Week in week out I sit across from clients that are blinded, paralysed and entombed by the fog of an affair. These include the overwhelming feelings of infatuation and limerence, the latter being a debilitating condition involving romantic longing with elements of addiction and compulsive thinking, feelings and behaviours.
Clients universally they tell me how amazing their affair partner is. Their beauty transcends Helen of Troy or the masculinity of a Greek Adonis. Many clients describe a shared emotional connection deeper than anything ever experienced. This also includes sexual compatibility and fulfilment that is beyond orgasmic. This fuels the feelings of at long last they have met their soul mate. The meeting of the ‘magical other’ that is the answer to all their dreams and fantasies. This then becomes the cure for all that is wrong in their marriage.
I’ve learned from experience its hard to pierce the bubble that envelopes their fantasy. Acclaimed Psychiatrist and Psychotherapist Irwin Yalom writes so poetically in his book ‘Love’s Executioner’ about his own experiences of how challenging it is working with clients who are in this fog.
The way to help a client see through their haze is to gently probe the myths they have created around their affair partner. These early questions soon flush out morals and values. Did the Affair Partner (AP) know you were married or in a committed relationship when the affair started? Often the answer is yes thus the virtues of the affair partner who knowingly embarks on a relationship with a committed person is highlighted.
After not too long sessions with clients soon turn to their background and Family of Origin (FOO). Sometimes clients immediately volunteer the less than stellar parenting they received. However clients can be blinded by ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ – first identified where captives fell in love with their kidnapers. Children suffer the same fate, we often idolise our parents and put them on pedestals, however abusive their behaviour. All too often one or both parents were alcoholics or coped with life through some other ‘numbing out’ through addiction. What choice do children have to survive? They could not pack their bags as toddlers and leave a crazy making family, thus they had to develop coping strategies. The problem with this is that we cary these dysfunctional coping mechanisms into adulthood without appreciating we no longer need them and they no longer serve us.
My own belief and experience is affairs start in childhood. I’ve yet to meet a client that has been unfaithful (emotionally or physically) that came from what I would describe an emotionally healthy, functional and loving FOO. We score our clients with the Adverse Childhood Experience questionnaire. Often we will see scores of 3 and above being present in those having the affair. Chances are their AP would score equally high. I believe there also a high correlation with clients coming from broken homes or both parents themselves having had affairs.
A question I am frequently asked is, “Why do we get emotionally hijacked by an affair?” This is complicated and is to do with hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary biology. I will attempt to explain this briefly. Our species sole purpose is to reproduce itself. In order to do this humans need to create a safe enough environment for the offspring to survive. The first few years of life are our most perilous. We remain dependent upon our parents for longer than any other species. So what better way than to evolve a system that gets us to pair bond just long enough to get a child to this stage of development. This is what romantic love and limerence is all about.
If we look at this though a biological lens and in simplistic terms, men are seeking good eggs for reproduction and women seek security and resource to ensure survivability for them and their offspring. Healthy eggs are signified by a women’s beauty and other markers of fertility, a man’s resources are identified by earning power and his ability to protect and defend the nest. Of course, there are many other layers on top of this that contribute to what each of us find attractive.
When we ‘fall in love’ our brains become bathed in a soup of phenylethylamine (PEA) a naturally occurring amphetamine. Dopamine, noradrenaline and other neurotransmitters are also released into the brain. Dopamine is the very same neurotransmitter that is elevated when we ingest cocaine. This is the reward chemical that addicts pursue through addictions, it’s a feel-good neurotransmitter. With time, typically 6 months to 4 years, the body acclimatises to these chemicals and our feelings subside. The so called honeymoon period of new relationships which eventually wanes allowing the feelings of romantic love to mature into a more companionate type love.
What fuels these addictive feelings and patterns of attraction? From my own experiences, training and reading this is set up in early life. Its develops from our attachment and emotional wounds that are created by our primary care givers. Our roots and anchors are created in our first few years and predicate how we will attach as an adult in all our relationships.
We then go onto unconsciously seek out lovers with similar or opposite wounds. Our thoughts, feelings and behaviours are 90% unconscious. I liken it to a computer hard drive that is programmed with an operating system. We are running operating systems that were encoded in our first few years of life. Our programmers were our parents and other significant early life care givers. These programs continue to run silently in the backgrounding, processing and filtering how we experience the world. Each person interprets the world through their own unique interpretation. These scripts, whilst necessary to survive in less than functional families are no longer needed once an adult.
As Carl Jung wrote “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
The bottom line is we are attracted to people that are operating at a similar level of unconsciousness, wounding and emotional dysfunction. As one client once eloquently put it “sick attracts sick”. A relationship can only be as conscious as the least conscious person in that relationship. This brings me onto the topic of the term ‘soul mates‘ of which I’m not a fan. I believe its our wounds that are attracting each other and ‘wound mates’ would be a more apt term.
As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote so eloquently in Eat, Love, Pray:
“People think a soul mate is your perfect fit, and that’s what everyone wants. But a true soul mate is a mirror, the person who shows you everything that is holding you back, the person who brings you to your own attention, so you can change your life. A true soul mate is probably the most important person you’ll ever meet, because they tear down your walls and smack you awake. But to live with a soul mate forever? Nah. Too painful. Soul mates, they come into your life just to reveal another layer of yourself to you, and then leave. A soul mates purpose is to shake you up, tear apart your ego a little bit, show you your obstacles and addictions, break your heart open so new light can get in, make you so desperate and out of control that you have to transform your life, then introduce you to your spiritual master…”
All too often I am left with sadness when clients who have been divorced years ago who disclose their regret and can now see through the fog of the affair and realise what a monumental mistake they made by leaving their family. In our experience, even in the aftermath of an affair if the individual is willing to look at themselves and do the necessary heavy lifting, they can work through these feelings and grow from them. Their life and relationship will never be the same and yet their marriage can transition to a more respectful, honest and loving one.