The Science of Anxiety and the Two Faces of Infidelity

In this business we often see checklists–catalogs of clues that a spouse might be cheating.

A quick Google search for “signs of infidelity” returns no fewer than 200,000 hits for “how to spot a cheating spouse,” how to tell if he’s stepping out, ways to tell if he’s got a new lover. These lists are almost always the same: new perfume, new interest in physical appearance, secretive phone calls, mysterious expenditures, etc.

If you’ve ever had reason to perform that particular Google search, you know the feeling: it’s that little kernel of doubt that sneaks into a marriage and destroys confidence, trust, and peace. Maybe it presents itself in small doses, meting out insecurity in infinitesimal portions. Maybe it walks into the room and screams.

Either way, those lurking unknowns and suspicions fuel a growing unease that can rapidly escalate to anxiety, stress, even a sort of mental paralysis. And the cheater experiences a form of anxiety as well—the stress that accompanies the need to lie to maintain a façade of normalcy.

Anxiety – The cuckold/cuckquean’s perspective
Anxiety is a byproduct of fear, and fear of the unknown is, perhaps, the most distressing variety. Anxiety closes down the thinking brain and activates the body-protecting lizard brain, the reacting brain. As Gregory Hartley puts it in his book, How to Spot a Liar, philanderers are, “…brokers of anxiety.” When a person thinks his spouse is cheating on him, he receives a jolt to his idea of self and his frame of reference.

We organize our idea of self by assembling input from others and various situations. Our frame of reference, our view of the outside world, is prejudiced by experience. When one suspects infidelity, both self and frame of reference are questioned. Confusion and emotion take charge…anxiety rents space in the brain.

Anxiety – The cheater’s perspective
When people have affairs, they lie to maintain their cover. Big and small non-truths leak out in a sludge of constant mendacity. From hiding credit card receipts to sneaking off to the back porch for late-night small talk via cell phone, every aspect of a deceptive person’s life is caught up in half-truths, fabrication, and deceit. And when someone tells a lie, he places himself under stress. He lives in constant fear of discovery.

Stress and the Sympathetic Nervous System
When the mammalian body perceives a threat, the sympathetic nervous system takes over and kick-starts the body’s “fight-or-flight” response. Blood is routed away from the face and skin to the muscles. Blood is diverted away from the digestive tract. The bladder no longer has the ability to contract and expel waste. The liver floods the blood stream with glucose, preparing for physical activity. Heart rate and respiration increase and nostrils flare, offering the lizard brain a heavy dose of oxygenated blood. Metabolism is heightened, sweating intensifies. Pupils dilate to collect as much data about the threat as possible. Gregory Hartley calls this, “your mind at war.”

The outward signs are always visible, if sometimes only in very minute forms. The stressed person’s hands may shake. His complexion may appear pallid. His mouth and lips dry out, a result of dramatically reduced blood flow. Mucosa shrink, leading to pale thin lips and drooping lower eyelids. The brow clinches and draws downward. Shoulders draw tight in preparation for defense. Elbows are in, close to the ribcage in a defensive posture.

Inside, the stressed person feels jittery, hypersensitive. Thanks to a lack of blood in the digestive system, the person feels a sensation of butterflies in the stomach; he may even feel nausea. With the heart racing blood away from the skin, the anxious person feels a high core temperature and cool skin, that clammy feeling. His focus becomes narrow and sense of hearing is directed at the source of the threat. He hears his own heartbeat. His mind recedes to a primitive state, and emotions work their way involuntarily to the fore. The person under stress often becomes defensive, argumentative, and emotional.

These systems turn on at the cost of rational thought, leading to what Seth Godin calls “lizard brain.” Irrationality is the rule at this point.

How to stop the cycle: The Simple (well…maybe not so simple) Fix for Stress

The cheater
Simple answer – Do not cheat. Alternative answer – stop telling lies.

In one case last year, we were hired by a woman’s attorney to document a philandering husband’s activities. We placed him under heavy surveillance–three cars and four investigators. We documented the man’s every move, dates, picnics, overnight visits, etc. Confronted with his lies, the man took an unusual tack, opting to eliminate his ongoing stress and simply carry on the affair in the open. He even brought his new girlfriend to a meeting at the attorney’s office. He thereby removed the burden of a lie, and his stress level seemed to drop. From a purely practical perspective, this wasn’t a bad call.

Ending the affair is always the best solution. But coming clean about an affair can at least remove the deceit variable from the equation and, along with it, some of the accompanying stress. And it might even allow the dallier to regain access to rational thought, which just might lead to more productive discourse.

The Cuckold/Cuckquean
Simple answer – remove the unknown.
Again, anxiety is a byproduct of fear, often fear of the unknown. Do not guess. Do not assume. Know. Anxiety leads to “lizard brain,” and in that state, irrationality is the rule.

Shakespeare didn’t need to understand the sympathetic nervous system to recognize it at work on the human rational mind. He sketched this lizard-brain descent from suspicion to anxiety to madness (to brilliant effect) in his 1603 play “Othello” in which a man desperately in love with his wife allows his unwarranted suspicions to prompt a series of escalating irrational acts, ending in tragedy—the old one-two punch of murder-suicide, always, unfortunately, performed in that order.

Though potentially painful, it is always best to eliminate the unknown. Once a person has the facts…once he eliminates the unknown, he can remove anxiety, and (potentially) act rationally.

Conclusion.
For the cheating spouse: Gregory Hartley says, “You will simplify your life enormously if you eliminate complete fabrication from your repertoire.” Simply put, stop lying and placing yourself under needless stress.

For the spouse who fears a partner is having an affair: get the facts. Consider hiring a competent and qualified investigator to learn the facts on your behalf. Find out what’s really happening, then act rationally from a place of knowledge and power.

Here at ONQPI Investigations, we believe that our role is to help our clients contain the unknown. By gathering documented and verifiable information, we hope to help people move from a state of fear and helplessness to higher cognitive function…and rational action.