“When we select a partner, we commit to a story. Yet we remain forever curious: What other stories could we have been part of? Affairs offer us a window into those other lives, a peek at the stranger within. Adultery is often the revenge of the deserted possibilities.”
Esther Perel leaves no stone unturned in her new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.
Happiness, which was once reserved for the afterlife, is now a mandate of modern marriage… at least in places where chances of survival do not decrease upon divorce. Our expectations around what our partner needs to provide us now extend beyond the first two tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy. “Today’s intimate commitment is predicated on love. The austerity of duty has been replaced by fluctuating emotions,” says Perel.
Perel quotes Robert Johnson, a Jungian analyst, who wrote that love is “the single greatest energy system in the Western psyche. In our culture, it has supplanted religion as the arena in which men and women seek meaning, transcendence, wholeness, and ecstasy.”
In our quest for the “soul mate,” Perel writes, “we have conflated the spiritual and the relational, as if they are one and the same. The perfection we long to experience in earthly love used to be sought only in the sanctuary of the divine. When we imbue our partner with godly attributes and we expect him or her to uplift us from the mundane to the sublime, we create, as Johnson puts it, an ‘unholy muddle of two holy loves’ that cannot help but disappoint… We expect one person to give us what once an entire village used to provide, and we live twice as long.”
It reminds me of a comment Germaine Greer made when she expressed skepticism about the longevity of Prince Harry and Meghan Markel’s recent marriage: “The more you give up for the love the more pressure you put on the love, to be first class.”
When love goes plural, the spell of oneness is broken
Cultural and social norms influence our emotional responses. While in other parts of the world an initial reaction to an affair might be, “Why weren’t you more discreet?” Here in the West, betrayed lovers usually first feel and then express anger. Anger may make the person who has been cheated on “feel more powerful, temporarily,” says Perel, but as Steven Stosny observes,”‘if loss of power was the problem in intimate betrayal, then anger would be the solution. But the great pain in intimate betrayal has little to do with loss of power. Perceived loss of value is what causes your pain – you feel less lovable.'”
We need to find ways to restore our own sense of self-worth – to separate our feelings about ourselves from the way the other person has made us feel. When it seems like your entire being has been hijacked and your self-definition rests in the hands of the person who did this to you, it is important to remember that there are other parts to who you are. You are not a reject, although part of you has been rejected. You are not a victim, although part of you has been abused. You are also loved, valued, honored, and cherished by others and even by your unfaithful partner, although you may not feel that in this moment.
Looking back, he asks himself, “How could I not see?” But it is human nature to cling to our sense of reality, to resist its possible shattering even in the face of irrefutable evidence. I assure him that his “cluelessness” is not something to be ashamed of. This kind of avoidance is not an act of idiocy but an act of self-preservation. It is actually a sophisticated self-protective mechanism known as trauma denial – a type of self-delusion that we employ when too much is at stake and we have too much to lose. The mind needs coherence, so it disposes of inconsistencies that threaten the structure of our lives.
Infidelity is a direct attack on one of our most important psychic structures: our memory of the past. It not only hijacks a couple’s hopes and plans but also draws a question mark over their history. If we can’t look back with any certainty and we can’t know what will happen tomorrow, where does that leave us? Psychologist Peter Fraenkel emphasizes how the betrayed partner is ‘rigidly stuck in the present, overwhelmed by the relentless progression of the disturbing facts about the affair.’ We are willing to concede that the future is unpredictable, but we expect the past to be dependable. Betrayed by our beloved, we suffer the loss of a coherent narrative – the ‘internal structures that help us predict and regulate future actions and feelings [creating] a stable sense of self,’ as psychiatrist Anna Felt defines it. In an article describing the corrosive effects of all kinds of relational betrayals, she reflects, ‘perhaps robbing someone of his or her story is the greatest betrayal of all.’
I’ll digress for just a moment. When I was working with Philip Zimbardo, the social psychologist, he was pioneering a new kind of behavioral therapy to treat PTSD with Richard and Rose Sword, called Time Perspective Therapy (TPT). The Swords were psychologists who treated Veterans with PTSD in Hawaii. They found that the Veterans who were least likely to commit suicide were the ones who were able to see a future for themselves whereas the ones who were most at risk for suicide had a difficult time imagining a future, instead re-living horrific events from the past over and over again in their minds. When the Swords started working with civilians who had suffered various kinds of severe trauma, they found the same thing: being able to imagine the possibility of a positive future was essential for overcoming trauma.
In the West, the general thought is, when you truly find love you shouldn’t be attracted to others anymore. For the unfaithful party, the situation is often less black and white, and they might not even understand their own motivations completely. While there are those who purposely seek out something that is missing at home, many others “go looking elsewhere for things they don’t really want at home,” says Perel. People who lose interest in their partner may not be able to integrate closeness and sexual passion within themselves, and their outer behavior may be reflecting that inner divide between love and lust.
When an individual’s emotional needs and erotic needs do not align and they don’t have the kind of vocabulary necessary to share their contradictory needs with their partner, it can feel too risky to unleash “the kinds of messy emotions associated with romantic passion or unbridled sex… with the person upon whom we depend for so much. In such cases, people’s extramarital adventures are not motivated by a disregard for what they have at home; quite the contrary, they value it so much that they don’t want to tamper with it… In outsourcing the need for passion and risk to a third party, the unfaithful gets to transcend the tedium of domesticity without giving it up entirely.”
