Infidelity is never a simple situation, but it can be especially complicated when it’s tied to a substance addiction. Though drug or alcohol abuse certainly doesn’t excuse the act itself, understanding the role it plays can create a better understanding for all involved — and perhaps may even help to mend the relationship.
Understanding And Finding Ways To Heal After An Addicted Partner is Unfaithful
This guide will examine the factors that can lead someone with a substance addiction to cheating on their partner. It will discuss making amends on both sides and offer suggestions for moving forward. For some couples, moving forward may not mean reconciliation. Other couples may find a way to grow together from the experience. Know that whatever you and your partner decide, only you can truly know what’s best for your specific circumstances; however you choose to heal is a personal decision, and yours alone to make.
The Role Of Addiction in Infidelity
It’s important to first take a look at the way the human brain works, as well as how substance abuse can affect its functions. It all starts with dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that produces pleasure. When a person does something to fulfill a need or desire, their brain releases dopamine, and they feel intense happiness. The brain then ties this experience to memory, which is intended to promote survival (or in some cases, reproduction). For example, you’re feeling very hungry, so you eat a sandwich. Your brain releases dopamine as you begin to eat, then commits the experience to your memory so that you know in the future that eating a sandwich will satisfy hunger and help ensure your own survival.
When someone uses a drug, the same thing happens — dopamine is released, and the experience is committed to memory. For some, the pleasure — and the memory of that euphoria — is so intense that they feel compelled to keep seeking it out. Unfortunately, the brain can’t stop itself from releasing dopamine under these kinds of dangerous conditions, even if the person using the drug knows the risks. Eventually, receptor cells become so overwhelmed with the constant stimulation that they shut down, reducing a person’s ability to produce dopamine naturally. The need for that euphoric feeling persists, yet the more a person uses their drug of choice, the stronger their tolerance. More and more of the drug is needed to create the same effect, and for many, that craving is nearly impossible to shake.
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This can translate into infidelity in a number of ways. First, there’s the increased likelihood of engaging in risky behavior that comes with abusing substances. In some cases, this might mean driving under the influence or starting a fight. For others, it may drive them to participate in risky sexual behavior: cheating on a partner, having sex with a stranger or having unprotected sex. Even those who are normally somewhat shy or reserved sexually may become susceptible to temptation — drugs lower inhibitions and cloud judgment, so someone who uses heavily will have a very skewed perception of the consequences of their actions.
Second, drug abuse may lead someone to cheat as a way to obtain drugs in the first place. If an addict has run out of money or perhaps fears a spouse noticing a dent in the family budget, they may have to find other ways to fund their habit. Sometimes sex is the currency. It seems cavalier, but for someone in the throes of intense withdrawal whose body is screaming for a drug, it could feel like their only option.
Some people may have such clouded judgment that they don’t even see it as cheating — they may convince themselves it’s merely a business transaction, and since no romantic feelings are involved, it isn’t infidelity.
Finally, there’s the element of shame. It could be that your partner is so ashamed of the addiction they’re hiding from you that they push you away emotionally, even sexually. They may feel “safer” with someone else who uses for the mere fact that they know that person won’t judge them.
It doesn’t necessarily mean that your partner doesn’t trust you or suspects you’ll immediately ostracize them if they come clean about their addiction; it’s more likely that they love you too much to face the possibility of losing you or your respect. It might not make much sense from an outside perspective, but again, the haze of addiction can cause anyone to seek comfort amid their desperation.
Repairing The Damage: Advice For Those With The Addiction
If you are the one who has committed infidelity, you must first accept that your partner has every right to feel whatever emotion he or she feels: anger, betrayal, devastation, even disgust. Infidelity is traumatizing. It causes the wronged party to question you, your relationship, and themselves. It breaks the trust that’s been built and reinforced over time in one swift motion, and it’s often the shock of the betrayal that can really knock the wind out of someone.
Let your partner express their feelings and do your best to understand. It may be helpful to have these conversations under the guidance of your recovery counselor in treatment or to seek outside marriage counseling. Having a neutral, qualified third party to mediate can assure effective communication and keep the conversation productive.
Your partner may decide he or she needs some time apart from you to process their emotions. Respect their space, but do let them know you love them and will be ready to talk whenever they are. If the two of you share custody of children in the meantime, don’t bring up the subject during drop-offs.
Your biggest responsibility in this break period is maintaining your sobriety, so make that your focus. Attend meetings regularly, avoid temptation, and don’t hesitate to reach out to your sponsor in times of crisis. Take the opportunity to show your partner that you are truly committed to your new way of life — let your actions do the talking until they are able to find the words.
