- How much I’d Recommend: 10/10
- Date finished: 1/3/21
- The State of Affairs, recommend borrowing from your local library
I love the way Esther Perel writes. She’s very clear with her points and her writing style is very smooth. She is a therapist (as opposed to a psychologist) so this book reads more like a friend with relationship experiences as opposed to a lecture. She explored the topic of infidelity (cheating) and why it is so prevalent in human history. I feel like there isn’t enough books/knowledge on romantic relationships that go this deep into the core of the problem. Esther does not judge at all, yet she goes straight to the source of the issues when she meets the couples and try to untangle the mess.
Whether we like it or not, philandering is here to stay. And all the ink spilled advising us on how to “affair-proof” our relationships has not managed to curb the number of men and women who wander. Infidelity happens in good marriages, in bad marriages, and even when adultery is punishable by death. It happens in open relationships where extramarital sex is carefully negotiated before-hand. And the freedom to leave or divorce has not made cheating obsolete. After immersing myself in the topic, I have come to see that there is no singular truth, no comprehensive typography to describe this crucible of passion and betrayal. The only thing i can say for certain is that nothing I’m about to tell you is made up.
When a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair, I often tell them this: Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?
For me, infidelity includes one or more of these three constitutive elements: secrecy, sexual alchemy, and emotional involvement.
Secrecy is the number one organizing principle of an infidelity. An affair always lives in the shadow of the primary relationship, hoping never to be discovered.
Sexual alchemy, because affairs sometimes involve sex and sometimes not, but they are always erotic.
Emotional involvement, most affairs register an emotional component, to one degree or another. Sometimes the term “emotional affair” is applied to relationships that are genuinely platonic but are perceived to be “too close.” Because for many today, marriage is wedded to the concept of emotional intimacy and naked honesty, when we open our inner life to someone else, it can feel like a betrayal.
If you cheat, it’s because you are a selfish, weak, untrustworthy person. But if I do it, it’s because of the situation I found myself in. For ourselves, we focus on the mitigating circumstances; for others, we blame character.
It’s worth remembering that until recently, marital fidelity and monogamy had nothing to do with love. It was a mainstay of patriarchy, imposed on women, to ensure patrimony and lineage – whose children are mine and who gets the cows (or the goats or the camels) when I die.
It is old news that in most cultures, men had the tacitly sanctioned freedom to roam with little consequence, supported by a host of theories about masculinity that justified their predilections for tasting widely. The double standard is as old as adultery itself.
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, amidst the societal sea change of the Industrial Revolution, marriage was redefined. Gradually it evolved from an economic enterprise to a compassionate one – a free-choice engagement between two individuals, based not on duty and obligation but on love and affection. In the move from the village to the city, we became more free but also more alone. Individualism began its remorseless conquest of Western civilization. Mate selection became infused with romantic aspirations meant to counter the increasing isolation of modern life.
Monogamy used to mean one person for life. Now monogamy means one person at a time.
First we brought love to marriage. Then we brought sex to love. And then we linked marital happiness with sexual satisfaction. Sex for procreation gave way to sex for recreation. While premarital sex became the norm, marital sex underwent its own little revolution, shifting from a woman’s matrimonial duty to a joint pathway for pleasure and connection.
When sex was decoupled from reproduction, it became no longer just a feature of our biology but a marker of our identity. Our sexuality has been socialized away from the natural world and has become a “property of the self” that we define and redefine throughout our lives. It is an expression of who we are, no longer merely something we do. In our corner of the world, sex is a human right linked to our individuality, our personal freedom, and our self-actualization. Sexual bliss, we believe, is our due – and it has become a pillar of our new conception of intimacy.
In our consumer society, novelty is key. The obsoleteness of objects is programmed in advance so that it ensures our desire to replace them. Hence we no longer divorce because we’re unhappy; we divorce because we could be happier.
FOMO drives what is known as the “hedonic treadmill” – the endless search for something better.
Marriage, as philosopher Alain de Botton writes, went “from being an institution to being the consecration of a feeling, from being an externally sanctioned rite of passage to being an internally motivated response to an emotional state.” For many, love is no longer a verb, but a noun describing a constant state of enthusiasm, infatuation, and desire.
We want our relationships to inspire us, to transform us. Their value, and therefore their longevity, is commensurate with how well they continue to satisfy our experiential thirst.
Our primary duty is now to ourselves – even if it comes at the expense of those we love.
After all, aren’t we entitled to an affair, if that’s what it takes to be fulfilled?
Privacy is a functional boundary that we agree on by social convention. There are matters that we know exist but choose not to discuss, like menstruation, masturbation, or fantasies. Secrets are matters we will deliberately mislead others about.
In some cultures, infidelity is commonly treated as a private matter (at least for men), but in our culture, it is usually a secret.
“Have you forgiven her?” I ask him. “Yes,” he replies, “though at first it seemed impossible.” He recalls how I told him that one day he would understand that forgiving doesn’t mean giving the other a free pass. It’s a gift one gives oneself. Sure enough, as time passed, he got it. As Lewis B. Smedes writes, “To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.”
Rather than insulate ourselves with the false notion that it could never happen to me, we must learn to live with the uncertainties, the allures, the attractions, the fantasies — both our own and our partners’. Couples who feel free to talk honestly about their desires, even when they are not directed at each other, paradoxically become closer.
To quote Rachel Botsman, “Trust is a confident relationship to the unknown.”
Yes, trust is built and strengthened by actions over time, but by the same token, trust is also a leap of faith — “a risk masquerading as a promise,” as Adam Phillips writes. An affair throws a couple into a new reality, and those who are willing to venture forward together discover that for them, trust no longer solely hinges on the predictable, but rather, trust is an active engagement with the unpredictable.
Our partners do not belong to us; they are only on loan, with an option to renew — or not. Knowing that we can lose them does not have to undermine commitment; rather, it mandates an active engagement that long-term couples often lose. The realization that our loved ones are forever elusive should jolt us out of complancency, in the most positive sense.