Infidelity, limerence and infatuation:
Infidelity is breaking a promise to remain faithful to a sexual partner. That promise can take many forms, from marriage vows to private agreements between lovers.
Infidelity is not uncommon. More than half the couples we work with come with this as a presenting complaint.
Infidelity raises many questions. Should you stay? Can trust be rebuilt? Can you and should you forgive or move on?
Many people think that affairs signal the end of a marriage. This is often not true. Although healing from infidelity is challenging, many marriages survive. And many actually grow from the experience.
When infidelity strikes, it helps to get professional help. Feelings that surface after the discovery of an affair are often so overwhelming that it is difficult to know what to do to begin to get one’s relationship back on track.
Be certain to seek help that is “marriage-friendly.” Some therapists believe that infidelity destroys the fabric of a relationship which cannot be repaired. We do not believe this is the case and our own experience testifies to that. It is essential that you work with competent, qualified and experienced therapists if you want the best for your relationship to recover.
Although its natural to want to be pain-free as quickly as possible, when it comes to healing from infidelity, it just isn’t going to happen. In fact, if things are back to normal too quickly, it may mean that intense feelings have been swept under the carpet. Often they still lurk beneath the surface harbouring and building resentments.
This can be detrimental and hinder the relationship moving forward. In order for a marriage to mend, it takes a great deal of hard work to confront all the necessary issues. When there has been infidelity, people just don’t forget about it, they never forget it. What does happen is that memories of the discovery and the pain tend to fade. The thoughts about betrayal become less frequent and less intense over time.
The Stages of Affair Recovery
Crisis:The first phase of affair recovery, the crisis phase, happens when an affair is disclosed or discovered. The initial shock and deep betrayal can shatter your confidence. your world as you knew feels like its collapsing. It is important to recognise that this is a phase — the feelings do pass.
We strongly recommend you do not make any decisions now about what to do with your relationship. Self care is so important in this phase. Be careful in who you speak to. Many people will give advice based on their own beliefs and judgements. Whilst well intentioned, there views are often misguided. When the chaos has settled, which may take weeks or months, you may start to think more about whether or not you want to stay together and start rebuilding a different type of relationship.
Initially after infidelity, it can be difficult for you to envision a new, shared future. The one person you turned to in the past for support when you were in pain is now the person causing you pain. It can seem as if there’s no one to turn to. You may feel lonely and confused. You may long for the partner who always served as the bedrock in your life, and that time of trust before you discovered the affair.
There is a time lapse in the grief process. The person who had the affair has known about the infidelity ever since it began. If you are just now discovering the affair, you are at a totally different point in the process than your partner is. You have only begun to catch up.
Both partners must grieve their losses if they are to build a new marriage. Grief is triggered by the loss of the future you thought you were headed toward together. Whatever ideas you had about how you would grow old as a couple, retire, have grandchildren, rock on the front porch together, or travel the world, the affair has now challenged that vision of a shared future. Grief is a process of letting go of that vision. And, interestingly, grief has a way of making room for a different future if you choose to create that possibility going forward.
Awareness:The second phase of affair recovery is the awareness phase. You will recognise when you are entering this phase when you start to explore how the affair happened. This second phase of affair recovery comes after the crisis has ebbed and you are moving past your intense anger and confusion. This phase will help you to experience empathy for each other and can give you hope for the future if you decide you want to stay together. You may still not know whether you want to make things work for the long run, but you will be able to do some of the work on your past to find out.
Understanding the affair and how it happened will help you to get clearer about what led you both to this point in your lives. This means you both need to explore the meaning of the affair. During this phase of affair recovery, you may begin to wonder where your responsibility lies for what happened in your relationship. This is not about assigning blame, but a time to deconstruct the affair and the history of your marriage or relationship, to find out where the roots of the infidelity began.
If both partners are willing to work at the relationship, you will notice a shift happening. The two of you will begin to realize that you each share responsibility for what happened in your relationship before the affair. There was most probably a dynamic in your marriage that contributed to the affair.
Affairs do not mean an end of the relationship. In our experience, couples that have the best relationship work together with open and honest communication to define between them what their monogamy looks like and where the boundaries lie for them within the relationship.
Emotional / Limerence affairs:
When dealing with emotional affairs, without fail when we are working with the betrayed and or the betrayer in our affair recovery practice, when we mention limerence and its symptoms, there is invariably a light bulb moment.
The erratic and bizarre behaviour of the betrayer suddenly makes sense to the betrayed. The betrayer themselves may or may not depending upon what phase of limerence they are in, also realise they have been caught up in feelings and behaviours that has many parallels to an addiction.
So what is limerence?
