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.