It's Time That We Start Rethinking Infidelity

Photographed by Natalia Mantini.
Why do people cheat? It's a question that's plagued couples since marriage became an institution. And as marriage has moved from an economic arrangement to one based on love, that question has become a lot more loaded. If our partners are meant to be everything to us, why would someone go looking for something outside of their marriage? And more importantly: Can a relationship recover after such a personal — and ideological — betrayal?
Esther Perel, a couple's therapist who hales from Belgium, explored this topic generally in her wildly successful 2006 book, Mating in Captivity. Now, she's focusing in on questions around cheating in her latest book, The State Of Affairs, which hits stores on Oct 10. Through her research, she's able to dive into the sordid history of affairs, the modern prevalence of romantic love, and why, exactly, infidelity doesn't always lead to the dissolution of a marriage. As it turns out, the widely accepted reasons for why people cheat don't always apply — and the list of potential reasons is ever-evolving. "Infidelity has existed since marriage was invented," Perel says. "But the meaning of infidelity used to be something completely different than it is today."
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Ahead, we talk to Perel about her new book, why we now expect so much from our partners, and how cheating and religion are connected.
After the success of Mating in Captivity, what made you want to tease out affairs and infidelity into a standalone book?
"I’ve been a couple's therapist for 34 years, and I have basically devoted my work to the idea that the quality of our relationships determines the quality of our life. We don’t learn the best lessons from looking at things that worked as planned. We learn our best lessons by looking at relationships that have gone awry. So this was less a book about infidelity as it was a book about relationships through the lens of infidelity.
"I’ve been studying the dilemmas of desire in modern love since 2000. I thought if my first book looked at desire inside relationships, maybe I can now look at what happens when desire goes looking elsewhere. It was the logical continuation. Marriage has changed in the way that we are now in the pursuit of the soulmate. We have created a situation whereby infidelity has become the shattering of the grand ambition of love. It has become the ultimate betrayal and one of the leading causes of divorce. So what’s not to be interested in? Is there anything else that people will destroy an entire life over? There was so much to learn from opening this window."

"Infidelity, and the taboo against it, has existed since marriage was invented."

Esther Perel
In the beginning of the book, you talk about how infidelity and marriage have always existed side by side. Why do you think that one hasn’t beaten out the other?
"That’s a great question. Infidelity, and the taboo against it, has existed since marriage was invented. The meaning of infidelity [used to be] something completely different. In the beginning, infidelity was an economic threat to a marriage that was mostly an economic institution. It was primarily a problem if it was the woman [cheating], because we didn’t know whose children we were going to be feeding. I think that a big reason why infidelity has become the subject that it is today in our social psyche is because women have rapidly begun to close the gender gap of infidelity. As long as men only did it, it was just called 'men being men.'
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"Nothing [really] holds the family together today except for the relative happiness of the couple. You could cheat before, and the family was not threatened by it. Today, you have no-fault divorce laws, you have the rising economic independence of women — these are things that conspire to the fact that it is the couple and the happiness of the couple alone that keeps the family together. Never has the couple been so central to the survival of the family. Before, a marriage was not between two individuals. It was between two families. Whether or not the couple was happy didn't really matter.
"So why do we marry today? Because there is something extremely powerful to the experience of having found 'The One' — especially after years of sexual nomadism. There is the power of the wedding, the fiction that accompanies the marriage, the vows — the vows have become more extreme than anything I’ve heard before. I think it’s the antidote to so many relationships that people have had before in which they're racing to the bottom. So that when they finally are going to execute the real thing, they’re doing it with zeal."
Why do you think divorce hasn't made cheating obsolete?
"We have always thought that people only cheat when they’re miserable. We’re committed to the notion of infidelity as a symptom of a problem. But, really, people who don’t get along and don’t want to be physical with one another and have lost their erotic intimacy — what’s to write about that’s [not] been said? But the people who come into the office and say, 'We love each other very much, but we have no sex.' — that's when you begin to question the relationship between love and desire. What is the relationship between what fuels love and what entices desire? Is there something there that makes them not necessarily flow together the way we always want? The same thing began to happen with infidelity. To write a book about people who are miserable and have an affair, that’s obvious. But why do those people stay together? It’s usually because there is more important things in the marriage than love. There’s a lot at stake, like the fact that there’s a lot of fathers these days who want to be able to see their children every day."
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So you're saying that the traditional idea of marriage — one in which love is less important than stability and economic survival — still kind of exists? And that there are marriages that are still less about love and more about contractual obligation?
"Yes! Even though we have marriage for intimacy and love and trust, we still want respectability, companionship, economic support, children, social status — all the things that a traditional marriage give us. Those didn’t disappear, we just piled other things on top of them. The people I became most interested in are not the chronic philanderers. I was more interested in the people who have been monogamous for years, who never thought they’d [cheat], and find themselves on the other side. That began to intrigue me.
"I began to realize that infidelity doesn’t [always] happen because there’s something deeply wrong or missing in the marriage. In fact, there is something else that they’re seeking that marriage or the marriages that they have created won’t afford them. So that began me looking at love and desire, looking at freedom and commitment, and looking at adventure and security. It's the affairs that add the adventure, but people don’t want to give up the security"
Why do we expect so many contradictory things from our partners?
"So in the '60s, there was the secularization of our society. When you understand that people look for a soulmate, what they really are doing is conflating the spiritual and the relational. People today turn to romantic love for things that they used to turn to religion for: wholeness, ecstasy, perfection, meaning, belonging, transcendence. I’ve begun to think that we turn to one person to give us what not only an entire village used to provide us, but what an entire religion used to provide.
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"How it relates to affairs is that there’s often the sense that maybe you actually can’t get everything from one person. So you begin to segment. It’s a very difficult thing for some people to recognize sometimes that, in fact, things work better once they stop trying to have a partner who is everything."
So when some people cheat, is it because they want something their partners can’t provide?
"That’s the common idea, but it isn’t always the truth. You’re implying that a person is going elsewhere because they’re looking for something they can’t get from their partner. The more interesting reason is this: It’s not that I can’t get these things from you, it’s that I don’t want these things from you. In the book, I say that when we go elsewhere, it’s not always because we want to leave the person we’re with, but we want to leave the person that we've become. It’s not about the other person. It’s about the power of transgression, and doing things that make us feel free and alive, and how that is not often what our marriages are about. It’s about reconnecting with lost parts of ourselves, remembering who we once were, mortality, not wanting to age. It’s about a lot of things, but it’s not always about the fact that the partner is falling short.
"For many people, that’s a given. In general, those people who fundamentally don’t get enough in their relationship sooner or later divorce. The ones who end up cheating are actually the ones who have no intention of divorcing. The marriage is fine, and they want to preserve it. But there’s something else that they long for."
That’s interesting, because the common reason people think others cheat is because there’s something fundamentally wrong in the relationship.
"Exactly. But that’s not always the case. It’s the fact that when I’m with a partner, I’m one person. But over the course of a 20-year relationship, it’s not unnatural to wonder what those other parts of myself are. Parts that I could have been. People that I might have been. I don’t want to leave my partner and head out, but I’m deeply curious about those other parts. It really has nothing to do with the partner, and that’s really hard for the other person to swallow. Once they begin to grasp that, it often is enormously relieving that it’s not because they’re not enough. It’s because, in life, we can’t have more than one life at the same time."
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