Infidelity: Understanding the Affair – And Rebuilding Your Relationship

Infidelity: Understanding the Affair and Rebuilding Your Relationship

Love and intimacy are at the core of humanity. The need for each is hardwired in all of us – dreamers, doers, madmen and the perfectly sane. But love and intimacy can also bring us to our knees, leading us into breathtaking emptiness, sadness and despair. Who hasn’t been there?

Without a doubt, one of the worst parts of love, perhaps one of the worst parts of being human, is finding that the person we love might be falling in love (or in-like-a-lot) with somebody else.

Infidelity occurs worldwide and across many different cultures. It’s been happening throughout the ages, so in terms of human behaviour, it seems to be a classic, despite that we all condemn it.

Infidelity: How Does it Happen?

The are many reasons people stray from the arms of a long-term intimate partner and into the arms of another. Sometimes an affair is the externally visible break of something that has been fractured on the inside for a while. Sometimes it has nothing to do with the marriage at all. According to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, 56% of men and 34% of women who strayed from their long-term relationship rated those relationships as ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’.

So why then?

There are a host of reasons that people turn their attention from a long-term relationship to one with somebody new – and they are reasons, not excuses. Regardless of whether an explanation can be offered by biology, personality, genetics or evolution, infidelity is always a choice.

The more we can understand about what drives a behaviour, the more we can draw a bold heavy underline between it and the rest of forever and move forwards. If you’re the one who was hurt, know that this may have had nothing to do with you, or your partner’s satisfaction with the relationship.

Having said that, it’s important to look at your relationship with an open heart and an open mind. Is there any way you may have contributed to the breaks? Not that you anyone deserves to be on the end of the pain that comes with infidelity, but if your partner has been lonely, felt pushed aside by you or had his or her needs in the relationship ignored or overlooked, then he or she didn’t deserve that either.

If you’ve been attentive, loving and open – and it’s important to be honest – then none of this will make sense. It probably never will, but at some point, if you want to stay in the relationship you will have to forgive. That doesn’t mean accepting what happened. What it means is understanding it enough to stop the anger and hurt from having power over you. People make mistakes. Sometimes they are bad ones. So bad that you might be in pieces for a while because of them. But know that your relationship can survive – if you both want it to.

If you are the one who has turned your affection to someone outside your relationship, it’s important to decide whether or not you want to fight for the relationship you began with. If you do, it’s important to own the mess. Take responsibility, be patient, be accountable, be honest and above all else, be loving – so loving. Be loving through the anger, the hurt, the fear and the raw jealousy that will come your way, until you both find your way through.

Now for the reasons. Here’s what we know:

  1. Brain Architecture

    We have three brain systems that are designed to drive us to seek out and maintain intimate connections.

    The first is the sex drive and it’s designed to get us out there looking for a potential other. From an evolutionary perspective, this is important for survival of the species.

    The second is attraction, or romantic love, and it’s the longing we feel to be with one particular person. Powerful neurochemicals – dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin – surge through the body, igniting the euphoric feelings that come with falling in love and focussing energy on that on that one special person. Serotonin is involved in mood regulation, social behavior, appetite, digestion, sleep, memory and sexual desire and function, so there is likely to be sleeplessness, loss of appetite and increased passion. The area of the brain involved here is the same area that lights up when a cocaine addict is injected with cocaine. It’s by no beautiful accident then, that falling in love brings with it a giddying, addictive high. 

    The third brain system is attachment. At this point, the body starts to develop a tolerance to the euphoria of the attraction phase. Endorphins (the feel-good hormones) and the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin wash through the body, bringing about the feelings of security, calmness and well-being that come with an enduring relationship.

    Okay. So how does this relate to an affair?

    Over time in a relationship, dopamine – the neurochemical that drives feelings of pleasure and motivation – will diminish significantly if things aren’t kept interesting and fresh. When dopamine stays too low for too long, the instinctive push to connect and feel pleasure will gain momentum and the pull of sexual desire, attraction and attachment will strengthen.

