I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a conversation with someone about their struggles with their partner’s affair and the addictive nature of infidelity is brought up in some way. Many of the unfaithful people I talk to also mention their “addiction” to the affair partner quite a bit.
The behaviors of an addict are almost the same no matter what the addiction. That’s why it’s easy for many people to spot an addict, or at least notice that something is wrong. Signs of addiction are right there in front of us, but we often judge too quickly and incorrectly.
So, I thought I’d put together a piece on the relationship between infidelity and addiction.
Defining Addiction – The Four C’s
A powerful desire to use or participate in your addiction. Craving can manifest itself physically through a feeling of restlessness, lake of sleep and lack of appetite.
At times cravings are triggered by situations associated with past acting out behavior, but they can also be triggered by the time of day, opportunity, smells, mood, lack of sleep, state of mind and countless other things.
If the behavior is being driven by the pleasure-reward center and has been programmed into our very survival, it is no longer healthy. Whether its sugar, gambling, drugs, sex, food, pornography, alcohol, affair partners, or prostitution, compulsion drives us to do or consume more than we intended.
The urge is irresistible, and you do it despite not wanting to. There is less joy in the substance or activity. You now engage in this behavior simply because you must.
In Alcoholics Anonymous it’s said that one drink is too many and 500 is not enough. We tell ourselves we will use moderation as an excuse to partake in the behavior and then indulge ourselves. One potato chip becomes the whole bag and one last text becomes another 1500 to the affair partner.
Dopamine’s relentless demand for pleasure tempts us to compromise our morals and values to satisfy that compulsion. One indicator of a serious problem is when people begin to compromise their own integrity for the substance, person, or behavior.
The third C is really about a loss of control. The more the addict indulges the more unmanageable their life becomes. If you want to quit but can’t, you have lost control.
You can no longer maintain your cravings and your use increases drastically. You can no longer control your action and you begin to use dishonesty to mask the truth of your actions.
Once that compulsive activity begins, the addict goes far beyond what was intended. The longer they remain in the cycle, the more uncontrollable their lives (as well as the lives of their loved ones) become. Craving and compulsion become their source of life and all else falls away.
Even though you know this substance or activity harmful, you continue to use or engage. Consequences range from mild to severe. Most mild consequences will build over time and become severe consequences.
The emotional signs of addiction manifest here too. Even though you know how this substance or activity will make you feel, you continue to participate.
The consequences are what indicate you have a problem. For example: you have a craving and your goal is to only have one drink, to just text your AP one time, or to just look at porn for five minutes.
Compulsion makes moderation an impossibility and as a result control is lost. One drink winds up being 20, one text leads to spending the night with your AP, five minutes of looking at porn winds up being five hours.
All of these behaviors create serious consequences such as being arrested or even harming someone for driving drunk, destroying any chance of a future with your mate, or undoing months of hard work rebuilding trust.
Rick Reynolds, LCSW says that “The addictive process isn’t physical dependence; it’s not about abusing something or even daily use. It’s about meeting the criteria of the four C’s. If it meets those criteria then it’s an addiction whether it’s food, anger, sex, love, porn, exercise, or whatever else might meet that criteria.
Some reading this might be tempted to define their mate’s behavior as an addiction because of the negative consequences of the affair to you or the marriage, but the four C’s are not just about the negative consequences.
For instance, a one-night stand isn’t an addiction if there’s no craving, compulsion, or a loss of control where each time they repeat the behavior it spins totally of control and they have multiple one-night stands in one night. Addictions have nothing to do with frequency. Even if the behavior happens only once every ten years, if it begins with a crazy craving which results in a compulsion that sends them out of control and ends up with serious consequences then it’s an addiction.
For instance, porn isn’t an addiction if there’s no craving, or compulsive use resulting in them being out of control and going much farther than intended, which leads to serious consequences. However, I’m not saying that if it fails to meet the criteria of the four C’s then it’s not a serious problem. In my mind anything that is contrary to love is self-centered and presents a serious problem. But, the course of treatment will vary according to whether it’s an addiction or some other form of acting out.” *
I also wanted to share a piece I found the other day on this topic. The following is a 3-part series – in its entirety – by Dr. Scott Haltzman for the website Hitched.
Affairs: The Relationship Between Infidelity & Addiction
After decades studying human behavior, I had a revelation that has since colored my perception of infidelity: Almost everything that happens to an addict happens to someone who has an affair.
Think about drug and alcohol abuse for a moment: Not only does the syndrome result in abuse of substances, but it includes hiding behaviors from others, lying about activities, investing time and money seeking a chemical high, and changing just about every aspect of one’s life. Moreover, most of these individuals have wished to break away from their substances of abuse, but doing so has proved very difficult. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like what happens when someone has an affair?
