Affairs: The Flame Addiction
Part 2: In the second installment of a 3-part series, Dr. Haltzman explains—like a moth to a flame—why those who cheat find the attraction difficult to let go of.
In Part I of this series, I end by asking the question: If people having affairs are like people who have addiction, but they don’t have a sex addiction, what kind of addiction is it? My answer: Infidelity is a flame addiction.
What is a flame addiction?
The noun "flame" isn’t used much these days when people talk about relationships. A flame is an object of romantic attraction as in, "Taylor Swift is my flame." Flame also describes an internal state of the person who feels the attraction as in, "I have a flame for Taylor Swift." This uncommonly used word is uniquely suited to help explain the process of addiction that occurs when an affair happens.
Flame has been adapted from its literal meaning, the essence of a fire that leaps out from the source of the heat. It also has a double meaning: it is both the fire itself, and the product of the fire. When I think of flame addiction, I think of a flame atop a candle’s wick, and the way a moth will circle around it.
The moth and flame relationship is as old as time—in order to fly in a straight line, moths will orient themselves toward the moon. Since the likelihood of them ever actually landing on the moon was pretty low they were pretty much safe with that strategy. Then man came on to the scene and invented fire. Ever since then moths now mistakenly think they can capture the moon. Confronted with a flame, the moth approaches and believes it's destined for a lunar landing. It excitedly and persistently moves closer and closer to the candle, circling in ever smaller loops while its fragile wings clip the flame and the moth dies a fiery death.
Sobering, isn’t it? But if you have had an affair, you know that the kind of attraction you had felt is no less intense, and misdirected, as a moth circling a candle. You may tell yourself that you ought to stop your misguided flight path, set your sights on something safer and saner, but every time you move away from the flame you are compelled to return.
In contrast to flame addiction, people with a sex addiction are always looking for sexual gratification, so marital infidelities are par for the course. But people who have had affairs are as surprised by the development of a sexual relationship as their affair-mate is. These individuals do not typically seek out extra-marital sex. Nonetheless, they are attracted to another person, and that attraction becomes irresistible.
People who have affairs discover that the infatuation with another person can be as strong as the obsession for orgasm for a sex addict, or for that matter, as strong as the drive for cocaine for a crack addict. How can we explain the emotional experience that leads a faithful companion to become obsessed, preoccupied, reckless, conniving and depressed?
We should start by looking at chemicals in the brain. Dopamine, for instance, is the brain's reward chemical. When you associate a pleasurable sensation (the sound of waves crashing on the beach), with some outside experience (vacationing at the shore), your dopamine system is forever primed to feel good when you are triggered by the exposure to the stimulus—so whenever you hear waves in the future, you get a rush of positive feelings.
Most of the time, the surge of dopamine in the brain is a good thing, especially when it’s associated with positive desires. For instance, when married couples who are deeply in love see each other, their dopamine levels rise. Dopamine gives the message to the brain to "Go get ‘em! You’ll be happy you did!" This idea isn’t rational; it’s not well thought out. It’s an irresistible gut feeling.
The dopamine centers can’t tell when the desires are less healthy. For instance, heroin addicts also have a surge in their dopamine when they see a bag of drugs. Although on a conscious level, they know that using heroin can lead to deadly consequences, they nonetheless begin to feel a powerful urge to shoot up (even if they are in sobriety).
Almost all addictions can be understood as irresistible cravings, and most experts agree that those cravings are mediated by dopamine. Flame addiction is no different. The person who wishes to end an affair might consciously tell him or herself that things are over, really over, once and for all. But any reminder of the other person—the voice, an e-mail, a picture, or even a memory—can generate a dopamine surge and start the avalanche of automatic feelings and the intense desire to be with that person.
Let me be clear, though. Understanding the chemical basis for addiction helps people understand how a perfectly sane person can act so insane sometimes. It explains how difficult it is to resist actions that will end in negative consequences. It does not excuse the behavior. The crack addict with the most intense dopamine rush still has the choice to not use. Having an addiction doesn't mean that you have to succumb to your urges—you can stop. Lots of addicts have. Lots of flame addicts have also.
I find it helps the person who has been cheated on to understand how flame addiction works. Addictive behaviors are not turned off because someone simply wills them to stop—it often takes time. Like the alcoholic who swears off drinking, but can fall of the wagon, a partner who promises to stop seeing the other person can slip and go back on his or her word. That is often part of the process of beating flame addiction.
In part III I will discuss how to overcome flame addiction.
Part III - Affairs: Beating Flame Addiction
Part I - Affairs: The Relationship Between Infidelity & Addiction
Scott Haltzman, M.D., is the author of "The Secrets of Surviving Infidelity" (Johns Hopkins University Press). He served as a Brown University assistant professor of psychiatry for 20 years, is board certified in Psychiatry, and is a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Haltzman is also the author of "The Secrets of Happy Families," "The Secrets of Happily Married Men" and "The Secrets of Happily Married Women." You can get more information at his website, www.drscott.com.