Do unfaithful spouses deserve respect?

If your immediate response is “Not a chance,” my mission is to change your mind in the few minutes it will take to read this article.

Why? Because, as my mentor Pia Mellody is fond of saying:

Respect is the minimum of love

Yes, that’s right. Even when you’ve been betrayed, lied to, and cheated on, respect is still the minimum of love.

Does that mean you accept or approve of everything your spouse has done (or is still doing)? No.

Does it mean that even if you believe your spouse deserves to be treated respectfully that you will always act in a respectful way toward your spouse? No.

Does it mean that you respect everything about him and everything that he has done? Definitely not, just as you probably aren’t proud of many things you have said or done over the course of your lifetime.

If you want to maintain your dignity, self-respect, and create emotional safety in your relationship, you will choose respect over disrespect. Every single time.

Not perfectly, but to the best of your ability.

What does treating a spouse with disrespect look like? Here are some examples:

  • Making shaming or belittling comments.
  • Name-calling of any kind.
  • Talking down to your spouse by saying things like, “I guess you wouldn’t know about being honest . . . .”
  • Treating your spouse like a child or telling your spouse what to do.
  • Eye-rolling, sounds of exasperation, or other forms of nonverbal communication that convey disrespect or contempt.
  • Being sarcastic.
  • Repeatedly interrupting or talking over your spouse.
  • Giving your spouse the silent treatment with the intent to punish him or to get revenge.

As you can imagine, none of these behaviors creates emotional safety, fosters intimacy, or moves a couple in the direction of restoring a relationship that has been damaged by infidelity.

Here are 5 reasons to choose respect over disrespect, even with an unfaithful spouse.

1
To maintain your integrity

This may seem obvious, but can be completely forgotten when you’re angry, triggered, or in a full-on rage.

When you act toward another person in a boundary-less, disrespectful, or contemptuous way, your behavior is 100% your responsibility — no matter what the other person did.

Believing otherwise is the same as believing that your spouse’s infidelity was your fault, when it was actually 100% his responsibility.

If you believe that you “had/have a right” to treat your unfaithful spouse disrespectfully because of what he/she did, then you are not taking responsibility around your own issues of integrity, which leads to the #2 reason to choose respect over disrespect.

2
To avoid “Offending From the Victim Position”

Offending from the victim position is another concept from the work of Pia Mellody which describes exactly what happens to a betrayed partner when she believes she has a right to be disrespectful, or even abusive, to her spouse because of what he did.

Offending from the victim position means that I believe I am a victim of what another person did (or what I believe they did) and therefore I have a right to retaliate, take revenge, or abuse that person.

No doubt you were a victim of his lies and relationship-destroying choices, but when you use having been a victim in the past to justify your disrespectful or abusive behavior, you are not only out of integrity, you are creating a lack of emotional safety in your relationship.

But what about what he did?

What he did is about him. You are responsible for your role in creating — or damaging — the emotional safety in your relationship. If you choose to offend from the victim position, the lack of safety you have created is your responsibility, and not a result of his cheating or deception.

3
To protect you & your relationship

When you choose to stay respectful rather than showing disrespect toward your spouse, you protect yourself from the pain of regret, or the need to apologize later for being disrespectful, which can be a very vulnerable thing to do with an unfaithful spouse. And if you’re thinking, “I would never apologize for being disrespectful,” I hope you’ll think again.

Apologizing for disrespectful or abusive behavior is relational and accountable.

If your spouse was disrespectful or verbally abusive to you, would you want him to apologize? My guess is yes.

When you protect your relationship from disrespectful interactions, you are also avoiding unnecessary drama, pain, and the need to repair or make amends for the damage you’ve done.

4
Choosing intimacy over disconnection

Let’s face it, disrespectful or verbally abusive interactions cause disconnection. When you are consistently respectful, you are doing your part to be relational and create the emotional safety that fosters intimacy. And isn’t that what you’re longing for?

5
To maintain self-respect

This one (almost) goes without saying, but one of the many benefits of staying respectful is that you maintain your own self-respect. I’ve worked with many partners over the years who have literally been in tears around the pain and regret they feel for the shameful and hurtful things they’ve said to their spouse. All of that can be avoided when you choose respect.

You may wonder whether there are any exceptions to the respect rule. It’s a great question.

