Rick Reynolds, LCSW
by Rick Reynolds, LCSW
Founder & President, Affair Recovery

Why Did They Cheat? Part 2: Entrapped or Enchanted

Series: Why Did they Cheat?

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"I love you, I'm just not in love with you."

It's one of the most devastating statements a spouse can make to their mate. The reasoning behind the statement is not only flawed, but it's coming from an irrational state of mind. I hear this statement so often, I felt the need to explain what your spouse is referring to when they mention being "in love" (spoiler: it's not love at all) and dissect what they're really saying.

Remember that feeling of falling in love? We feel renewed and invigorated. The volume control on all our senses is cranked to high. Smells, music, colors, tastes and even textures take on new dimensions. The theater of our mind plays only one film, that of being with our eternal source of life. Simultaneously, a heartfelt ache consumes our soul when separated from what we know is our source of true happiness. In this state, hope springs eternal. As a caterpillar is transformed to a butterfly, we too are transformed and with new wings as we soar into a fresh newness of life.

What are the magic elements of this elixir of life? There are three neurotransmitters primarily responsible for the natural high of "love": serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.


Serotonin is the neurotransmitter believed to be responsible for mood stabilization, appetite, sleep, motivation, social behavior, memory, and sexual desire and function. Some researchers believe that low levels of serotonin are responsible for conditions such as depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive thought. On a day to day basis, how we function seems to be largely determined by serotonin levels.


The initial excitement created by testosterone and estrogen triggers the release of dopamine. Dopamine is the primary player in what's known as the reward/pleasure centers of our brain, and it's this brain chemical (along with norepinephrine, more on that later) that creates the incredible high we experience when we fall in love. Creating an amazing high is not dopamine's only function. It also spots activities that bring intense pleasure and creates an intense drive to experience that same pleasure again and again.

Research shows that the intense feelings generated by the high-arousal state of an extramarital affair are the byproduct of the release of dopamine, which then labels that experience as pleasurable and creates a habit loop to ensure that we'll repeat the routine that is necessary in order to achieve the "reward" of that pleasurable experience. Long after an affair ends, that habit loop can be triggered, and the urge to repeat that routine in order to experience that reward can still occur. In no way does that mean relapse is imminent, but it takes time for the intensity of these memories to fade and to lose the desirability programmed by the dopamine.1

So, dopamine is the messenger telling us what feels good, but other research suggests that it creates an intense need, similar to a drug addiction, which tells the brain you must have that pleasurable experience to survive.

The more intense the emotional experience, the stronger the drive to recreate that experience for our very survival. This explains why individuals involved in high arousal relationships become so oblivious to the damage being done to those they love and to themselves.2

It's Like A Drug

Remember, I'm not making excuses for those who've been unfaithful. These are the same chemical reactions cocaine addicts and alcoholics face when coming off their drug of choice. My purpose in explaining the chemical realities of infidelity is to inform those involved in high arousal relationships that what they're feeling isn't love. It's a series of intense and intoxicating chemical reactions in the limbic system of our brains, and it's only going to last for so long before it progresses to a different kind of experience. My second purpose is to inform betrayed spouses on the kind of dysfunction your mate is experiencing. Not in order to excuse it, but in order to relieve you of any illusion of comparing yourself to their affair partner. That would be like saying to an alcoholic, "Why can't I make you feel as good as liquor makes you feel?" It's apples to oranges.

Norepinephrine (adrenaline)

The third neurotransmitter, norepinephrine, is the final contributor to what we call "being in love." Norepinephrine, also known as adrenaline, is the excitatory neurotransmitter. It causes us to experience heightened sensations. It's the chemical that makes life seem more vibrant, even though nothing really changed but the level of norepinephrine flowing down the nerve cells to the parts of our brain that create those heightened sensations. It's norepinephrine that creates the rush you feel when scared or excited. If you think about it, it's the same rush you felt with your first kiss. That rush of excitement and emotions does not mean it's love, it's just norepinephrine. At this point in the unfaithful spouse's chemical reality, their ability to discern what is real from what is fantasy is highly skewed and they are probably feeling hooked by the intensity of emotions.