* Intrusive and obsessive thinking about the object of infatuation – referred to as the Limerent Object (LO)
* Replaying and rehearsal of interactions with the LO
* Anxiety and self-consciousness around the LO
* Emotional dependence on the LO
* Impaired functioning around the LO
Reading this list, many will recognise the early stages of the infatuated addictive energy of love (or perhaps what would be better called lust) that we feel in early relationships – so called New Relationship Energy (NRE). When there are no barriers for the relationship to be consummated and with time and reciprocation, this may transform into a more secure and enduring love. Where the progression of a romantic relationship is hindered often by marriage or other long term relationship enduring limerence often ensues.
Why do emotional / limerence affairs develop?
For a fire to develop it takes 3 essential ingredients: fuel, oxygen and an ignition source. Our belief is that affairs follow a similar pattern. The fuel is the betrayer’s past history that is played out, unconsciously in the current relationship, the oxygen is the past history that is played out, again unconsciously by the partner and the ignition source is the affair partner.
Let’s look at these elements and how they play out. In some ways our brains can be compared to computers. When born, we have a blank hard drive that has a basic operating system ready to download aps and programmes. This core operating system is determined to some extent by our genes and also the conditions we experience whilst in our mother’s womb.
The first few years of life are where we are absorbing more information than we will at any other time in our lives. And part of the challenge is whilst we are sensing so many new experiences, we have yet to develop a vocabulary to make sense of things. If we grow up in a family with a mother and other significant others that makes us feel safe by being calm and loving, consistent, nurturing, gentle and encouraging, we learn to trust. We appreciate that it’s healthy to communicate how we are feeling and how to ask for our needs to be met. We take these experiences into all our other relationships, with friends, family, work colleagues and most significantly our romantic relationships. This is what we call secure attachment style.
When we don’t get these needs met in early life, and sadly too few of us do, then we are left too clingy, too needy, too controlling, too avoidant or one of many other maladapted ways of coping with a fear of intimacy and rejection in our relationships. These may exhibit as what we call anxious or avoidant attachment styles.
In many long terms relationships, couples drift apart with the passage of time. Boredom, routine, the stress of raising children, interfering parents and siblings, work and financial pressures plus a multitude of other life stressors add to the mix. We each retreat into our shells building up more and more resentments. This is where sex then often becomes a battleground, where often the woman who feels the emotional disconnect, feels little desire to be physically intimate with her partner.
These resentments build and don’t get discussed and worked through. Because so much of our behaviour is unconscious, we fear being rejected and being vulnerable, so these becomes major blocks to us communicating cleanly, concisely and clearly.
With time, the oxygen and fuel start building up and the conditions for an affair become ripe. This is what we call the perfect storm. All it takes is an ignition source. And we often see the person that is the betrayer comes from a from a family where they experienced infidelity from a parent whilst growing up. It’s as if they are trying to heal the wounds of this parent’s own assignations, all at an unconscious level.
The phases of limerence
And then comes along comes limerence and its associated romantic heartbreak. A window of opportunity for some much needed emotional growth is presented. We are not sure why some of us become aware that limerence is not about the magical other and is all about us, whilst others jump from one failed marriage to another, taking themselves and all their own unresolved emotional baggage with them, playing out the same dramas. As they say in 12 steps. wherever you go, there you are.
The reality is limerence never lasts – typically it spans from 6-36 months. Just long enough for us to pair-bond and continue the survival of the species. Recent advances in neuroimaging and neuro-biochemistry are now mapping out these pathways for romantic love.
We also feel limerence is a gateway to grief. It marks a transitional phase where we enter a liminal space. Whilst the initial grieving maybe for the ending of the affair or perhaps the failed marriage, it can open access to much needed grieving from so many other losses from our own childhood and other traumas and who knows, perhaps the loses of our generations that went before us.
And this explains why so many opt for the easier path, choosing never to take responsibility for our own behaviours, continuing to blame others and continuing to behave at an emotional level as children and adolescents trapped in adult bodies. Doing this growth work takes courage and determination. Its what we call the heavy lifting.
Advice for the Betrayer
In the early phase which we mentioned lasts from 6-36 months, it’s hard to break through the defences. Sadly, the neurochemicals really do distort one’s perceptions, they literally rewrite history, obliterating all the good that existed in the past relationship. The betrayer really believes they have met their soulmate. We don’t like this term and don’t believe in this myth. We prefer the term woundmate where unconscious early life wounds are what is being activated in the person that is in limerence.
They see the LO as an Adonis, as someone that is perfect in every sense and the answer to all their problems. They feel seen and validated and understood at a deep level. Their LO just gets them. And they feel like they love their long-term partner but are no longer in love with them. Limerence plays cruel tricks on the mind. They see their long-term partner as a barrier to having a life with their LO. Their unresolved anger issues are put onto their partner either by passive withdrawal or active attacking.
With time and with the diminishing of the neurochemicals, chinks begin to appear. It is here where an opportunity exists for the person to realise this is a relationship based on a fantasy. Perhaps the betrayer can start extracting themselves from the real or perceived relationship with the LO and to start doing their own self-development work.
