It’s Time That We Start Rethinking Infidelity
MARIA DEL RUSSO | OCTOBER 10, 2017, 12:30 AM
Why do people cheat? It’s a question that’s plagued couples since marriage became an institution. And as marriage has moved from an economic arrangement to one based on love, that question has become a lot more loaded. If our partners are meant to be everything to us, why would someone go looking for something outside of their marriage? And more importantly: Can a relationship recover after such a personal — and ideological — betrayal?
Esther Perel, a couple’s therapist who hales from Belgium, explored this topic generally in her wildly successful 2006 book, Mating in Captivity. Now, she’s focusing in on questions around cheating in her latest book, The State Of Affairs, which hits stores on Oct 10. Through her research, she’s able to dive into the sordid history of affairs, the modern prevalence of romantic love, and why, exactly, infidelity doesn’t always lead to the dissolution of a marriage. As it turns out, the widely accepted reasons for why people cheat don’t always apply — and the list of potential reasons is ever-evolving. “Infidelity has existed since marriage was invented,” Perel says. “But the meaning of infidelity used to be something completely different than it is today.”
“Yes! Even though we have marriage for intimacy and love and trust, we still want respectability, companionship, economic support, children, social status — all the things that a traditional marriage give us. Those didn’t disappear, we just piled other things on top of them. The people I became most interested in are not the chronic philanderers. I was more interested in the people who have been monogamous for years, who never thought they’d [cheat], and find themselves on the other side. That began to intrigue me.
“So in the ’60s, there was the secularization of our society. When you understand that people look for a soulmate, what they really are doing is conflating the spiritual and the relational. People today turn to romantic love for things that they used to turn to religion for: wholeness, ecstasy, perfection, meaning, belonging, transcendence. I’ve begun to think that we turn to one person to give us what not only an entire village used to provide us, but what an entire religion used to provide.
“That’s the common idea, but it isn’t always the truth. You’re implying that a person is going elsewhere because they’re looking for something they can’t get from their partner. The more interesting reason is this: It’s not that I can’t get these things from you, it’s that I don’t want these things from you. In the book, I say that when we go elsewhere, it’s not always because we want to leave the person we’re with, but we want to leave the person that we’ve become. It’s not about the other person. It’s about the power of transgression, and doing things that make us feel free and alive, and how that is not often what our marriages are about. It’s about reconnecting with lost parts of ourselves, remembering who we once were, mortality, not wanting to age. It’s about a lot of things, but it’s not always about the fact that the partner is falling short.
“Exactly. But that’s not always the case. It’s the fact that when I’m with a partner, I’m one person. But over the course of a 20-year relationship, it’s not unnatural to wonder what those other parts of myself are. Parts that I could have been. People that I might have been. I don’t want to leave my partner and head out, but I’m deeply curious about those other parts. It really has nothing to do with the partner, and that’s really hard for the other person to swallow. Once they begin to grasp that, it often is enormously relieving that it’s not because they’re not enough. It’s because, in life, we can’t have more than one life at the same time.”