So, we’re talking about “sex addiction,” right?
Sex addiction is a specific kind of addiction, the existence of which is highly contested by researchers in psychiatry. When sex addiction is addressed as a problem, experts refer to individuals (mostly men) who crave sex—specifically sexual release—as in orgasm.
Now, there’s nothing wrong for wanting sex. After all, it’s encoded in DNA for sex to be pleasurable. I’d venture to guess that there was a time during virtually every teenage boy’s life when sex constantly consumed his thoughts.
But sex addiction is different than enjoying sex or wanting to experience a sexual liaison. For sex addicts, it’s an obsession. Things that remind them of sexual release will initiate a cascade of intense yearning, and drive them to seek sexual release in whatever way they can. Often these people have learned how to skillfully entice other men or women into having sexual relations with them, even though their desire for sex is not driven by feelings of emotional connection or love. Often, sex addicts will hire prostitutes or pay for “happy ending” massages. Sometimes, in the absence of contact with other people, the sex addict will turn to pornography and masturbation as a way to find relief from these urges. Like other addicts, this person will spend an inordinate amount of time preoccupied with the thing that gives them a high—sex—while hiding the obsession from others.
If you’ve gone to a therapist after an affair and you’ve been told that you or your partner are addicted to sex, look carefully at the paragraph above. Does that describe either one of you? In most cases of infidelity, the issue is not about sex addiction. Enjoying sex is normal. Feeling that there are others who may give you more sex, or better sex, than your spouse is, regrettably, also very common. It doesn’t prove you’re addicted to sex, though. Ask yourself the following questions to help understand whether your problem is a sex addiction or something else.
Even before the affair, I was obsessed with sex to the point where my desire interfered with being able to accomplish important things.
I have a deep yearning for sex as one of the only ways I can feel “normal” and sometimes it doesn’t even matter whom it is with.
I use sex as a way to escape my typical problems either at work or at home.
I spend hours every week on the internet looking at images of sex or sexually provocative images of people I don’t know.
I spend several hours a month on the internet engaging in sexual-related chatting or IMing with individuals I don’t know.
I usually have to masturbate or have sex at least twice daily in order to concentrate on normal work or relationship requirements.
I frequently pay for or exchange favors for sex with people I don’t feel an emotional connection to. When I complete the act, I feel temporarily satisfied, but the feeling quickly goes away and I feel ashamed or guilty.
Anonymous sex appeals to me, and I feel more comfortable with it than sex with someone I know.
If you have answered “Yes” to four or more of the questions, then you may suffer from sex addiction and you’ll probably need more individualized help for your problem than this article can provide for you. (Sex Addicts Anonymous is an excellent resource for getting help.) Most of the people I have treated, however, even those who use pornography or visit prostitutes, answer no to most of these questions. They do not have a sexual addiction.
I began this article by looking at affairs and drawing parallels to addictions. Then I described a specific type of addiction, sex addiction, and concluded that most affairs do not happen for that reason. Confused? At this point, you might ask, “if people having affairs like people who have addiction, but they don’t have a sex addiction, what kind of addiction is it?”
Infidelity is a flame addiction.
The Flame Addiction
What is a flame addiction?
The noun “flame” isn’t used much these days when people talk about relationships. A flame is an object of romantic attraction as in, “Taylor Swift is my flame.” Flame also describes an internal state of the person who feels the attraction as in, “I have a flame for Taylor Swift.” This uncommonly used word is uniquely suited to help explain the process of addiction that occurs when an affair happens.
Flame has been adapted from its literal meaning, the essence of a fire that leaps out from the source of the heat. It also has a double meaning: it is both the fire itself, and the product of the fire. When I think of flame addiction, I think of a flame atop a candle’s wick, and the way a moth will circle around it.
The moth and flame relationship is as old as time—in order to fly in a straight line, moths will orient themselves toward the moon. Since the likelihood of them ever actually landing on the moon was pretty low they were pretty much safe with that strategy. Then man came on to the scene and invented fire. Ever since then moths now mistakenly think they can capture the moon. Confronted with a flame, the moth approaches and believes it’s destined for a lunar landing. It excitedly and persistently moves closer and closer to the candle, circling in ever smaller loops while its fragile wings clip the flame and the moth dies a fiery death.
Sobering, isn’t it? But if you have had an affair, you know that the kind of attraction you had felt is no less intense, and misdirected, as a moth circling a candle. You may tell yourself that you ought to stop your misguided flight path, set your sights on something safer and saner, but every time you move away from the flame you are compelled to return.
