It says much about the public's current need to demystify infidelity that Esther Perel's latest book, The State Of Affairs, entered the New York Times' bestseller non-fiction chart at Number 7*. Much of this has to do with Belgian-born couples therapist/writer Perel's reputation as an eminent, searingly honest voice of reason on modern relationships. A 2015 TED talk entitled 'Rethinking infidelity ... a talk for anyone who has ever loved' has already received more than 8 million views on TED's website. On the TED stage, she introduces her topics with provocative questions: "Why does good sex so often fade, even for couples who continue to love each other as much as ever?"
Earlier this year she broke down the fourth wall to her therapy sessions with an Audible podcast, ‘Where Should We Begin?’ Equal parts raw and enlightening, each episode features an unscripted talk with a real couple in one of Perel’s therapy session. On more than one occasion, the pair in question are in deadlock, or finding their sea legs after the fallout of an infidelity.
The candidacy of the couples has surprised everyone, including Perel herself.
"I would say if you had asked 60 years ago, or perhaps in Ireland even more recently, if people had pre-marital sex, would they say it out loud? Forty years ago, would people have said openly that they were divorced? The stigma has shifted," she says. "Infidelity has always existed but been a taboo, except in the arts. If you took it out of literature, opera or the movies, we'd have very few books left."
The very current conceit of finding “The One”, often peddled in pop culture, sets most people up for an emotional fall.
“The more parts of you that are brought into the relationship, the less you may be inclined to go looking for the love part somewhere else. Yet if you find the one and only to which you are everything, when an infidelity occurs it shatters the grand ambition of love,” she says. “When you are looking for a soulmate in a person, and when people are turning towards romantic love to experience transcendence and belonging and meaning and home, they turn love into the modern religion. These are all things we used to look for in the realm of the divine. And ‘The One’ only works for a very few people.
“We have shifted the primary orientation of relationships from a model that has been traditionally about duty and obligation, to a model that is about freedom and personal fulfilment. This is true at work, at home and in politics. The selfishness is everywhere and this is an individualistic society. Balancing the happiness of the self with the responsibility towards the other is one of the central questions of modern marriage.”
After receiving thousands of letters and emails on the subject, Perel decided to pen her second book, The State Of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.
As it happens, Perel's decision to write books on relationships happened in the wake of one of the world's most notorious affairs: the Clinton-Lewinski dalliance. She wrote an article, In Search Of Erotic Intelligence about couples and sexuality. It went viral, which led to the writing of her first book, 2006's Mating In Captivity.
“I wanted to take relationship advice out of the exclusive female market, and make it dual-gender,” she writes on her website. “I wanted to refrain from offering simplistic solutions, and instead create a community around the paradoxes of our intimate lives.”
The State Of Affairs was written, she says, ostensibly as a book about modern love, with the subject of infidelity acting as a gateway to explore the modern challenges that today's couples grapple with.
“If you want to understand commitment, stability and trust, a very good way to do so is to look when people are in a crisis or a breach of trust,” she says. “We need a new conversation and a new approach (to infidelity) that is more caring and compassionate for those who have experienced it.”
And there are plenty of myths debunked in The State of Affairs. Of the careworn adage "once a cheater, always a cheater", she says: "We wish we could simplify affairs, unfortunately life is more complicated than that. (People who have affairs) are not actually repeat offenders. They have been faithful for 15, 20, 25 years. There are philanderers and narcissists, and people who really should not be in a committed relationship. But the majority of people we see in our offices are not the ones who go to the lawyers."
The way current tradition decrees it, those who are caught having an affair should be punished, and those who have been cheated on are seen as weak and yielding if they decide to stay. In the past, women were economically and legally dependent on men. Now, in countries where women have equal rights and financial independence, the culture demands that she exercise them and throw out the cheat. Meanwhile, men are seen as weak if they stay. Which isn’t strictly the case, says Perel.
“Some affairs do actually remake a marriage,” she asserts. “They throw (couples) into a deep crisis of reckoning about where they’ve been, whether they loved each other and how far they’ve grown apart. Many people realise they have a lot to lose and want to stay together. They do it with dignity. Today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame, and the pressure is on people to leave. The younger you go, the more it is. For some, the courage is to leave, but I don’t need to enforce the dominant discourse. Leaving can be weak, too.”
Among the most surprising findings of Perel’s research, she says, is that happily married people, too, go on to have affairs.
