Clueless Alien Syndrome – when spouses suddenly change from loving persons into heartless people their dazed partners no longer recognize.
We received an email from Linda J. MacDonald, LMFT who was kind enough to share an article she wrote recently. We think that many of you might be able to relate to what she calls the Clueless Alien Syndrome.
Thank you for sharing Linda!
Clueless Alien Syndrome
The Dawn of the Clueless Alien
By Linda J. MacDonald, LMFT
[While both men and women may betray their spouses, I more often used the “he” pronoun to simplify my writing. Also, I wrote this mostly for the benefit of those who see such an attitude change in their spouses, that reconciliation is unrealistic. That does not mean I don’t think people can change. But for those who don’t, the betrayed partner can find the sudden turn-about in a formerly faithful spouse heart-wrenching and mind-bending. I trust this theory will provide some comfort and understanding if your spouse or partner has become like a stranger to you. ~Linda]
As a friend and therapist, I have heard countless stories about spouses who suddenly change from loving persons into heartless people their dazed partners no longer recognize. In every case of loving-spouse-turned-enemy, I’ve learned the person was involved with someone else outside the marriage, whether known by the faithful partner at the time or not.
I asked one woman how she dealt with the sudden hurtful makeover she noticed in her now ex-husband because of his affair.
She said, “He changed so completely. The only explanation I’ve been able to come up with is that he was kidnapped by aliens who removed his soul, replaced it with a foreign entity who then took over his body. I don’t recognize the person he’s become. He looks like himself on the outside, but on the inside, he’s inhabited by an alien.”
Inhabited by an alien? Not a bad description of the total heart-change that occurs when a partner detaches from his spouse after attaching himself to another lover, based upon hundreds of similar stories I have heard over the years.
One of the most painful aspects of affairs and abandonment is the sudden change in a beloved spouse’s demeanor and attitudes. The betraying partner who previously showed significant consideration for the concerns, hurts, and feelings of his spouse, becomes uncharacteristically disconnected, uncaring, and sometimes even cruel. The unfaithful one comes across like a different person—a stranger—in the eyes of the unsuspecting spouse and children. This can be very disorienting to an injured spouse.
Along with this unfamiliar revolution, the straying partner often shows evidence that he is living in another realm, completely clueless about the impact of his choices upon loved ones. I refer to this as “The Affair Bubble.” The illicit love affair is so intoxicating that the betrayer and paramour become cocooned in a blanket of elation, self-centeredness, and non-reality. The interior mutation that results—could be the title of a movie, “The Dawn of the Clueless Alien.”
The most alarming metamorphoses seem to occur with betrayers who go through a true mid-life crisis. The wanderer makes a 180º turn from his former values, goals, language, behavior, and beliefs. These alterations are often drastic and life-changing; usually for the worse.
While many clinicians and writers offer theories for events that trigger a mid-life meltdown, I have a few of my own:
• An emotional affair
• A physical affair
• A new or evolved addiction
• Vocational success or failure
• Emptiness and loss from kids leaving home
• Sudden death of a parent or child
• A life-crisis that creates a crack in the person’s belief system
• Unaddressed early exposure to pornography or sexual abuse
• A build-up of unresolved hurts from childhood
• A tendency to avoid conflict and thus a build-up of resentments in the marriage
• Unrelenting depression
Of all the triggers for a typical mid-life crisis, an emotional, physical, or imagined affair is, in my observation, the most outstanding. Some therapists believe extra-marital affairs are merely symptoms of underlying problems in the marriage. Thus they may mistakenly assume that if they help the couple communicate better, the affair will just “go away.” That has not been my experience. As long as there is some outside person, force or biochemical involved, no amount of marriage counseling will be productive. More often, it is the affair itself that instigates sudden instability in the relationship and alters the personality of the secretly straying person, much like a heroine addiction can turn a formerly trustworthy young adult into a thief who begins stealing from his parents or friends. No matter what underlying factors were hidden underground beforehand, an exciting, forbidden emotionally-charged affair is often the spark that gives a person the impetus to blow up his or her life as he knew it in order to pursue the thrill, elation, or the perceived anti-depressant-effect of “true love.”
Some may wonder, “Why the radical change? Why the heartlessness?” You might remember the initial elation when you first fell in love with your partner. Infatuation has a positive effect on the pleasure centers in the brain. That early stage of falling in love is often what draws people together and helps them desire an exclusive, committed relationship enough to want to get married. However, once the initial euphoria dies down, most couples settle into a more mature kind of committed love for the long haul.
Affairs are different. They involve secrecy, intrigue, and an idealistic, baggage-free illusion of intimacy which escalates the hormones in the brain to a peak not possible in a seasoned relationship. Neurochemicals like dopamine, phenylethylamine, adrenalin and oxytocin skyrocket when an attraction is forbidden. The greater the barriers, the greater these hormones mimic the effect of morphine on the brain. Your unfaithful spouse is essentially under the influence of drugs.
