Infidelity: Consequences of Punishing the Offending Partner

elder-couple-woman-in-focusIn 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.

Permission to publish granted to The preceding article was solely written by the author name above. The view and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • sandra c

    March 11th, 2010 at 9:24 AM

    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

    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


    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

    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

    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

    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

    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 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

    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.

  • deep story

    January 10th, 2015 at 6:45 AM

    my partner was not loyal from the first day to the last day of our 8 year relationship. she maintained facebook and internet boyfriends that included texting sexting sending pictures etc. After finding this all out what I am left with is a deep story that i am not good at choosing partners and not worthy of loyalty. Pathetic I know and a story I know but it grabs me all the same. she lost almost 100 pounds while she was with me and my wish is that she gains it all back. She used my resources and generosity to get where she is now and it is just hard to stomach that she deserves that given she was with me in a way that was false and premeditated, I just feel done to. The advice in the article is sound though – there was pain and confusion and I say i want to move on from those two things in relationship to that relationship.

  • Jim Hutt, Ph.D

    January 10th, 2015 at 3:32 PM

    Deep Story,

    Your story is a sad and powerful one. I don’t know if you are good at choosing partners or not. The sad part is that, indeed, it seems you were taken advantage of, and that can happen to any of us. The powerful part is your belief that you are not good at picking partners–because that might not be accurate. Here’s what I mean.

    In truth, ANYone can pick an inappropriate partner, and pay a stiff price as a result, if they don’t leave the relationship when they spot the warning signs.

    Is it possible there were signs of trouble that you ignored? Sometimes signs of trouble might be ignored because of a strong desire to avoid being alone, and/or fear of fighting if the trouble is pointed out. If this is the case, a more accurate belief might be that you are bad at ENDING relationships–not bad at picking a partner.

    But, if you believe you are “bad” at picking a partner (a very powerful and perhaps inaccurate belief), and also believe that you are not worthy of loyalty, the combination of those beliefs is likely to set you up emotionally to end up in a bad relationship because being in a bad relationship may unconsciously be what you think you deserve, and that may seem better than not being in one at all.

    Get in to counseling and discuss these ideas. You can figure this out. We all deserve to be loved, and that includes you.

  • Roger

    April 7th, 2015 at 7:57 PM

    Unless the offending partner feels the true consequences of their actions, it is highly likely the offenses will be repeated. Just human nature. Do not be a putz a second time.

  • Caz

    June 21st, 2015 at 6:52 PM

    I am a cheater. I am doing everything I possibly can to reconcile with my wife. However, I feel she mostly wants to punish me. I have said – countless times – that the damage and pain I have caused is entirely my fault – that I have put her in the position she is now in due to me having an affair – but every opportunity she gets – she will say things like – well its YOUR fault I’m here – It’s YOUR fault this… YOUR fault that etc…As if she thinks I have forgotten or will forget what I’ve done. How could I ever forget – I live with the pain and consequences of my actions for TWO people… her and me…. she also doesn’t seem to talk about her feelings as such – more about the affair only – and trying to make comparisons with other things in my past – which are not relevant – nor do they even correlate for comparison – so I’m not sure what is going on….
    I don’t want to hurt my partner – I’m doing everything I can possibly do to show my commitment to reconciliation – but I’m not so sure she is as committed as she says she is. Anyone have any suggestions for me please?

  • Jim Hutt

    June 22nd, 2015 at 4:29 PM

    Either get in to counseling with someone who understands affair recovery dynamics, or, attend a weekend workshop conducted by the Beyond Affairs Network. You can find them online.

