When you investigate infidelity, depression pops up often. While I have written in other posts that infidelity has little to do with unhappiness in a relationship, there’s quite a bit of evidence that extramarital sex does have indirect links to feelings of sadness, unhappiness, and depression.
In most people, depression decreases libido and interest in sex.
John Bancroft has proposed, however, that there are small numbers of people who experience an increase in sex drive when feeling the effects of depression.
Poverty and its emotional effects affect men and women differently. When poverty goes up and incomes go down, male infidelity increases, whereas female infidelity decreases. This may very well be because of the unfair imbalance in the reality that while men use sex as an escape from their emotional burdens of financial struggles, the risk of greater financial struggle increases for women who cheat if they are caught.
In the 1800’s, Madame Germaine de Stael, a French political writer and a vocal opponent of Napoleon, suffered severe depression. It appears that throughout most of her life, she used extramarital sex as a way to ward off the blues.
In grief after the death of her first child, she dove deep into affairs with several different men. Legend has it that she was not as beautiful as she wished to be, but her sharp wit drew men to her like flies to honey.
Seeking lovers to soothe her grief became her lifelong coping mechanism.
In a letter to one lover, she explained that she was taking on yet another man to find “a sort of excitement that would relieve for a moment the terrible weight that was pressing on my heart.”
In my research on couples in which the wife cheated, I’ve interviewed many people regarding the way depression affected their pursuit of extramarital affairs.
It wasn’t that these women experienced an increase in sexual desire during their depression, but rather that they identified sex outside of the marriage as one of the only effective means to managing their negative emotions.
In contrast to existing theories that depression causes out-of-bounds sexual behaviors such as infidelity, this sexual behavior was actually adaptive — a means by which these women could truly adjust their own body chemistry for a positive result.
I believe infidelity can positively affect women with depression in at least these three ways:
1. Women take better care of themselves physically when they are mid-affair.
When women are having or pursuing an affair, they take greater pains to appear attractive. They take care of themselves and their bodies, leading them to become healthier overall. They’re having sex more, getting more exercise, and behaving in ways that counteract the lethargy and inactivity associated with most depression.
In having more sex, women’s bodies may be getting something else that fights depression: semen. Believe it or not, research by Gallup and Burch reveals that men have been using a secret chemical weapon in the “sex war.”
When analyzed, men’s semen is shown to contain high levels (higher than mere accident) of numerous psychoactive hormones and substances, including testosterone (which increases a woman’s libido and interest in having more sex), as well as neurochemicals such as epinephrine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, vasopressin, melatonin and other opioids. These all have a significant impact on mood, cognition and memory. In fact, the research shows that women who use condoms during sex have higher levels of depression. As a woman’s body absorbs the chemicals from her partner’s semen, she experiences a true anti-depressant effect.
2. Affairs trigger the release of neurochemicals that act as a natural counter-balance to depression.
Neurochemically, a woman’s brain reacts to new sexual relationships with a tremendous flood of powerful substances that affect her mood and energy. Serotonin levels drop.
While this is a condition also associated with depression, serotonin also helps us restrain impulses and be more thoughtful in our planning. Low levels of serotonin in new love contribute to our feelings of obsession-like interest in our new partner, while high levels of serotonin decrease libido and can interfere with sexual arousal. This may be one reason breakups in a passionate relationships may trigger depressive episodes, as the serotonin levels are already low.
When a woman finds a new love as a way to manage the hurt, other powerful chemicals increase, taking the effects of serotonin into a positive, passionate direction. Oxytocin levels increase, causing feelings of excitement and heightened sensitivity to physical stimulation.Dopamine surges through the brain, acting as a chemical trigger for feelings of pleasure and reward in the brain.
The woman’s brain chemistry changes positively, and her mood along with it.
3. Having an affair often leads to positive psychological shifts in a woman’s mindset.
The psychological effects of extramarital sex often include an increased self-esteem and increased self-perception of attractiveness — qualities men find attractive in women. The attention that woman therefore receives, along with the thrill of a new relationship — and even the excitement from the risk-taking of cheating — can all contribute to reduced feelings of depression.
Of course, the negative consequences of being caught could certainly lead to a set back into depression, but during the early stages of the affair, those symptoms might still be reduced.
So, across many different physiological and psychological dimensions, a woman beginning a new relationship experiences an increase in feelings of pleasure, excitement, energy, and interest in her own life.
Can I recommend that depressed women pursue affairs to self-medicate a depressed brain, body and psyche?
No, I can’t say that. The social and relational impacts of infidelity and deception seem far too potentially devastating and risky, at least within most traditional marriages and relationships.
But, I can say there women and men out there who are engaging in extramarital sex when depressed, not as a result of the depression, but in an unconscious attempt to overcome those feelings using one of the most powerful biological weapons in the human emotional arsenal — sex.