This Couples Therapist Says Infidelity Can Make Some Marriages Stronger
"Affairs can sometimes break the relationship, but they can sometimes remake the relationship."
If anyone knows the varied ways cheating can impact a marriage, it's Esther Perel. Over the last decade the psychotherapist has helped hundreds of couples who have grappled with infidelity. Now, in her buzzy new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity ($27, amazon.com), Perel seeks to change how we consider this form of betrayal, which is currently the leading cause of divorce in America: “When infidelity is seen so black and white, as victim and perpetrator, it doesn’t allow us to develop a response that is more compassionate, empathic, and caring,” she told Health in an interview. “It doesn’t allow us to help people.” And that's crucial, she argues, because in some cases, infidelity can actually strengthen a couple's bond. Here, Perel explains how healing is possible, why affairs are on the rise, and more.
In your book, you point out that there is no universally agreed-upon definition of infidelity. Why is it so murky?
Not too long ago, you had the possibility of suddenly discovering nine months later when a red-haired child came out of [your partner] and you didn’t have red hair. So one of the most important changes that has taken place is contraception. You no longer have evidence of infidelity in the form of illegitimate children, which used to be the primary proof.
The definition of infidelity also keeps expanding as the online world provides so many opportunities for engagement that can be sexual without being physical. What does it mean to cross the line? Is it watching porn? Staying on a dating app after you’ve been seeing someone for six months? It’s all these new fuzzy areas that make infidelity so difficult to define.
Has technology led to more cheating?
Well, technology has changed the forms infidelity can take, and it offers new opportunities. The internet has made infidelity more accessible, but also much harder to hide. It’s never been easier to cheat, and it’s never been harder to keep it a secret.
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Why is cheating becoming more common?
The rise in infidelity is primarily due to women closing the infidelity gender gap. The rate among men has probably not changed that dramatically; they’re doing what they’ve always done. But today the consequences of straying are less devastating for women. There is no longer a risk of being excommunicated from the church, no forced divorce; and she is no longer just the property of a man, at least in the West. She has growing economic independence, so she can survive the consequences [of cheating].
Another reason is that in our age of entitlement and intense individualism, people often have higher expectations for their relationships than they had before, and they feel more entitled to pursue those expectations. It’s not that we have more desires than prior generations. It’s that in our age of consumerism and high individualism, we feel more strongly that we deserve to be happy.
Speaking of happiness, you make the point in your book that even happy people cheat.
Infidelity isn’t always a symptom of troubled relationships. The motives are sometimes rather personal. It may be that one is longing to reconnect with lost parts of oneself. It’s not always a rejection of the relationship one is in or the person one is with.
An example might be a mother who feels like she hasn’t had a minute to think about herself in 12 years. She may think, I’ve been a wife, a mother, the daughter of my parents. I’ve been tending to everybody, and this is the first thing I’ve done for me in so long. That’s a classic example. She loves her family and she doesn’t want another life. She just wants another self.
What are some other misconceptions about infidelity?
Affairs can sometimes break the relationship, but they can sometimes remake the relationship. One misconception is that they are an inevitable deal breaker. Another misconception is that people cheat to end their marriage—sometimes they actually cheat as a way to stay married. Maybe someone has a partner who is sick and they have no intention of leaving them, but they also don’t want to live without ever being touched again. Sometimes affairs are messy compromises for very complicated life situations. Of course there are others that are just plain sleazy and creepy.
Can an affair actually strengthen a relationship?
Here’s an example: I had one client who found out that for the last two years, her husband had been [cheating]. She was in total shock. They had a life together, a beautiful family. They both came from very troubled backgrounds, and they had created something so much better than what either of them ever knew. While she was terrified about the breach of trust, she also wanted to continue.
[When we met], it became clear that he never told her anything. When he was upset, he would just keep it to himself because he was always told to tough it up and conceal his vulnerabilities. [After the affair happened], he was actually opening up about himself for the first time, talking about his childhood and his life. It allowed them to have conversations that were way more open and honest than they ever had been before. It made them realize, ‘Oh my god, we almost lost each other.’ It jolted them to rebuild an even better relationship.
You argue in State of Affairs that today, infidelity is hurting people more than ever. Why do you think that is?
It’s always been painful, but today it is traumatic. Why? Because we wait much longer to marry. Because we choose the person that we want to marry very, very carefully. Because we believe we are finding a soulmate, and that we’re their soulmate. When an affair occurs, it shatters the grand ambition of love.
What’s more, Americans have lost 30% to 60% of their social capital, meaning they have that many less people to confide to in times of crisis, or to seek help from. As a result, all of their needs get redirected to one person. If that person then betrays them, they are left all alone.
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So how can we avoid making our partners our ‘everything’?
It’s called community. It’s called having friends, vast networks of friends, colleagues, people with whom we share our interests and passions, as well as our aches and pains. It is absolutely clear that relationships thrive more when partners are embedded in strong networks of connection, both together and apart.
Lastly, is there truth to the old adage ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’?
There are people who are chronic philanderers, but the majority of people are not chronic philanderers. They are often people who have been faithful for years, sometimes decades, and they one day cross a line that they themselves never thought they would cross. So ‘once a cheater, always a cheater’ applies to some people, and not to others.