A couples therapist explains why some marriages end and others grow stronger after an affair.
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Infidelity used to be so simple: You slept with someone who wasn't your partner. You get caught, the shit hits the fan, and you probably split up. But now? "The definition of infidelity keeps expanding," says Esther Perel, a psychotherapist and relationship expert. "Today we can now add to the mix watching porn, a massage with a happy ending, the chat room, being secretly active on a dating app. Where do we draw the line?"
Perel's new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, delves deep into the new of this very old subject. And while so much about cheating has changed, the end result doesn't necessarily have to mean the end of your relationship.
Technology really has changed everything when it comes to cheating, hasn't it?
Very much so. As far as what we call "infidelity," it's more of an individual interpretation for each person now. The internet allows us to engage with people and be sexual without being physical. There are no major religious institutions to draw the lines for us. We are left to draw them for ourselves. The usual definition of infidelity—have an affair and pregnancy and when the child comes out it has a different color hair than yours—is no longer sufficient.
It also depends on which side of the bed you lie.
Yes, it's about perspective. It's about what it did to you, but also what it meant for me. With couples in general, you run into the question that one person's feelings may be driven to become the only truth. That is part of any negotiation in a couple, or reality of a couple, and what is unique to this topic. I may say "I know it when I see it" and this is it for me. But I maybe have to listen to the fact that you may have very different ideas about that. Particularly, for example, in the realm of pornography.
You have people who have been pleasing themselves this way since they were 11 and don't think it's cheating on any level. Another partner may have a very different view about that: Now that you have me, there should be nothing else. And there should be no interest in anything or anyone else either.
Every modern couple needs to have conversations—early on in the relationship—about sexuality, about infidelity, about sexual boundaries. Unfortunately most couples only have these conversations after there's a crisis. If they'd done it early on, it would've been a much stronger buffer for them.
Why do people dodge these conversations?
We have a model of romantic love today that is about finding the one and only, finding the soulmate. We look for things in romantic love today that we used to look for in religion. And when I find that one and only, one person for everything, your best friend, your trusted confidant, your passionate lover, your intellectual equal, your co-parent, your inspiration for your career, you name it. One person for everything. That makes me very special to you. The moment we start talking about any other interests, anything that isn't "you are everything for me," it's threatening. How can you, in the beginning of a relationship, have a conversation about boundaries or transparency? The minute you start talking about these things, I start to feel like I'm not enough.
It's a set-up. It's not true—you're plenty. But you're not everything. And these conversations need to take place. They didn't need to take place when people married and had sex for the first time, or when sex was a marital duty for women and nobody cared whether she liked it or not, or when sex was meant to procreate eight or nine children. But today we have a model of sex that is also pleasure and connection. You need motivation, to be interested, to want to. It's rooted in desire.
Another reason these conversations are hard is because most people have learned to be silent about sex. Suddenly they need to talk about it with the person they love the most? And in America, much of it is sex is dirty—it's about dysfunction and disease and dangers—and save it for the one you love. Three years ago, the CDC took the word "pleasure" out of its definition of sex. But the World Health Organization still has it.
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So how do you break the ice on this kind of conversation?
Use language like: We're going to be better than that. We're not going to fall into that trap. We're also not going to pretend that these things don't exist. We know that this will ultimately make us stronger and more robust. Part of my writing is about this, we need a new conversation. One that is more compassionate, more caring, and which gives people the vocabulary and the tools. I do it with the book and with my podcast, where you can hear me do unscripted sessions with couples.
Part of this is about being truthful about modern relationships—which is very different than what people post on social media. If she thinks sex is a drive-by and he thinks she lies there like a corpse, why did it take all these years to say that sex hasn't been pleasurable for them? Emotional pain is physical pain and vice-versa. How did people learn to talk about contraception? How did people learn to talk about STIs and HIV? We talk, we have public health campaigns that taught people how to protect themselves.
It's maybe not a comfortable conversation, but you need the space to have it. You can start by saying, we're not fools, we know better, we've been around, we know. Why would we be naïve now?
You also suggest that infidelity doesn't have to mean the end of a relationship.
It depends. Some affairs break a relationship. It's a death knell for a relationship that's already dying on the vine. It's the betrayed person's way of proving that they knew they would be betrayed, it's the destroyer's way of gaining exit. Other affairs remake a relationship.
If that's possible, how do you begin?
The first step is the first phase, the crisis. What happened here? Reality falls apart, not just because you can't trust your partner but you can't trust your own perception. You feel betrayed, rejected, wounded, scared. In the crisis phase, the protagonist is the person who was hurt. The focus is on that person for a while. The other partner needs to acknowledge the hurt. And show remorse. They have to respond to the hurt regardless of what the affair meant to them. Give everyone time to put the pieces together.
After that, when things calm down a little bit, we begin to try to make sense. What was this really about? Now we put it in perspective: What it did to you, what it meant to me. That's the essential change I'm proposing, that's it's not only about the impact, but also about the meaning and the motive. Then we look at where we go from there.
Every affair redefines a relationship, and every relationship determines what the legacy of the affair will be. Who do we want to be? What haven't we talked about? What other needs haven't been met? What other secrets have we been carrying? What do we do with our sexual stalemate? What do we do about our lack of connection? What kind of connection do we want? All these things redefine the relationship.
The best positive outcome is some people say they end up with the most honest relationship they've ever had. They turn the crisis into an opportunity to make things better. Divorce isn't always the solution for everything.