IN A 1923 poem by the Lebanese philosopher Kahlil Gibran, he writes:
Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
Almost 100 years later, Belgian relationship therapist Esther Perel applies similar thinking to adult relationships in her second book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity: “Our partners do not belong to us; they are only on loan, with an option to renew — or not.” This approach, she says, doesn’t compromise the commitment, but rather encourages us not to take our partners for granted. There are many ways spouses disengage from one another, and having a secret affair can be one of the most devastating. The State of Affairs takes a fresh look at infidelity, broadening the focus from the havoc it wreaks within a committed relationship to consider also why people do it, what it means to them, and why breaking up is the expected response to duplicity — but not necessarily the wisest one.
I met with Perel on “the couch” — a very comfortable sofa where her clients open up to her about their deepest secrets and betrayals — in her New York City office, steps from The Museum of Sex, where we discussed adultery and existential crises.
SKYE C. CLEARY: The subtitle of your book is “Rethinking Infidelity.” Why do we need to rethink it, and why now?
ESTHER PEREL: If I ask a group of people, “How many of you have been affected by infidelity in your life?” about 85 percent will raise their hand. Infidelity is not just a twosome story. It’s an experience that affects many people — children, siblings, friends, colleagues, wives, husbands, and lovers — and yet it is shrouded in secrecy, filled with shame, and often addressed with major judgment. That’s not helpful to the people who are actually experiencing it — or to society as a whole.
There is another conversation to be had about infidelity that is less judgmental, less polarizing, and that integrates a dual perspective. Affairs are about hurt and betrayal, but they are also about longing and loss and self-seeking. An affair is about what it did to you, as well as what it meant to me. Sometimes the affair has nothing to do with the one who has been cheated on and that can be rather freeing. It doesn’t hurt less, but it does give the affair a different meaning. In the arts, there are many books and operas about both sides: the person who has been scorned or jilted, and about the person who is having the affair. These dualities have been missing in psychology. Modern psychology forgot about the story of the affair because it was preoccupied with the story of the marriage. The story of the affair needs to be integrated back.
As for why now? Part of why we are talking about infidelity more today is because women have begun to close the gender gap. When it was men doing what men do — and what they had the license to do — there was no need to talk about it because it was the normal social order. It has been a massive double standard. Just think: There has never been such thing as the “other man”; it’s only ever the “other woman.” The conversation about infidelity today matches the conversation about virginity 50 years ago.
Infidelity is also taking a ride on the more individualistic entitled self-fulfillment narrative of our contemporary life. Desire has become central in our consumer society as well as our personal lives. People feel like they’re entitled to happiness, such as at work in the desire for job satisfaction, as well as in relationships. It’s not so much that people are unhappy, but rather they think that they could be happier and therefore some think they deserve to have an affair.
Why did you decide to write about infidelity?
I began thinking about it way back when I was writing my first book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, which was around the time of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. There, I posed the question as to why the United States is so tolerant of multiple divorces and so intransigent about affairs. The rest of the world is more family-oriented, so it has always opted for the other way around — compromising on infidelity and preserving the family — courtesy of women. In the United States, infidelity has become such a deal breaker and dominant cause for divorce, and there is a real hunger to find another way to look at it.
I am often asked: Why, if I believe in the strength of relationships, did I write a book about one of the worst things that can happen in one? I think we learn the best lessons when things go wrong. The moments when we’re challenged with adversity — with major fractures in the stories of our lives — are the moments when we’re forced to look into ourselves and our relationships. To understand trust, we have to understand distrust. To understand loyalty, fidelity, and pride, we have to understand betrayal, shame, and infidelity. To understand modern infidelity, we must understand modern marriage. The State of Affairs is not just a book about infidelity; it speaks to the importance of aliveness and vitality in relationships through the lens of affairs.
Why is infidelity the ultimate betrayal? Why is it more taboo than other transgressions, such as abuse or neglect?
Today most of us in the West arrived at marriage after years of sexual nomadism. So, when you decide to close the gates, it affirms your choice that you have found “The One.” Choosing between two people in a village is very different from choosing among thousands of people on Tinder. “The One” becomes the person for whom you are willing to delete all your apps and to forgo all your other possibilities in a society flooded with options — or at least the pretense of options.
