Discovering your partner has cheated can open the gates to a flood of overwhelming emotions. Infidelity is a betrayal, one that can prove deeply traumatic. It’s normal to experience a range of complicated thoughts and feelings in the aftermath. Confusion, grief, pain, sadness and anger are all normal responses. But what happens when your feelings take a sharp turn in the other direction? What if, juxtaposed with your hurt and distress, lies the desire to reconnect, to be comforted, to win them back from their affair partner? It may surprise you to learn this reaction, often referred to as “hysterical bonding,” is fairly common. But what causes this particular response to cheating? Can it help you repair your relationship, or is it just a really bad idea?
What does hysterical bonding look like?
The emotional side After the initial shock and confusion, many people feel deeply distressed and struggle to regain control over turbulent emotions. You may want to know more about the affair — how it started, why it happened — but feel too afraid to ask. These unknowns and uncertainties can trigger self-doubt and anxiety about your worth as a partner. It’s not at all unusual to fixate on the affair and wonder what did or didn’t happen between your partner and the other person. Another common outcome? Alternating between never wanting to see your partner again and feeling an intense urge to draw closer, willing to forgive anything so long as they choose to stay with you.
The physical side Most people turn to romantic partners in times of distress, so it’s not surprising that emotional turmoil triggers an intense craving for the comfort you know they can provide. The need to feel wanted can prompt a desire to reconnect sexually. This rekindled intimacy may feel new, different, or unlike sex you had in the past. According to anecdotes of hysterical bonding from infidelity support circles, some people feel as if they’ve returned to the early stages of falling in love, before infidelity and other problems troubled the waters of the relationship. Others describe hysterical bonding sex as intense and deeply emotional. On the other hand, many people report that, while sex promotes a renewed connection in the moment, this later complicates their feelings when unpleasant memories of the cheating resurface. Sex that happens with hysterical bonding can also carry undertones of desperation. Perhaps you worry you didn’t excite your partner in the bedroom, so you initiate sex more regularly and offer to try new sex acts you lacked interest in before.
Where does it come from?
If you want to maintain the relationship, the need to hold on to your partner at all costs may partially drive your desire to connect physically.
Other reasons, whether you consciously recognize them or not, can also factor in.
Here’s a look at some of the potential drivers.
You haven’t worked through the betrayal
Once infidelity happens, partners who want to stay together must address both the hurt it caused and its underlying reasons.
“When you avoid addressing the infidelity, this sets the hurt partner up for ongoing disappointment, tremendous frustration, and diminished self-esteem,” explains Monika Cope-Ward, a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW-C) in Laurel, Maryland.
Cope-Ward goes on to say that internalized negative thoughts about the cheating can eventually take over, fueling self-blame and unrealistic thoughts, such as “I should have been better in bed” or “It’s up to me to fix things.”
These thoughts can give rise to the idea that you need to perform better to repair the relationship or take back control.
Your emotions take charge
After a partner cheats, you might feel as if your emotions are all over the place.
Your mood might veer from sad to furious to hopeful to vengeful. You might have trouble sleeping or find yourself cycling through relentless thoughts about the affair.
These responses are all common. They’re also difficult to handle, especially if you feel isolated or alone in your distress. Wanting to ease the pain might leave you grasping at any remedy that seems likely to help you feel better.
On one level, you probably know you won’t feel better until you start the hard work of recovery — your own healing as well as relationship healing.
If you don’t feel quite ready to address that challenge, however, it might feel easier, even natural, to turn to strategies that usually help ease distress, including sex with your partner.
Infidelity threatens your relationship
Some people consider cheating an instant relationship-ender. Rebuilding trust can be difficult, and you might know you’ll never feel entirely comfortable with your partner after the betrayal.
That’s absolutely OK. You’re the only one who can decide what’s right for you.
But if you do want to repair your relationship, you might feel very conscious of how close it came to ending.
You love your partner despite their mistake, you value the relationship, and you’re still invested in it, so you want to protect it against any and all outside threats that might damage it.
Hysterical bonding can sometimes serve as a method of reinforcing this connection to your partner. They don’t really belong to you, of course, but reconnecting through sex might seem like a way to cement your “claim” on them.
Is it a good or bad thing? While this type of sex may feel good as it happens, the feeling it provides may not last. “Hysterical bonding will not repair or sustain the relationship,” Cope-Ward says. Infidelity changes your relationship permanently. It is possible to heal, but you can’t erase the damage. In other words, the relationship as you knew it no longer exists. While intimacy in romantic relationships typically does involve sex, intimacy goes far beyond the physical. For a happy, healthy relationship, Cope-Ward explains, you need acceptance, openness, and friendship along with physical affection. Without these elements, you can’t form the strong bonds necessary for a relationship to thrive and last. The betrayal you feel after your partner cheats can cut so deeply because it alters all aspects of the relationship: trust, open communication, feelings of friendship, and understanding.
Moving forward Once you discover infidelity, it’s essential to begin acknowledging and processing your feelings. Burying your emotions and reactions to the infidelity won’t help you work through it. Avoiding the issue, in fact, can negatively affect mental health and lead to a delayed response down the line. These tips can help you take productive steps toward working through the pain.
Get professional help Reaching out to a counsellor is a good first step after discovering infidelity. Working with a counsellor on your own can help you:
learn helpful strategies for managing emotional distress
explore your feelings about the affair
consider your options for the future
identify and work through unhelpful reactions, such as self-blame
Cope-Ward recommends working with a couples counsellor if you and your partner decide to work on maintaining the relationship. A trained, compassionate counsellor can help you take the first steps toward navigating tension, suspicion, anger, and mistrust as you work to heal the damage.
Talk about it It’s not always easy to tell people your partner cheated, but friends and family who understand what you’re going through can make a big difference by offering emotional support. Keeping what happened to yourself can leave you isolated. That won’t do you any favors when you’re struggling to cope with emotional distress. If you’re worried others might gossip or judge you for staying with your partner, it can help to start by opening up to just a few trusted loved ones, people you know will provide you with support and empathy.
Take care of yourself As you begin to heal, self-care becomes more important than ever. Make time to do things you enjoy, whether that’s a solo day trip to the beach or a day at home with music and books. Practices that boost emotional awareness, such as journaling and meditation, can also have benefit. These habits don’t just help you learn to accept painful emotions, they can also help you find a sense of peace. Above all, don’t feel pressured to rush to mend the relationship immediately or spend every minute with your partner. It’s often more helpful to proceed slowly, taking the time you need to rebuild the broken trust.
The bottom line Hysterical bonding is one of many complicated responses to infidelity trauma. It may not do further damage, but it likely won’t improve the situation, either, especially if you don’t do any other processing. Infidelity doesn’t necessarily spell doom. Many relationships do recover and end up stronger than before. To reach this point, though, you’ll typically need support from a trained couples counsellor, and a commitment from both partners to do the work necessary to heal and rebuild.