    Dopamine will surge in response to something novel, so when there is someone the person is drawn to outside the marriage, continued exposure to that new, novel person will cause dopamine, the pleasure hormone, to constantly rush the body. This will bring about the euphoria of falling in love. When that person isn’t close, serotonin will drop, bringing sadness, emptiness and the push to seek that person out and be with them. Serotonin is also involved in impulse control, so when it’s at a low, people are more likely to act on impulse and do things they might not otherwise do.

    Adrenaline and norepinephrine also rush the body, amping up the feelings of euphoria and excitement that come with the possibility of connecting intimately with another. These neurochemicals are behind the lines we’ve all heard, and possibly said – ‘He makes my heart race,’ or ‘She takes my breath away’. They are clichés for a reason. Quite literally, because of the neurochemicals that are surging through the body, this is exactly how it feels to fall for someone. 

  2. The Relationship

    Not all affairs are a reflection of relationship dissatisfaction, but some are. The relationship reasons that drive people to have affairs are:

    •  general unhappiness and dissatisfaction within the long-term relationship;

    • personal needs going unfulfilled;

    •  significantly diminished or absent feelings of love for partner;

    •  frequency and quality of sex;

    •  lack of emotional support;

    •  lack of appreciation;

    •  lack of connection between the couple;

    •  the couple share more negative interactions and fewer positive interactions;

    •  less personal need for the relationship, so more ready to let it go;

    •  fewer shared resources between the couple that will be lost and missed if the relationship ends (friendships, possessions, connections);

    •  husbands who strayed were less satisfied with the relationship before marriage. Wives not so much.

  3. Personality

    People who have affairs tend to be more open to new experiences and extroverted than their partners and more easily bored. Remember though – this is a tendency, not a given.

  4. Biological

    Depression

Depression is a risk factor for having an affair. Of course, that doesn’t mean that just because someone has depression, he or she will have an affair – not at all.

Interestingly, the decreased serotonin that is characteristic of the attraction phase also happens during depression. It’s perhaps not surprising then, that depression is one of the risk factors of an affair. In this context, infidelity can be understood as an unwitting attempt to self-medicate and overcome the effects of low serotonin. When the potential for an intimate connection becomes realised, the constant surges of neurochemicals counter the effects of low serotonin by nurturing feelings of euphoria, happiness and pleasure.

Helen Fisher has suggested that the long-term use of anti-depressants that raise serotonin can potentially affect other brain systems associated with love and intimacy. Antidepressants increase serotonin, which depresses the dopamine circuit. Dopamine is associated with the feelings that come with romantic love. Compounding this is the potential of antidepressants to smother the sex drive and deprive the body (and the relationship) of the neurochemicals associated with attachment that surge the body during orgasm.

The 334 Allele

The research on biology and infidelity is compelling. (But even in light of this, infidelity cannot be blamed on biology).  Research has found that men carrying the 334 allele in the region of the vasopressin systems scored significantly lower on a questionnaire that measured how attached they felt to their partner. Those who carried two of the alleles showed less feelings of attachment than those who carried only one. They were also about twice as likely to have had a crisis in their marriage during the past year. 

Before you kiss me, do we have genes in common?

In another classic (and pretty gross) experiment, women smelled the sweaty t-shirts of men and chose the ones they thought were the sexiest. Results showed that they selected the shirts of men with different genes in a specific part of the immune system. In a subsequent study, women who were married to men with similar genes in this part of the immune system were more likely to stray outside their relationship. The more genes a woman had in common with her spouse, the more affairs she’d had. From an evolutionary perspective, this can be understood as a way to minimise complications in pregnancy and fertility.

After the Affair: Dealing with Infidelity

Relationships can certainly heal from infidelity but this will depend on the love that remains, the honesty with which the breakages are explored, understood and owned, and the capacity of each to reconnect in light of the betrayal. 

  1. End the affair properly. 

    Given what we know about the role of neurochemicals in reinforcing attraction and desire, it’s critical that the person involved in the affair cuts communication with the outside person if the relationship is going to be given a fighting chance.

