Esther Perel Explains Why People In Legitimately Good Relationships Cheat — And Why It's Time To Stop Condemning Affairs

Esther Perel

Esther Perel, MA, LMFT, TED speaker and the host of top Audible original series "Where Should We Begin?" is undeniably one-of-a-truly-special-kind. Her best-selling first book, Mating In Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, has been translated into 25 languages and is taught as part of the core curriculum in human sexuality courses at universities across the world.

I was fortunate enough to speak with Esther Perel about her groundbreaking book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, and why even people in good relationships cheat.

Forging ahead on the trail she has been blazing in her more than 30 years in practice, Perel, a Belgian native fluent in nine languages, remains firmly balanced on the cutting of edge of the critical field of sexuality, love and relationships, this time working to increase understanding of and reduce the stigma against married couples who choose to stay together after one spouse cheats.

Perel's every sentence defines what it is to dedicate oneself bravely, passionately, and tirelessly to their work.

As she speaks, she moves seamlessly between her own professional voice and those voices of the various men and women she sees in her psychotherapy practice as they work to resolve some of the most painful issues they will ever face — those pertaining to their marriages, families, desires, needs, fears, disappointments, and yes, their affairs.

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To many in our society, few marital problems are as cut-and-dry as extramarital affairs.

Not only is adultery wrong — according to the dominant narrative — but sexual infidelity is the worst betrayal imaginable.

"Infidelity is the ultimate betrayal," Perel says."Women who have lived in homeless shelters due to domestic violence go back again and again and again, but if he cheats, then she finally has a reason to go."

"Today, in the West, it has become the ultimate betrayal because it shatters the grand ambition of love, because it means you’re not the one and only. In many parts of the world where I go, no, the preservation of the family is what mandates the decision and not personal happiness or unhappiness. And women will compromise — mostly women — around infidelity, because their sense of worth and their sense of social viability is drawn from so many other parts of their life that their marriage gives them access to."

The trouble with such an inflexible approach to human relationships of any kind is that even within the most solid marriages, life happens.

"You know, I was seeing a woman this week," Perel begins."Her husband is sick. What's she going to do, leave him? It's been two years. What? Is she going to tell him, 'I want to take a lover?' Where is this going to go? She's taking care of him. She's there for him. She loves him. What's she going to do? She's 46. He has early Parkinson's. What's she going to do? I think we need a different conversation. We tend to think about it as one of those 'jokes of the planet' kind of things, but when you listen to the stories, it's a very different reality that you get."

Before she continues, Perel wants to make it clear that she is no way an advocate of the decision to have an affair.

While she actively seeks to better understand the nature of infidelity, she is not doing to so for the sake of either justifying or condoning cheating on one's spouse.

"Not. One. Bit. Understanding is not justifying and not condemning doesn’t mean condoning."

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When asked if she is concerned about being misperceived in this way, she responds, "It’s a fear that I sense a lot. I think it’s very important to make this very clear from the top, because it is a topic that is so painful and makes so many people wonder: When trust is broken, can you heal it? I need to reassure people. I need to be very clear that this is a book that is meant to help and to offer another approach. There is no one size fits all for what is one of the most complex crises in our lives."

To the contrary, Perel's quest to peel back the many layers of reasons why people cheat is meant to fill a gaping void of information for those in the field of relationship counseling.

"The prevention and recovery focus has been well covered. The focus on understanding and on helping people who've gone through it in one character or another needs a robust change. I think we can do better. We need a model that is a more compassionate and caring resilience-building model that doesn’t shame the couples who choose to stay together, especially the person who stays after they’ve been deceived or betrayed."

It wasn't only during her work with couples counseling clients that Perel noted this need, but also during her many speaking engagements.