“I’ve met countless people who say they are quite satisfied in their lives,” says Perel. “They have no desire to leave, they love their partner, their life, their family. ‘It’s not my life I want to leave – I just want to find a different version of myself. The last thing I want to do is hurt my partner, and god forbid my kids ever find out, but this thing is so important to me’. It’s these contradictory tricks that you hear again and again, worldwide.”
This particular conceit – "oftentimes when someone cheats, it's not because they've become unhappy with their partner or spouse, they've become unhappy with themselves" – ended up becoming an inspirational quote on the writers' room board of American drama The Affair. Showrunner Sarah Treem was so taken with Perel's fresh take on infidelity that she made her a consultant on the show, which centres on a complex love triangle.
Writing generally from a dual-gender perspective, Perel makes a distinction between the sexes. Women, she observes, are much better at covering their proverbial tracks.
“Of course they’ve been better at keeping it under wraps,” she says. “The consequences for women have forever been way more dire than men. She can be killed in nine countries today just for looking in the wrong direction. Women could become destitute, ostracised, could get pregnant. Women have often had children with other men and never told the men that they are living with. The consequences have never been the same for men as for women.”
Searching for sex
That said, she notes that both men and women have affairs for the same reason. “Women have not been allowed to say they like sex (in the past) so women have to say they (have affairs) for love,” says Perel. “But what they’re looking for is pretty much the same thing. They want to feel a deeper connection. They want to feel intensity, desire… they want to seem alive.”
Many of Perel’s clients broach the subject of disclosure, and when it comes to confessing an affair, Perel has one firm piece of advice: “The golden rule is, ‘what would be the consequences of telling?’ I have a man who wrote to me yesterday, and his wife has had MS for the past 10 years. He’s completely devoted to her, but he has been seeing another woman for the past four years. What is he going to do, tell his wife, who is bedridden? What would that achieve? Does she need that? Will that help her? Sometimes, not always, it’s more to offload or clear your conscience than it is for the good of the other person. Sometimes disclosure can be cruel, and sometimes revelation is the right thing to do. It is utterly caring and respectful of the dignity of the other person.”
Sometimes, observes Perel, affairs deplete the primary relationship completely, and in other instances, it can balance a marriage.
‘If a man says, ‘I have a wonderful partner but she is utterly uninterested in sexual intimacy’, do you break (the entire marriage) up?” asks Perel. “We are quick to condemn someone who wants to look for sex outside a marriage, but we haven’t seen what happens when someone has been systematically rejected for the last six years. It’s very important to understand that affairs do a lot of things to relationships. Sometimes, they make a person able to continue, which is a disturbing thought for many people. But sometimes it’s a marriage stabiliser, that makes it possible to continue to stay married. If someone says, ‘we have a disabled child’ or ‘my partner is ill’, ‘ I have a dying mother’, ‘I have major economic stresses so I can’t go’, (people) find a way to stay. It’s a compromise and often not pretty. In an abusive situation, the amount of women who live with intimidating men who make it impossible for them to leave. She thinks maybe there’s no point in telling him as he would destroy her or could be violent, but in the meantime she may be gaining strength from being with someone else.
“It’s a lot of (factors) that are not always politically correct, and don’t always fit into black or white, or good or bad. Once you enter into the labyrinth of this very complex thing, you are humbled at what you find.”
Perel observes that for the party that has been cheated on, affairs are terrible and painful, but can also become a starting place for learning and growth.
“When someone hurts you, lies to you or deceives you, the first and foremost thing is that they need to acknowledge they’ve done that,” says Perel. “If there’s no remorse there, it can be very hard to heal. You have to know that the person feels bad, even if they don’t feel bad about the affair itself. If we don’t understand the motives behind the affair, and what it meant for them, we don’t know what we’re asking that person not to do again.
“The trust comes back not from a vain promise,” she adds. “It comes back from an idea that the relationship is now more robust and resilient. From there, you rebuild the relationship, and you look at what has been the strength of the relationship. The typical view is that an affair happens because there must be a problem in the marriage. In many cases, he or she is still there every night, coaching the kids. With one couple I encountered, they had been together for 40 years, they had a good marriage, a good sex life, they’d dealt with illness. ‘As marriages go, ours is resilient’. And yet this (affair) was going on too.
“You really need to place the affair in the context of the relationship at large, and not to separate it and make it the ultimate truth about the marriage. People often talk about sexual frustrations, longing, unmet needs, infidelity and broken hearts in the aftermath of the revelation (of an affair). Today, we need this conversation to be part of the making of a relationship.”
The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel, is out now via Hodder. For more information on Esther Perel, see estherperel.com.
*The article was amended on December 14th to correct an error