Jumper Cables

With the foundation laid, we can now begin talking about the forces behind high-arousal relationships. To jump-start a car, there has to be an additional source of power flowing through the electrical system. In the same way, high-arousal relationships receive a jump-start from the hormones that are released when they find someone with the qualities they're drawn to. That initial jump-start creates the amazing cascade of neurotransmitters.

As the dopamine and norepinephrine increase, the person caught in the web of these feelings begins to feel alive in ways they haven't for years. Increased levels of norepinephrine light up senses that seemed to have been lost forever. Increased levels of dopamine trigger intense emotions they most likely haven't experienced since adolescence. Not only that, but a habit loop is created to cause them to continually pursue that intense emotion. It also informs the more primitive parts of the brain that it is as important to pay attention to this as it is to breathing, because their brain now believes they need this in order to survive.

One would think that with the euphoria created by the increased levels of dopamine and norepinephrine, serotonin levels would also increase since serotonin is responsible for happiness. Surprisingly, the opposite is true. The euphoria this person is experiencing has nothing to do with happiness or finding their soul mate, but rather an intense chemical high. The stress created by higher levels of dopamine interfere with the brain's ability to absorb serotonin resulting in increased obsessiveness, making it even more difficult for the person caught in this web to extricate themselves from the situation. Additionally, with lowered serotonin levels, if the high-arousal relationship is terminated, or if the dopamine runs its course and stops providing the desired high, depression is sure to follow.

Suggestions for Betrayed Spouses

"I love you, but I'm not in love with you." That statement embodies the high-arousal state created by the chemical cocktail we've been discussing. Trying to talk sense to someone in this state is nearly impossible, because they're not concerned with what makes sense. There's a good chance they already know it's crazy, and they can't even convince themselves to stop. Remember, they feel they can't survive without the one they believe is bringing them this newfound life. It's hard for them to see that the opposite is actually true. Most likely, they are willing to sacrifice everything to keep from losing their new high.

It's imperative at this stage of such chemical entanglement that we are strategic in the approach taken towards sobering up the unfaithful spouse. One size does not fit all, and we can't simply bonk them on the head in hopes that they wake up. Freedom is possible, but it will take a process-oriented approach to unlock the truth and help them disentangle.

Yes, There Is Hope

It's possible to break free from this type of relationship, but it's every bit as difficult as an alcoholic getting sober. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes. It will probably never be something you feel like doing without some sort of expert, third party support system. Breaking free requires cutting off the relationship with the other person, getting into a safe and objective recovery support system, and allowing the intensity of the chemical reaction to fade.

Our EMS Online course can start the process and pave the way to long-term healing and relapse prevention. If you'd like to know more about this course or the process we use to help couples heal, please call 888-527-2367 or email us.

The easiest–and cheapest–way to start on this journey is to take our free First Steps Bootcamp. It's an online guide with 100+ pages of content and a full-length video of a mentor couple who was in as big of a mess as it can get. You'll take a big sigh of relief when you have a clear plan and learn that you're neither crazy nor alone in this journey, whichever side of the infidelity you find yourself on.



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It makes sense

but it's terribly painful to know my husband experienced this high with someone other than me. We are coming up to hear six since we reconciled and this still hurts.

How to move out of this high?

How do you get to this 'secure relationship'? I feel I am always needing this high in my marriage. Especially in recovery, I want to feel romanced and that he is in love with me all the time, when life turns normal or conversation turns unromantic, or he doesn't communicate with me for a day, I panic and feel that he doesn't love me and he will leave again. It's disfunctional and I don't know how to leave that beginning relationship high, where I expect us to think about each other 24/7 in fact I am not sure I ever have in our 20 yr relationship.

