Affair healing Blog
The Neuroscience of Affair Fog
This article is a guest post from blogger and neuroscientist “Dr L”, who writes about limerence, purposeful living and the psychology of infatuation at livingwithlimerence.com.
Affair fog. The mysterious mind-altering cloud that seems to descend on people caught up in affairs. It's an apt term, because it captures the idea that the cheater is no longer seeing the world clearly, that they've lost their old sense of direction, that they are now wandering around in a dreamy haze, heedless to the world around them. Peering through the fog the only thing they seem to see clearly is their affair partner - who stands out as a dazzling source of light and wonder. Their spouse, when they notice them at all, is a dull obstacle that stands in their way. They may even look backwards, and rewrite the history of their marriage from this new perspective - emphasizing all the negative experiences and unhappy memories, and downplaying the joys and love.
So, what's going on? Have they lost their mind? Have they really fallen under the bewitching spell of their affair partner? Why can't they see what is so obvious to everyone around them: that they are an everyday cheater making a fool of themselves, and harming the people that love them?
As a neuroscientist, I tend to look at this from the perspective that such large-scale changes in mood, perception, and behavior must have their origins in the brain. So, the answer to the puzzle of affair fog lies in figuring out what's going on in our heads.
Infatuation, euphoria, and limerence
The experience of falling in love is unique to each individual, but a lot has been written over the centuries about the commonalities of the experience too. We're not as unique as we think. I'm a fan of the work of Dorothy Tennov, a psychologist working in the 1960s who studied romantic love and identified a consistent pattern of behavior and experiences in many of her subjects. She grouped these symptoms together into a checklist, based on reports from many people in the early stages of infatuation, and coined a new term to describe this particular mental state: limerence. The checklist is:
For limerents, the onset of that infatuation is marked by very dramatic changes in emotional stability: euphoria when things are going well, devastation when they are not, a sense of connection that is so profound that it feels like predestination, a quality of experience that transcends everyday life. They feel it in their body, it dominates their minds, and they are affected to an extraordinary degree by the experience. The world seems more vibrant and exciting and full of promise now that the subject of their infatuation is in it. They may even commit poetry.
The feeling of cosmic specialness that defines limerence is very similar to the symptoms of affair fog - the idealization of the affair partner, the overvaluation of their opinions and thoughts, the overwhelming desire to be in their company, and the inability to concentrate on anything else. This becomes more like an altered state of perception than a simple misjudgment, as though the lovestruck cheater literally cannot see clearly anymore. Something has changed in the way they are thinking and feeling.
There are a lot of claims out there about what happens in the brains of people who have become infatuated, but only a fraction are well supported by reliable evidence. Leaving aside some of the more speculative theories, there are three well-understood regulatory systems that can help explain the development of affair fog: reward, arousal and bonding.
Reward is driven by dopamine. This is the basis of the "dopamine high" that triggers euphoria, and this neural system exists to promote exploration and reinforcement of rewarding behavior. It is essential for learning, reward-seeking, and motivation.
Arousal is driven by norepinephrine. It is a state of heightened awareness and physical excitation. Not just sexual arousal (although that can be an element of it) but physiological arousal - raised heartbeat rate, dilated pupils, sweaty palms, blushing, the whole deal.
Finally, bonding is mainly driven by oxytocin and vasopressin. This is the more dopey, blissful sensation of closeness to another person, and general contentedness.
The details of how these neurotransmitters and hormones actually work are complex and subtle, of course. They don’t operate in a nice orderly sequence - they activate each other in a complicated mess of feedback loops - but these are the core control systems that bring about the change in behavior during limerence or affair fog. What happens is a self-reinforcing cycle of deepening desire that ultimately becomes a craving for another person.
The dopamine system fires up when the affair partner is identified as a "reward". This could be the thrill of mutual flirting, or flattery, or the love-at-first-sight sensation of finding someone especially attractive. But the key thing is that being with that person makes you feel good. That makes it likely that the norepinephrine system will kick in, making you more alert and attentive and excited, and generally in a state of arousal. That's why we stammer and sweat and feel our hearts pounding when around them.
The next stage is that the dopamine system shifts gear and ups our motivation. Once we have identified this person as rewarding and arousing, our brains (naturally enough) push us to seek more of their company. The way this works is that the dopamine high begins to get triggered by reminders of the affair partner, and not just their immediate presence. This shift makes us seek reward - and that is a very deep and powerful part of our psychology. One of our most fundamental motivational drives is to try and find rewarding things and behaviors and keep doing more of them.
