From Fatal Attraction to Scandal, adultery is almost always portrayed exactly the same way in the media — as the product of a seriously unhappy, dysfunctional relationship. Of course, most of us are experienced (cynical?) enough to know that it's rarely, if ever, that simple. Recent research suggests that our marriages are happier than ever before, and most people who have affairs don't want to leave their spouses.
So, why do people cheat? Slate's Hanna Rosin sat down with Esther Perel, a widely respected sex and relationships therapist, to discuss Perel's ongoing research on this very question. The interview is definitely worth a read — Perel provides a number of insights on how technology and our shifting culture are leading to more adultery within happy marriages.
One of the most defining characteristics of modern marriages, as Perel says, is that you and your spouse are expected to be joined at the hip, best friends who share everything with each other and spend every waking moment together. But, this construction of marriage as the ultimate best friend/life partner combo can put serious pressure on both parties to make a life together that is all perfect, all the time.
This creates an expectation that if one is not completely happy with their partner, then that's a problem that could be remedied by someone else. Perel notes that, in today's culture, when women and men feel empowered to make themselves happy, they're increasingly driven by a philosophy of "I deserve this, I am entitled to this, I can have this! It allows people to finally pursue a desire to feel alive."
On the flip side, this pressure to maintain perfection with another person often leads us to change into someone that only exists in the context of our relationship. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people turn to affairs to break out of the mold they've found themselves in. As Perel points out, "Very often we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self."
Of course, maybe people see adultery as an option because our connections are more disposable than they've ever been. Perel notes that "one person for life" isn't necessarily the expectation anymore. Technology makes it easier than ever to form a "connection" with any number of people. Does this make it easier to take our existing connections for granted? At a time when sex (and love) is presented as a commodity that can be found at the press of a button, our expectation for instant gratification could be pushing us to pursue an ideal of "happiness" that may or may not exist.
So, then, is adultery inevitable? Or, is it possible to find that "alive" feeling again within an existing relationship? Perel says that many of her patients go through multiple "marriages" with the same person — fundamentally reconfiguring their relationships in response to their changing realities over time. Even Perel herself is on her "fourth marriage" to her husband, having "completely reorganized the structure of the relationship, the flavor, the complementarity." Really gives new meaning to the phrase "love the one you're with." (Slate)