May 25

Esther Perel: The Scoop On Infidelity and Recovery

Intense emotions accompany the subject of infidelity. Allow me to state, unequivocally, that just because I don’t condemn doesn’t mean I condone, and there is a world of difference between understanding and justifying. My goal is to help you navigate the complexities of relationships and give you a new framework to manage crisis, transitions and growth. Couples therapist Esther Perel (in a mass email regarding her new TED talk)

Previously I’ve written here about Mating in Captivity by therapist Esther Perel. It focuses on how modern couples can renew sexual desire. In its review Publishers Weekly had concluded, “In short, Perel sanctions fantasy and play and offers the estranged modern couple a unique richness of experience.”

Apparently Perel’s now been working on her follow-up, Affairs in the Age of Transparency. Infidelity, she points out, is a highly common phenomenon not partial to unhappy unions. As stated last year by Hanna Rosin, Slate: “These days, Perel accepts only patients who are involved in affairs, and the vast majority of them, she says, are ‘content’ in their marriages. In fact in surveys that ask adulterers whether they want to leave their marriages, the majority say no.”

The theme of the recently released TED talk by Esther Perel is summarized by Rebecca Adams, Huffington Post: “She said that people who cheat often believe in monogamy, but they find their values and behavior in conflict when they actually have an affair. That’s because cheating isn’t necessarily about sex or even a person’s partner — it’s about a more complex desire…”

Below, the TED talk. Farther below, some excerpts:

Selected Quotes

…(T)he definition of infidelity keeps on expanding: sexting, watching porn, staying secretly active on dating apps. So because there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what even constitutes an infidelity, estimates vary widely, from 26 percent to 75 percent. But on top of it, we are walking contradictions. So 95 percent of us will say that it is terribly wrong for our partner to lie about having an affair, but just about the same amount of us will say that that’s exactly what we would do if we were having one.

[An affair has] three key elements: a secretive relationship, which is the core structure of an affair; an emotional connection to one degree or another; and a sexual alchemy.

When marriage was an economic enterprise, infidelity threatened our economic security. But now that marriage is a romantic arrangement, infidelity threatens our emotional security.

…(W)e live in an era where we feel that we are entitled to pursue our desires, because this is the culture where I deserve to be happy. And if we used to divorce because we were unhappy, today we divorce because we could be happier. And if divorce carried all the shame, today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.

…(A)ll over the world, there is one word that people who have affairs always tell me. They feel alive. And they often will tell me stories of recent losses…Death and mortality often live in the shadow of an affair, because they raise these questions. Is this it? Is there more? Am I going on for another 25 years like this? Will I ever feel that thing again?

And contrary to what you may think, affairs are way less about sex, and a lot more about desire: desire for attention, desire to feel special, desire to feel important. And the very structure of an affair, the fact that you can never have your lover, keeps you wanting. That in itself is a desire machine, because the incompleteness, the ambiguity, keeps you wanting that which you can’t have.

The fact is, the majority of couples who have experienced affairs stay together. But some of them will merely survive, and others will actually be able to turn a crisis into an opportunity.

Mar 04

“Mating in Captivity”: Esther Perel’s Views On How We Partner

Today, we turn to one person to provide what an entire village once did: a sense of grounding, meaning, and continuity. At the same time, we expect our committed relationships to be romantic as well as emotionally and sexually fulfilling. Is it any wonder that so many relationships crumble under the weight of it all? Esther Perel, author of Mating In Captivity

Several years ago I attended, along with many more colleagues than I usually see at local conferences, a presentation by Esther Perel, author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence (2006). An experienced couples therapist, she brings both insight and humor into her analysis of the challenges of long-term relationships. Now she’s completed a TED talk, which is available at the end of this post.

But first, some of her thoughts from her book and past interviews…

That Too-High Bar for Modern Relationships

In an article from Salon, 9/26/06, Perel expands on one of her main points: “Relationships are crumbling under the weight of our expectations. We want marriage, companionship, economic support, family life — and then on top of that we want our partner to be our best friend, confidant and passionate lover. For a long time the idea that passion and marriage could go together was a contradiction in terms. Marriages were about economic criteria. When you chose your mate, or somebody chose your mate for you, sex did not enter into the equation.”

Sex Enters the Equation

Now, of course, sex does enter the equation—and usually as part of the dating process. It’s also frequently a factor in whether or not to continue the relationship. The following is excerpted from Jesse Kornbluth‘s interview with Perel, reprinted in The Huffington Post:

JK: Bill Maher says that when you’re married, you need a cue to have sex.

EP: There is no sex without a cue. People who date have their cues at home, before they meet. You think about where to go, what to eat, what to do and say. Sometimes the cue is short — just before we reach the bar — but sex is never just spontaneous. Spontaneity is a myth.

JK: The Daters may not know that. The Marrieds do. And I’m sure a great many of them believe that marital sex is a loop, a movie they’ve lived before — and they get nostalgic for the yes, yes, yes of dating.

EP: In dating, if you say no, your lover goes on to the next person. In marriage, if you say no, the person stays. The attraction of dating is that you don’t take yes for granted — you’re fully engaged, there’s seductiveness, tension. In committed sex, in marriage, people don’t feel the need to seduce or to build anticipation — that’s an effort they think they no longer need to do now that they have conquered their partner. If they’re in the mood, their partner should be too.

Loss of Desire: When Couples Come to Therapy

How does Perel treat couples in which waning sex is an issue? From the second chapter of Treating Sexual Desire Disorders: A Clinical Casebook, edited by Sandra R. Leiblum (2010): “‘Love is about having and desire is about wanting.’ This is the major observation that guides Esther Perel’s therapy as she works with couples complaining of loss of desire.”

She observes that lack of desire does not necessarily reflect a disordered relationship and that erotic ruts are part of being a loving, caring couple. She lays out a paradox: the very ingredients that nurture love are often the ones that erode erotic passion. Perel turns the usual therapeutic approach on its head with this suggestion: first improve the sex, an improved relationship will follow.

The New TED Talk: “Mating In Captivity”