I love you , I'm just not in love with you

Just last week my spouse said these words to me. It was like a slap in the face. It has been three years since I found out about my husbands affair with hi ex-girlfriend. We have been through marriage counseling three times and all without any resolution.

My husband seems to be one of those people who believes because he says he is sorry for his actions everything should just go back to the way they were before his affair. Now three years later it feels like we are still at day one.
I have wanted to leave the marriage several times but I didn't because I had hope that one day things would get better and we could begin to build a better marriage for ourselves. Now with him telling me he is not in love with me anymore, I feel like maybe there is no hope at all.
I told him being in love is something you have to work at and if you don't put in the work those feeling become unfamiliar and fade like a distant memory.
What I find strange is less than two months ago he was telling me how much he was in love with me and could not imagine his life without me as his wife. Now he feels only love for me. What is wrong with this man? I asked if he is having an affair again but he says he is not. It is something broken in him and he feels like he is just empty.
What am I supposed to do with this latest breaking news from him? When I tell him the marriage seems to be over he swears he does not want me to leave but how can I stay with someone so broken?
The past three years have been like a nightmare that I am not able to wake up from. There have been so many lies , so much heartbreak, and so many disappointments. Every time I start to heal there is always something from him that pulls back the scab to expose the womb again. I am starting to believe my husband has some kind of mental problem or he is grieving for his lost affair partner. Either way I am at the end of my rope and I think it is time for me to just walk away.

I feel these exact words, a

I feel these exact words, a year in. I can’t imagine 3 years. It’s hard to know if I am telling myself things I want to hear like he does want to be with me and he will finally change but how do I know if I’m just delusional? How long do we hold out?
Praying for both of us.

This weeks article

OK I can buy the chemical reasoning. But, He still has a choice in the situation. Just like I had to make a choice to walk or to stay. In my opinion, he had to have made a conscience choice. How do you get to the why? That question still needs to be answered. And why if he "was not in" love with me why did he not say so before?

It's not the same

If he's not in a first stage high arousal state it doesn't mean he's not in love you. The high arousal state isn't the same as marital love. If he still loves you there's no reason for him to tell you he's not in love with you. Rick

It's been 2 years and it

It's been 2 years and it still feels like it's just happened. It's very hurtful knowing that they prefer the high with someone else instead if with you, even though you have been with them through a lot of ups and downs.

I hope to to provide more clarification

Are you sure your mate prefers being someone else rather than you? Just because someone has those feelings doesn't mean that's what they want. Alcoholics crave alcohol, but that doesn't mean that's what they prefer. I'll be writing more about this in a couple of weeks. Rick

I'm with Iris

I agree with Iris. It is good to have certain aspects explained. However it does make the pain go away by knowing my husband sought out to experience this high with someone else. Knowingly husband did not care to lose his family and his kids and all of our respect makes it hard to not compare yourself even when you learn this person he choice to have an affair with is not good. Why not chose something else as a source of dopamine or just be a stronger person. To suggest and compare it to alcoholism is troubling. Maybe I'm missing something. I am one to like my alcohol yet I never would betray my spouse by having sex with someone else and chosing that person over the family I helped create. I feel it's a serious character flaw. I'm wondering as I look down years from now do I want to deal with that nagging suspicion he places in my heart? If my 100% trust and loyalty was not enough and the two outstandingly smart kids we have weren't enough to keep him faithful what will? Books and counselor say the couple has to be willing to do the work. I am tired of hearing that. Just being here is hard for me some days to know he shared his body with someone else and liked it enough to repeat it and never chased after me when j left then magically what's his family back when it's over with the tramp ? No, just working on visions and all the problems he brought on us is work . He should clean up his own mess. I've told him I still don't know if I'm first. That's hard when he chose three times the other person. I need something big. Maybe reality is he isn't capable of giving it to me. Thanks for your post but I think it pushed me more away from him. I would have rather a gambling problem or alcoholism. You can be faithful doing those. This sleeping with someone else is being am enemy-- traitor all because of what goes on in your head ? Who wants to be with someone weak in that area? Disease comes to mind like stds etc. all done without my consent.

