Apparently Arnold Schwarzenegger was caught getting fresh with his estranged wife Maria Shriver – like most celebrity videos this is a bit of a beat up but they certainly looked companionable. When news of Arnold’s long term affair came out many people had strong opinions suggesting that obviously Arnold could not love Maria and have an affair at the same time.
This question is frequently on the mind of partner when an affair comes to light. Typically beneath the questions lies a huge gulf of fear and insecurity. To be frank the answer is often not that much of a comfort – when allow ourselves to connect emotionally and sexually with another person our brain is typically being hijacked by a neurotransmitter called Phenylethlamine (or PEA for short). PEA is what your brain produces when you take cocaine and literally the other person becomes your drug, their touch, smell, voice all trigger this pleasure response. Even less comforting is that the process is exactly what occurs in the honeymoon of the original relationship.
This what can make it so hard to end an affair. Even when an on-going affair conflicts with our values and beliefs the younger parts of our brain (brain stem and limbic system) are like a child in an empty room with fresh cookies on the table. They have a tendency to override the Adult brain (cerebral cortex). So the affair partner is a drug addict and commonly the cheated on partner is like an abandoned child. This sets the stage for tears, tantrums and stormings cue Maria’s “hasta la vista baby” message for Arnold. If the affair partner doesn’t use this as their out they may make extravagant and unreasonable promises which sets the stage for further lies and betrayals.
What both partners need then is skilled and empathetic listeners – this is often hard for family and friends who tend to take sides and give ‘helpful’ advice. Professional help from someone skilled in this specific area is important. A therapist working with an affair has 3 clients him/her (or him/him her/her) and the relationship is the 3rd client. They are obviously all interconnected and knowing how to manage timing and level of disclosure, ending the affair, rebuilding the sexual connection, telling the kids, managing contact with the ‘other’, establishing boundaries and fidelity contracts etc is challenging to say the least.
The good news is that if a couple is prepared to do the work it is common after some time to look back and say this affair was the best thing that happened in our relationship. Are Arnold and Maria on the way? Only time will tell . . .
A fantastic resource for those in this difficult situation is Janis Spring’s After the Affair which has a new updated chapter on affairs in cyberspace.