“Flame Addiction”: The Neuroscience of Infidelity

flame addiction

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.

flame addiction

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. is a psychiatrist, relationship researcher, and author of “The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity.”

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  1. If you know you are not ready for a relationship why get into one and still cheat and liar. I was dying inside for my cheating wife, I had no prove, no one to run to. Everyone thought i was paranoid. Until I was referred to a Private Investigator hackadviser TECH. I told him about my situation and He understood me well and helped me spy on my wife.He hacked my wifes Email chat, Facebook account, also linked all her WhatsApp and phone conversation, So I find out the truth. Fortunately all the evidence I came accross was unbearable for me. I want to openly say thank you to Hackadviser for helping me. If you need help you can contact him via email, (co****************@gm***.com) Hacking is professional when handled by hackadviser TECH.

  2. I’m so tired of this bull shit. Affairs aren’t real love? That’s so much BS. Stop telling people this stuff. Every love and relationship is unique and its own. Most people in affairs are very discreet. They don’t take surveys and they all aren’t lonely and broken hearted, with low self esteem, crying in their therapists office, or begging for forgiveness and telling you whatever you need to hear. If this personal lack of security is true, why aren’t these low self worth people, just looking for a high, sleeping with a bunch of married people, or just a bunch of people in general? Why this one person? Not all cheaters are serial cheaters with no morals. Many people only ever have one affair with one person. It doesn’t make them a mental case or insecure, or a dishonest person. An affair does not define the whole of a person. No ONE thing ever does. A person steals bc they are hungry and they are a criminal- A person steals to pay for their child’s cancer treatment so they’ll survive, and our heart bleeds for them, and we run to “go fund me”. We are complex individuals. With infidelity, you are lying to one person. Your partner. No one else has any right to ask or know who you are sleeping with. They don’t have the right to have access to your whole life. Who you have sex with is your own private business and/or personal problem. People wake up everyday and decide who they are going to tell what to, and who they aren’t. It doesn’t make them all liars. It makes you a private person. People’s affairs aren’t for public consumption. A lot of people don’t seek out affairs, and never thought they’d be in one. I have friends that judged “cheaters” so hard in hateful ways, but then feel in love with someone else and back tracked all the way to middle earth. “I just never thought in a million years this would be me”. You can not predict who you will fall in love with, but you can make choices about what you do. Then someone comes along that you can’t stop thinking about, dreaming about. When you are around them, it feels like no home you’ve ever known. It’s a harsh reality. My ex husband had an affair. I know how hard it is to accept that it’s not just limerence, but this was a women he had loved before he met me, who had broken his heart, and he still had unresolved feelings for. It was the farthest thing from flame addiction you could imagine. Emotional affairs aren’t about lust or addiction either. You don’t just fall off your bike and accidentally land on someones dick. . It happens over time, and until that moment you cross that line, there has been a ton of self restraint, and fear, and hope that it passes. People fall in and out of love inexplicably all the time. Monogamy is a man made construct. You’ve obviously read a lot of books and know some science, but you have never been in a long term affair. I’ve seen many affairs, and no two are exactly the same. You’re making wide generalizations and calling people you’ve never met insecure bc it fits your narrative. It’s not helpful long term. People don’t cheat because they are bad or messed up or insecure people, and telling anyone that, just takes from the real work that needs to be done in that relationship. There is never just one bad guy in these equations, and simplifying to a science is child’s play, not real work. Dig deeper next time.

    • It sure makes then a dishonest and weak person. Unable to commit and stand by their word and promise to their spouse because they love just “happened” for them. Good going!! They deserve the nobel prize for “falling in love” and cheating.

  3. Sounds like a free pass to infidelity to me. Yet another excuse to avoid personal responsibility. The dopamine made me do it!
    I think I’ll just go home and hug my wife.

  4. This is exactly what happened to my wife. She has lost her mind over this new lover, she is taking crazy chances at getting caught by being very risky! Bringing him into our home!!! It’s hard core kinky stuff she has never done with me, and that kills me.

    • Pat, i empathise with you and feel extremely sorry that this is happening to you. With time she will realise that she has trapped herself, most likely to address some insecurities. Infatuation at this age is stupid. Sooner or later she will want to come back to reason. You may need to be a large hearted person and understand that her behaviour is akin to an insane person. Be brave and you should be able to make it. For helping yourself you may want to try EFT tapping, EMDR and likewise so many healing modalities. Once the affair thing has died, you can then rebuild the marriage. Remember limerence can happen to anyone at any age.

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