  2. Put the affair in context. 

    The most important step to coming back from the brink of betrayal is to understand the affair within the context of the relationship, rather than as one person’s personal failure. It would be easy, and understandably very tempting, to pile shame and blame on to the person who had the affair, but this will squander any opportunity to address any deeper problems that contributed to the fracturing of the relationship. A couple can let each other down in plenty of ways. An affair is just one of them. Other ways include neglect, indifference, withholding of sex, failure to emotionally connect, and constantly overlooking the needs and wants of the other. It’s important to look at intimacy, communication, expectations, need fulfilment and the way conflict or competing needs are handled in the relationship.

  3. Understand how each other is feeling.

    It’s important for both people to understand and accept what the other may be feeling in response to the revelation of the affair:

    •  At different times, the person who has been betrayed is likely to feel insecure, jealous, angry, deeply sad, unable to trust and anxious. It’s likely there will be a tendency to obsess over details of the affair and hypervigilance around anything that might signal continued contact with the person the affair was with or clues the affair isn’t over. And then there’s the mental images.

    •  The person who had the affair is likely to feel shame, regret, fear of continued ‘punishment’ over the affair, anger, grief for the person they’ve had to let go of, resentment, emptiness.

  4. Be accountable. Every second, every minute, every hour – and don’t argue about this one.

    If you’re the person who has had the affair it’s critical that you remain completely accountable, sometimes perhaps ridiculously so, until the trust is rebuilt. This might take a while but it’s important if you want to rebuild your relationship. Be where you say you’re going to be, when you say you’re going to be, and if your partner rings, answer. If he or she texts, text back – always, no matter what. Rebuilding trust is key and that’s not going to happen without a massive display of commitment to the task.

  5. At some point, you’ll have to forgive.

    If you’re the one who has been hurt, at first there’ll be two types of days – bad ones and really bad ones. You’ll feel hurt, angry, sad beyond words and some days you’ll feel like you just can’t breathe. No doubt your partner will wear this for a while, and everything else that’s in you that has to come out. Eventually though, if you’ve decided to stay in the relationship you will have to make the decision to stop punishing your partner. He or she will already be feeling enormous shame. Go your hardest for a while, but then stop. Your relationship will depend on it. One way to do this is to be willing to honestly explore and own any way you may have contributed to the fall of the relationship.

  6. You’ve made a mistake. Don’t fight the response.

    If you’re the one who has had the affair, understand that your partner will be hurt, angry, in love with you, in hate with you, miss you, never want to see you again, won’t want to be without you – and sometimes this will turn so quickly you won’t see it coming. Stand still and let his or her emotion wash over you. There will come a point where this will stop but in the meantime the high emotion has to come out, otherwise it will fester and rot your relationship from the inside you. You don’t want that. And be loving. Always.

  7. Do something novel together.

    When the time is right, do something novel and exciting together. Go away for a weekend somewhere you haven’t been before, do something together you haven’t tried before, if your relationship has been without sex for a while bring it back. This can increase dopamine in the brain and help to reinvigorate romantic love.

Relationships that have been broken by the intrusion of another can heal, provided that both people are able to feel safe from blame and shame enough to own their part in the breakage. The responsibility might not be shared evenly, and that’s okay. If you’re both still there after the affair, and both still fighting, the relationship is clearly still important. Be patient and be open to each other. A bad decision doesn’t have to mean a bad relationship. It might, of course, but it doesn’t have to. That’s what you need to both decide.

We all deserve to be adored by the one we love. When that adoration turns to another – however short-lived – the pain can quite literally be breathtaking. Some days you’ll wonder if you still have the capacity to exhale. You do. And you will. But it will take time, fight and some hard decisions. You loved each other once and if you’re both still fighting to stay together the chances are that the love is still there, but buried under too many years of neglect, obligation, and the day to day pressures that come with life. If you’ve both decided the fight will be worth it, be patient and keep fighting for it, because it will be. 

