As a professor and psychotherapist, I have learned some things about early childhood development. Infants and young children do not have the brain apparatus to regulate their emotions so they utilize their caretaker’s brains basically to do the regulation. For example, the attuned mother can calm an anxious baby with touch or food or changing a wet diaper. This is called down-regulation meaning that the mother in these examples helps the child go from a more stressed, inflamed state to a more relaxed state; in other words down from a hyperaroused state. This same attuned mother could also lift the infant or young child from a bored or neutral state to a more stimulated, aroused state by, for example, talking baby talk (called prosody) in an excited, loving tone. The baby will often react with a smile and show signs of excitement. This is called up-regulation since the mother in this example is lifting the baby up to a more stimulated engaged state of being. The more the child has attuned parents that can regulate the emotional state of the child, the more the child develops the psychological and neurobiological mechanisms to up and down regulate him or herself.
As for adults, we also need to up and down regulate so that we have optimum stimulation. Too much arousal can lead to high stressed states, anxiety and agitation. Too little arousal can lead to feelings of emptiness, boredom and a sense of meaninglessness. As a specialist in the field of infidelity who is very interested in what is behind the action of cheating, I have discovered another very useful lens in which to look at this destructive and painful human behavior. As I have said before, the more we understand what is behind these deceitful behaviors, the more we can help couples heal from infidelity and even totally prevent infidelity from happening.
I have seen people use sexual acts including infidelity to soothe anxiety; in other words- use the sexual feeling for down regulating. Of course, sex addicts use sex in this way, but even people who fall short of the “diagnosis” of addict can use sex and more specifically sex outside a committed relationship as a means to escape stress and temporarily soothe their anxieties. The problem of course, as is the problem with alcohol and drug abuse , is the temporary fix can just lead to more problems and with that more anxiety. Often and not always, these people have had little experience in their families of origin of parents who were able to soothe them in times of stress.
I have also seen people use sex outside a committed relationship to up-regulate. People who feel empty, listless and bored may use the act of cheating to give them a shot of adrenaline, to make up for being understimulated and to make them feel alive again. Often and not always, these people have had little experience in their families of origin of parents who were able to stimulate them in times of neutrality, boredom or listlessness.
As I always say when I talk or write about why people cheat, none of these are excuses. However, also as I always say, nothing happens in a vacuum. People cheat to solve some emotional issue or problem. Of course the infidelity solution is maladaptive and hurtful.
In my next blog, I will discuss some healthier solutions. I will be talking about both individual and couple solutions for healthier ways to up and down regulate so that trust can return and relationships can thrive. And as I wrote above, those same solutions could help prevent infidelity from happening in the first place.
Feel free to email me or make a comment about the information in this article. Does it resonate? Does it make sense to you? What is your emotional reaction to these words? I would love to know.