The intense romantic chemistry that is the hallmark of infatuation is impossible to maintain. The research of Helen Fisher and other neuroscientists, along with the anecdotal evidence from most marriage gurus, puts the threshold of infatuation between twelve and eighteen months. This is true for marriages as well as affairs. But the difference is that affairs are not fully formed relationships that have developed the same kind of historical bonds that connect marriage partners. Children and shared history and experiences are examples of things that create strong and lasting connections, and are generally absent from affairs.
Why Affairs Don’t Last
Oxytocin, the hormone that is present in close relationships where teamwork and mutual support create intimacy and bonding, is rarely present in affairs. As time goes on the wayward spouse feels this loss. It’s one of the reasons why ending contact with a cheating spouse can be effective in making that loss felt more acutely.
Most Affairs Don’t Last
Second marriages are only about 30% successful, and a very small percentage of people actually marry their affair partners even if the original marriage ends. This is because once the affair is out of this honeymoon stage, and body chemistry (and rational thought) return to normal, the flaws in the fantasy come glaringly into light.
The forethought needed to make sound decisions or evaluate the future consequences of ending a marriage is overshadowed by the obsessive and emotionally charged affair. Until the brain chemicals that create obsessive thinking about the affair partner subside, it’s impossible to evaluate the failings of the marriage partner or the marriage itself. An affair is exciting and different because of the adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine triggered by infatuation, but it is only a temporary fix given the predictability of long term relationships.
Some counselors talk about unmet needs as the root of infidelity. Others talk about poor boundaries. Still others blame a needy emotional state on the inability of the wayward spouse to find productive ways to deal with the the lack of excitement or longing in their marriages. But whatever way you slice it—infidelity is not the solution and this becomes increasingly apparent as time passes.
Most affairs don’t last because of variety of factors. First, during the infatuation period, people are in an addictively excited state. But during this time, they really aren’t themselves. Researchers have found they are more talkative, less discriminating, more sensitive to the other person and much more tolerant of behaviors or traits that would normally be unacceptable to them. This heightened state of infatuation cannot be maintained. It’s an evolutionary, biological function designed to create attraction, and the chemistry it creates is designed to be temporary, because the next stage of relationships is designed to produce children, bond the parents, and make sure the children are protected. This next stage is even more important to evolution than the first, and the neurochemistry required to produce these bonds, takes the place of the infatuation cocktail.
As people move past the infatuation stage, they return to their normal behaviors and normal thinking patterns. The ability to problem solve also returns as chemistry and brain activity returns to normal. The ability to see the faults of the affair partner, and also the unfairness of judgments made against their spouses can now become possible.
An affair masks the normal stressors of everyday life and offers a respite from the things that impact marriages and long term relationships. Things like taxes, teenagers, bill collectors, mortgages, etc. are not a part of affairs. However, if the affair lasts long enough, these same complications begin to arise, and the thing that once relieved stress now multiplies what they already felt.
While the affair is ongoing, the wayward spouse rarely thinks about the reality of what a divorce will look like. They aren’t thinking that far into the future. They aren’t yet facing the impact it will have on the emotional and social health of the children, or the damage it can do to the parent-child relationship. They’re not thinking about the complications of transporting children and splitting households. They haven’t experienced the devastation they will create for their spouse, or the guilt and shame they might feel. They haven’t considered the impact on the extended family or the network of friends they’ve developed in the marriage. They haven’t experienced the financial impact that divorce creates, or the pressure of managing co-parenting with their divorced partner while simultaneously realizing that the same problems (and more) are already arising in their new relationship.
Affairs don’t last because they aren’t supposed to. They don’t solve anything. The are rarely a better option than the marriage, and once infatuation has past—it’s easy to see. The good feelings last only as long as the temporary chemistry masks conscience and good judgment. Affairs amplify and complicate the problems that already existed. And they aren’t worth the damage and heartbreak they create.