This article was based on the TED2015 talk, “Rethinking Infidelity – a Talk for Anyone Who Has Ever Loved,” by Esther Perel:
The History of Infidelity
Have you ever wondered why people cheat? And why do happy people cheat? What exactly do we mean when we talk about infidelity? Is it a hookup, a love story, paid sex, a chat room, a massage with a happy ending? Why do we think that men cheat out of boredom and fear of intimacy, but women cheat out of loneliness and hunger for intimacy? Is an affair always the end of a relationship?
For the past 10 years, Esther Perel has traveled the globe and worked extensively with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. There is one simple act of transgression that can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness, and their very identity – an affair. Despite how often affairs occur, this common act is poorly understood.
Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, and so, too, the taboo against it. In fact, infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy, so much so, that this is the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible – once for doing it, and once just for thinking about it. So how do we reconcile what is universally forbidden, yet universally practiced?
Defining a Modern Affair
When it comes to affairs, everyone wants to know what percentage of people cheat. This is a difficult question to answer because the definition of infidelity keeps expanding. Today, it may include sexting, watching porn, and secretly staying active on dating apps. Because there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what even constitutes infidelity, estimates vary widely, from 26 percent to 75 percent.
Perel defines an affair as the combination of 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. Alchemy is the key word here because the erotic frisson is such that the kiss you only imagine giving can be as powerful and as enchanting as hours of actual lovemaking. As Marcel Proust said, it’s our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person.
Because of the romantic ideals we hold, we are relying on our partner’s fidelity with a unique fervor. At the same time, we have never been more inclined to stray, and not because we have new desires today, but because we live in an era where we feel that we are entitled to pursue our desires because this is the culture where we deserve to be happy. If we used to divorce because we were unhappy, today we divorce because we could be happier. It used to be that divorce carried all the shame, today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.
Why Do We Cheat?
If we can divorce, why do we still have affairs? The typical assumption is that if someone cheats, either there’s something wrong in your relationship or wrong with you. The logic is that if you have everything you need at home, then there is no need to go looking elsewhere, assuming that there is such a thing as a perfect marriage that will inoculate us against wanderlust. What if passion has a finite shelf life? What if there are things that even a good relationship can never provide? If even happy people cheat, what is it about?
Most of the people that cheat are not chronic philanderers. They are often people who are deeply monogamous in their beliefs, but they find themselves in a conflict between their values and their behaviour. They often are people who have actually been faithful for decades, but one day they cross a line that they never thought they would cross, and at the risk of losing everything.
Affairs are an act of betrayal, and they are also an expression of longing and loss. At the heart of an affair, you will often find a longing and a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.
People who have affairs often describe that it makes them feel alive. It’s not uncommon for them to have experienced a recent loss — of a parent who died, a friend that went too soon, or bad news from the doctor. 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? These questions are perhaps what propel people to cross the line. Some affairs are an attempt to find an antidote to death.
Contrary to popular thinking, affairs are less about sex and more about a desire for attention, to feel special, and to feel important. 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 and ambiguity, keeps you wanting that which you can’t have.
Recovering from an Affair
So how do we heal from an affair? Desire runs deep, and betrayal runs deep, but healing is possible. Some affairs are death knells for relationships that were already dying on the vine. Others will jolt us into new possibilities. The fact is, the majority of couples who have experienced affairs stay together. Some of them will merely survive, and others will actually be able to turn a crisis into an opportunity. They’ll be able to turn the affair into a generative experience.
Many couples, in the immediate aftermath of an affair, find that this new disorder may actually lead to a new order with depths of conversations, honesty, and openness that they haven’t had in decades. Partners who were sexually indifferent find themselves suddenly lustfully voracious. Something about the fear of loss will rekindle desire and make way for an entirely new kind of truth.
When an affair is exposed, what are some of the specific things that couples can do? We know from trauma that healing begins when the perpetrator acknowledges their wrongdoing. For the partner who had the affair, one thing is to end the affair, but the other is the essential, important act of expressing guilt and remorse for hurting the other person. For the deceived partner, it is essential to do things that bring back a sense of self-worth, to surround oneself with love and with friends and activities that bring joy and meaning and identity.
Every affair will redefine a relationship, and every couple will determine what the legacy of the affair will be. Affairs are here to stay, and they’re not going away. However, good can come out of an affair if the couple uses it for self-discovery and comes away with a new perspective.