In contrast to flame addiction, people with a sex addiction are always looking for sexual gratification, so marital infidelities are par for the course. But people who have had affairs are as surprised by the development of a sexual relationship as their affair-mate is. These individuals do not typically seek out extra-marital sex. Nonetheless, they are attracted to another person, and that attraction becomes irresistible.
People who have affairs discover that the infatuation with another person can be as strong as the obsession for orgasm for a sex addict, or for that matter, as strong as the drive for cocaine for a crack addict. How can we explain the emotional experience that leads a faithful companion to become obsessed, preoccupied, reckless, conniving and depressed?
We should start by looking at chemicals in the brain. Dopamine, for instance, is the brain’s reward chemical. When you associate a pleasurable sensation (the sound of waves crashing on the beach), with some outside experience (vacationing at the shore), your dopamine system is forever primed to feel good when you are triggered by the exposure to the stimulus—so whenever you hear waves in the future, you get a rush of positive feelings.
Most of the time, the surge of dopamine in the brain is a good thing, especially when it’s associated with positive desires. For instance, when married couples who are deeply in love see each other, their dopamine levels rise. Dopamine gives the message to the brain to “Go get ‘em! You’ll be happy you did!” This idea isn’t rational; it’s not well thought out. It’s an irresistible gut feeling.
The dopamine centers can’t tell when the desires are less healthy. For instance, heroin addicts also have a surge in their dopamine when they see a bag of drugs. Although on a conscious level, they know that using heroin can lead to deadly consequences, they nonetheless begin to feel a powerful urge to shoot up (even if they are in sobriety).
Almost all addictions can be understood as irresistible cravings, and most experts agree that those cravings are mediated by dopamine. Flame addiction is no different. The person who wishes to end an affair might consciously tell him or herself that things are over, really over, once and for all. But any reminder of the other person—the voice, an e-mail, a picture, or even a memory—can generate a dopamine surge and start the avalanche of automatic feelings and the intense desire to be with that person.
Let me be clear, though. Understanding the chemical basis for addiction helps people understand how a perfectly sane person can act so insane sometimes. It explains how difficult it is to resist actions that will end in negative consequences. It does not excuse the behavior. The crack addict with the most intense dopamine rush still has the choice to not use. Having an addiction doesn’t mean that you have to succumb to your urges—you can stop. Lots of addicts have. Lots of flame addicts have also.
I find it helps the person who has been cheated on to understand how flame addiction works. Addictive behaviors are not turned off because someone simply wills them to stop—it often takes time. Like the alcoholic who swears off drinking, but can fall of the wagon, a partner who promises to stop seeing the other person can slip and go back on his or her word. That is often part of the process of beating flame addiction.
Beating Flame Addiction
A colleague and I were discussing the concept of “flame addiction,” a term used to describe the behavioral and psychological changes associated with infidelity. The syndrome includes typical addictive behavior such as obsession with and dependency on the affair mate, as well as the secondary consequences of addiction, such as being secretive and taking depleting resources from work, friends, and family.
My colleague, a PhD and renowned advice columnist, asked whether or not making affair behaviors an “illness,” is just providing the unfaithful partner with an excuse: “My addiction made me do it!”
There is some validity to that concern, but I don’t believe that once people learn their symptoms are because of an illness they have the right to blame their “medical condition.” If diagnosed with diabetes (or high blood pressure), a patient had the duty to control sugar (or salt) intake and take medication. Obesity: lose weight. Emphysema: quit smoking. You get the idea.
Indeed, recognizing infidelity as a flame addiction can be productive in helping couples learn how to get the problem under control. Not surprisingly the approach to treating flame addiction is much like treating any addiction.
Step 1: Abstain
You must set up a barrier between yourself and the object of your addiction, be it alcohol, drugs, or gambling. Addicts who are serious about recovery know that even small doses of their “substance” can lead to complete and total relapse. For the flame addict, it means having no further contact with the extramarital person who ignites your passion.
Step 2: Avoid Triggers
People who want to quit alcohol need to stop going to bars; people who want to quit cocaine need to stop going to crack houses. Seems obvious, but sometimes people believe they can hang with the same friends and go to the same hang-out places and not relapse. In fact, when just the opposite happens: being around places and situations that remind you of the addiction trigger cravings. In flame addiction, sometimes that “place” can be the internet, the job site or the sidelines of your kids’ soccer game.