This stuff is painful

This stuff is painful

Right steps

So what are some of the right steps to unlock the truth other than saying you need to quit? And how can the caring spouse be strategic, especially if the mate is in denial.

I love you, but not in love with you

Funny how all comes about when reading article, I've heard and been shown the actual signs of this statement. I understand that no two stories or situations are the same and even the breakdown of feelings. There's no trust in my situation and plenty of folks interfering wit negativity. From her mom to girlfriend who aided, I placed my trust and surrounded myself with like minded people who viewed the actions and behavior just as they were and are. I trust God with my life and this situation, and have decided through what I believe He has guided me. The conclusion of it all is she has chosen the path she wishes to walk. My choice is to let her have her choice because I don't have the time to cater to and raise a grown woman.! She listens to girlfriend, still works closely and around AP, and has chosen. 2 years or better now since finding out, and I choose me. Pray for her and her happiness. But this time, I choose me, because I matter as well. I'm no good to myself, kids or anybody, if I can't love me and know my worth in all. Lies, Deceit and Betrayal will never heal what she's started and then wanted to sweep under rug. Thanks.

I am right with you. I have

I am right with you. I have given him almost 7 years to straighten up, and while I saw moments of doing better it never lasted. I feel so torn because I never wanted to walk away, but have held on until it has almost killed me. I choose me as well because I am no good to myself or the kids or anyone hanging in there trying to be there for someone who won't be serious and stop with the lies. I have been lied to for so many years now that I am not sure I or he even knows what is truth anymore. I mean when you can "forget" you went out and were unfaithful and came directly back to your wife to be with her... that is a depth I can't even begin to understand. The amount of lying and never knowing all the truth and him wasting all this time just is too much for me.

I am right with you. I have

I am right with you. I have given him almost 7 years to straighten up, and while I saw moments of doing better it never lasted. I feel so torn because I never wanted to walk away, but have held on until it has almost killed me. I choose me as well because I am no good to myself or the kids or anyone hanging in there trying to be there for someone who won't be serious and stop with the lies. I have been lied to for so many years now that I am not sure I or he even knows what is truth anymore. I mean when you can "forget" you went out and were unfaithful and came directly back to your wife to be with her... that is a depth I can't even begin to understand. The amount of lying and never knowing all the truth and him wasting all this time just is too much for me.

Depression is Sure to Follow

"if the high arousal relationship is terminated or if the dopamine runs its course and stops providing the desired high, depression is sure to follow."

Does anyone know whether a sex addict can learn to cope with depressed moods without using porn, anonymous sex, excessive masturbation, alcohol, binge-eating, or the like? How do they do it? Does having 90 days of complete sobriety reset the brain? We are one year into our marital recovery, and my husband is slipping into bouts of depression again for no reason. A drink tends to cheer him up, but he can never be counted on to stop before he gets sloppy drunk, which can happen with just two drinks. He also "accidentally" found porn videos through his smartphone, despite the filtering software and a vow never to use porn again. Within seconds he was masturbating (with the door open), then devastated by deep shame when I walked in on him. Our marriage has recovered from his infidelity, but the root causes of his addictive behavior seem to be alive and well. I try not to concern myself with his recovery, but I guess I'm looking for some hope that an addiction can be brought under control. Anyone been down this road?

This does not help

Is this article suppose to make me feel better?? Understanding that she was a drug to him. That he wanted her that badly and obviously didn't want me!! I'm sorry I read this. It doesn't do ANYTHING for. Good for him!! And good for the AP. What fun they must have had!! That desire. Yes this is what I needed to read today.