If your spouse has demonstrated repeatedly that he is not capable of being faithful, or he is not doing anything to stop addictive behavior, you have a serious relationship problem that may not be salvageable. You deserve better. And the truth is, it is possible to end a relationship that is not healthy for you and to do so in a respectful way.


© Victoria Priya, LCSW [formerly Vicki Tidwell Palmer] (2019)

Radiant Threefold Path articles are protected by U.S. copyright laws, and may not be reproduced, distributed, or re-published without written permission of the author.
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8 Comments

  1. MARCIA P on September 2, 2019 at 8:32 pm

    Love this blog post! Especially the five reasons to do that! Bravo!

  2. Julia Anderson on October 21, 2019 at 11:54 am

    Dear Vicki,
    Thank you for sharing this article. I am struggling with this issue right now as I fear that my husband is “dreaming” up new theological argument’s to cover his shame. I’m struggling with being respectful and allowing him his new “beliefs” but find it very disorienting. I do not want to be abusive or disrespectful and allow him a safe place to share his thoughts but fear makes it difficult for me!
    Any tips in how to reign the fear in would be greatly appreciated.

    • Vicki Tidwell Palmer on October 21, 2019 at 3:08 pm

      Julia, I hear that you are struggling with being respectful because you’re feeling disoriented and fearful. I understand! And I love that your desire is to be respectful and not abusive or disrespectful, which is courageous and vulnerable.

      What I’ve found is that when I respect my spouse’s thinking by saying “I hear you” (which is often the best option when I’m feeling fearful, disoriented, or just plain irritated) or celebrating, supporting, or agreeing with his thoughts/beliefs when that is authentic for me, it not only keeps me respectful, it also preserves my self-respect and the intimacy in the relationship because I am not arguing with, criticizing, or controlling him. The truth is that courage is not the absence of fear!

      How would it fit to simply say “I hear you” when he shares his theological thoughts, trusting his ability as an adult man to sort out what is best for him, knowing that he is on a path that is uniquely his to figure out?

      • laura on November 18, 2019 at 8:04 pm

        What if your husband never shares a thing. YOu have no idea if you have wounded him?
        He is a closed door emotionally from day one.
        Yet he pushes all of the pain you share with him under the rug and tells you to “trust God”.I am looking into Aspergers.

        • Vicki Tidwell Palmer on November 19, 2019 at 5:16 pm

          Dear Laura, I can hear the loneliness and pain you’re experiencing in your relationship. And I think I hear you wondering whether a husband who doesn’t share and is a closed door deserves respect. Is that right?

          My experience is that being respectful is on my side of the street. I can choose to be disrespectful because I don’t like another person’s behavior or because I feel hurt or wronged, but doing so costs me my dignity, and it never gets me what I’m seeking which is usually more connection and intimacy.

          My guess is that there must have been a time that he was more an open door emotionally, and that is why you chose him. How would it fit for you to tell him you miss him?

          • Laura C on November 19, 2019 at 6:20 pm

            Thank you for your response. Point well taken.
            I am guarded as I don’t want to miss him.
            He has caused so much pain being so disconnected. I would tell him I missed him for years when he traveled and he would say nothing. I would ask if he missed me and he would say “I don’t think about it” and that was when we were engaged! Yes, I ask myself why I would marry him but of course it is the same old thing: “I married what was familiar” (my dad) Though my dad has done nothing compared to my husband. Porno did me in.
            He has abandoned me over and over again and is clueless.
            I really think it is Aspergers.
            We were really never “emotionally close” .
            I was told I needed to marry a Christian so that is what I did.
            34 years later if giving it my best…..
            Heart broken,
            Again, thank you!!



  3. Amanda on March 27, 2024 at 8:30 pm

    I see the value, however when I read posts like this I think…easier said than done. This take growth and healing to be able to do in the face of your partner blindsiding you. You must choose respect for them? They did not respect you. We can relearn to respect. But it has gone. And love also goes often as well. We have to relearn everything. So I think one should completely work through the pain which will inevitably involve doing most or all of the “never” disrespect actions mentioned above. If you’re truly healing and you truly love someone, the process will shake you to your core.

    • Victoria Priya on March 28, 2024 at 8:29 am

      Amanda, yes it is easier said than done. And you’re free to choose.
      Wishing you healing, peace, and joy on your journey.💙

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