“When I sat in front of an audience, almost each time around 80 percent of the people had experienced infidelity in their life [or] had been affected by infidelity in their life. They may have been the children whose parents were unfaithful. They may have been the child of an affair. They may have been the friend of somebody who cried on their shoulder. It is astounding to see how many people have been affected by infidelity, how common it is, and how much it pulls on our skirts."

"So, I think when creating this new conversation, when I want us to speak the unspoken, I am writing for everybody. Everybody who has ever loved, and that includes anyone who works with committed relationships, with marriage, with relationships as a whole for that matter."

Perel believes marriages too often end in divorce not because one spouse wants out, but because the stigma attached to staying with someone who cheated has become so damning.

"I may feel that you betrayed me, but that doesn’t mean you did what you did because we have a rotten marriage," Perel states.

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Yet as a culture, we have become entrenched in the belief that if a marriage is a "good" or "happy" one, there should be no reason for either partner to stray, which is to imply that a marriage cannot be considered good if each partner cannot magically satisfy every want, need, and crisis of the other, and that therefore, they should divorce.

The moment we learn of an affair, she asserts, we are conditioned to ask, “What’s wrong in the marriage?" Or, "What’s wrong with the person who cheated?”

"We start from a deficiency model," Perel says. "So we often condemn marriages that have been very good and very strong. They have accomplished many things that marriages are meant to do. They have given birth. They have buried parents. They have dealt with illnesses. They have dealt with economic downturns. They have dealt with natural disasters. They have dealt with deployments... To trash all of that, to make the experience of the crisis or the affair redefine everything, is unfair to people’s commitment — both people’s, not just the person who cheated."

When asked to explain further why someone would be unfaithful if not to fulfill a void in the marriage, she replies, "You’re looking for causality. You’re looking to say that this led to that, and in life, it might be correlated, but not caused by."

"People will tell you, 'I love my partner. We have a beautiful friendship We have a good family. We love our children and our grandchildren. We have a great community life. We travel well together. We have shared interests. It’s not that something is missing. Our relationship was never about that. It was never meant to be. Or maybe I never realized that it wasn't until recently. I never had any intention of leaving my marriage. I love my partner.'"

So the marriage has nothing at all to do with the real reasons most people have affairs, she asserts, as she shares several real-life examples of reasons she has heard.

  • "This was me proving to other men that I can be just as good as them."
  • "This was for me, because I was bullied my entire childhood and I just wanted, for once, to [experience] what it's like when a woman comes onto me rather than me having to beg and be rejected."
  • "This was me wanting to reconnect to a part of myself. I’ve worked so hard. I’ve been serious all these years. I haven’t done anything that was remotely irresponsible and I just wanted to say ‘f**k it’ to everything."
  • "This was me wanting to remember who I was, and I have no intention of going back to that because I just wanted to experience it one more time."
  • "I just came out of cancer treatment and I just wanted to experience a sense of being alive in a way I haven’t felt in so long, and that’s not what my partner, who’s been at the hospital with me everyday, [wants] to to do with me."

"These reasons," she says, "have nothing to do with a bad marriage. They are existential longings. They are experiences of loss. They come with acute awareness of mortality. They are committed by people who have often been faithful for decades. That doesn’t make them bad people or people who avoid intimacy or people who don’t understand commitment. Sometimes they are. But to write about miserable couples who have affairs and who want out... there’s nothing to write. There are a million different kinds of affairs. We need to define infidelity every time we talk about it."

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In sharing stories from real couples in her book and on her podcast, four episodes of which are included in her audio book, Perel hopes to offer a tangible sense of the many nuances.

"When a woman tells you, 'I walked in front of him for years — for years. It’s not a week. It’s not a month. He doesn’t see me. I’m not a woman. I haven’t been desired. I haven’t been looked at with that gleam. I can’t tell you, I feel dead. That’s the language she’s using. She’s not saying ‘I just want to get laid.’ I feel dead."

"The word people use all over the world when they have an affair is that they feel a sense of aliveness. It has nothing to do with if they had sex or not. They experience desire. They experience a sense of aliveness. It’s very different."

