Is infidelity a cure for your marriage problems? If you were skimming through headlines about relationship expert Esther Perel’s new book you’d be forgiven for thinking she believes so.
The Independent lead with “Cheating can make your marriage STRONGER”. Health.com and the Daily Mail concurred. Cheating is “GOOD for your marriage” according to The Sun. Even The Guardian played around the edges with “Esther Perel: The relationship guru who thinks infidelity isn’t all bad“.
The thing is, they’re all wrong. Not only does Perel believe affairs are more damaging now than ever before, she says, “I would no more recommend you have an affair than I would recommend you have cancer”.
The State of Affairs – Rethinking Infidelity follows Perel’s hugely popular TED talk on the topic. In both she explains the romantic idealism of marriage, where a spouse is supposed to be the lover, parent, trusted confidant, emotional companion and intellectual equal above all others. Infidelity is not just a betrayal of vows, it is a rejection of everything the betrayed partner believed they were in the marriage, and it can damage their very identity.
Nor is infidelity just sex. Sexting, watching porn, Facebook friendships with old lovers, dating apps, massage with a “happy ending”, desire expressed but never acted upon, all these things can fall into the category of infidelity.
And the effects, Perel says, can be catastrophic. “It is betrayal on so many levels: deceit, abandonment, rejection, humiliation – all the things love promised to protect us from.”
Depending on your definition of infidelity, anywhere from 25 to 75 per cent of people will stray from their relationships. Perel’s definition includes three key elements. One, that it is secret. Whether it’s an anonymous hook-up, an affair lasting decades, or long lunches and endless text messages, it’s secrecy and deception that makes it betrayal.
The second is an emotional element, which can still exist in seemingly emotionless acts. “There may be no feelings attached to a random f—,” she writes, “but there is plenty of meaning to the fact that it happened.” The third element is sexual alchemy, the desire and erotic frisson that commitment promises spouses have only for each other.
It’s interesting that the last two elements are often used to excuse the first. Some cheaters will minimise the emotional involvement of sex – “it meant nothing”, while others will highlight it – “nothing happened”, and both claim there was therefore no reason to disclose.
One of the reasons modern affairs can be so traumatic is our ability to see the relationship in vivid detail. Where affairs would once have been discovered by lipstick on a collar, receipts found in a pocket or information from a third party, we can now go digging and find messages, photos, and emails showing all the expressed desires and daily interactions of a cheater. Did you think of her when you were with me? Did you tell him I could not satisfy you? Did you say the things to her you used to say to me? Did you love her more, desire her more, give her more of yourself than you gave me?
Even when we have the chance to ask those questions, hearing the answers is not the same as watching them play out in real time. This, Perel says, is genuinely traumatic. And can easily be something from which a relationship never recovers.
Staying in a marriage after infidelity can also feel more shameful for the person who did not cheat than the one who did. It isolates the betrayed partner because if they tell people about it they know they will be judged for not leaving.
Many couples do stay together after an affair. Some do not. But staying does not always mean the relationship is healed. Affairs can lock couples into a bond of guilt and fear that never goes away. The cheater may be distraught at the pain they caused their partner and children, and may feel they cannot add to it by abandoning them.
The betrayed partner can become so caught up in humiliation and fear that they cannot let go of the relationship but cannot move beyond the betrayal. Destroyed by the affair but trapped in a never-ending cycle, relationships like this can limp along for decades.
The misleading headlines about infidelity being good for a marriage come from Perel’s discussion of what couples can do to heal from infidelity. She makes it clear it is far from easy. The unfaithful partner must take responsibility for breaking trust and for rebuilding it so the burden of trusting again is not carried by the person betrayed.
It also requires a level of shared honesty and insight that many people find too difficult to manage in the aftermath of an affair.
Perel says when someone cheats on a relationship they value, it is almost never just about sex. There is often a feeling of loss and mortality underlying the need to stray, and many cheaters she talks to say they did it to feel “alive”.
Affairs are common after a bereavement or change that leaves the cheater wondering about the person they used to be before marriage, or the person they could have been without it. Passion and communication, dissipated over years of a long relationship, might feel easier to find outside it. Secrecy, emotional connection and sexual alchemy bring back feelings of vitality – being “alive” – that are too easily lost in the prosaic management of home, children and work.
It’s an explanation but not an excuse. In most cases the betrayed partner will respond with “Do you think I was happy, that I didn’t want more? But I did not cheat, why did you?” Couples who can find the answers to those questions and a way to feel alive with each other may be able to reinvigorate a relationship that was previously unfulfilling for both of them.
Infidelity, however, is not a prerequisite for this change. As Perel says of people who cheat, “if they could bring into their relationships one tenth of the boldness, the imagination and the verve that they put into their affairs, they probably would never need to see me”.