What Is Hysterical Bonding — and Why Does "The White Lotus" Love It So Much?

Photograph by Fabio Lovino/HBO
Photograph by Fabio Lovino/HBO

Have you ever had a relationship flash before your eyes? One minute, you appear to be on the verge of a breakup, and the next, you can't picture life without that person, and any flaws you used to fixate on seem less critical. For Ethan (played by Will Sharpe) on "The White Lotus," he hallucinates his wife, Harper (played by Aubrey Plaza), is seduced by his frenemy Cameron (played by Theo James), and it changes the trajectory of their entire relationship.

Before the potential infidelity triggered Ethan's fear, the mid-30s married couple had stopped having sex altogether. Ethan liked to start his day with a morning run followed by porn, and Harper repeatedly accused him of no longer being attracted to her. "When you know everything about each other, you've seen each other on the toilet, there's no mystery," Ethan says to Cameron over dinner.

But somewhere between Harper and Cameron's secret kiss and Ethan sneaking off with Cameron's wife, Daphne, the couple finally come back together in a hot sex scene in the show's finale. Creator Mike White shared his insights on Ethan's unexpected shift in sexual interest during the aftershow: "Whatever happened, it allows him to let go of the jealousy that has been brewing with him. And it kind of brings back that first kind of sexual charge that happens in the beginning of relationships and sometimes fades away over time."

According to experts, sometimes, when your SO is the object of someone else's affections, they may appear more desirable. "In economics, the perceived value of an item increases when you see others using it and liking it, and it works the same way with people," says Suzannah Weiss, resident sexologist for Biird.

"The show ended with them on a high note as a couple, but it won't last unless they learn how to communicate and negotiate with love."

When you go from assuming your SO is a given in your life to being worried you might lose them to someone else, that jealousy can bring up "first crush" feelings or reignite a spark in a long-term relationship. Many people can identify with the concept, known as "hysterical bonding" — or when someone's partner cheats and they will do anything to win them back.

If this feels confusing or counterintuitive to you, we spoke to experts to better understand hysterical bonding, why it's not so uncommon, how it worked for Ethan and Harper on "The White Lotus," and if there are other ways to re-create that rush of lust without introducing infidelity into the relationship.

What Is Hysterical Bonding?

"It refers to a reaction in which an individual will attempt to solidify their relationship with their romantic partner following their partner's betrayal," says Jess Carbino, PhD, former sociologist for Tinder and Bumble. Typically, it's when the person is cheated on by their partner and will do anything to win them back.

Hysterical or trauma/betrayal bonding is a form of unhealthy coping mechanism, says Nicole Schafer, LPC, sex and relationship coach. "Rather than experiencing the usual grief, sadness etc., some individuals feel an intense desire to win their partner back, showing them why they should be with you again," she says. "This type of bonding after a traumatic event (for example, cheating) will probably feel amazing in the moment, but that will be fleeting and not sustainable."

But why does hysterical bonding occur? A lot of it can be blamed on hormones and fear. "When we feel fear, we experience an inherent adrenaline rush, as the chemical surges through our bodies to prepare us for fight or flight," says Beth Ribarsky, PhD, an expert on romantic relationships and professor of interpersonal communication. The adrenaline rush of thinking you're going to lose your significant other to someone else can release dopamine or crush-type feelings. Dr. Ribarsky likens jealousy to super glue. "A tiny bit can pull a couple even closer together. However, just a bit too much, and it ends up being a sticky disaster."

Does Hysterical Bonding Help Ethan and Harper on "The White Lotus"?

In "The White Lotus"'s finale, Ethan and Harper are finally able to have sex, but only after the suspicion of cheating arises. "Sometimes, just realizing someone else is attracted to your partner jogs your memory about how much you want them," relationship expert Chloe Ballatore says. "But beyond that, if there is suspicion or cheating, the trust gets damaged, and long-term relationships are built on trust."

At some point, Ethan and Harper will have to address the elephant in the room — or in this case, the condom on the couch, the latch on the door, etc. If they did indeed cheat, or if the suspicion of cheating is great enough, it can ultimately ruin the relationship. "The show ended with them on a high note as a couple, but it won't last unless they learn how to communicate and negotiate with love."

Hysterical bonding can be very erotic, but it is fleeting. "You get that dopamine hit right away, and maybe it continues for a week or a month, but it's not going to last longer than two months," Ballatore says. "Then you two are right back where you were before the cheating, except now, the trust has been damaged, perhaps fatally."

Can a Little Jealousy Be Good For a Relationship?

While hysterical bonding was coined as a reaction to being cheated on, sometimes just the fear of losing your SO to someone else is enough to stoke a fire in you. Dr. Carbino says, "While injecting jealousy into one's relationship is not the healthiest approach to reigniting a long-term relationship, it can provide perspective."

When considering how jealousy plays into your relationship, it's important to distinguish that a partner doesn't make us jealous. Instead, we are responsible for our own jealous feelings, Dr. Ribarsky says. Jealousy is an emotion like any other, and we choose how we respond to it. "Jealousy can be extremely dangerous, as it can create obsessive and intrusive thoughts that are counterproductive to a happy and healthy relationship," she explains. So be careful with how you let it impact your actions and your relationship.

There are plenty of ways to reignite chemistry without jealousy. If you want to re-create the initial spark you once had and maintain a level of mystery, "try each spending some time on your own," Weiss says. And when you do spend time together, perhaps look for more adrenaline-inducing activities, like watching a scary movie or trying an extreme sport. "When we feel adrenaline around our partner, we inherently find them more attractive as well as being drawn more toward them," Dr. Ribarsky says. "Not only do these spark a rush, but it is also a great opportunity to ensure you're staying out of the relational rut and doing the same thing over and over again."

Perhaps next season, we'll find Ethan and Harper jumping out of a plane together in the name of love.