  • Hazel

    July 28th, 2015 at 5:44 AM

    I got married in December 2015 and kept in touch via Skype with male acquaintances I had met on-line. One was an ex bf, and a few who had been friends for years, or males from chat/single sites. They all knew I had got married and I messaged them just to catchup. Unfortunately I had already had promised my husband 3 months earlier that I wouldn’t keep in touch with males, but failed to do so and thus respect his feelings. He was upset that I had been underhand and used skype to hide this behaviour seeing no-one had my number that I had changed a few months earlier, and understandably felt I was being duplicitous.
    He found out by going through my phone and was understandably extremely angry and upset with me. Note, I was not having an affair of any sort with any of them, and none of the convos were flirtatious. I acknowledged he was right to be hurt and angry and I would stop and make it up to him. He questioned me why, and I said it was just a bad habit, I was used to speaking to lots of people and since marriage had found no avenue for talking to people as we didn’t spend much time away from one another, except while I was at work, and was not accustomed to this. Even going to see my parents more than once a week was questioned, even though before marriage he had said twice a week sounds reasonable. So i needed an avenue to just rant sometimes, about the change and how it was a bit difficult, and i didn’t want to rant to friends and family as they might think i wasn’t happy, and i didn’t want to rant to him else he feel hurt.
    He decided to take my phone and ipad off me, and left me with my work phone. He took my passwords for my email accounts and facebook. He made me go through my bank accounts and promise I had no more accounts, to show him I didnt have another phone and nor was I sending gifts to other guys. He was annoyed at how much money I had spent the first few months of marriage which I put my hands up and agreed to and said I had a little crazy spell getting excited any buying lots of new things, and agreed I need to budget and calm down. Which I did, but later he would bring it up infront of people that I was a bad spender, and I would hurt that yes I was and I admitted it and I tried to correct it but you use it against me.
    He also told me to stop seeing friends, and for a period of 4 weeks the only outside people I met, were my family for 4hrs 1 day a week. I didn’t have a car so was going straight from work to home, where we lived with his parents. He would give me periods of access to my phone for an hr in the evenings. When I challenged this one night as I wanted to send a text at 11pm and he wouldn’t let me, he threw my phone out the window. He would read all my messages, be them from females or group conversations. When I asked him why he wouldn’t answer, later I would see screen shots of conversations he went back 2-3 months earlier where my friends has said something negative against me. Later when I asked why he went through female conversations he said it was to see if I had mentioned any males to them and they knew of anything else I had been upto. He deleted a female friends number from my phone because he didn’t like what she said in a message (she said if I needed a time out she could come boost me out of the house). He already had bad blood with another female friend of mines who I had stopped talking to, but told me to also stop going anywhere she might be with mutual friends, and remove me from a phone whatsapp group which included her – this meant losing access to a group friendship with friends of mine for 20 years. Which I did.
    I asked him to stop punishing me, as all these things were making me feel isolated and suffocated, and mentally I wasn’t sure how I could handle this long term. Bear in mind I had moved into his family home and it had only been 6 weeks, and was getting used to a new place, feeling uncomfortable in a new house with new rules/people and trying to fit in etc. When I complained he said I had said I would do what it takes, and I replied yes I will, within reason. But his and mines ‘reasonable’ were on opposite ends.
    He went into my skype ID and contacted males on it as me, telling them I was unhappy in my marriage and asking them to come see him, the males would then jump at booking a hotel and getting naughty with me and he held that against me. I said to him, but I wasn’t behaving that way to them, you were. But he judged me by the type of people I was talking to. I was like these are online guys, you talk to them like that, they are going to jump at the chance. One of them was an ex so he asked them when we were last together and got details of our relationship (NB I ended my relationship with him a couple of weeks into when I initially met my husband). Later on I relogged back in and seen the conversations he had been having as me with them, told them my account had been hacked and I deleted all the contacts and the account. He was then angry I still logged in and contacted these men and what they meant to me. I said nothing but you made them think I was unhappy and wanted an affair, thats not fair of you to demean me that way so I sent them that line and deleted it so he couldn’t do it again.
