Part 2: Affair Fog Theory: Mental Health
Part 1 of the Affair Fog Series identified common components of popular affair fog theory as including mental health disorders, sex/love addiction, character change, psychological morphing, and biochemicals. This post specifically discusses if mental health disorders can legitimately be considered affair fog.
When faced with a cheater’s affair, faithful partners understandably seek to grasp the Big Why of their cheater’s choices and attendant poor behaviors.
Many faithful spouses are confused by their cheater’s affair choices and behaviors, and can be comprehensively bombarded with affair fog theory that suggests that all/many cheaters have some form of mental health/character disorder.
Affair fog theory can actually provide some reassurance because it views affair behavior, and any attendant abuse, as a transient state driven by a mental health disorder. This permits that cheaters are not wholly in control of their affair behavior, and require help and guidance for the fog to lift and right-thinking to be restored.
Operating on the premise that the affair is fog-driven, the faithful spouse often turns to online diagnostic and/or personality questionnaires, and researches mental illness.
The urge to find a hook on which to hang cheating (be it psychological/psychiatric challenges, or some uncontrollable biological drive or disorder), suggests that faithful spouses really want:
- Absolute ‘scientifically or medically supported’ reasons why the affair was not about them or their relationship
- Some reassurance that the cheater can be ‘cured’ or ‘treated’
It’s worth stressing at this point that cheating is NOT about the faithful spouse – it really is all about the cheater, but perhaps not in a way that’s comfortable for many faithful spouses to accept.
In trying to diagnose the cheater, faithful spouses risk falling into the trap of confirmation bias; we see what we are looking for. With confirmation bias, we focus on what we already believe or seek to prove, regardless of whether or not the diagnostic tool – such as an internet questionnaire – is accurate or objective. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
It’s easy to find behaviors in cheaters that fit into a multitude of different disorders and conditions – it doesn’t necessarily mean that they suffer from any of those particular issues. For example, most people do have some narcissistic tendencies that would check many of the boxes in an online questionnaire and yet not have any narcissistic pathology.
The only diagnosis of any mental health or character disorder should come from face-to-face evaluation, a detailed patient history, and formal and thorough qualification, training, and experience in clinical psychology or psychiatry.
Prevalence of Mental Health Disorders
Clearly there are mental health disorders within the general population, so it follows that some cheaters may be affected. However, the occurrence of disorders often attributed to cheaters is statistically quite low:
- narcissistic personality disorder (the most common cheater disorder claimed by faithful spouses): 6.2%
- bipolar disorder: 2.6%
- schizophrenia/multiple personality disorder: 1.1%
- psychosis/insanity: 4.1% (this number includes some of the other disorders already listed)
Looking at these statistics, it follows that very few cheaters actually suffer from disorders like narcissistic personality disorder, or any other mental health disorder.
- Is it possible that someone with a mental health disorder is also a cheater? Yes.
- Does it follow that everyone with a mental health disorder is a cheater? No.
- Does it follow that every cheater has a mental health disorder? No.
- Does it follow that every person suffering from a mental health disorder is incapable of making valid, reasonable, and clear choices, because they are ‘foggy’? No.
Even if the planets aligned and your spouse has the remote but unfortunate statistical combination of 1) having a valid, professionally diagnosed mental health disorder and 2) being a cheater, does this small statistical probability provide a reasonable or robust basis for affair fog theory?
There is no empirical evidence supporting midlife crisis (MLC) as an actual condition. MLC doesn’t have an accepted, universal definition, and is a self-diagnosed and self-reported ‘condition’ that studies repeatedly fail to validate. Nonetheless, many faithful spouses do still attribute affair fog to MLC.
Regardless of the MLC debate, cheaters aren’t exempt from experiencing the very real issues of depression and stress, and can of course experience a subjective sense of reduced well-being at any given point in time.
So do these symptoms mean that the cheater’s life choices are therefore invalid, their thinking irrational, and their values and morals clouded and/or suspended?
Well, let’s similarly apply the model of affair fog theory to the faithful spouse: If depressive symptoms and upset render the cheater’s choices and thinking invalid then we must similarly dismiss the faithful spouse’s choices and thinking as foggy and invalid on the same grounds. If we apply this logic further, then we must say that stress and depression invalidates everyone’s views and choices.
This leaves us with a clear choice:
- Do we continue to hold onto the absurd notion that stress and depression invalidates everyone’s views and choices? Or,
- Do we accept the truth that depression doesn’t mean foggy and invalid thinking -in the cheater or anyone else- but that the faithful spouse simply disagrees with the cheater’s choices and wants to dismiss them as invalid?
Many people experience stress, depression, etc. in response to life events and transitions. In fact, faithful spouses experience these very issues almost without exception when confronted by an affair. Despite those challenges, those same people remain functional, reasonable, and rational. We don’t assume that because they are under stress, their behavior and choices are therefore invalid or fog-driven (unless, of course, we disapprove of those choices and behavior).
Family of Origin Issues
Upbringing, childhood trauma, and familial dysfunction can all influence someone’s life and shape their perceptions. However, it’s ludicrous to suggest that overwhelming traumatic influences suddenly manifest solely during an affair.