It may be possible in the very early stage of limerence where there has not been consummation of the relationship, that the addictive spiral can be broken. This will require self-will and discipline to break all contact with the LO and to enter some form of talk therapy program to explore what led the person to develop limerence. It is rare for us to see clients at this stage. All too often, this opportunity is missed and full blown emotional and or physical affair ensues. Then it’s a case of waiting until the person comes out of what we call the fog. Where they can start seeing more clearly as to the reality of their situation.
And so the journey of self-discovery may begin.
For a detailed article on how to heal from limerence see http://loverelations.co.uk/healing-from-limerence/
How the betrayed behaves during this phase can make a significant difference as to the chances of the pre-existing relationship being rebuilt.
Advice for the Betrayed
There is a natural temptation to act out these feelings onto the person that is betraying you. To vent your anger and rage onto your partner. Unfortunately, this will have the effect of pushing your partner further away from you and just reinforces that you are the one that is controlling, needy, demanding or any other number of negative traits that your partner will latch onto.
The person in limerence is confused and not acting with any real rational thought. They are being controlled by their emotions and are acting from a young impulsive part of themselves.
There are several strategies that may help you and with time, perhaps help your partner to see you are a better option to rebuild a relationship with. This list may sound counter-intuitive. It’s based on solid research and has worked for the many people we have worked with in our affair recovery practice.
Become a non-judging, non-shaming place of unconditional love for your partner.
Anything that drives a wedge between you and your partner will push them further away. As difficult as it may be, the more you can be there for your other half in a non-judging non-shaming way, the less they can use you as the excuse for things not working out. We ask clients how would they react if they discovered their partner was addicted to cocaine or alcohol? Would they be more supportive, more compassionate?
We appreciate this is difficult because of the lying and breaking of trust that goes hand in hand with limerence and all other addictions. Limerence is so much tougher to endure though because the addiction is to another person. the sense of betrayal is huge and engulfing.
Addicts already feel significant shame and by you being judgemental to their behaviour makes them feel more shame. Shame is one of the most toxic and soul crushing of feelings and rarely helps a situation. That does not mean there are not to be consequences for their behaviour and that is where strong healthy boundaries come into play.
Develop healthy boundaries
We all need to protect ourselves from emotional harm. Psychological defences are created in childhood to serve that purpose unconsciously, but they also lead us into unhealthy and unproductive behaviour. Boundaries are conscious and healthy ways to protect ourselves from emotional harm.
Some of us have difficulty setting and enforcing boundaries, a difficulty that invariably stems from inadequate and often abusive parenting whilst a child. This abuse can range from subtle emotional manipulation to severe sexual and physical abuse.
We can’t enforce enough how important it is that boundaries with consequences that are enforced for violation are set up. If the consequences are not enacted, the boundary becomes an empty threat and loses its potency. Each person has to decide how much they are willing to tolerate from their partner’s behaviour and where the boundary lies.
Much has been written on boundary setting and the length of this article precludes going into further detail. If boundaries are hard for you to keep to, it may be worth getting some help to explore why you find this so difficult.
Work on yourself.
People either move towards pleasure or away from pain. Being attracted to another is a pleasurable experience. Attraction is based around 4 key areas. Physical, Intellectual, Emotional and Spiritual (PIES). If you work on yourself on all 4 of these areas to make yourself more attractive, you have a better chance of your partner being drawn back towards you. That said, we recommend you work on yourself for yourself, whatever happens to your relationship. If your partner sees you as becoming more desirable, than that’s great. Its not a guarantee things will work out though.
Likewise, if you become critical, negative, judging, clingy, aggressive, vengeful or display other less than desirable behaviours, your partner is more likely to move away from you and more towards their LO.
We would recommend you also look at yourself in a fierce and honest way to see what behaviours you may have shown in the relationship that were less than loving. Relationships always take two people and as we say, it takes two to tango. That doesn’t mean we condone anyone going off and embarking on an affair.
Be careful who you tell
Each person will have their own view and opinions based on their own history and experiences. Whilst advice may be given with good intention, its often misguided and unhealthy. Better you seek advice from a pro-marriage professional.
As we say what defines us as people is not what we feel, but how we act on our feelings. We are only humans and its not unnatural to develop strong feelings for other people whether we are in a committed relationship or not. – it’s what we do with these feelings that matters. The stronger you make your marriage, the more you affair-proof it, the less likely these feeling will trip either of you up.
Our own experience
As therapists its always difficult to know how much to disclose about our own struggles. The work we do is about helping you and not about us. That said, we feel it important for the couples we work with to know that we have been through our own struggles and have healed ourselves and our relationship. This allows us to better empathise with you when struggling with infidelity.
Ruth has written her story – “How the cracks came and went” and David has written his account – “Help, I’m married and fallen for another woman”