I love you but not in love

After 2 yrs of trying to understand why, I am no closer to recovering from the betrayal. I chose to stay for a multitude of reasons and find myself regretting that decision. Reading the information is helpful and I think it played apart but the bottom line is he had a choice. And I was tossed the curb. So why did he make that decision. Why couldn't he come out and tell me he wanted out ? Why did he have to deliberately hurt me? He knew and they all know that that particular choice will cut the other to the core. As I think about it, this article sounds more like giving the betrayer an excuse or justification.

I am the unfaithful spouse

..in this situation and my issue, I have learned, is love addiction. I can see how this article hurts and seems to offer excuses for poor behavior. I have sought help through SLAA and have been to one meeting (it is hard to find these meetings for women and/or love addiction-so many are geared toward SEX addiction). I didn't get much out of it but I am committed to continuing because it helps my husband to know I am trying and it may help eventually. I read help books (Addicted to Love by Ethlie Something-or-other is a very good one). I am also getting ready to start a Hope for Healing course. When my infidelity was discovered , I completely stopped texting, emailing, and searching the personal ads for men to provide that "high". I wouldn't have stopped on my own because I kept seeking the same level of high I had with the initial correspondents. I am not happy I was caught because of the devastation it caused. But in a way, I felt rescued. After stopping cold turkey with the emails & texts, the desire for them eventually faded as I realized it hadn't been very satisfying anyway- So I had been chasing after something and ruining my marriage and family for something so worthless. My kingdom for a text. I currently feel very free from all this with no desire to have it again. I am slowly replacing that need for excitement from correspondence with men with the other pursuits that I used to enjoy and had laid aside. It is working. However, I am under no illusion that my "addiction" is gone. Nobody knows if/when it will reappear. Therefore, I must be on guard and I will continue to work programs such as SLAA even when I don't FEEL the need. If you can get your unfaithful, love/sex addicted spouse to commit to that, it may give you the same hope and peace it offers my husband. To healing.....

Does dopamine always hook people this way?


When saying that a man having an affair gets hooked because of dopamine, does the same thing hold true of all casual sex? Is it really true that it's impossible to have sex with anybody without developing an addiction as a,result? If not, I'm wondering what makes it addictive when it comes to having an affair?

Also, is it possible to be able to run into the old flame again in a social setting without the old addictive neural pathways being triggered again? Not right away of course, but a year or so down the line?


Chemical Addiciton part

Currently learning to navigate through my husbands addiction to porn. While he is out of state right now and claims to have stopped, all I have is his word that he is stopping the use of porn. I have found out though that while he claims to not be actively watching videos on a device or having dvds. However he admits to still masturbating using the videos he recalls in his head. I feel this is still using porn even though he claims it is not using the computer or videos to seek it out. I also wonder if it's wrong to ask him to stop masturbating until he can control that image recall, but I don't know how that works.

I love you but I am not in love with you

Dear Rick,
I have read your piece titled "I love you but am not in love with you". You address the unfaithful side of this statement well but I am curious how you would see this statement coming from the betrayed. Here is my story. I have been married for 36 years, it has been a challenging relationship from the beginning but we have built a life together. I discovered my husbands recent betrayal and we have completed the EMSO course and are currently committed to the "Married for Life" course. He is committed to the change required to remain in relationship with me. During our 13 week EMSO his long standing and repeated unfaithfulness was disclosed. Events that I was unaware of starting on our wedding weekend ( extended kissing with my cousin) to sexual affairs with employees, friends, prostitutes, and lengthy relationships while traveling. I have been married to a man that I did not really know. Given that information If I said "I love you but I am not in love with you" how would you respond in the analysis from the betrayed perspective?
Thanks for your help.

I really appreciate this

I really appreciate this series because it is validating what I have known in my heart, but could not put words to. Doesn't help with the hurt of being betrayed, but it definitely helps me to understand at least some of why my formerly unfaithful husband kept doing what he was doing. He has said his three year sexting affair really became such a chore and he wanted out, but did not have the courage to confess to me or call it off. It took me finding texts on his phone and confronting him.
Thanks again Rick and I am looking forward to next week's installment.
To Healing!


