A Couples Therapist Breaks Down the Psychology — and Potential — of Infidelity

Book review: The State of Affairs, by Esther Perel (Amazon / Book Depository)

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

Amazon / Book Depository

24 thoughts on “A Couples Therapist Breaks Down the Psychology — and Potential — of Infidelity

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    1. It really was informative. It’s easy to just use one of those empty excuses but it doesn’t help anyone involved. There was so much interesting analysis here and even things to apply or consider if you’re not directly involved in this painful issue. I can’t recommend it enough!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This sounds fascinating! I’m also interested in the topic and have long held the unpopular belief that cheating is not the worst thing in the world, in the sense that there are so many reasons and so many exceptions that blanket statements like ‘if there’s one thing I hate it’s a cheater’ and ‘I won’t read romance books that include cheating’ seem a bit… silly to me? It will be interesting to read more about this subject!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, exactly!! We have so many of those kind of deeply engrained in the culture blanket statements and if you don’t agree you must be a deviant with no morals — it’s not helpful at all. She’s basically saying that cheating is widespread, it’s not going away, there are a ton of reasons for why it happens, and we have the choice to make something meaningful for ourselves and/or our relationships out of what’s otherwise destructive immense pain, anger, confusion, etc.

      I used to think that too, that it must be the worst thing in the world, total dealbreaker, all of that, but I see how naive that thinking is. There’s just so much nuance around it and it’s funny that we talk more openly about other problems in relationships but infidelity is so taboo despite its prevalence. I can’t recommend this enough, everything here was just totally fascinating, especially if you’re already interested in the topic! I thought she handled it so well too, she has this gentle and understanding but no bullshit therapist’s tone. Would so love to hear your thoughts on this one!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. (latest reply ever sorry) I hadn’t really thought much about the extent of the taboo against infidelity in the context you described, that most other relationship problems are fair game to discuss but that’s something we tend to shoot down as being morally wrong regardless of the situation. I mean, I can think of so many examples off the top of my head for cases where infidelity isn’t evil, or where it’s even good?! (Most obvious example: someone in an abusive relationship finding love elsewhere.) But yes I’m really looking forward to reading this, this is definitely a discussion that craves more nuance!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Please, it takes me ages to reply sometimes!!

        I thought about that a lot while reading this, how we tend to just pour out the details of our relationships, good and bad, yet despite being so prevalent there’s so much shame and pain around infidelity. I get that it’s painful in so many instances, not trying to downplay that at all, but like you said, there’s a LOT of nuance there. The author takes the stance in many of the cases she’s counseled that it has ultimately been helpful, and she’s careful to stress it’s not the same in every case. But it’s worth discussing, people shouldn’t have to feel ashamed about their experiences and what helped them or led to them an answer or decision, etc. Above all it made me feel less judgmental and more open-minded about what works for people, which sounds kind of awful because of course that’s how you should be, but the judgments and opinions we have around this are really deeply ingrained. It’s an excellent read, I can’t wait to hear what you think of it!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, me too!! And I felt so sad and hurt for the women. Yet there was zero context from the author to offset these depressing experiences, so it just felt like hearing awful stories with no point to it all. Ugh.

      This book was incredible though, lots of facts and figures around the scenarios, a bunch of case studies, and the author takes the perfect tone for it. I really recommend it if the subject interests you!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree with you wholeheartedly about the author provided zero context to offset these experiences. I was wondering at first why there was so much hype surrounding 3W, and I figured it was mostly due to the ten-year process of following these women in their lives and that they were so candid. I applaud Taddeo for that effort, but I think it had so much more potential. And yes-I’m totally looking up your recommendation. PS. Still waiting on The Vagina Bible!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t really get the hype around it either. If I didn’t know in advance that she’d spent so many years researching and writing it I never would’ve guessed it. It read to me like the product of a few interviews. And I was also confused by the praise around it being well written, because the writing bordered on the totally ridiculous at times: “wine like cool sneezes” is the one that haunts me, although it is hilarious! I think it had a lot of potential but without any context or additional research it just felt like the saddest, near-voyeuristic storytelling.

        Glad I could give you a more informative and interesting recommendation 🙂 Excited to hear what you think of The Vagina Bible too!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. It can be controversial, I think since so many people have an immediate knee-jerk reaction to the topic, made worse when she presents cases where affairs helped marriages. But she really changed my thinking around a lot of things, and it’s always interesting to see how other people confront these problems.

      Good luck with Three Women! Tons of people loved it, I felt in the minority but I just had so many issues with that book. And felt so bummed out by the end of it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Loved this book and it inspired me to read -another of her books, Mating in Captivity, and eventually to work on a short story that seems to be evolving into a novel that sifts through a new paradigm of infidelity (since writing through something is how I understand it). Your review is excellent! I think any person in a committed, monogamous relationship should read Perel’s books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh that’s so fascinating and wonderful that it was able to inspire you so much! I can see why though, if there’s any book that made me think completely differently this past year, it’s this one. I also think it’s one everyone in a committed relationship should read.

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    1. I think I first came across this one from your review, and even then I was hesitant because I thought it would be upsetting or make excuses. Instead it was so measured and thoughtful and just wise. I loved it. Thanks yet again for helping me find such a good one!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yay! I’m always excited when someone reads a book after reading my review and I’m specifically happy to send some recommendations your way, since I’ve found so many good books after reading your reviews 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I hesitated for a long time with it because I thought the topic would be too tough or uncomfortable to sit with. But I was so curious about what insights she’d give into the behavior and it really delivered. Thanks for putting this one on my radar! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  3. The topic of infidelity has always made me feel really uncomfortable until more recently when I split with my long-term boyfriend (not that it ended with anything to do with cheating but it’s just put a new perspective on relationships for me!) So usually, I’d absolutely shy away from a book like this but I’m actually really intrigued by this and how it could change my thought process on the topic. Great review as always 🙂

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