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Having an affair causes brain damage?

October 4th, 2008

Dr Petra

If my head wasn’t hurting enough when I saw the headline in the Star stating ‘Having An Affair Causes Brain Damage”, I very nearly had an aneurism when I saw numerous other newspapers were running similar coverage stating if you cheated on a partner you could expect to die.

Interestingly there did seem to be a theoretical underpinning these frantic headlines as an Italian neurologist Lorenzo Pinessi (President of the Italian Migraine Society) had shared with colleagues his observation that male migraine suffering patients seemed to be more likely to suffer a stroke or heart attack. Men who don’t suffer from regular migraines and women didn’t seem to be so adversely affected.

This might seem a bit wacky but other research on men taking medication for erectile problems seemed more likely to have an adverse event if they were cheating on their spouse rather than having sex with a spouse. So there could be some basis to this theory.

Unfortunately headlines like this tend to get all excited about the likelihood of cheaters being caught out by their brains ‘exploding’ (oh yes, some papers did use that term) which isn’t very responsible. If you’re currently prone to the occasional headache or even severe migraines and you’re a man who also happens to be having an affair you may well be worried that you’re about to kick the bucket.

It’s worth noting that this story is based on a clinician’s observations about patients. As far as I can tell it isn’t something that has been published or evaluated by the wider scientific community. It might be the neurologist has identified a very real problem, but only wider research on other patients in different countries would let us know this with any certainty.

Having an affair is not something that is stress free. Those who have been cheated on will no doubt feel their lot is pretty grim once an affair is discovered or perhaps during the time they suspected they were being betrayed. But the person who is cheating is also likely to feel a mixture of emotions ranging from excitement, to elation, to guilt, to fear, and self hatred.

In our culture we historically disapprove of adultery (in fact its the one key thing we still tend to see negatively unlike things like premarital sex or homosexuality where we have shifted our opinions somewhat). That means that we don’t often like to consider the side of the cheater. Which means we may miss the person who is having an affair isn’t necessarily skipping off to sexual nirvana without any thought for their partner.

Another myth about infidelity is that it’s all about sex. While sex is undoubtedly part of cheating for most people who have an affair, not everyone who has an affair has sex. And it can be more difficult to forgive someone who has been intimate or close to someone in non sexual ways – for example when your partner or spouse shared secrets, affection or kindness with someone other than you.

No doubt having an affair is stressful, but the sensational headlines behind this story didn’t seem to account for the fact that stress could also lead someone into an affair. A person who feels insecure because their job is at threat, or their home isn’t how they would like it to be, or their life isn’t going the way they want it to, or their relationship isn’t what they would like is going to feel stressed whether they have an affair or not. It might even be the trigger that leads to an affair in the first place. So although the observations behind this study suggest that cheating causes stress which in turn leads to a stroke, a more detailed and widespread study might support this finding – or might indicate that for some an affair might reduce stress and prevent neurological problems.

The problem with the observation behind this story is we don’t know how ‘adultery’ was defined. Was it the definition of the neurologist and their colleagues, or something their patients described? Very often we assume people having sex outside of a relationships are cheaters but it could be people were in open relationships or perhaps had a spouse who was aware of the situation but accepted it. I suspect people in said categories would be in a minority but it doesn’t seem to have been made clear exactly what kind of affair or cheating was being described. Was it actual sex, online sex, a close but non sexual relationship with someone other than a spouse, activities which a spouse agreed to, or something else?

Clearly if people are likely to increase health problems as a result of any activity – infidelity included – then we need to be able to warn them. However, we can’t do this until we’re really sure of ourselves (not just some observations from one neurologist’s patient list). And we can’t be certain until we’ve measured this more closely.

I’d definitely support a more detailed study into this interesting phenomena, but I would caution against assuming from the outset that all extra-marital sex is bad, and would recommend being very clear on how terms like ‘adultery’ are operationalised and measured within a study. I’d suggest that any research would try and identify where stress and adultery may be linked (for example does adultery lead to stress, stress lead to adultery, or a mixture of the two?). I’d also want to try and find out whether this truly is only something that affects men with migraines more than other men or women. And is it the case that only current cheaters involved in a sexual relationship are at risk, or is anyone who is prone to migraines and has had an affair in the past likely to suffer neurological problems? Such a study would be complex in both design and ethics terms, but certainly we need more information before conclusively stating that if you have an affair your brain will blow up.

It is all too easy to set up through research or casenote observations ideas that support the status quo and apportion blame. Adultery is a sin in most world religions and it’s not really the place of science, deliberately or accidentally, to reinforce the idea that if you do commit such a sin that you will be punished (in this case by your head exploding). You could almost hear the glee in the news reports as it seemed to the press coverage at last science had proven a. all cheaters are bad and b. they will all certainly be punished in the most extreme way possible.

Surely if there is such a risk of stress increasing the chance of neurological problems then we should do all we can to limit this. I can’t see how having shocking headlines telling us that cheaters will die is going to reduce stress for anyone in such a relationship. It’s also pretty insensitive to anyone whose partner has just had a stroke or heart attack – rather than having their partner’s best interests at heart at this time they may well be thinking ‘has he been cheating on me?’ It doesn’t really give much hope for a stress-free recovery.

So rather than assuming that if you’ve cheated then you’ve now got a death sentence hanging over you it may be more helpful to appreciate this is an idea rather than a fact, and it has not been scientifically proven. If you are in any way worried about stress or migraines (whether you’re having an affair or not) a good place to go is your GP, and if you’re worried about your relationship then a marriage counsellor could help.

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