Thus, in order to rationalize these illicit behaviors, the crisis of infidelity frequently alters the belief-system of the betrayer. The effort he or she makes to justify these fresh, euphoric feelings ushers in a new (and usually less conscience-driven) era in the strayer’s life. They discard old perspectives for more agreeable ones. Behaviors that once might have brought him shame, become acceptable. The wayward spouse often develops a certain cynicism about faith and morality. The further he or she travels the road of unfaithfulness, fidelity feels “suffocating” and “constraining.” The strayer hunts for a world-view that allows his taboo behaviors to be “OK.”
In the wayward person’s quest to solve the quandary of newfound love verses real-life commitments, he turns everyone else’s world upside down. The betrayer’s behaviors and beliefs radically alter his life and the lives of his spouse, children, extended family members, and close friends. These changes also impact the lover’s life and family. By ignoring his pangs of conscience, the straying person morphs into a home-wrecking nightmare who family members no longer recognize: alien and clueless.
Most of my clients who seek to recover from an affair-sparked divorce talk about how surprised and distressed they are over the deterioration of character and loss of lovingness in their former spouses. Most notice that a new selfish streak emerges in their partner they have never seen before. I have heard countless stories about atypical attitudes and behaviors by once-caring partners:
• Once-faithful wives who came to think nothing of bar-hopping and running around with other men.
• Men who helped other men back from the brink of infidelity, who later shrug off their own extramarital involvements.
• People who once embraced virtues of faithfulness, loyalty, and devotion, now scoff at these values as “old-fashioned” or “legalistic.”
• Husbands who used to support organizations that promoted abstinence who now frequent prostitutes.
• Women who valued the sanctity of marriage, who later thought nothing of moving out and co-habiting with an affair partner.
• Ministers who promoted family values from the pulpit and railed against adultery, who later unabashedly run off with an elder’s wife.
• Family-focused men who now rarely contact their own kids in favor of parenting a new lover’s young children.
• Spouses who seldom used an expletive who develop the vocabulary of a truck driver.
• Persons who once believed in God who now roll their eyes at the mention of church, prayer, or the bible.
Offended spouses and children often say things to me like:
“I don’t recognize him/her anymore.”
“How could he/she DO that?!”
“He seems so aloof. Like a stranger.”
“He wants us to double date. Did you hear that? He wants me to find a boyfriend and go on a date with him and his new lover!”
“She brought him into our home and had sex on our bed while I was away!”
“How could he tell our son how much happier he is with the other woman, and expect our son to be glad for him?”
“Why did Daddy bring ________(the other woman) with us to the park? I just want to be with him.”
“I married my wife because she seemed so sweet and loving. Now she’s become an Ice Queen.”
“I thought he was more special than that (to be sleeping around).”
These changes seem to be part and parcel of affairs, especially when the betrayer continues his wayward direction and leaves the marriage. Sometimes the pendulum swing is temporary, but for those who persist and justify their behaviors, the changes are often long term.
Do you recognize any of the above mentioned behaviors in your betraying spouse? Some changes (like detachment and distance) are the result of him or her connecting with a new romantic partner and disconnecting from their marriage partner. Many folks can’t love more than one person at a time, so when they attach to an outside person, the light-switch with their spouse turns off. Some people who appeared mature beyond their years, act like rebellious teenagers when sparks fly with a new or old girlfriend. Others, who suddenly become selfish and insensitive during an affair, merely reveal character flaws previously held in check and perhaps ignored by an overly gracious spouse.
Drastic attitude changes are more than a sign of losing that “loving feeling.” Truly loving, healthy persons recognize that love is more than a feeling. They don’t radically change their core values when they are disillusioned, disappointed, or go through a phase of falling out of love with a marital partner. Mature adults do everything they can to restore and repair the existing, committed relationship. They don’t seek consolation in the arms of another lover. If they find themselves caught up in an outside friendship that begins to turn romantic, character-driven people recognize their vulnerability, restore boundaries and seek outside help. They don’t run headlong into a steamy affair. They work to keep and strengthen their lifelong values in the face of crises and pull back from the flames rather than throw their beliefs overboard in order to “follow their hearts.”
It is painful when you helplessly watch your once caring, loving partner turn into a person you no longer recognize. Hopefully, you will find comfort in knowing that you are not alone. Infidelity often changes the unfaithful partner into a Clueless Alien—someone who is intrinsically different from the person you married. Especially toward you. And it is important to realize that this negative metamorphosis was not your fault.
The terrible grief you feel is not crazy. Your spouse—as you knew him or her to be—is truly “gone.” Losing a partner through unfaithfulness involves more than losing a romantic contest with some other man or woman, like back in high school or college. This loss is life-altering. It means losing the heart, loyalty and love of the person you bonded with, built a life with, shared family with, entwined your finances with, created memories with—forever. Past memories are tainted with questions. “When did they get involved? Did I ever matter to him? How can I trust my own judgement, as I could not see this coming?” Some have described this experience as worse than losing a partner to death. Rather than due to an act of nature, illness, or accident, losing your beloved’s heart and presence feels diabolical and intensely personal. As if he or she has changed from a protective advocate into a treacherous enemy.
