Episode 26: Your Brain on Drugs (oops…I mean Affairs)

by | Last updated: Aug 28, 2023 | Podcast

What happens to your brain when you’re falling in love (and into an affair relationship) is the same thing that happens to your brain on drugs.

The good news is: You’re NOT addicted to your affair partner. You’re addicted to the feeling of falling in love.

In this episode, I’ll explain why that matters and what to do about it!

Listen to the Full Episode:

What You’ll Learn In This Episode:

  • Why “falling in love” makes you ditch critical thinking completely
  • Why you overlook the “red flags” with your affair partner
  • What your affair relationship can teach you about what you really need

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Book a Truth & Clarity Session with a member of my team. We’ll discuss where you are in your marriage and explore if there’s a fit for you and I to work together so you can make - and execute - the RIGHT decision for YOU and your marriage.

Welcome to The Loving Truth podcast, where it's all about finding clarity, confidence, and peace in the face of marriage challenges. And now, your host: relationship expert and certified master life coach, Sharon Pope.

Hello, loves. This is Sharon Pope, and this is The Loving Truth. Today we're talking about your brain on drugs. Well, sort of; we're talking about your brain when you're involved in an affair.

So falling in love, let's talk about that. When we are in the process of falling in love, it is literally one of the most irrational brain states that both men and women could ever be in. It is now a scientifically documented brain state. They've identified it, they've studied it, and what happens and what they see in the brain when they look at what's happening in the brain and the chemical response, the hormonal response that's happening in the brain when you're falling in love – what they see is that our critical thinking pathways just shut down, all the magic that we use to think through the pros and the cons and the good and the bad, and make really logical, rational choices, completely shuts down.

It shares brain circuits. This is really gonna get you; it shares brain circuits with things like obsession, mania, intoxication, thirst, and hunger, right? It has some of the same chemical responses in the brain as someone who is taking drugs like amphetamines, cocaine, and opiates like heroin, morphine, and oxytocin. So if you are involved in an affair, and you've ever described it as a drug, this is why so many times I hear women telling me, “Well, we've tried to cut it off, but we keep coming back to each other. We last a few weeks, but then I just can't turn away, or I need the fix.”

So I'm going to share with you someone else's words about this story. Now, I have been on all sides of affairs in my life, and while affairs are never something that you're proud of or something that you would consciously choose for yourself (at least most of us would not do that), I do think that it helps me; it gives me a better understanding of why we do what we do, and everything I do in terms of relationships, I'm always just looking at it from a human behavior perspective, of why we choose to do what we do and why we feel the way we feel.

But let me share with you this woman's words, because maybe you'll relate to it. She says, “The connection I had from the affair was deeper than any I've ever felt. And I desire that constantly. While I know I can go on and not be miserable, be somewhat content, I also feel I am missing so much. I'm at the point where this has consumed me and all I can focus on. My affair partner lit me up in a way I didn't even know I could be. My husband, for how much I love him, has never created those same feelings in me in the same way. And I don't know what I'm supposed to want, except that I want to feel alive again.”

I just felt like that described so much of what I hear from women when they're involved in an affair. And again, they're not proud of it. It's not something that they want to perpetuate. It's not something that they ever saw coming, and they're not trying to hurt their partner, but they don't know how to turn away from the drug. The problem is they're associating the drug with the person. And what I want to try to articulate here and teach you about is what you're actually addicted to isn't the person. It's the feeling that you get, the chemical response in your body that you get when you're involved in an affair, because context matters. And when you're falling in love.

So when there are high levels of oxytocin and dopamine flooding your body, we lose all critical thinking. I said that before, but here's why that's important. It's because not just will we do things that we might have considered dangerous or wrong before, in the context of that, but also we ignore red flags that we really should pay attention to. And this is the way in which we will essentially put our affair partner up on a pedestal to a certain degree, because we've lost that critical thinking. We will overlook red flags. We won't look at them through the same lens as we look through every other relationship we have, because in this relationship, we've lost all that critical thinking.

But we still have all that critical thinking when we show up to our marriage, don't we? When we show up as a parent, when we show up to our jobs and the way that we contribute to the world, right? So that dopamine, flood in oxytocin, flood in our body is what's happening. That's what we're reacting to. Now, eventually, every relationship–unless you're just gonna hop around for every two years, “I'm going to get a new partner,” which is completely your prerogative–but if you want to be in a long-term committed relationship, eventually every relationship sort of settles into this long-term coupling, and then the chemical response in the body is very, very different.

