“Rethinking Infidelity”: What we can learn from couples’ therapist Esther Perel

In “The state of affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” Esther Perel gives us the opportunity to rethink our understanding of infidelity and acknowledge its’ complexity.

Everybody has a relationship with infidelity. Some have cheated on their partners in the past or are doing so in the present. Some have thought about it. Some know or suspect their partner is having an affair. Some have been the other wo/man. Others have been children who suffered because of the consequences of their parents’ infidelity.
Even if you aren’t in any of these categories (which is very unlikely, but let’s say you are), I am sure you have an opinion on why your brother’s/niece’s/neighbour’s marriage didn’t work out, if Hillary should have divorced Bill or why extramarital dating sites are so successful. No matter what your relationship with infidelity is, fact is: you have one and it is always complex, just like infidelity itself.

We tend to view one person as the villain and the other as the saint

It is the complexity of adultery that Esther Perel reminds us of in her book “The state of affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” (2017). I say “remind”, because I think most people acknowledge that there are always different perspectives to each story. When things go wrong, we tend to view one person as the villain and the other as the saint. Hating someone often just seems like the easier option. We don’t want to look at the whole picture, because it hurts too much. We’re not interested in the circumstances. Perel criticises the judgmental and simplified contemporary discourse on infidelity and offers a more complex exploration of the subject.

 

“Understanding infidelity does not mean justifying it.”

 

Perel makes it very clear that “understanding infidelity does not mean justifying it.” (p. XV) Like most couples’ therapists she views relationships as systems in which people’s actions are connected. She writes: “One person chooses to have an affair, but in most cases, both people are responsible for the relational context in which it occurs.” (p.111) This doesn’t mean that nobody did something wrong or that it is everybody’s fault: each person is responsible for their actions. However, relationships are complex and it’s worth listening to everybody involved.

Everyday life simply isn’t sexy and exciting.

What is radical about Perel’s book is that she has the courage to acknowledge that there are cases of infidelity that have a positive impact on a couple’s sexual relationship. Some couples she spoke to experienced a rejuvenation of their sex life after one partner found out the other had cheated. (cf. p.100) That doesn’t mean that she would recommend having an affair, she is very clear on that. It just means that relationships and longing are not as simple as we want them to be and we as adults need to have honest conversations about what we expect from each other, what we need, what we can give and what we can’t give. We cannot expect our partner to fulfil every role and every need. Most people want their partner to give them a feeling of safety and excitement at the same time. It’s impossible to live up to such expectations. Everyday life simply isn’t sexy and exciting. However, if we don’t find time for excitement and sexiness in our lives, our relationships will suffer. What Perel recommends is to embrace your erotic independence and not control each other. In her own words: “We run the risk of unknowingly eradicating the very space between us that keeps desire alive. Fire needs air.” (p.29)

The pain infidelity inflicts

Another aspect of Perel’s book that I found striking is that she presents us with an analysis of why infidelity hurts so much. According to Perel, finding out about your partner’s infidelity used to be a painful experience, but nowadays it is a traumatic one. (cf. 61) It is not just because “it is betrayal on so many levels: deceit, abandonment, rejection, humiliation” (p.55), it is also because having been cheated on can make us question everything nowadays – not just our relationship, but our entire identity. Not long ago a cheating husband was seen as the norm (I am not saying that’s a good thing!). When a wife found out her husband was straying, she might have been devastated, but it didn’t make her question her identity. Don’t get me wrong: Dealing with infidelity has of course never been easy, but finding out that your partner cheated on you has become even more difficult and painful than it used to be.

“Betrayal in the digital age is death by a thousand cuts.” (Perel, p.62)

This is because discovering your partner’s infidelity in the 21st century is different to discovering it before the internet was around. We might find texts, e-mails, chats, photos, sometimes even videos. We are confronted with details of the affair that are in no way helpful, but that can have dramatic and traumatic consequences. You can torture yourself with the evidence: “Betrayal in the digital age is death by a thousand cuts.” (p.62) Instead of doing that, Perel, recommends to ask your partner “investigative” questions that can make you understand why your partner did what they did instead of imaging them with someone else.

 

“The state of affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” is a fantastic read, which will make you understand infidelity better. It focuses not just on the couple, but it also considers the other wo/man and gives space to everyone involved.

 

Source: Esther Perel: The state of affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. London 2017: Yellow Kite.