Stories or movies containing scenes of people making mad, passionate love activate brain structures releasing chemicals that make us feel good. Movies can also expose us to scenes that scare us a bit and stimulate the release of cortisol that doesn’t overwhelm but stimulates us just enough to be excited. As a rule, if movies don’t do either of these things, we don’t think the movie worth the cost of admission. If the movie was pretty stimulating we feel like we got our money’s worth, but our lives aren’t changed that much. Living life like a movie script, as in having an affair, on the other hand, can be quite expensive.
Without boundaries, romantic stirrings that come from a flirtatious moment can cause us to get tangled up in bed sheets and leads to bad-decision-making. Oxytocin can flood the amygdala so we don’t receive the fight or flight signal that we could be risking everything, marriage, a committed relationship, family contact, financial status, alienated children, shortened life span for children (four years). It turns out that the hormone oxytocin (the love hormone, bonding hormone) that is released with orgasm, affection, or an imagined romantic moment impairs our ability to make decisions informed by our logical brain. In addition to making you feel great, oxytocin can dampen your brain’s fear (amygdala) response.
If a person could consider having an affair in the absence of a flood of oxytocin, the amygdala will elevate the flight response that let him/her know an affair threatens social status with all the ramifications noted above. In my counseling experience people in the midst of affairs vacillate from anxiety to romantic attraction as their mind considers making a life altering choice. The forebrain and amygdala battle it out, but the amygdala enters the fight with one arm tied behind its back because oxytocin has dampened its influence.
The best antidote for risking everything is an ethical decision to invest in the current relationship or repair it. If the partners fail in that effort, part cordially and learn to be happy as a single person before embarking on any new romantic relationship. New potential partners should vet all prospects. Simple chemical attraction leading to long-term marital satisfaction will just be dumb luck. You need the chemistry, but you also need your emotional intelligence to make good decisions.
Today, we actually do have information that can help couples retain and deepen their relationships with little threat from comparison shopping.
David Barnhart, EdD
Certified Clinical Mental Health Counselor