    He contacted my family and siblings to tell them what I had been up to, that I had been having an affair and for them to talk some sense into me. I asked him what was the point in doing that, especially when I was admitting to him what I did was wrong (chatting to guys – I did not have an affair) and I wouldn’t do it. He said they should know. He told my parents, and they reacted negatively to him, as in my culture this was a really bad thing for a woman to do, and they felt he should have hid this from them and dealt with it hisself. My mother told him off for going into my things and he got upset at them for being loyal to me and not telling me off the way he wanted them to. He deemed my parents unfit parents who had given me too much freedom and no wonder I was like this. All very hurtful things for me to hear, especially as he demeaned my parents by saying these things to them infront of them. It was my actions not theirs. Things I told him in confidence about my family set up he brought up and used in front of them saying that behaviour might be ok in their house but not his. He brought up my physical relations with the ex to my father and made me admit to it. My father is religious so it ashamed him and my dad went quiet. My husband was annoyed my father did not tell me off.
    His family kept telling me to listen to him. Just do as he says he will calm down.
    I tried. It came to a head when we one day he took me to work and we spoke about joint finances. I told him the way the trust was broken in our relationship I didn’t feel ready for it and we could talk about it another time. At this point he told me fine, to go into work and hand in my notice in and I wasn’t to work anymore. As he didnt trust I was at work and not out meeting guys, as I have a flexible office with remote login allowed etc. He based this on when we were dating and I would see him for long lunches and take my laptop with me and login on his phone. I said to him why would I cheat on you, I got married to you, and I wasnt having an affair or met anyone I shouldnt have, and that he was being unreasonable. He said he couldnt trust me so I had to do this. I owed my father money and he had been going on at me for 4 months to give it back to my father. I couldn’t understand why it was a problem. He felt I wasn’t respecting him and being disloyal to him. So that same day he made me take that money out of the bank. He took it saying he would give it to my dad when he picked me up that night from a friends. I was distraught at being told to hand my notice in that I went home to my parents. When I messaged him later to say I was there he told me not to bother coming back, and when my father phoned his parents to say he would be over with me the next day, he text me again to say my father was not welcome in his house.
    I ignored him and went round the next day. He wouldn’t let my father enter the house, my father got confused with this angry behaviour and panicked and phoned my older brother to come. In our community you arent rude to elders or disrespect them and generally keep quiet in front of them, so was a pretty bad thing that happened. I was upset and couldn’t believe this was my husband and how he was behaving. He said that because they had been rude last time they came, he didn’t want him in his house. When we got access in, and asked him about the money he proclaimed ‘what money’. Later on he admitted it was not there. Wierd since he had taken it from me the day before and I had messaged him then to say my father and I would be over the next day. I left his house that day with my father without the money. While we were outside he called the police on my brother saying he had threatened him. The police came and I told them he had my phone and money, they asked him and got my phone from him, and he again stated he didn’t know anything about the money.
    When I went home I realised he had changed my passwords on my email accounts so I started to change passwords, but he locked one down completely with 2 type authentication. Again I felt he was punishing me.
    I did go back again when some religious leaders got involved but the relationship was difficult, we went on holiday that he wanted to go to, but when it came to paying he expected me to pay for it all and said he didn’t have the money. I didn’t mind paying but i didn’t like the way he went about it. No transparency.
    He wanted apologies from my mum and dad to his parents, my brother and father to him, etc.
    I managed to get the money back via a cheque but it took 3 weeks. I asked him for cash (as thats how he took it) but he wouldnt – when I asked him later why, he said he was being obstinate.
    After all this I needed a break from him and decide what to do next as I felt our relationship was broken and went home to parents. While there when I stopped talking to him, as he wouldn’t call me himself and I got annoyed and stopped calling him too. After this he couldn’t handle that I was not talking to him, that after I had ‘cheated’ on him how dare I think I might not want to be in this marriage and got annoyed. He called me a tramp, accused my brother of slashing his tyres, blamed the breakdown of my marriage on my anger and my family and my dirty ways. Told my family he would be issuing me with divorce, but later on backtracked and wanted to try again.
    Unfortunately I have been married 7 months and I have more bitterness and punishment in this relationship than love. I have tried within reason to do what he wants but his demands escalate, without understanding the consequence of his words and actions. I told him I never wanted to be in a relationship where my husband doesn’t respect me and calls me names. No matter what I have done for you, you still see as I haven’t done enough and that I am disloyal to you and a disobedient wife. I told him I cut ties with friends, gave him access to my things, was transparent, went against family to marry him, but this wasn’t enough loyalty. But this is where I am, deciding if my actions were so bad that this behaviour on his part is ok, is it my punishment, should I repent more etc. So in conclusion, when punishing an offending partner, please think of the consequence and ensure those punishments are suitable, because all it does is push the partner away after a time when they see no matter what they do it isn’t helping.
    Sorry for the rant, once you start typing, you can’t stop :)