This is the point at which the person slipping into an affair realizes that the world is suddenly full of cues that remind them of their affair partner - all songs, stories, and art seem to connect back to them. Their belongings seem to jump out of the dull background environment. What was once a jacket on the back of a chair is now Their Jacket (in capital letters). This is a consequence of dopamine and norepinephrine making everything about the affair partner seem important and loaded with emotional significance.
In a very real sense, for the person lost in the fog, their emotional landscape has genuinely been reshaped. They feel different because they are different - they are literally perceiving and responding to the world differently. So when it seems to their spouse that they have undergone a personality transplant, that's not altogether wrong.
When things go too far
Caught early enough, this cycle of reinforcement can be broken, but commonly (and perhaps understandably), many people instead race ahead into a deepening affair. Two factors cement the connection. First, the sharing of emotional intimacy leads to the bonding system kicking in. Those moments of sharing secrets, fears, desires, regrets - they give rise to a sense of special closeness, safety, of being understood by the affair partner. That triggers release of the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin, which give rise to a blissful contentment and feeling of "rightness". Second, the reward and arousal systems continue at a fever pitch, and all these systems start to reinforce each other. Bonding is rewarding, and so the cycle turns faster and faster.
That cocktail of bliss and euphoria is truly intoxicating - and that's the final trap. Many people talk about feeling "addicted" to their affair partner. It's tempting to overstate this (addiction is a defined clinical state and being infatuated isn't it), but the parallels are striking. Drugs of addiction like cocaine and amphetamine sensitize these same neural systems for reward and arousal, making the whole world seem thrilling, and significant and hyperstimulating. It's not hard to understand why it's easy to rush into the affair fog, but much harder to find a way out.
What does this all mean?
It's certainly possible to understand the neurochemical basis of the mental fog that engulfs limerents and cheaters. For the aficionados, there's lots of other interesting psychological details that add even more spice to the recipe (the pattern of "reward" experiences, the presence of barriers and uncertainty, how cognitive dissonance causes people to rewrite history etc.), but the fundamental truth is that despite all this explanatory detail we still get to choose how we behave. Regardless of the neurochemical storm of infatuation that is raging, our "executive brain" is still in charge. We can overrule the urges, and resist the temptation to declare "the heart wants what it wants" (and damn the consequences).
As AffairHealing teaches, the root cause of an affair is not the irresistible magnificence of the affair partner, or fate, or true love. It's the everyday habits of rationalization, keeping secrets, and (quite possibly unintended) marriage neglect, that make you vulnerable to temptation. The solution comes from truth-telling, honesty, and an inward motivation to do the work needed to reconnect with your spouse.
Understanding the neuroscience of affair fog helps to demystify the phenomenon, and show that it's not some star-kissed blessing or divine plan. It’s neuroscience. The emotional turmoil is generated in our heads and needs to be confronted there, once we take the decision to resist temptation and make more purposeful choices. For the unfaithful partner, this knowledge can help them comprehend what they went through, but recovery always, ultimately, requires decisive and lasting action.
6/5/2019 09:17:24 pm
Thank you for sharing. This article is fascinating, but I was hoping to read how the affair starts breaking down and how the wayward spouse starts coming out of the fog. What triggers the start of the breakdown? They say that limerence always ends. Why is that? When the wayward spouse comes out of the fog, do they remember how the marriage and relationship was, or so they still believe in their rewritten history?
6/6/2019 12:00:19 pm
Great questions. I also wonder about these things.
7/4/2019 04:55:14 pm
Could you explain how this applies to the sexual addict who is seeking ejaculation without responsibility or emotion
7/4/2019 05:05:24 pm
There may not be any application. They are two different experiences/motivations.
7/28/2019 05:39:28 pm
I feel hopeless because my LO is both available and reciprocating of my affection...basically I’m a married serial limerent who is in an affair with my LO. He is starting to sense that somethings not quite right with me. I am starting to believe that I will not be able to gain control of my situation and therefore will lose my marriage.
8/16/2019 03:30:38 pm
The podcast on this concept was really well done and fits with my experience of limerence before and during my affair. Coming out of it and looking back on the experience years later, it now seems like a different person did that. And honestly, even in the moment, I think a tiny part of me knew it was more about what was going on in my life and my head than about my AP being so perfect.
8/26/2019 03:44:31 pm
Are you saying that you deep down knew that it was more escape and fantasy? When I have asked my husband questions regarding things that he said during his affair, he responds that "It was just part of it". I don't know what that means.. Is it related to what you felt?
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Unless otherwise noted, articles are written by Tim Tedder, a licensed counselor and creator of this site and its resources.