Affairs: Beating Flame Addiction Part 3: In the third and final installment, Dr. Haltzman offers tips on how to overcome and break free of flame addiction. BY DR. SCOTT HALTZMAN
Beating a flame addiction is possible and your marriage could be all the stronger in the end.
“ Indeed, recognizing infidelity as a flame addiction can be productive in helping couples learn how to get the problem under control.”
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.