“Flame Addiction”: The Neuroscience of Infidelity

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When most people think of infidelity, they don’t think of injecting heroin or smoking crack cocaine. They ought to, because the behavior that takes place during an affair mimics exactly the behavior of a drug addict. Like a moth drawn to a candle’s glow, the person who is having an affair keeps coming back to the same addictive behavior. Infidelity is a “flame addiction.”

By “flame addiction,” I don’t mean sex addiction — that’s when someone’s behavior is driven solely for the purpose of sexual release. Although most affairs involve sex, orgasm is not what most unfaithful partners crave. When a married individual becomes attracted to a person outside the marriage, a series of chemical and hormonal changes in the brain is set in motion that get the addiction off and running.

If you strip away the romantic outer coat of “falling in love,” you find the cold hard stuff of medical science. During the infatuation stage of attachment the brain produces changes in neurochemicals that alter the perception of reality. For one, the rush of adrenaline-like norepinephrine literally takes the breath away of the love-sodden individual. Next, serotonin — that same chemical that antidepressants Prozac and Lexapro are supposed to increase — drops dramatically during the infatuation phase, leaving a sense of emptiness and an obsessive preoccupation with the other person.

The big player in inducing a flame addiction is dopamine. Studies show that when someone is exposed to a novel stimulus, the brain generates a flood of dopamine. Known as the “reward” neurochemical, dopamine sets off the bells and whistles of the brain’s slot machine, and gives one clear message: “Jackpot!”

Unless a married couple works at keeping things fresh and new, dopamine levels stay low. But continued exposure to an attractive person outside marriage causes a surge in dopamine; the absence of that person generates emptiness and unease. The only way to feel normal again is to return to the source of the chemical rush — the affair mate.

Understanding the process of flame addiction is crucial to healing — for both the victim and perpetrator — after an affair. As in any sobriety, it’s essential to cut off all communication with the affair mate. As in other addictions, there may be slips, but that doesn’t prove the unfaithful spouse has given up on the marriage. Support from friends and from mental health professionals is essential. Finally, stay tough, but be patient; healing from any addiction takes time.

Scott Haltzman, M.D., psychiatrist, relationship researcher, and author of  “The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity.”

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