The essence of relationships today is built on emotional and sexual exclusivity. Exclusivity has always been the sacred cow of the romantic ideal, but our social context has changed. In the past, our spouse was rarely the person with whom we shared our deepest inner life with — or at least it was never part of the expectation. For those conversations, we confided in priests, neighbors, friends, mentors, or siblings. In the last 20 years, our social capital has dropped significantly and spouses are now supposed to give each other what once an entire community used to provide: belonging, continuity, and identity. Also, all the reasons why we would want to have an affair should have been removed: we get to choose if we marry, we get to choose whom to marry, and we don’t need to be married to have sex, to have kids, or to leave home. So, when it happens, it’s much more powerful and painful.
Marriage used to be until death, but life expectancy is now longer than ever. Have we outgrown marriage?
No. We will always look for stable, committed relationships to have families and raise children. We got stuck for a while around the nuclear one-person-for-life model while life was doubling in duration, but marriage is adapting and evolving to meet the needs of today, such as blended families, single-parent families, surrogate families, gay families, and donor families.
Infidelity is a deal breaker for some people, but why doesn’t it necessarily mean divorce and walking away?
Many people are embarrassed to admit that they still love the person who hurt them. They are ashamed to stay. You are supposed to get out. It is the dignified thing. Sometimes, indeed you must. Sometimes it’s just a shit show and everything has been broken into a zillion pieces that cannot be put back together.
But why can’t we imagine that people can repair in the sense of re-pairing? Many find there is something worthwhile in the resilience and robustness of staying and rebuilding the trust and the connection. People need to be given permission to want to stick together after an affair rather than to hide it.
Most people in the West are going to have two or three marriages in their lifetime and some will do it with the same person. When a couple marries at age 22 in college, it will be a completely different marriage from when they’re 55 and their three kids have left home. Couples either recreate a new relationship with different power structures and interests as they grow, or they find other people. Every organism and every company knows that it needs to reinvent itself continuously or else it fossilizes, but the notion of flexibility and fluidity and adaptability in marriage is more unusual.
So reactions to infidelity are not a “one-size-fits-all” approach either?
If you’ve been cheated on, most of your friends will say, “Leave! Dump the dog (or the girl)! Get the hell out of there!” If you don’t, your friends will judge you for not judging your partner enough. How can you stay without shame? How can you stay and feel good about the fact that you took this challenge on?
Many people do stay and there needs to be a multiplicity of stories to reflect that. One woman told me she stayed because she loves her husband. Why? He has been an amazing father and a great husband for 22 years. He helped her take care of her alcoholic father and sick mother. He is a decent human being who also had an affair. That’s just an example, and it doesn’t describe all men. I might not be right about all of this but nothing I say is made up.
Why do people have affairs? And why do happy people and people in open relationships still transgress?
There are plenty of reasons why people have affairs — they are unhappy, they fight, they are resentful, lonely, neglected, rejected, sexually frustrated, sexually closeted, they have personality issues, or they’re just dissatisfied with the relationship. But people in happy marriages and people in open systems cheat too. The typical view would be to say that something is missing at home, since they wouldn’t be having an affair if they had everything they wanted. It’s not that simple. Marriage is not necessarily the culprit.
The people who interest me the most are the ones who are dedicated and devoted to their spouse. They value their family and their life. They are in a system that they want to be in, and they have an affair. Yesterday they were judging people having affairs and today they are doing things they never thought they would. Why do they trample on the very borders that they themselves erected? Why are they willing to dispense today with the relationship that they cared about so much yesterday? What is this tsunami and the destructive force within it? They see it as it’s happening. They stand to lose everything, for a glimmer of what? Excitement and titillation doesn’t begin to capture it. These are not frivolous people. They are often very responsible, devoted citizens, parents, and mates. In the midst of an affair, they are doing things like visiting their mother-in-law at the hospital every day. They are a living contradiction.
My first book, Mating in Captivity, looks at the dilemmas of love and desire inside couples. The State of Affairs considers what happens when desire goes looking elsewhere. Affairs are not nearly as much about sex as they are about desire — the desire to feel seen, important, special, and to reconnect with lost parts of ourselves. That is what makes us feel alive. The one thing I have heard from people all over the world is that affairs make them feel alive in the sense of renewal, energy, vibrancy, vitality, autonomy, and mastery.