Apart from the miracle of radical repentance (which I occasionally see in my practice), you cannot count on your spouse to be trustworthy, compassionate, and considerate toward you. You have been disowned, and a stranger has taken over the body of your spouse. He or she may look the same on the outside, but internally, your former spouse has been rewired into someone else. Reminiscent to the movie, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” a new brain and heart are occupying the space of the old.
Despite looking like your spouse, the person who walks up to your door to pick up the kids—his lover sitting in the car you once owned—is a mirage. An alien. Internally, he or she is an imposter inhabiting your ex’s body—incapable of humane treatment of you or feeling your pain. Even if he or she shows occasional tears of shame, it is more likely from self-pity than healthy guilt or empathy for you.
Facing the Alien Syndrome is an important step in your recovery process. You need to let the former spouse “die” and do your best to not expect him or her to resurrect back into the cherishing, devoted spouse you once knew. Reducing your expectations will help you grieve the old and let go of what “was.”
It is especially important to recognize this alien-switch-out routine when the divorce is in progress. You may think you are dealing with your original spouse who will sympathize with your need for a fair settlement, but you are not. You must force yourself to assume that your future security is of little concern to your once-caring partner. You need to be your own advocate and protect yourself. While I don’t recommend fighting unfairly or battling over your assets to the point of emotional destruction, I do encourage my clients to be firm and treat their divorcing spouses like unreliable business partners. Keep it all business.
If your alien spouse acts as if he is doing you a favor, look deeper. There’s a good chance that the terms he is pushing for are mostly favorable to himself (and the new lover). Anyone who would abandon his or her family in order to pursue an outside romance is not worthy of your trust right now. So be on guard and proceed with caution. Scripture teaches us to be “Wise as serpents, harmless as doves.”
I have worked with many idealistic abandoned spouses who gave up too much in their divorce settlements and later regretted it. They either hoped that being “nice” to their hard-hearted spouses would increase their chances of future reconciliation, or feared that standing up for themselves would further antagonize an already hostile partner. It is simply unrealistic to expect a detached spouse to have your best interests in mind.
While it might seem counterintuitive, I have noticed that the spouses who take firm stands during the divorce process actually preserved what little mutual respect they had between them after the dust settles. Not being a pushover helped them end up with a more livable result financially, and a more peaceful relationship with their ex-spouse in the future.
Here is a list of common character-transformations I’ve observed in those who betray and leave their spouses (highlight or circle the ones you have sadly noticed in your unfaithful spouse):
• From warm to cold
• From approachable to distant
• From empathetic to uncaring
• From open and disclosing to closed off and secretive
• From aware of others’ feelings, to extremely insensitive to others’ feelings
• From truthful to deceitful
• From attached to detached
• From kind to cruel
• From others’ centered, to self-absorbed
• From mature to infantile
• From religious to rebellious
• From conventional to unconventional
• From traditional to Bohemian
• From conventional to fringy
• From generous to stingy
• From somewhat skeptical to very cynical
• From moral to immoral
• From valuing integrity to judging people who value integrity
• From many friends to very few
• From choosing healthy friends to hanging around compromising ones
• From a tender conscience to a callous conscience
• From decent language to crass language
• From mildly prideful to outright arrogant
• From humble to defensive
• From mildly defensive to stone-like
• From trustworthy to conniving
• From someone who accepts personal responsibility to someone who blames everyone else
• From secure to suspicious
• From trusting to paranoid
• From believing the best about you to assuming the worst about you
• From dependable to undependable
• From trustworthy to parsing words to mislead
• From agreeable to defiant
• From reasonable to stubborn
Now that you have identified these changes, ask yourself these questions:
• Would I have married ___________ if he was the person then that he is today?
• Would I have been attracted to a man with these new “values” or character traits?
• Are the personality changes in my spouse ones that I currently respect and admire?
• How much of myself have I compromised in order to try to save the relationship? Is this something I am proud of? Do I want to continue on this path?
• If I had the chance, would I want to adapt to the Clueless Alien’s views and lifestyle in order to be with him? How much of me (my identity, values, character) would I have to lose in order to possibly re-gain his approval?
• How can I use the lessons of my experience—the agony of watching my spouse morph into an unloving, insensitive stranger—to make me determined to deepen trustworthy friendships, draw on spiritual resources, and remain a positive, loving parent to my kids despite my personal suffering?
It is also important that you maintain your own bearings and not allow this traumatic experience to change your own values and character. You did not force this extra-terrestrial creature to cavort with women who have no regard for your marriage. You are not like them, and neither should you allow this crazy-making experience to break down your own moral codes.
**You can read the original article which includes some appropriate Bible verses here: https://www.lindajmacdonald.com/blog/clueless-alien
Linda is a licensed Marriage & Family Therapist earning a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy from Seattle Pacific University in 1988. Helping folks recover from the damage of infidelity has been a special focus of Linda’s for over 30 years. In addition to writing about the Clueless Alien Syndrome, she has also authored the book, How to Help Your Spouse Heal From Your Affair: A Compact Manual for the Unfaithful. To learn more about Linda and her work, please visit her site at: https://www.lindajmacdonald.com/