I’ve worked extensively with couples in the immediate, devastating, agonizing aftermath of the discovery of an affair.
It’s hard to watch the couple come in…one whose world has been rocked at its very foundations…puffy eyes, a bit of a lostness/wildness about them…and one often very contrite, with poor eye contact, having violated their own moral code in a way they have little understanding of…and acutely aware of the agony they have created in their partner. That is its own special little hell…to watch one you have committed your life to loving be in agony as the result of your choices.
For many couples, we take a two pronged approach when they come in to work through infidelity:
- The infidelity is a problem of betrayal that requires healing work
- The infidelity is a symptom of a problem. It exposes a vulnerability between the couple or within one of the partners that created circumstances ripe for an affair to develop. This requires some relationship repair work. Cheating is hard on a marriage, and it’s tough coming back from its discovery…but it’s possible to develop a marriage that is stronger and more vibrant than before the affair.
However, there is another sort of affair…one that is more difficult for couples to wrap their head around. The one that develops organically, so slowly that it seems impossible to recognize when it started…and then seems impossible to stop once it has begun.
Ever heard of the frog in the kettle? It’s an apt picture…
If you plop a frog in a pot of piping hot water…it immediately recognizes the discomfort and danger and promptly hops out.
If you put a frog in a pot of cool water and heat it slowly….ever so slowly…the frog never registers the level of danger increasing…and allows itself to be cooked.
Let’s face it…often we spend more waking hours with our colleagues at work than we do with our families. Supportive work environments where colleagues positively encourage each other and collaborate on projects feel good to be in. They inspire creativity, create positivity within people…what’s not to love about colleagues also being great friends?
It can be a very slow, very gradual, almost imperceptible slide into hanging out more often, deepening friendship, and a gradual descent into a relationship of intimacy that happens in such a way that one can’t even pinpoint when “the line” was crossed.
Affairs often start out with emotional intimacy…and may not ever become sexual, or do so once the affair has already become well established. The damage is substantial even if sexual intimacy never occurs.
And while a relationship can start innocently and slide into infidelity without detection, once a person is in an affair, it’s brutally difficult to pull out.
This from Helen Fisher’s TED talk on The Brain in Love, explains the incredibly powerful pull of love:
People in love have activity in a tiny factory at the base of the brain…Cells that make dopamine…a natural stimulant…part of the brain’s reward system…this is below cognitive thinking, below emotions…part of the reptilian core…associated with wanting, with motivation, with focus and craving. The same area becomes active when you feel the rush of cocaine.
We know how addictive cocaine is. The motivation/focus/craving for the new hidden/forbidden relationship is biologically incredibly powerful, virtually irresistible.
The challenge is that this is below conscious thought…out of the realm of rational thinking. Science has shown this powerful passion lasts about 18 months in a relationship…any relationship.
A person in an affair can start to think, “I love my spouse, but I’m not ‘in love’ with my spouse” like they love their affair partner.
The short term, cocaine-like passion created in the exciting novelty of a new relationship is tough competition for a stable, secure, loving relationship with routines and patterns.
It’s a little like choosing between the Corvette convertible and a 4 door mid-size sedan.
Who wouldn’t choose the Corvette for an afternoon? I would!! But as a lifestyle, my choice is the sedan…how am I gonna shlep groceries home, drive the kids, be warm in the dead of winter, and a whole host of other reasons that make the mini-van have much more staying power and be my choice.
Besides, this is an imperfect metaphor…because the corvette of an affair inevitably morphs into a sedan…and the one from an affair generally doesn’t run on all cylinders, and so there is no keeping the corvette.
Relationships start off with the fun of a Corvette convertible…our brains are designed that way. But they are intended to settle into a comfortable, useful, secure, solid mid sized vehicle that will provide the richness of a lifetime of a great ride.
Coming soon: Part 2…Strategies to prevent the imperceptible irresistible slide into infidelity.