If, on reflection, it’s concluded that there have been other pre-affair choices that can be attributed as responses to traumatic influences, this further invalidates it as affair fog and instead supports that these issues are a behavioral pattern.
- Is it reasonable to suggest that that everyone with family of origin issues is a cheater? No.
- Does it follow that every cheater must have family of origin issues? No.
- Does it follow that anyone who has family of origin issues has attendant selfish, abusive, disrespectful, and unethical behavior? No.
Hanging affair behavior on the ‘dysfunctional childhood’ hook seeks to excuse or mitigate the bad behavior, and fails to recognize that there are a lot of really decent people out there who also came from dysfunction who are not confused by fog, and who don’t behave as if their childhood excuses them from respectful and ethical choices.
We are all influenced both positively and negatively throughout our lives. We do not seek to dismiss everyone’s choices, judgment, and thinking as foggy as a result.
The Comfort of Affair Fog
Why is affair fog theory so appealing to so many? Most people quite reasonably tend to avoid emotional distress, and often seek to justify behavior that makes them feel uncomfortable.
We should take this into account when considering any hypothesis that provides convenient explanation and/or mitigation for a cheater’s behavior, and question whom it benefits and what the resultant effect is of subscribing to the hypothesis.
Benefits to the Faithful Spouse
Attributing cheating to a mental health disorder, MLC, or family of origin issues implies a break from the cheater’s core identity. In essence, it blames the cheating behavior on a separate persona – one that can be jettisoned at will as the cheater returns to his/her “true”, not-disordered self.
If the cheater is broken, they can be fixed and, even better, may feel gratitude to the faithful spouse who stood by them through their ‘illness’.
This allows both the cheater and the faithful spouse to acknowledge the cheating, without personalizing it (just like a child might express outrage at an imaginary friend eating all the cookies).
Benefits to the Cheater
Affair fog induced by some form of mental health disorder can benefit the cheater by garnering support and sympathy from the faithful spouse for their ‘condition’.
It’s an attractive concept to be told that yes, while your behavior was hurtful and abusive, it was driven by pain and illness, and you can be fixed. Cheating then becomes an injury suffered by the cheater (that the faithful spouse helps salve), instead of them having to own selfish, abusive, and hurtful behavior.
Impact on Reconciliation
Offering a foundation that makes reconciliation easier, this theoretical affair fog model allows a comfort level that the alternative position doesn’t provide, which is that someone cheated because in that period of time (and perhaps in general) the cheater was simply a selfish asshole.
Are Cheaters in a Disordered Fog?
So are all cheaters disordered? Well, if we define healthy as faithful and respectful, then sure, we can say that every cheater is disordered. But does being unfaithful and disrespectful really equate to some form of fog?
Does fidelity signal clear thinking? If so, are we consigning all the ethically non-monogamous people out there to being in some form of invalidating fog? Does disrespect equal affair fog? If so, my mailman, mechanic, and boss have all been in an affair-fog-induced cloud this week alone.
It can seem incomprehensible that someone you know and love, whom you believed shared similar values, can suddenly make choices that take them tangentially away from what you believed was a shared foundation.
From here often springs the assertions that a cheater is ‘insane’ and ‘crazy’ and ‘in the fog’. In reality, the cheater is simply making choices of which you don’t approve, and don’t accept as having any reasonable, valid or healthy foundation … but it’s far easier to justify why you’re fighting reality if you’ve told yourself that it’s not reality you’re fighting, but insanity.
You don’t have to have a mental health disorder to be an entitled, selfish, disrespectful, and abusive, promise-breaking asshole. You don’t have to ‘suffer’ from a condition or be temporarily insane to be a cheater. Is it reasonable to conclude that a cheater has to be out of their minds to want someone other than their spouse and to make choices consistent with that? Is it rational to consider someone mentally disordered for wanting a different life, or to try to have more of what they want for themselves? Selfish, yes. Mental health disorder? No.
A cheater might well be an asshole, but they don’t need some deeply held, underlying psychiatric issue to BE that asshole. Being a selfish asshole isn’t the product of compromised mental-health-induced affair fog – it’s being a selfish asshole.
If your cheater does unfortunately fit into the statistically unlikely category of a cheater with a mental health disorder, that’s a difficult situation to face. However, it’s not valid to therefore extrapolate that to every other faithful spouse.
Affairs Make Cheaters Go Crazy?
It is of serious concern (and potentially very damaging) that although subscribing to affair fog theory provides some mitigation by transferring some accountability for the affair behavior to mental health issues (my disorder made me do it), any post-affair clean-up is rarely robust enough to address any claimed ‘disordered behavior’ (if there is any clean-up at all).
Many cheaters will go to talk therapy with a counselor after their affair (to work on themselves) but very few seek long-term psychiatric help for the mental health issues that apparently gripped them so thoroughly during their affair that it significantly (albeit temporarily) altered their core identity.
Break glass in case of affair-induced spousal insanity and confine until no longer insane, and then carry on as normal?
(For easier reading, the term mental health disorder has been used throughout this post. It intended to encompass neurotic and psychotic mental health conditions, including personality/character disorders and disturbances etc.)