When your partner is ready to talk, answer any questions they have, and be prepared for some of them to sting. They might ask if they should get tested for an STD (which is good advice in the case of an affair) or if there have been other disloyalties over the years. Some people may wonder if it was their own fault, perhaps because they weren’t attractive or sexually stimulating enough.
Be honest but gentle, and avoid the urge to get defensive. If things get too heated, take a break and revisit the issue later in the day or in a few days if it seems necessary. It’s important to find the balance between keeping the lines of communication open and avoiding the conversation escalating into a major fight.
Keep in mind, however, that your partner may not want the details. Knowing who, or where, and when sometimes only adds to the pain and doesn’t provide the desired clarity. The biggest question you’ll need to answer is why. Not sure? Say so. If you’re truly at a loss as to how it all happened, don’t makeup reasons, because it will only add to the deception. Instead, explain what you do know. Did stress at work cause your drug habit to spin out of control? Had you been feeling insecure?
Talk it out, but be prepared for the possibility that underlying issues in your relationship may come up. Don’t make excuses for your behavior — there simply is no excuse for cheating, so take responsibility — but make a genuine effort to get to the root of it. You may realize it had nothing to do with your partner at all but stems from an issue that needs further discussion with a professional.
In the days and weeks that follow your honest conversation(s), do what you can to ease your partner’s mind. If he or she wants to know exactly where you are all the time, tell them. If they want to attend your meetings together, choose a time that works for both of you. They may even want the freedom to look through your phone, or insist on going with you to every outing. Be as accommodating as possible and try to understand that what your partner needs is the reassurance that you won’t make the same mistakes.
Again, take the opportunity to show them that you’re committed to staying clean and faithful. With time, they’ll be able to feel more comfortable with your independence and if not, the two of you will need to come up with a plan that makes each of you happy.
Repairing The Damage: Advice For Partners
If it’s you who’s been let down by your partner, give yourself the opportunity to process the information. If you need some time, be it 10 minutes or 10 days, take it. Some people find it easier to talk once they’ve had the opportunity to really absorb the blow, so don’t rush yourself into a conversation if you’re not sure you’re ready.
If you are immediately ready to talk, be prepared to hear your partner out. It will be painful, but nothing will get resolved if you don’t at least hear his or her side. Ask questions, but bear in mind that the answers will likely be very painful. Try to remember that your partner might be a very different person when he or she uses substances, so their explanations may be difficult to accept. Further, there may be answers you don’t actually want or need, so consider carefully before asking.
It’s going to take some time to work through all of your emotions, and that’s OK. Don’t avoid your feelings in an attempt to move forward, but instead talk about them with your partner. Be honest. If you wake up feeling incredibly angry after having a few good days in a row together, be open about it. If he or she is doing something that makes you upset or suspicious, don’t spy or snoop — share your anxieties. Let them know what’s going on with you and check-in to see how they’re doing, too.
If you’re making an attempt to stay together, it’s important that you resume your role as your partner’s trusted confidante. And though it will take time for you to completely trust them again, try to trust them enough to at least keep the conversations open and honest. The following are some other steps you can take to help to repair the relationship.
- When possible, contain your conversations about the infidelity within certain parameters. Sit down and have a conversation about it when necessary, but don’t constantly bring up the subject during day-to-day activities.
- Avoid making passive-aggressive comments and try not to leap to conclusions when things seem off.
- Ask questions, but don’t make accusations.
- Hold your partner accountable if they skip a meeting or failed to let you know they’d be working late, but give them a chance to explain. Don’t be afraid to lay down the law and take charge if their sobriety seems to be at risk; if you suspect they may be using, let them know they can’t come home under the influence and will be asked to leave if they do.
- Most importantly, follow through on your rules. Not only do you want to avoid reinforcing bad behavior and starting the vicious cycle all over again, but you also want to provide the opportunity to win back your trust. If your partner is constantly letting you down by not being where they said or not sticking to their sober routine, they aren’t giving you much reason to trust them to stay faithful.
- Consider seeking your own counseling. The emotional repercussions of an affair are often too much for one person to bear on their own, and it can be difficult to get an unbiased opinion from loved ones. Even if you are already in couples counseling, you might realize there are things you want to say without your partner there — you might not know how to ask a certain question or fear making the situation even more painful. Just as your loved one must prioritize their sobriety, so you must prioritize healing from their betrayal.
Addiction-related infidelity doesn’t have to mean the end of your relationship, but it will certainly be a major obstacle. For the partner in recovery, it may even be best to spend some time alone to soul-search and focus on sober living. Healing is a process, and it will take longer for some than for others. Be kind to each other throughout the process, and be kind to yourself.