Remember, bitterness and punishment are damaging.

Think about it: If punishing the offending party must play a role, try to make it short-lived and limited. For when it persists, bitterness may take over, individual- and couple-healing is stalled, and your pain and recovery will be prolonged. Recovery from an affair is a long, arduous process, but the recovery process can be shortened if punishment stops. If need be, find a good counselor to help out.

How do you find a counselor who has an understanding of infidelity recovery? Ask if they have read Peggy Vaughan’s book, The Monogamy Myth. If not, look until you find a counselor who has. And if you haven’t read it, do so.

If you and your partner really want to do yourselves a favor, attend one of Brian and Anne Bercht’s workshops for couples recovering from an affair.

Limit the punishment, reduce your pain, and shorten the recovery process.

© Copyright 2010 by Jim Hutt, PhD, therapist in Menlo Park, CA. All Rights Reserved.

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Comments
  • sandra c March 11th, 2010 at 9:24 AM #1

    When I discovered that my husband had had an affair in the past I punished him for months even though the affair had ended almost a year ago and he was definitely doing what it took to rebuild our marriage. I had to get that anger out but what I thought was all anger was even more than that pain. It hurt to know that he had betrayed me in that way and had risked everything that we had worked on together in our relationship for sex with another woman. After I was through with the raging we were finally able to get it all together but it is not an easy task to forgive it and move on to something like that. I know that it is essential to get past the anger but that does not need to be rushed. You have to take the time that you need to recover and come to that place where you are ready to move forward.

  • A petersen March 11th, 2010 at 9:38 AM #2

    If you really love you partner and are keen on keeping him/her even after the infidelity,you should understand that both of you,and not just your partner,need to work very hard to make the relationship work again.This includes you refraining from inflicting pain onto your partner and from doing others things that will increase the problem rather than solving it.

  • Jim Hutt, Ph.d April 1st, 2010 at 12:49 PM #3

    Sandra,

    Your point is well taken, and also I applaud you and your husband for sticking to it and being able to work things out!

    Your experience highlights the difference between the anger or rage someone in your shoes feels, vs the the motive to punish the offending partner. In other words, expressing your anger/rage, pain, is not the same a punishing. However, many offending partners feel punished when they hear the power of expressed anger.

    Punishment is what an injured party does exclusively for the purposes of causing pain to the offending partner: pain for pain sake. Such as, passively doing or not doing something simply to irritate him/her. Or, actively doing something that is not in any way connected to a healthy healing process. Any behavior that might be considered ‘passive-aggressive.’

    The key distinction, again, is that the punishing behavior is not related to an effective, healthy healing process, and is produces strictly for the purpose of revenge, hurting or wounding the offending party.

    Honest expression of hurt, direct description pain, is NOT punishment. The problem is, many offending parties hear the former, and say, “when are you going to stop punishing me?” That, of course, has a way of derailing honest, appropriate expression of feelings.

    The moral of the story: Don’t define your expression of pain, hurt and feelings as punishment. Even if your partner says it is.

  • Jim Hutt, Ph.d April 1st, 2010 at 3:14 PM #4

    To A. Petersen,

    You’re right–it is all about hard work. and when an affair becomes an issue to deal with, rebuilding the trust is something that cannot be over-emphasized.

  • Staying Sane August 13th, 2010 at 1:51 PM #5

    It is hard to define things….For example, I do know that my wife didn’t have sex with her partner. Instead, they had a long and deep relationship where they connected on multiple levels. Even when she was spending time with me she would keep in touch with him. He knew everything about us and she knew everything about him and his family. The first thing she would think in our bad was sometimes him. He and his message would make her day, not me who was actually there. Again, no sex, not even a kiss. Is this an affair??? It sure feels like it. As you can see, so many details of this affair, a constant source for pain…I could go for days about the pain. Should I look for all these details? Don’t you think that maybe even these expressions of pain have a limit?

  • Major Peters November 8th, 2012 at 11:58 PM #6

    I’m curious as to the projected time frame to finally be able to move forward. For us, it’s been years now, and the punishment is still being dished out like Milk Duds at Halloween.

  • Jim Hutt, Ph.D November 9th, 2012 at 7:18 AM #7

    Interesting metaphor–Milk Duds at Halloween. Candy at Halloween is usually asked for, so maybe your partner thinks you’re asking for punishment. Now, I realize you are not literally asking for it, but you might be metaphorically inviting it. If you have not made a conscious attempt to repair, if you have not sought counseling, if you have not taken direct steps to build trust, then the punishment continues. BUT, that doesn’t mean it’s right. In fact, it’s unhealthy, and will help nothing. I have a video about the subject at counselorlink.com/infidelity. If possible, get in to counseling as a couple, but if not possible, go by yourself. If you don’t, I think it’s possible this seething stalemate will continue, and the results will not satisfy either one of you. Good luck and please keep me informed.

  • Windy Ridge Giant 44 April 3rd, 2013 at 11:25 PM #8

    I guess I get your point. But I am still struggling terribly with my wife’s affair from last Fall.

    What makes it worse is her unwillingness to talk about it. I find that, more than anything else, spurs in me the urge to want to punish her.

    My biggest problem is trying to figure out how I would punish her, even if I wanted to – I am not a scheming, mean, manipulative or controlling person.

    For now, I am taking comfort that the affair is over, and all communication with the individual has stopped.

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