Step 3: Foster Recovery
Addicts have learned certain approaches for moving past their addictions, often involving 12-step meetings or other support organizations. There may not be flame addiction meetings in your area (although Codependent Anonymous may be a good substitute), but even if you do not go to meetings, there are principles from these recovery-oriented organizations that you can apply in getting past your affair:
One day at a time: Sometimes when you give up your addiction, the idea of never being able to speak to, see, or hear from your flame seems too unbearable to endure. If you break down to one day at a time, it’s much more tolerable and manageable. You can tell yourself that, just for today, you won’t have contact. Each day, awaken and commit yourself for staying away from your flame for that day, and continue to do this one day at a time.
Find serenity: One of the most helpful aspects of the recovery program is the overarching desire for the addict to seek inner peace as an alternative to the outer craving. The flame-addicted individual must be prepared to say, “Today I seek serenity, rather than seek ____.” It means loving, craving, and working toward the tranquility that comes with taking control of your life.
Turn toward your higher power: One of the other features of 12-step programs is the belief that one must call to a higher power to help themselves through addiction. Likewise, some people who have had affairs will find that when they can reconnect to their own higher power (for most of my patients, that has been the God of their religious denomination) that they find the courage, strength and direction to get themselves on track. Those whose partners have cheated will also sometimes find comfort and purpose in their religious community.
Seek support: Feeling like part of a network of loving, caring individuals can help people move past addictions.
You can turn to close friends and family. Having some discretion is necessary when something as big as an affair affects you and your family, but telling absolutely no one builds up your sense of isolation and makes it harder to move forward. Find one or two close friends, and ask whether they are up to the task of helping you out. Generally, it’s better to turn to people who are married. And forget about making your confidant someone who is currently having an affair him or herself!
Seek professional or spiritual help: Therapists (including religious counselors) who specialize in treating couples or individuals with marital problems can help you find ways to energize your marriage and break away from your flame. I recommend therapists who identify themselves as being marriage friendly. If not, you could get bad advice. Take “Aggie,” a woman who responded to a blog I wrote on the subject:
When my marriage was affected by infidelity after 25 years, I entered therapy individually as a very disoriented middle-aged woman. My therapist nudged me toward divorce when I wasn’t sure that was even what I wanted. It seemed like before I even knew what happened, I was in a lawyer’s office (her recommendation), just to find out where I stood legally, and then the ball was rolling… We’ve all been crushed and still struggle to pick up the pieces eight years later. I’ve lost my home, my financial security, and my health insurance. My husband and I both have new partners, but neither of us is happy. I feel like I was sold some silly bill of goods about building a “new life,” just on the whim of a therapist who was used to helping women through “transitions.”
Keep in mind that finding a good therapist can help you move forward if he or she is willing to help you focus on how to direct your energy back into the marriage.
Finally, seek support from your spouse: help him or her get involved in your commitment to change.
What can spouses of a flame addict learn from understanding this model? Patience! After you’ve discovered your spouse was unfaithful, your instincts may tell you to avoid him or her like the plague. But if a person who has had an affair is serious about wanting to kick the flame addiction then it may require extraordinary courage on the partner’s part.
Understanding flame addiction means realizing that changing behavior is not easy. People in trying to kick addictions frequently can succeed, but on the way they often slip. If a heretofore unfaithful spouse responds to a text message from an old flame, it does not necessarily mean that the marriage is doomed. It means there’s still work to be done, and sometimes your support can make all the difference.
Scott Haltzman, M.D., is the author of “The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity” (Johns Hopkins University Press). He served as a Brown University assistant professor of psychiatry for 20 years, is board certified in Psychiatry, and is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. You can get more information at his website, www.drscott.com.
I frequently tell people I’m mentoring that affairs can be a lot like an addiction in that there won’t be sufficient motivation to make changes or to stop the affair – the drug of choice – until the unfaithful person (addict) hits some sort of bottom.
And I like what Rick Reynolds says about this:
Bottom doesn’t have to be a moment in time where you lose everything. Addiction is an elevator that continually moves downward, but we have the ability to get off at whatever floor we choose. All it takes is a desire for a different life and seeing the problem for what it is. You have to accept that, strange as it may seem, you have an addiction. You don’t overcome addiction by stopping the behavior; instead, you create a new life where it’s easier not to act out. You find something worthwhile to live for.
If you struggle with addiction there are many resources available: 12 step programs, Smart Recovery, addiction counselors, and support groups. The one thing those in recovery have are others who will walk with them. As I mentioned in the second week’s video the power of the addiction’s motivational engines will overcome reason and logic. Unless the addict can find others who understand the problem and are willing to come alongside them and help direct their recovery, the power of the addiction will return to once again drag them into a living hell. So please don’t try it alone. Find others who can keep you on the path of healing.”
So what do you feel about the relationship between infidelity and addiction? Do you feel this makes sense when looking at your – or your spouse’s – situation?