Marriage and parenthood can demand a level of selflessness that “is at odds with the inherent selfishness of desire.” The theme of autonomy is more pronounced in female infidelity, Perel notes, but both men and women often say their affair brought them a sense of connection, intensity, and aliveness, whether they went out searching for it, or it came and found them.
Sometimes an affair has nothing to do with the betrayed, rather it is an extension of childhood wounds. Perel shares a story of a man named Garth, who is currently in his third marriage repeating the same pattern of cheating for the third time. “It starts out hot and heavy. But after about a year, I lose all interest. I can’t even get it up. This may sound strange, but it almost feels wrong to touch her,” he says, referring to his wife. “Very little in the erotic psyche is happenstance,” Perel says. In looking at Garth’s past, Perel learns that his father was an abusive alcoholic who beat him. “Garth chose to take the blows to protect his helpless mother and his younger brother,” which made him unhealthily emotionally enmeshed with his mother. It helps explain why Garth “feels so beholden to the women he loves, yet is unable to be aroused by them.”
To Garth, infidelity actually felt less transgressive than sex at home, which had an almost incestuous feeling. “Finely attuned to the fragility of the one he loves, he carries a sense of burden that impedes the letting go necessary for erotic intimacy and pleasure.” What he sought out in affairs were women who did not remind him of his victimized mother or his overwhelmed wife. These were women whose outward sexual drives allowed him to safely let go and relieve the fear that he’s imposing his primitive urges, something he couldn’t do with a woman he loved and respected like his wife.
For others still, the problem is not that they can’t sexualize their partners, it is that they can’t sexualize themselves in the context of the partnership or marriage that they’re in. It seems natural for humans to want to move towards a space where we can either feel like our best selves or explore a part of ourselves we wouldn’t otherwise know how to explore except in fantasy, free of the usual responsibilities and rules.
And sometimes, Perel writes, “the victim of the affair is not always the victim of the marriage,” referring to the betrayed spouse, who withheld sexually or emotionally or was neglectful, cruel, or abusive to the spouse who cheated. “Being cheated on makes people feel insignificant, but feeling insignificant for years on end may lead people to cheat… when we haven’t been touched in years, we are more vulnerable to the kindness of strangers.”
To suffer, to build, or to explore, can a fractured story go on?
Affairs can make it impossible to want to stay in a relationship. The betrayed might be pointing to the door or the spouse who strayed may wish to leave. Other couples want to stay together – these are the couples that I think have the ability or imagination to envision a future together, instead of getting stuck in a trauma-driven feedback loop.
When couples wish to move on together emotionally and erotically, Perel cautions the jilted party against needing to know all the details of an affair. For example, Perel advises the betrayed against asking Detective Questions, such as, “How many times did you sleep with him. Did you do it in our bed?”
Detective questions add further scarring and are often retraumatizing, inviting comparisons in which you are always the loser… Investigative questions recognize that the truth often lies beyond the facts. They include: Help me understand what the affair has meant for you. Were you looking for it, or did it just happen? Why now? What was it like when you would come home? What did you experience there that you don’t have with me?… Do you think that you should be forgiven? Would you respect me less if I were to forgive you? Did you hope I would leave so you wouldn’t have to feel responsible for breaking up the family? The investigative approach asks more enlightening questions that probe the meaning of the affair and focuses on analysis rather than facts… Authentic curiosity creates a bridge – a first step toward renewed intimacy. We become collaborators in understanding and mending. Affairs are solo enterprises; making meaning is a joint venture.
Infidelity needs to be seen not simply as a pathology or a dysfunction. We must lend a careful ear to the emotional resonance of transgressive experiences as well as to their fallout; otherwise we perpetuate the compartmentalization that undergirded the affair itself. We leave the couple at risk of sinking back into the status quo. Untangling the meanings of the affair sets the stage for all the decisions that will follow…As Pamela Haag observes, ‘We’ll break the marriage rules that don’t work so well anymore before we’ll condone revising them.’… Maybe some of these couples would still be together had they been willing to address their different sexual needs and what these might mean for the structure of their marriage…At their peak, affairs rarely lack imagination. Nor do they lack desire, abundance of attention, romance, and playfulness. Shared dreams, affection, passion, and endless curiosity – all these are natural ingredients found in the adulterous plot. They are also the ingredients of thriving relationships. It is no accident that many of the most erotic couples lift their marital strategies directly from the infidelity playbook.
To move forward towards a more truthful relationship narrative there needs to be a willingness from both parties to be sexually honest with each other, accepting that the dilemma of our inner contradictions cannot be eliminated but also accepting that love and desire can occupy the same space. “Think of the trust game we play as kids, where we let ourselves fall back onto someone who catches us. So too in sex, you can let go only if you trust that the other is sturdy and will be able to receive the force of your desire.” Forgiveness is “a gift one gives oneself.”
In understanding the nuances around why people stray and the differences between loyalty and fidelity, envy and jealousy, borders and boundaries, what I’ve recapped in this post is just the tip of the iceberg. The State of Affairs is the first book of its kind; it’s a very thoughtful look into Esther Perel’s conversations and therapy sessions with couples from around the world as well as insights from part-time lovers. I think everyone has been affected by an affair in some way and think you may be surprised when reading what comes up for you or what behaviors or suffering you might recognize in someone that you know.
Her TED Talk on the topic is also worth a listen:
Further reading: Relationship Rules – Don’t “Should” All Over Yourself