Jimmy Carter isn’t the only one with lust in his heart. I receive a handful of e-mails a day from my readers who are either stuck in an emotional affair or have ended one but are still extremely heartsick. How can I let go and move on? they ask me. I researched what the experts say on this topic and pulled from my own battle with obsessive thinking to come up with the following 12 steps to help folks recover from an emotional affair.
1. Distinguish romance from love.
In his book “We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love,” Robert A. Johnson distinguishes human love from romantic love. When we yearn for a forbidden, passionate romance like in “The English Patient” or The Bridges of Madison County, we are often blinded to the beautiful, committed love that is with us in every day life, the “stirring-the-oatmeal” love. Johnson writes:
Stirring oatmeal is a humble act–not exciting or thrilling. But it symbolizes a relatedness that brings love down to earth. It represents a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, living within a budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night.
2. Schedule some obsessing.
As I wrote in my “15 Ways to Stop Obsessing,” sometimes the best treatment for fantasies is to pencil them into your schedule. When you find yourself fantasizing about an intimate moment with the woman who has custody of your heart, don’t yell at yourself, “Snap out of it!” Simply say, “Thought, I appreciate your coming, but I’ve scheduled you for 7 this evening, at which time you can totally distract me if you want.”
3. Be accountable.
This technique is especially effective for Catholics whose first lessons on human morality involved scary confessions. Do I have to tell everything? What if he sends me to hell? Moreover, accountability has always worked for me because, as a stage-four people pleaser, I crave a good report card. So I better make sure I have a few people in my life passing out such reviews: my therapist, my doctor, my mentor Mike, my mom (she can still read my voice like a map, dang it), my twin sister, and my best friend. By giving them the skinny on what’s really going on inside my margin for error decreases ten-fold.
4. Invest in your marriage.
The best way to prevent an affair is to invest in your marriage. And the best way to recover one is to invest in your marriage. It’s a simple physics equation: the energy and time you supply to one relationship has to come from another one. That is, you can’t build and nurture a true partnership if you’re spreading intimacy over too many places.
After a violation of trust–and according to marriage expert Peggy Vaughan an affair is more about breaking trust than having sex–the best reconciler in a marriage are small acts of kindness. Because for most spouses, “I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it. Contrition needs to be supported with evidence: backrubs, special dinners, cleaning toilets, a listening ear.
5. Replace it with something.
Whenever I grieve the loss of an important relationship in my life–whether it be a friendship that falls apart or a loved one who passes unexpectedly–I’ve found it helpful to immerse myself in a new project, or new challenge.
6. Stay with the loneliness.
I’m not a big fan of loneliness. Because that aching hole in your heart feels too much like the scary black chasm of depression. But they are different beasts. One can be treated, the other must be felt. Writes Henri Nouwen in “The Inner Voice of Love:”
When you experience the deep pain of loneliness, it is understandable that your thoughts go out to the person who was able to take that loneliness away, if only for a moment. When you feel a huge absence that makes everything look useless, your heart wants only one thing–to be with the person who once was able to dispel these frightful emotions. But it is the absence itself, the emptiness within you, that you have to be willing to experience, not the one who could temporarily take it away.
7. Outsmart the body. A little biology lesson here. When you are infatuated with someone, your brain chemistry whispers lies into your ears that can have you doing really stupid stuff. The spike in dopamine and norepinephrine produced with heightened sexual tension might tell you that all your troubles would end if you only kissed the handsome guy you just friended on Facebook, or ran off with the barista that makes you a perfect cappuccino. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University, author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love,” explains why emotional affairs feel so good:
Love is a drug. The ventral tegmental area is a clump of cells that make dopamine, a natural stimulant, and sends it out to many brain regions [when one is in love]. …It’s the same region affected when you feel the rush of cocaine.
Thus, identifying the physiological components of infatuation can be a strong ally in fighting the war against infidelity.
8. Treat the addiction.
Categorizing an emotional affair as an addiction is helpful in two ways: First, it depersonalizes the experience, making it easier to let go of, and it also provides some tangible steps a person can take to kick her habit. Addictions induce a trance-like state that allows the addict to detach from the pain, guilt, and shame she feels. She buys into false and empty promises—a flawed sense of intimacy and fulfillment—until reality hits. Hard. And the addict is forever vulnerable to buying into this distorted vision, which is why recovery from emotional affair never ends, and involves one smart decision after another that fosters true intimacy.
9. Surround yourself with friends.
For a person who has just broken off an emotional affair, friends aren’t optional. They are a life-support system. Safe friends are especially important if the relationship you are mourning formed at work, among mutual friends. You’ll need to befriend colleagues who are not connected to him in any way, or hang out with your non-work friends, safe folks, until you feel strong enough to socialize with friends who might talk about or involve him.
10. Think with your new brain.
In his bestselling classic “Getting the Love You Want,” Harville Hendrix distinguishes between our old or “reptilian” brain that is weighted down with unconscious baggage from our pasts and reacts automatically in fear, and our new brain: the “analytical, probing, questioning part of your mind that you think of as being ‘you.’” Harville theroizes that when we get sucked into intense and damaging emotional relationships our old brain is holding the helm. It wants to recreate the pain of our past in order to heal the wounds.
So what we have to do is to squeeze some of the rational and cognitive skills of our newer brain into the old brain before the unguided driver gets us into too much trouble. This means to apply a little logic or to fill in the details of our love story. For example, imagine sharing a bathroom with the Facebook Romeo of yours. Yuck?
11. Write about it.
If you get the feeling your friends are quite over hearing about your emotional affair, try putting your emotions to the page. In a 2003 British Psychological Society study, results indicated that writing about emotions might even speed the healing of physical wounds. If journaling about pain can heal your knee scab, think about what writing might do for your broken heart.
12. Let yourself grieve.
A relationship without sex can be every bit as intense as one involving lingerie. A special connection between two kindred souls needs to be grieved just as a marriage or committed partnership.
In the case of an emotional affair, guilt can impede the grieving process. Since a person feels as though she is wrong to have had these feelings to begin with, she often won’t allow a time of tears and loneliness that are necessary for healing. But just because the relationship happened outside of a committed relationship doesn’t mean the heart isn’t broken and needs to heal. So be as gentle with yourself as you would a friend who just ended a primary relationship.