I agree and find the articles so comforting. My husband said the biggest relief was the day I discovered his affair. We continue to take two steps forward and one backward. I promised myself on day 1 that I would not make a fast decision. After 18 months, I am still unsure but at least I have come to believe that my husband's internal flaws are his and his alone. I no longer blame myself.

Going through this.. again

My husband believes he "slipped up" because he wanted me to find his affairs because he is so good in the technology world that there would be no way for me to crack the passwords and find what I found. Well, one thing is I have experience all this before with my ex-husband, in addition to abuse. But this marriage had no abuse and I felt God tugging at me to not give up and fight for this marriage. After very close to 3 years, I have discovered my husband to be unfaithful. Every time in the past 3 years that I discovered his deceitfulness, I still stayed and fought for my marriage. I don't know why, but I have the loving support of my church family and my strong faith & trust in God that keeps me strong. I needed the affirmation that although I have my flaws, I have made great strides in becoming the daughter of my Heavenly Father that I know I am... and THAT is enough for me. My husband, I believe is beginning to finally understand this. I refuse to be manipulated (thinking it was my fault for why he is unhappy), I refuse to condone his behavior and they will have consequences and I refuse to allow myself to feel I am not enough or unworthy for him. That is his issue not mine and he has to stop lying to himself, to God and to me. Now, for the first time, he is actually going to our church group for healing and restoration.

falling in love chemically

Well, I agree with the chemical explanation.

Still, it does not make me feel any better, knowing that my husband sought out this type of high and became dependent on it.

What is going to keep it from happening again?

this has me written all over it

i broke the relationship/affair, went right back into it because it felt like i had created a hole that no one and nothing could fill except that person. i have convinced myself that i will bear the pain of losing my kids and everything else for her...she's half my age and i tell myself (and i do feel it) that i love her more than i have ever loved anyone and that i might as well follow my heart. my wife doesn't know yet, but every sign is there. it's a terrible dilemma to find oneself in...still deep down i have an unsettling trepidation...a lack of peace and assurance that even if i go the route of my feeling it will last. then who will be the biggest loser? trying to retrace my steps to my marriage and to right my wrongs seems such an impossible quest, i haven't even started trying.

Reply to anonymous

As in business, deceit is probably not the foundation to build a healthy future.
Why is that so hard.?

Difficult is an understatement

I'm the betrayed and have always thought in rational terms, rarely do I let my emotions dictate my decisions. This was also a blindspot with my spouse who needed the emotional connection that I overlooked. Though there are numerous factors that lead to my spouses infidelity I have come to understand and accept there are no "100% and concrete" answers to why. For me the bigger questions was "why it had continued after the first time and as long as it had". My spouse freely admitted the infidelity which the sexual element had stopped about a year and a half prior to the confession. My spouse still had almost daily interaction with the affair partner until the day of confession. They affair partner was providing a service and they also broke the ethical code of that service and enticed the affair. Albeit, I make no excuses for my spouses actions and my spouse takes full responsibility as well. My spouse is without a doubt regretful for all that had occurred and has not acted spiteful or resentful after the confession (prior my spouse used resentment to justify the extra marital relationship). Affair Recovery has made my spouse realize it wasn't as easy as "lets lock the door on that chapter of our life and move forward". Not only did I need to face and as much as possible understand what happened but my spouse realized they also needed to face it inwardly, come to terms with the devastation it had on me and our relationship. I could have walked away but then everyone loses, the love I and my spouse had and do have can't be thrown away that easy. My conclusion of why it occurred and more so why it continued was way off and simply wrong, my recommendation to anyone is don't assume nor put words in your spouses mouth but listen with open ears and heart no matter how difficult it may be. I can only write for my situation and everyones is different, its without a doubt one of the most difficult roads I've had to travel. If both spouses truly want to save the relationship, love each other and desire to stay together at least give it a chance. There is hope going forward regardless which way it may turn out for you.

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