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Affair partners: why "no contact" doesn't work and makes things worse.

When I first began to see the struggles on my website, over "NC," I was surprised by the topic. When I began my research in 1993, there was no such concept being discussed.

That's probably because there were few affairs. People back then had to write personal letters or make phone calls to contact their lost loves, and those who reconnected did so purposefully, usually to spark a romance, and they were single, divorced or widowed. They met for a reunion, and they continued or ended it. There were no times out or "No Contact."

But this NC pattern (as my website members have labeled it) has become common for people who post on my member forums. The members' reunions are usually affairs.

No Contact is not my term or idea. I know it doesn't work. Agree to a one-month timeout and that may last about two weeks. An open-ended NC may end even sooner. I have some thoughts for you about the negative impact of "going NC."

NC is a middle ground. No one has decided to leave the romance, supposedly, but there's a feeling that it isn't working, because there are marriages involved. It's meant to be a brief timeout to catch one's breath and get one's life back.

One of the partners may want to end the affair completely and renew the marriage, but doesn't want to hurt the lost love (whom they do truly love). So they take a cowardly way out and say it is no contact "just for a while." This deceit is very hurtful: the person must ultimately discover that they have been jilted—and lied to! The person has simply disappeared on them, and they are shocked.

I have spoken in the forums about lost love reunions having an addictive quality. They certainly are obsessive. Part of what causes this state of emotions is "going NC." This interim, timeout period sets up an insecure attachment, a withdrawal from the love partner. Anxiety builds up, wondering if the bond has been really severed by the lack of contact.

As the anxiety builds, it becomes intolerable. Then in haste, in fear and panic, the lost love is contacted. Reassurances are given, the voice is comforting, and the anxiety immediately goes away. Ending NC ends the anxiety that it caused in the first place, so the insecure, addictive lost love romance is reinforced.

But the joy is not consistent or secure, because the lost loves will pull the plug on the romance every now and then, without warning, to try to figure out what to do with the marriages or take time "to think" (or to go to couples therapy with their spouses).

If you go to Las Vegas or Atlantic City and play slot machines, the machine doesn't pay off every time. It pays off approximately every 35th time. If it paid off every 35th time exactly, no one would want to play - everyone would want to be only the 35th player. The payoff at approximately every 35th time keeps people playing.

If you don't win this time, well, maybe next time; and the more you lose, the more you have to keep playing, because your time to win must be coming right up. This is intermittent reinforcement. It is the most powerful motivator there is. That's why there are gambling addictions. Just keep playing long enough and you have to win, right? Meanwhile, before the payoff, you are losing, big time.

Setting up "NC" is a recipe for misery. It doesn't allow the romance to move forward, so it stops whatever happiness was going on. Instead, it substitutes a very painful insecurity and anxiety, too painful to continue. Two weeks of misery during a self-imposed NC, and then a few moments of feeling happy. Just like the gambler—losing more than winning, but waiting for and needing the hit.

Breaking the silence and reconnecting momentarily eases the fear of losing the romance, but it sets up an insecure attachment that makes people more clingy and more addicted. It is harder to leave a lost love affair after going back and forth from Contact to NC to Contact to NC ... the relief every time an NC ends sets up the belief that "this is it," now it will work. But it doesn't, because the same issues that caused the lost loves to go NC are still there—they are married.

And it certainly doesn't help the marriage in any way. If one knows that the NC is time-limited, then the affair is still there. An affair without sex at the moment is still an affair. No one in NC can work on the marriage, decide what to do about the marriage, go into therapy to see if he/she can save the marriage. And a person is just as likely to get caught by the spouse in the NC period as when they were seeing each other: the person is acting so weird that the spouse gets suspicious that something is wrong, perhaps cheating.

So testing a marriage vs. a lost love affair, to see which is more important, by setting up a withdrawal from the affair partner (which increases longing) will skew towards the affair every time, and this has nothing to do with whether the marriage or lost love relationship is "better." Ask a cocaine addict to choose between his/her family or the drug, and the addict will pick the cocaine every time. Does this mean the cocaine is better for him/her than the family? Of course not.

When someone decides to (or has to) give up a lost love, if the reunited couple had had a series of NC times, leaving will be much harder than if the romance just progressed until it ended. Returning to the lost love has been strongly reinforced—because the return always took away the unbearable anxiety. NC/C became a cycle of familiarity; trying to break the cycle and really stop the romance is excruciating. So back we go: the romance doesn't end, the anxiety briefly clears, and it is reinforced again ... and strengthened each time the lost loves try to leave but "slip."

Cold turkey, one day at a time. That works. But the person has to make a very firm decision that this is truly the end and then grieve the permanent loss.

Copyright 2010 by Nancy Kalish, Ph.D.

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