I am helping my friend, I’ll call her Pam, end an emotional affair. I mean, it’s not the kind of emotional affair where she tells the guy that she loves him. They don’t have secret meetings, or talk every day, or have “code language.” To an outsider, the relationship wouldn’t seem inappropriate in the slightest. Yet she’s invested herself emotionally—letting it take a big chunk out of her heart—which is creating all kinds of guilt and anxiety for her.
Why would I bring up such a topic on a blog about depression and anxiety?
Because shady boundaries with friends of the opposite sex—emotional relationships that give you a shot of dopamine but leave you hung over—are dangerous territory for the person prone to obsessive thinking, addiction, or painful mood fluctuations. I used to write about this topic a lot on Beyond Blue because those pieces always generated a ton of traffic. The amount of mail and comments I received led me to believe almost every person battling a mood disorder, and especially those diagnosed with bipolar disorder, struggle with these kinds of relationships.
It makes sense, really, because who doesn’t feel good after a little flirting? The dopamine rush can be enough to give those of us who fight panic and sadness on an hourly basis relief for a few minutes, maybe longer. Getting attention from the opposite sex, especially any kind of flattery, emits some potent chemicals into our brain’s limbic system. “More, more, give me more,” it says.
With Pam, and with most of the people I’ve talked with, it’s not just one isolated relationship. It’s a pattern of relationships, over time, that go back to some basic needs not being filled. Abandonment crap that has a way of resurfacing in our lives at stressful junctures.
“You would think 14 years of therapy would be enough to overwrite this need for affection from unavailable men,” she told me. “Why am I here again? Stuck with the same panic and guilt?”
“You’re not in the same place,” I reassured her. Ten years ago she was involved in an emotional affair that almost broke apart her marriage. The immense guilt she felt for telling another man she loved him crushed her, leaving her in a severe depression that lasted two years. Every time she feels the familiar attraction, the emotional pull, she is trampled with guilt. She’s petrified of hurting of the one man in her life who has shown her unconditional love.
In her book, “Women, Sex, and Addiction: A Search for Love and Power,” Charlotte Davis Kasl, Ph.D., lists some core beliefs that women with sex addictions—and I’d add people who keep finding themselves in emotional “friendships”—hold, and how they translate those to operational beliefs.
Core Belief: I am powerless.
Operational Belief: I feel powerful when I flirt/am seductive; I feel powerful when I get someone turned on to me; I feel powerful/relief when I have a fantasy of romance or sexual conquest.
Core Belief: I’ll always be alone or lonely.
Operational Belief: I’m not lonely when I fantasize romance.
Core Belief: I’ll always be abandoned.
Operational Belief: I’m not afraid of abandonment when I have sexual fantasies.
Core Belief: My body is shameful, defective, repulsive.
Operational Belief: My body feels good when I get people turned on to me.
Core Belief: I am unlovable.
Operational Belief: I am lovable when someone wants me sexually; I am lovable when someone flirts with me/pursues me.
As a woman puts her operational beliefs into action, they become her reality and her painful core beliefs are increasingly forgotten and repressed. Painful childhood memories are relegated to the unconscious or kept at bay. She might even say, “Oh, I had a wonderful childhood,” or “It wasn’t so bad,” or “Underneath it all I know my parents loved me. They did the best they could.” The pain associated with the core beliefs is triggered only when life brings disappointment, rejection, or loneliness. That’s where addiction and codependency enter. When the pain associated with the core beliefs is triggered, the woman uses her operational tactics to fend off the feared feelings. Thus, the panic response to rejection, hurt, and disappointment can be stopped with the addictive or codependent behavior.
Craig Nakken, author of “The Addictive Personality,” also mentions the role of stress in addictive behaviors. It is during the tumultuous periods of an addict’s life that he reaches for the objects of addiction (or people or relationships) instead of the nurturing relationships or other support systems they have in their life. “The amount of mental obsession is often an indication of the stress in the addict’s life,” he writes.
“Remember the stress part,” I said to Pam. “A lot of the obsessing you are doing about him right now isn’t about him at all. It’s about finding an escape to your pain and all the unpleasant things you have going on in your life right now. Anyone would want a way out.”
“What do I do about all the fantasies?” she asked. “The adrenaline rush keeps me up at night and then it turns to a horrible guilt.”
“Don’t fight them, but don’t encourage them,” I answered, pulling from the wisdom of people I’ve interviewed over the years on relationship issues. “They will eventually go away if you stop talking to him.”
That’s the painful realization for Pam and those like her. While others can pull off a friendship with someone to whom they are sexually attracted, she can’t. She just has too much stuff working against her: the abandonment issues, her substance abuse history, and her volatile mood disorder. You throw one dopamine rush in there, and her sympathetic nervous system is on fire, even after lots of meditation, exercise, and other stress relievers.
“You’ll be okay,” I said. “You’ll get beyond this obsession soon. Go easy on yourself. Most importantly, try to practice some self-compassion.”
Originally published on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.