This is why I say, look, you can decide to end your marriage, and then you can decide that you want to go pursue a relationship with your affair partner. That's within the realm of possibility. I actually have many clients who have found their way to being in a really, really happy relationship on the other side of all of that chaos in their lives. You can go do that, but the relationship you have on the other side of being physically and emotionally available, not being married and having an affair, but actually being in relationship with this other person, is going to be a very different relationship.

Because now we don't have all the context of the riskiness, and we don't have all the flood of the chemical response in our bodies that make us lose all sense and sensibility about ourselves. So the relationship, eventually, if you ever give it a real opportunity, it will also change, and it will evolve into this sort of long-term coupling that takes place, which means those feelings of cravings go down. It's why when your husband's away, you don't really miss him. I have people tell me that all the time, and they use that as the reason that the relationship is broken, when it's just in a very different phase.

You might miss your affair partner, but that's because that's in the early phase of the relationship, whereas once you settle into more of a long-term relationship, you're not gonna have this craving or this need, you're not gonna feel out of control. And that's when the attachment and the bonding circuits in our brains sort of start lighting up, is when we settle into more of that long-term relationship and we start to feel more peace and more calm and more connection, and then we maintain that connection through daily touching and closeness.

I think it's interesting. I wanted to point out that men need two to three times more touching than women in order to maintain the same level of oxytocin in their bodies. Isn't that interesting? Now, of course, affairs cause a lot of pain. They certainly cause a lot of confusion for everyone involved, and someone's getting hurt, and sometimes there's hurt all the way around.

So they're destructive, of course, but I also think that they're important. They come with some important information, and that is what your heart is longing for. There's something that you're getting from that relationship, and it's a feeling, it's not a person; it's a feeling that you get when you're with that person in that context, okay? That’s what's missing.

And good luck. Once you know that you know what that feels like, good luck trying to live without that in your most intimate relationship. So then it becomes, can I create that kind of feeling for myself in my current relationship? If yes, lovely, and if no, then of course you can go and try to create that with someone else. After you close one chapter, you can open up another chapter and start writing that one.

So I think that affairs are important. They give us important information about what's missing and what's really important to us and what we wanna feel in our most intimate relationship. Now, the reason I tell you all of this is because I think that once you understand the science of what's happening in your body, you'll stop equating the feelings that you're feeling to the specialness of the relationship. This is where a lot of times we’ll think about our fair partners. We'll use language like, “Oh, they're our soulmate,” or “They're our twin flame.” We identify a certain degree of specialness because of how we feel when we're with them.

You know, I keep saying context matters. Why does it matter? But in the context of an affair, many times everything is new, it's super risky, and it's usually pretty intense. Also, as women involved in an affair, we get to be a woman in that relationship. We get to be the woman that we want to show up as. We don't have the, “I'm a mother and I'm a wife and I fit into this box.” We get to be more free inside that relationship. Many times what we ache for and we long for is the ability to be more fully ourselves in our own lives. So context is super, super, super important. But what we do with affairs most times is we associate that with that other person.

And we think, “If I don't have that other person, I'm never going to feel this way again.” And that is not true. Look, every relationship is going to come off of that high. You can't maintain that high, that intensity, that feeling of being on drugs forever. Even if you're a drug addict, you always need a deeper drug. You need a bigger high. Because we can't just sit and maintain it at this one level, and that's the nature of it. So try to not just say, “This is the most special thing. This is so, so important. This relationship is everything. And if I don't have it with this person, I will never, ever have it again.”

Nope, your brain's just on drugs. That's all. That's what's happening. Understand the science of it, and then you can show up to it with a bit more rational choices and your prefrontal cortex using its ability to help you think more critically about what you want to do. And from that place is when you can really come to clarity.

I hope that was helpful for you. And until next week, take really good care.

If you're listening to this podcast because you're struggling to decide whether to stay or go in your marriage and you're serious about finding that answer, it's time to book a Truth and Clarity session with a member of my team. On the call, we'll discuss where you are in your marriage and explore if there's a fit for you and I to work together so you can make and execute the right decision for you and your marriage.

Go to clarityformymarriage.com to fill out an application now. That's clarityformymarriage.com.

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