Since the age of 16 I have had a fairly liberal view on the idea of open relationships and what we call infidelity; which has often been met with judgement and misunderstanding. This also ties into ideas on polyamory, but I will save that side of things for another post. Apparently my words don’t do my idea of infidelity enough justice, so this post is going to come from Ester Perel, and her TED Talk on Rethinking Infidelity. I have also listened to podcasts by Dan Savage & the comedy duo Krystyna Hutchinson and Corinne Fisher on the subject of polyamory and infidelity, which I will talk about in another post, and hopefully write something myself as well. For now, here are the words of Ester Perel:
“Why do we cheat? And why do happy people cheat?
Why do we think that men cheat out of boredom and fear of intimacy, but women cheat out of loneliness and hunger for intimacy? And is an affair always the end of a relationship?
For the past 10 years, I have travelled the globe and worked extensively with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. There is one simple act of transgression that can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness and their very identity: an affair. And yet, this extremely common act is so poorly understood. Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, and so, too, the taboo against it. In fact, infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy, so much so that this is the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible: once for doing it, and once just for thinking about it.
So how do we reconcile what is universally forbidden, yet universally practised? Now, throughout history, men practically had a license to cheat with little consequence, and supported by a host of biological and evolutionary theories that justified their need to roam, so the double standard is as old as adultery itself. But who knows what’s really going on under the sheets there.
Because when it comes to sex, the pressure for men is to boast and to exaggerate, but the pressure for women is to hide, minimise and deny, which isn’t surprising when you consider that there are still nine countries where women can be killed for straying.
Monogamy used to be one person for life. Today, monogamy is one person at a time. Many of you probably have said, “I am monogamous in all my relationships.” We used to marry, and had sex for the first time. But now we marry, and we stop having sex with others. The fact is that monogamy had nothing to do with love. Men relied on women’s fidelity in order to know whose children these are, and who gets the cows when I die.
The definition of infidelity keeps on expanding: sexting, watching porn, staying secretly active on dating apps. Because there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what even constitutes an infidelity, estimates vary widely, from 26 percent to 75 percent. Now, I like this definition of an affair — it brings together the three key elements: a secretive relationship, which is the core structure of an affair; an emotional connection to one degree or another; and a sexual alchemy. And alchemy is the key word here, because the erotic frisson is such that the kiss that you only imagine giving, can be as powerful and as enchanting as hours of actual lovemaking. As Marcel Proust said, “it’s our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person”. It’s never been easier to cheat, and it’s never been more difficult to keep a secret. And never has infidelity exacted such a psychological toll.
When marriage was an economic enterprise, infidelity threatened our economic security. But now that marriage is a romantic arrangement, infidelity threatens our emotional security.
Ironically, we used to turn to adultery – that was the space where we sought pure love. But now that we seek love in marriage, adultery destroys it. Now, there are three ways that I think infidelity hurts differently today. We have a romantic ideal in which we turn to one person to fulfil an endless list of needs: to be my greatest lover, my best friend, the best parent, my trusted confidant, my emotional companion, my intellectual equal. And I am it: I’m chosen, I’m unique, I’m indispensable, I’m irreplaceable, I’m the one. And infidelity tells me I’m not. It is the ultimate betrayal. Infidelity shatters the grand ambition of love. But if throughout history, infidelity has always been painful, today it is often traumatic. Because it threatens our sense of self.So my patient Fernando. “I thought I knew my life. I thought I knew who you were, who we were as a couple, who I was. Now, I question everything. “Infidelity — a violation of trust, a crisis of identity. “Can I ever trust you again?” he asks. “Can I ever trust anyone again?” And this is also what my patient Heather is telling me, when she’s talking to me about her story with Nick. Married, two kids. Nick just left on a business trip, and Heather is playing on his iPad with the boys, when she sees a message appear on the screen: “Can’t wait to see you.” Strange, she thinks, we just saw each other. And then another message: “Can’t wait to hold you in my arms.” And Heather realises these are not for her.
Heather, she goes digging, and she finds hundreds of messages, and photos exchanged and desires expressed. The vivid details of Nick’s two-year affair unfold in front of her in real time. But then we have another paradox that we’re dealing with these days. Because of this romantic ideal, we are relying on our partner’s fidelity with a unique fervor. But we also have never been more inclined to stray, because we live in an era where we feel that we are entitled to pursue our desires, because this is the culture where I deserve to be happy. And if we used to divorce because we were unhappy, today we divorce because we could be happier. And if divorce carried all the shame, today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame. So Heather, she can’t talk to her friends because she’s afraid that they will judge her for still loving Nick, and everywhere she turns, she gets the same advice: Leave him. Throw the dog on the curb. And if the situation were reversed, Nick would be in the same situation. Staying is the new shame. So if we can divorce, why do we still have affairs?
