Financial Infidelity As An Addiction


When I am talking to some of the couples I counsel about their feelings when beginning an affair, they often use descriptions like “sexual chemistry” and “irresistible attraction.”

Some even compare their craving for their lover to an addiction. They can’t get enough. They feel high.

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Their descriptions verge on sounding like passages from a romance novel. And yet, there’s some validity to their clichés. In fact, studies have shown that certain repetitive or addictive behaviors both are caused by and contribute to fluctuations in the mood-stimulating neurotransmitter in our brains.

How addiction affects relationships

The neurotransmitters we talk about above—dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and epinephrine—and hormones such as oxytocin and vasopressin are associated with depression and euphoria. If the levels of these important brain chemicals are imbalanced, an individual is likely to feel depressed, and may behave in ways to stimulate—or simulate—the feelings induced naturally by the release of these neurotransmitters in the brain.

Patients I counsel are often seeking to duplicate the euphoric feelings of “falling in love.” They are trying to re-create their feelings with adulterous affairs, out-of-control shopping, or risk-taking behaviors like gambling. The satisfaction they feel from this “quick fix” can set them up for unrealistic expectations for an ongoing state of energy, arousal, and euphoria.

In counseling couples where one individual seems compelled to seek out hurtful affairs or commit financial infidelity, even as they express remorse over the effect their behavior is having on their relationship, I will often explore whether, for them, the thrill of pursuit, conquest, and the fulfillment of their fantasies is actually indicative of an addiction. In these cases, or in those where there is a family history of addictive behavior such as alcoholism or drug abuse, adultery, or gambling, analyzing the levels of the key neurotransmitter associated with depression and addiction can give me insight into their situation.

Many patients I see have a constellation of these addictive behaviors. They may drink and gamble and engage in extramarital affairs. They often tell me that they have tried to stop all of these behaviors on their own, but find themselves slipping back into them or even adding new damaging behaviors.

I tell these patients that because it is very difficult to exhibit self-control when dealing with addictive-type behaviors, it is important that they do not take on more than one self-control challenge at a time. And in the meantime we can manipulate, even balance their neurotransmitter levels (which are initially determined by heredity) through supplements, medication, biofeedback, or talk therapy.

How financial addiction can threaten your relationship

Just as an individual may turn to an illicit love affair to provide the biochemical feelings of connection and experience the thrill of a new romance, over and over again, so, too, they may turn to risky financial behavior for stimulation. Even if they stop the love affair, they may not have the self-control to stop the risky financial behavior.

The reason is that the behaviors that stimulate these feelings can easily become addictive. For instance, for any addict, the choice to self-medicate in any number of ways—with alcohol, medications, sex, or money—can begin with a desire to relieve stress or mute depression.

The addiction then progresses to a preoccupation with where their next “fix” will come from, and often involves a strong desire to create rituals around obtaining the “high.” This preoccupation becomes a compulsion—to use drugs or alcohol, or to have sex, or to shop—followed by depression and despair as the effects wear off, leading to the start of the cycle all over again.

Joseph Frascella, director of the Division of Clinical Neuroscience at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), defines addiction as “repetitive behaviors in the face of negative consequences, the desire to continue something you know is bad for you.” The three most common types of “habits” that can slide into “addictive behavior” that I see in relation to financial infidelity are gambling, binge spending, and hoarding.

Two million adults are thought to be pathological gamblers. Another four to eight million are considered “problem” gamblers. A Stanford University study identifies one in twenty Americans as compulsive shoppers.

The individuals that are prone to gambling and binge spending may also seek to take risks in a socially appropriate way by working in a high-stress,  thrill-intensive job such as a Wall Street trader, a surgeon, or a courtroom attorney. The buzz from their victories is usually immediately followed by a new stressful situation and a chance to professionally “gamble” so that they can triumph yet again.

Other people may exhibit financial infidelity as a result of transference. In psychological terms, transference refers to the redirection of feelings, fears, or emotions onto a new object or situation.

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