79 Comments

Celia F

That was so well written ❤️ I know that maybe I am the bad person here I was a cheater myself,met my husband I was 16years and I was 34 when I met the guy I emotionally cheated on my husband I told him everything 😔I just wished I could go back in time but I think I learned the hard way it’s been 20momths and he did the same to me, its so difficult when you are ponished all the time our you forgive and move on, or what will whapen is that the resentment will destroy the remained love and its will be the end.

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Yasmin

Me and my husband cheated we both found out around the same time. He had a hook up fling with another woman he met online. I had a 2 week fling and had sex one time. I found out about his fling first because he caught chlamydia. Anyways we told eachother what happend but we are constantly blaming fighting it got to the point where it go physical at times. But he said he wants to try but these past few days hes been telling me nasty mean things saying how he hates me and that hes glad he cheated because i cheated. Like hes acting like hes the only one hurt when im hurt about what he did too. So i dont know if its worth saving if he compares my cheating to his saying he cheated in a motel and I cheated at home so im worse…am i over thinking when its clear its over?

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Vanessa

My partner of nearly 4 years has been struggling with loneliness and depression for as long as I’ve know him. He is beautiful and caring and I believe that he loves me deeply. For a long time I’ve tried to encourage him to talk out his feelings or seek professional help and been so clear that I would support him. He has never been able to bring himself to seek the help he needs because that would mean confronting lot of things he has buried quite deeply and he knows he would have to accept making some life changes that he’s not prepared to do because it’s comfortable and easy, and when he gets down he will find quick fixes, not healthy. Last year I went through a really tough time emotionally, and he was there supporting me all the way through it as best he could. I very recently found out that he was cheating on me through virtual platforms with random women. I’ve been heartbroken ever since. We had big emotional talks about it, and he finally admitted that he would go and seek that physical intimacy when he felt I was emotionally unavailable for him because I was going through a difficult emotional situation. He knew it was wrong and said he has so much hate and loathing towards himself that he did it, which breaks my heart to hear. I believe him, might sound naive idk. I didn’t feel like he could communicate to me that he was lost and lonely because he felt like he wasn’t allowed to be. I am so confused because he is the person I care about most in this world, if he had told me he was is a dark place I would’ve helped him, but he didn’t tell me, just went to look for a quick fix so that he could come back and support me through the hard time. I was ready to work through it because I love him, and even though the choice he made was horrible, I understood. He made a lot of promises to work on himself so that this wouldn’t happen again, but since had not actually made any real changes to make progress. I was in so much pain so I asked that we take a break, give him space to work on himself and me to heal. But I am in even more pain than before because I feel like I’ve abandoned him in a time where he really needs me, because he’s really lost. I think right now he needs a friend to help him get the support he needs, do I separate the cheating from his mental issues and be there for him as his friend, and hope that in doing that I will also heal and we can start again to rebuild our relationship? Or does that scream toxic

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Upset

I found out recently that my husband of 28 years has been messaging his ex and that they had arranged to meet up in a hotel to spend the night together. I found out when I woke one night to see him on his phone sending heart emojis to her. It has taken several weeks for the full story to emerge and I don’t know if I have all the facts yet as it seems that at every turn I find out something else. He deleted all the messages that night, so I haven’t been able to see them.

He seems genuinely sorry. He immediately cut all contact with her and says that he doesn’t think that he’d have gone through with it in the end anyway (I don’t believe him on that). He has been very living since it all came out, but he’s laid much of the blame on me, saying that I was cold towards him and that he felt pushed out in favour of our children. He also told me that I’m unapproachable, stubborn and difficult to fathom, but he genuinely loves me and wants to put this behind us.

I’m finding it very difficult to move past this. I was very shocked as in my head we had a solid and loving relationship. I recognise that there may have been some communication difficulties, but can’t take that they were just on my side. Sex had become a bit of an issue and he said he was frustrated with me, which is why he was looking elsewhere, but it hurts that he spoke to her about it rather than to me. I want to make my marriage work, but I’m struggling to see the way through (although ironically the sex has been great in recent weeks)

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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