Now, the typical assumption is that if someone cheats, either there’s something wrong in your relationship or wrong with you. But millions of people can’t all be pathological.
The logic goes like this: If you have everything you need at home, then there is no need to go looking elsewhere, assuming that there is such a thing as a perfect marriage that will inoculate us against wanderlust. But what if passion has a finite shelf life? What if there are things that even a good relationship can never provide? If even happy people cheat, what is it about? The vast majority of people that I actually work with are often people who have actually been faithful for decades, but one day they cross a line that they never thought they would cross, and at the risk of losing everything. But for a glimmer of what? Affairs are an act of betrayal, and they are also an expression of longing and loss.
At the heart of an affair, you will often find a longing and a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.
I’m thinking about another patient of mine, Priya, who is blissfully married, loves her husband, and would never want to hurt the man. Priya fell for the arborist who removed the tree from her yard after Hurricane Sandy. And with his truck and his tattoos, he’s quite the opposite of her. But at 47, Priya’s affair is about the adolescence that she never had. And her story highlights for me that when we seek the gaze of another.
It isn’t always our partner that we are turning away from, but the person that we have ourselves become. And it isn’t so much that we’re looking for another person, as much as we are looking for another self.
Now, all over the world, there is one word that people who have affairs always tell me. They feel alive.
And contrary to what you may think, affairs are way less about sex, and a lot more about desire: desire for attention, desire to feel special, desire to feel important. And the very structure of an affair, the fact that you can never have your lover, keeps you wanting. The incompleteness, the ambiguity, keeps you wanting that which you can’t have. And I’ve also told quite a few of my patients that if they could bring into their relationships one tenth of the boldness, the imagination and the verve that they put into their affairs, they probably would never need to see me.
Desire runs deep. Betrayal runs deep. But it can be healed. And some affairs are death knells for relationships that were already dying on the vine. But others will jolt us into new possibilities. The fact is, the majority of couples who have experienced affairs stay together. But some of them will merely survive, and others will actually be able to turn a crisis into an opportunity. They’ll be able to turn this into a generative experience. And I’m actually thinking even more so for the deceived partner, who will often say, “You think I didn’t want more? But I’m not the one who did it.” But now that the affair is exposed, they, too, get to claim more, and they no longer have to uphold the status quo that may not have been working for them that well, either.
I’ve noticed that a lot of couples, in the immediate aftermath of an affair, because of this new disorder that may actually lead to a new order, will have depths of conversations with honesty and openness that they haven’t had in decades. And, partners who were sexually indifferent find themselves suddenly so lustfully voracious, they don’t know where it’s coming from.
Something about the fear of loss will rekindle desire, and make way for an entirely new kind of truth.
So when an affair is exposed, what are some of the specific things that couples can do? We know from trauma that healing begins when the perpetrator acknowledges their wrongdoing. So for the partner who had the affair one thing is to end the affair, but the other is the essential act of expressing guilt and remorse for hurting his wife. But the truth is that quite a lot of people who have affairs may feel terribly guilty for hurting their partner but they don’t feel guilty for the experience of the affair itself. And that distinction is important.
But for deceived partners, it is essential to do things that bring back a sense of self-worth, to surround oneself with love and with friends and activities that give back joy and meaning and identity. But even more important, is to curb the curiosity to mine for the sordid details — Where were you? Where did you do it? How often? Is she better than me in bed? — questions that only inflict more pain, and keep you awake at night. And instead, switch to what I call the investigative questions, the ones that mine the meaning and the motives — What did this affair mean for you? What were you able to express or experience there that you could no longer do with me? What was it like for you when you came home? What is it about us that you value?
Every affair will redefine a relationship and every couple will determine what the legacy of the affair will be. But affairs are here to stay, and they’re not going away. And the dilemmas of love and desire, they don’t yield just simple answers of black and white and good and bad, and victim and perpetrator. Betrayal in a relationship comes in many forms. There are many ways that we betray our partner: with contempt, with neglect, with indifference, with violence. Sexual betrayal is only one way to hurt a partner.
In other words, the victim of an affair is not always the victim of the marriage.
When a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair that has been revealed, I will often tell them this: Today in the West, most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?