“Why now?” is a question I always ask of couples. People will usually have had many opportunities, but why 16 years into a marriage? Often it’s because something is pressing at the mortality button. A parent dies, a friend goes too soon, or there’s illness, infertility, or unemployment. Something that tells a person that life is short. Something that pushes people to question: Is this it? Is this my life for the next 25 years? When people succumb to the gaze of a stranger, often it’s not because they seek to leave their partner behind, but rather they want to leave the person they have become. They are not looking for another person, but for another self. Sometimes complacency, laziness, disengagement, or estrangement positions people for an openness to somebody else. Happily married people often cheat because they don’t keep up their resistance.
And people in open relationships transgress because breaking rules is part of human nature. There are always rules — even in open relationships — and the freedom to be with other lovers is not enough to quell the temptation to cross the boundary, no matter how far it is. I am not trying to justify transgression, but rather to understand it.
Your book is quite philosophical, particularly when you talk about the tension between the desire for freedom and to be in committed relationships, and the conflict between domesticity and excitement. Where does the therapy end and the philosophy begin for you?
Sometimes I philosophize with my patients. We muse on the way life is. It’s not a problem-ridden narrative, but rather infidelity highlights some of the existential dilemmas around love and desire. People would love to think that you can affair-proof a marriage. Yet, even the most protected life cannot shield itself against those unknowns. That’s the philosophy; the part that acknowledges what you cannot control, what belongs to happenstance, what belongs to the unpredictable, and what belongs to fate. There is a piece of life that is in a sphere that you cannot reach no matter how much you root yourself and batten down the hatches. Philosophical thinking is the willingness to ponder these imponderables and ambiguities, these uncertainties, to grapple with the tension, and to stay with the question.
In the book, you say that we can learn from affairs to reinvigorate marriages, such as fostering a sense of aliveness, playfulness, and imagination.
Yes, but that doesn’t mean people can expect their marriage to be as hot as an affair. Affairs remind us not to take our relationships for granted, and to stay engaged. Don’t have your most interesting conversations about life or passions or books and politics with your friends and then only talk with your partner about who is going to pick up the chicken. “Management Inc.” is important, but don’t lose the curiosity.
Adventure and novelty are crucial to maintaining freshness. I’m not talking about the novelty of positions in bed. I’m talking about taking one another outside your comfort zones emotionally and experientially. Go on a hike of a caliber that you’ve never done before. You’ll often find out things you didn’t know about them — or find that you were mistaken.
Don’t just get dressed when you go out with other people and then come home and put on your pants that have completely lost their original color. Make an effort to be attractive to your partner. Don’t just imagine that they should want you just because you’re there, unconditionally. They’re not your mommy. And go the extra mile to make one another feel special. Rejoice when something great happens to your partner. They will feel seen, appreciated, and loved.
A couple going on their honeymoon asked me for advice recently. I told them to have conversations that you’re not supposed to have upon finding “The One.” Ask one another what it’s like to be married. Ask if they miss their past. Ask if they sometimes wish they were still single. Ask what they think will happen one day when you look at one another and find that you’re utterly not attracted. These are hypotheticals and there are no answers, but it’s important to have the permission to have these conversations throughout the relationship. People are so reluctant to talk about these hypotheticals and most of the time they’ll only talk about them after the crisis of an affair.
What’s next for you?
Men. I have a whole series of workshops now with men. Trump and Brexit reflect a crisis of masculinity. No one knows what it means to be a man today. We have the permission to ask what it means to be a woman, but men have not been given nearly the same permission to think about personal growth. I want men to enter this conversation about relationships, about their life, about their choices, and about what it’s like for them not to be the primary providers anymore.
I’m also working on Season Two of my podcast Where Should We Begin? to lower the walls of the therapy office, to allow others to hear what goes on in the supposedly secret stories of others’ problems, and to realize that while listening to other couples they’re standing in front of their own mirror. Couples are so often isolated that nobody knows what’s going on, especially around an affair. An affair seals them in silence but it’s actually so common and so much can be learned from having a communal experience of it.
Image by Karen Harms.