  • Evelyn

    August 24th, 2015 at 12:44 PM

    I have been with my boyfriend for a year, and he cheated on me twice with two different girls. I discovered the facts two months ago and he apologized and has shown true change and effort to save our relationship. What I’m struggling with is with pain and the urge to control him. Know where he is, what he is doing, and always wondering if he’s chatting with other women, since this was one of the ways in which he cheated on me. He has started to feel sad and angry due to my controlling behavior and says I’m being violent for not respecting his privacy and showing him that I don’t trust him. I really want to relax, trust him and stop feeling so anxious when we are not together. What can I do?

  • jim hutt, Ph.D.

    August 25th, 2015 at 10:05 AM

    As a couple you are in the very early stages of recovering from the infidelity. Evelyn, your anxiety is high, and your trust is low, both understandable. Your boyfriend sounds like he is responding negatively to your attempts to reduce your anxiety through control, and you both end up spinning your wheels. This is a very complicated and complex set of issues, and requires you to get counseling from a seasoned therapist who understands all the complexities. In the meantime, you can each begin by considering two things, one for each of you: Evelyn, trying to control his behavior will not serve to reduce your anxiety, it will actually increase it. Your boyfriend–he would do well to offer complete transparency, rather than have you drag it out of him. That might help reduce your attempts to control. In the long and short term, building trust is a painstaking undertaking, but is required for the two of you to arrive at a more comfortable, intimate place, and you both will have to participate in building that trust. He hinders the building of trust by not being transparent, and you hinder it by being controlling. That’s an over-simplified way of describing it, as there is much that goes in to building trust. And, of course, being able to talk about all this stuff in a way that leads to each of you understanding each other’s experience is crucial. If talking about it is typically unproductive, again, counseling can help. Good luck going forward, as I understand how painful and frustrating this recovery process is.

  • Kaya50

    November 20th, 2015 at 5:10 PM

    As the former wife of a cheater I would like to comment on this subject. I think the only way to go on with your life after being lied to, cheated on and betrayed, is to divorce this person and remove yourself out of a toxic situation.
    After being for 20 years I discovered my ex husbands affair with a young co worker. He blamed me for being crazy, too old, too far, too boring etc. My entire world shattered. If he was so unhappy with me or the family he should have asked for a divorce instead of bringing a third person into our marriage. He left one night with a few bags and told me “I am not in love with you anymore”. Translation “I am having an affair with my co worker.”
    I was devastated. I cried, I grieved , I begged. Until I found a great divorce attorney and filed for divorce. I had it. I will never be someone’s choice especially not the person I am married to. I took him to court and hurt him financially like he never imagined. Emotionally I was not able to get revenge. But financially I came out the winner. I stopped all contact with him.
    Now, almost 3 years later. I have a great life, peaceful and happy. I can now wake up without a liar next to me. His only adult son hates him. My ex lost everything. His house. His family. His money , his integrity . What an idiot.

  • Kaya50

    November 20th, 2015 at 5:22 PM

    As the faithful spouse you can never recover from the pain you experienced. The pain and hurt my ex husband inflicted on me was the most difficult time in my life. You will never be able to forget or forgive. Deep inside you will always want to inflict punishment on the cheating spouse. I truly hate divorce but it’s the only one option when it comes to adultery. I now have my self respect and my self worth back . Before I was pathetic and weak to be putting up with his crap.

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