Almost everywhere people marry, monogamy is the official norm and infidelity the clandestine one. So what are we to make of this time-honored taboo—universally forbidden yet universally practiced?
Reading the overhyped and even troubling Three Women, I found myself most interested in the marriage dynamics of the women profiled. There was infidelity of various kinds and for very different reasons in each of those stories, and although I didn’t much like that book, I realized how interested I am in how infidelity is perceived and defined in different relationships. There is something fascinating about this “time-honored taboo,” as couples therapist Esther Perel calls it.
This is the book I’ve read this year that has made me examine my own ideas, feelings, and perceptions most. I’ve found myself thinking about it more than I expected. Perel uses examples from both heterosexual and homosexual couples she’s counseled to examine what infidelity means in a relationship, and how it can actually in some way be beneficial. This is surely a controversial stance, but she certainly broadened my thinking in terms of what can be drawn or understood from affairs.
She’s not advocating for infidelity or dismissing its impact, rather she argues that it delivers the important message that a couple needs to look closer at their relationship and do some work around whether it should end or continue based on why this happened.
Addressing these issues requires a willingness to descend into a labyrinth of irrational forces. Love is messy; infidelity more so. But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.
That’s why I loved this book so much. It put a powerful spotlight on how much reasoning and nuance exists in our complicated ideas around love and commitment, whether you agree with certain points or not, and how much infidelity says about basic human nature, like that “We seek stability and belonging, qualities that propel us toward committed relationships, but we also thrive on novelty and diversity. ”
Without the perspective of the third, we can never have more than a partial understanding of the way that love carves its twisting course through the landscape of our lives.
A big takeaway was that you can’t judge someone else’s marriage or relationship. Lest that come across as obvious, let me explain: How often have you counseled a friend to leave the partner that cheated on them? Or badmouthed that same partner to them? Have you done this despite their lingering attachment to the relationship? Have you tough-loved them by being harsh when they went back to someone who cheated? That’s the kind of thing I mean.
And as tough as it may be to confront some of these ideas, Perel’s absolutely right that we have a choice to mine meaning from what may be one of the biggest challenges and hardest emotional confrontations we face in a relationship. “We become collaborators in understanding and mending. Affairs are solo enterprises; making meaning is a joint venture.”
Perel very briefly touches on Hillary Clinton as a major cultural example of our unforgiving attitude towards cheaters and those who stay with them. One piece of Hillary’s baggage was the judgment for her decision to remain with Bill despite the highest profile cheating. I would’ve liked a little more examination of how society views and judges these kind of spotlight cases, because as Perel points out, we are universally agreed on infidelity as a Major Evil. But the looks at so many different cases she’s encountered were illuminating as it was, especially in terms of the multitude of factors involved.
She banishes unhelpful excuses that verge on being myths, like of sex addiction, and looks honestly, clearly, and without judgment at what creates a divide in a relationship and what it can reveal about partnership and attitudes towards commitment. It does suffer slightly from a constant barrage of couples’ names and brief outlines of their scenarios depending on the topic she’s elucidating. It’s fine that they’re quick examples, for the most part, but it did make retention a bit difficult. I suspect that the quick sketches of people may have been for anonymity as well, and to underscore just how vast and multifaceted this topic is.
There was an interesting point made about how much we demand from our marriages, coupled with longer life expectancy, as well as the near-mythical importance we place on The One: “Miraculously, our desire for others is supposed to evaporate, vanquished by the power of this singular attraction. In a world where it is so easy to feel insignificant—to be laid off, disposable, deleted with a click, unfriended—being chosen has taken on an importance it never had before. Monogamy… confirms our specialness. Infidelity says, You’re not so special after all.”
She examines the unique pain that comes from this, and of course the historical aspect: “Like a ricochet effect across time, one breach in the present can trigger the resonance of all the breaches of the past.” I guess as you get older everything feels like it’s connected to something that came before, and coupled with the trust of a marriage that equals devastation.
She also looks at common scenarios and why they lead to infidelity in the first place, and it really makes the typical arguments of sex addiction or boredom seem so shallow in comparison to the complex psychology at play: “The flicker with an old flame offers a unique combination of built-in trust, risk-taking, and vulnerability. In addition, it is a magnet for our lingering nostalgia. The person I once was, but lost, is the person you once knew.”
Perel does a brilliant job of showing how much nuance exists and what possibilities it offers to those who are affected, and a gentle reminder that you can’t know the workings of someone else’s relationship. I think this book does so much to inform and educate and is very well done, never judgmental but also not forgiving — this isn’t about excusing cheating, but rather putting it to use for the better, in either moving a relationship forward or knowing it’s time to end it. (Worth noting that it very much reads like pop psychology and not self-help or a guidebook.)
If the goal was to rethink infidelity, as the subtitle indicates, it succeeds completely (and is more entertaining than perhaps expected, as I was anticipating a bit of a bummer). 4.5/5
The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity
by Esther Perel
published October 2017