"And then you could say, well why didn’t she bring it up? As if she hasn’t? Do we really want to treat people like idiots? So once in a while he kind of obliged her. Made her feel as though he was doing her a favor. That she had to kind of dress herself up in some crazy stuff which made her feel completely humiliated and slutty just because she had to have some way to get his attention?"

"And meanwhile, he’s been taking care of her sick mother and he’s been paying for her alcoholic brother and he’s been there for her as she’s building her new business and he’s advising her on everything. And those things are coexisting at the same time."

"And she comes in and she says I love this guy, we have an amazing relationship. There’s nobody I want to spend more time with than him. He has zero interest in me. Should I leave him because of that? Should I throw everything away because of that?"

"And then she has an affair as a way to stay married. And the argument that says if you’re unhappy enough to cheat you should be unhappy enough to leave is simplistic and accusatory to the family, not just to the person who strayed, but to the entire family system. That doesn’t mean it’s right. That doesn’t justify it. That doesn’t make it good. But terrible things happen in relationships and we the therapists need to be able to maintain neutrality, an equanimity to work with the bad things that people bring to us."

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Reaching a deeper understanding of infidelity in this way allows room for people affected by it to heal, both as their individual selves and as a couple.

"People [have an affair] for themselves. They are not doing this to betray their partner. They often feel great conflict about their values and their behavior, which isn’t the only time that people are in conflict between what they value and what they do, is it? We need to understand why that happened and we need to help their partners make sense of this. And we need to let couples who choose to, figure out how they can come out of this relationship and this crisis stronger, more honest and more open."

Further, she asserts, "The model that affairs are betrayals is not for everybody. You want to actually ask each person, ‘What is the unique pain point for you? Where does it hurt? Where is the knife twisting? What hurt you the most?’”

In response to these questions about why people have affairs, Perel hears answers such as:

  • "I followed him/her from country to country. I made everything possible for his/her life. And now he/she invalidated everything I did."
  • "[The affair makes] me feel like no matter what I did, it wasn’t good enough."

"They don’t talk about a betrayal," she says,"they talk about having been completely dismissed. Replaced. Pushed aside."

With this novel understanding of the driving forces in many instances of adultery, Perel's next challenge is to help couple's move forward from a situation burdened with criminalized language that reduces men and women into either "the injured party" or "the perpetrator."

To begin, Perel takes a three-tiered approach to move past infidelity:

1. Change the language of what occurred from wrong to hurtful.

"And there a lot of things that may have been hurtful in the relationship," she adds.

2. Look not only at the impact of the affair, but also at the meanings and the motive.

"You may not have meant [for this] to have hurt me, but the fact is that it does, so you have to deal with that," Perel says.

Then, from the person who cheated, "I understand what it did to you, and also, this is what it meant for me. Not from the start, but ultimately."

3. Reach a willingness to understand that while betrayal is the result of infidelity, it isn’t the purpose.

"The willingness to understand only follows after there has been a sincere acknowledgement and demonstration of remorse and guilt of the hurt that’s been inflicted. We know that from any trauma research, that the first step is the acknowledgement of the hurt, of the wrongdoing, of what actually happened."

In order for any couple to make any decisions about where they go from there, Perel believes, it is imperative that they metabolize the experience in this way.

"This is an experience where people have a highly differentiated perspective, and the role of the therapist is to offer a safe container for structure, for clarity, for calmness, for aching, for understanding, and for decision making. That requires we use the same care and compassion that we use for other relationship crises."

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This interview is part of YourTango's 'Empowering Women Series' highlighting female icons making a difference in the lives of other women through their talents, voices and strength of character.

Deputy Editor Arianna Jeret, MA/MSW, has been featured in Cosmopolitan, The Huffington Post, Yahoo Style, MSN, Fox News, Bustle, Parents and more. Find her on Twitter for more.