Emotional Infidelity and the Limits of Attention
…it is possible to process at most 126 bits of information per second…It is out of this [limited amount of available attention] that everything in our life must come – every thought, memory, feeling, or action…[and] in reality it does not go that far.
-Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, pg 29
Two PsychCentral bloggers have written recently about emotional infidelity, and I want to throw in my own two cents.
Like Beth, there was a time in my past when I was involved with a lovely and lovable man who insisted on maintaining close “friendships” with other women, including several of his exes.
And that’s a good thing, right?
In fact, I initially admired him for it. He actually made me feel kinda bad, since, frankly, I don’t keep in touch with my ex-boyfriends. I never parted on bad terms with anyone, but, well, they’re just not on my mind anymore.
In each case I went on to meet a new man, and then between the new involvement and the other things in my life (you know: family and friends and work and travel and cleaning the house…all the other stuff of life), I, er, ummm…pretty much forgot about those old loves.
And I always felt vaguely guilty about that. Shouldn’t I be actively treasuring and reliving those precious memories, and cultivating deep friendships with these men in whom I invested so much love and who used to be soooo important to me?
But you know what? I’ve only got 126 bits of attention to burn per second, and every bit I use reminiscing about some past romance, or composing a heartfelt e-mail to an old lover, or chatting on the phone with one of my exes…is a bit of attention that I’m NOT devoting to the guy I’m with now.
And THAT’s the problem with opposite-sex “friendships.” They suck away precious quantities of all-too-limited attention, every bit of which needs to be invested in developing trust and intimacy in the current relationship.
In my situation, my lover’s most active “friendships” were with those exes who were in unhappy relationships.
He’d spend lots of time “helping them with their problems.” He’d meet them for dinner, and then tell me so after the fact. Exes felt free to stop by his apartment and slide notes under the door. And I was forbade to meet them or to ever try to be friends with them myself.
I STILL believe that he was never, actually, technically, cheating on me in the literal, sexual way. The problem was, I could feel his distraction. His mind was too often elsewhere, his attention too fragmented, to ever put down any deep roots of intimacy. As Athena Staik so beautifully put it:
Sharing thoughts and deepest concerns, hopes and fears, passions and problems is what deepens intimacy; it builds an emotional bond between two people… Giving this away to another person, regardless of the justification, is infidelity, a betrayal of trust. This is especially true when you consider that emotional intimacy is the most powerful bond in human relationships, much stronger than a sexual one.
My lover sprinkled his attentions over several women instead of building any single, strong emotional bond with one woman.
My own attention was profoundly compromised during this period of my life. Like Beth, I was hyper-vigilant, never at ease. I lived with a constant undercurrent of worry. My mind felt stupid and slow, weighted down with distraction. I rarely “forgot” long enough to fully enjoy myself. I wanted badly to be emotionally open, wanted to love fully…and never felt safe enough to do so.
We’d have a wonderful phone conversation and he’d end with a warm I Love You that made my heart swell; five minutes later I’d be wondering who he was on the phone with NOW, and did he say I Love You to her, too?…and with that same kind of teasing, warm tone?
Was I the only woman receiving a valentine, or did he buy them in bulk and sit at his desk addressing one after another after another…?
This is why I finally had to say good-bye: Waaaay too many of my 126 bits per second were being spent on these kinds of thoughts…and I never could persuade him to become more transparent in his dealings with other women so that I could develop ease and trust.
Meanwhile, there’s so much else I want to do in life, so many other things I want to spend my precious 126 bits per second on, including my family, my work, and another wonderful man.
As Dr. Csikszentmihalyi writes on page 30:
…the information we allow into consciousness becomes extremely important; it is, in fact, what determines the content and the quality of life.
Cousins, L. (2012). Emotional Infidelity and the Limits of Attention. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 4, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/always-learning/2012/07/emotional-infidelity-and-the-limits-of-attention/