Why do people cheat, and how do couples survive infidelity and come out stronger on the other end? Esther Perel has been studying these questions and others in her work as a couples therapist, writer and podcast host. Her new book, “The State of Affairs,” examines infidelity from all points of view — the person who cheated, the person who was cheated on, and the third party — in an attempt to understand how to make modern relationships more resilient. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Lisa Bonos: How is it that people in good, happy relationships end up cheating?
Perel: It may have nothing to do with their relationship. People come in and tell me, “I love my partner, and I’m having an affair.” I spoke with a woman recently who has cancer. Who does she find herself with? The person who is helping her rehabilitate. She says: “I just found myself drawn to this person. I felt alive. I had a vitality with him because he was helping me get better again.”
Not all affairs, as much as we would like to think of it like that, are symptoms of troubled marriages. And neither are they symptoms of troubled people. They are expressions of people seeking something.
Bonos: Why can’t people find that vitality with their partner who knows them really well?
Perel: Because the partner has been with you in the hospital every day; the partner is the one with whom you’ve been scared; the partner is the one with whom you’ve been thinking about the potential of dying. The partner has been there to help you in the most incredible way and you can’t be in front of that partner and forget all of that so easily. Affairs are utopian stories that live on the sideline of your real life.
Bonos: Is there a way to harness that feeling within a relationship?
Perel: One of the most important things in the couple is to actually sort this out. To figure out: How did this thing happen? What does it mean for us? Is there something about it that we could have done differently or that I could have done differently? Or is this completely separate from us? That is very difficult sometimes for people to imagine.
When you have these experiences, it is not about necessarily being with another. It’s about you being another. There is no greater other than a different version of yourself.
Often an affair is a galvanizing experience. It’s either: Break it or remake it. When you remake it, you have to ask yourself: What are we going to do with this? We’re not just going to suffer here. We’re going to let this push us to reclaim each other in a better, stronger, more honest way. That’s what it means when people come out on the other side, saying: Our relationship is much stronger.
Bonos: How is it possible for a relationship to be stronger after infidelity?
Perel: Go back to the metaphor of the illness. Nobody seems to question that when you have a life-threatening illness, it can change your perspective. It can help you reorganize your priorities, realize what you don’t want to lose, where you need to show up differently. That doesn’t mean that you recommend people to have cancer.
This crisis will sometimes kill the relationship that was already dying on the vine, and people will use it as the opportunity to get out. Or it will jolt people out of a level of complacency, laziness, estrangement, misbehavior that they realize they don’t want to lose what they’ve built.
Bonos: You note in the beginning of the book that our culture has become more sexually open but at the same time less tolerant of infidelity. Do you think that there will be a change in tide? Or that we might become more tolerant of infidelity?
Perel: The idea is not to become more tolerant of infidelity. The idea is to question: Why are we so tolerant of multiple divorces and so intransigent about the slightest transgression sometimes? Is it really better to break the life of everyone who belongs to a marriage because of an affair? Is it really better to shame women and even more so men who choose to stay with a partner who has strayed? These are the questions that I ask.
Bonos: How do we support couples to make them more resilient?
Perel: We support them in going through a crisis without shaming them, without blaming them, without being so judgmental that there can’t be a conversation at all. By understanding the things that threaten our relationships — infidelity, betrayal, breaches of trust — we actually learn what’s on the other side and how we could have had some of these conversations earlier.
Why is it that so many people talk about sex for the first time after the crisis of an affair? The sex between them — the lack thereof, the quality thereof, the pain they experience, the loneliness they have — all of what revolves around sexual intimacy and connection. For many of them, none of these conversations ever took place.
Bonos: Has your work on infidelity led you to conclusions about how to prevent it?
Perel: It behooves us to become more attentive to our relationships and yet we are spending more time at work, more time with our children and less time with each other — while at the same time having more expectations of each other than any previous marital model in history.
We need a model that puts the children back in place … not at the helm of the family. We need adults who value their time together and who understand that to maintain a connection sexually is actually also for the good of the kids, not just for themselves.
The erotic energy is alive and well; it hasn’t left the family. But it has been redirected onto the children. The kids get the new clothes; the adults walk around in sweatpants that have lost their original color. The kids get new activities, new experiences so that they can be connected to their sense of aliveness, their discoveries, their explorations — and the adults do the same old and the same old. They go for two dates a year: their anniversaries and their birthdays. They’re undernourished.
Bonos: I’m reading this book as someone who hasn’t yet found that life partner. How can learning about infidelity inform a person’s search for the right match?
Perel: I think that today, in our landscape of sexual nomadism, people are experiencing variations of infidelity all the time. People are experiencing simmering, icing, ghosting — those are all breaches of trust in the dating landscape.
Bonos I never thought of ghosting as infidelity.
Perel: You mattered so much until two minutes ago, when I was sending you 250 texts a day. And then bam! That’s it. Erased. Done with. Nowhere to be found. What reality was I living in? I thought we had something. I thought I was going to see you again. We had such a nice date, or we had such a nice few weeks. Can I trust my own perception? This is the same discourse. But when you just have a new relationship, just a few months, the stakes are much lower.
Bonos: When I talk with singles, I find that people don’t want to invest that much. They stay where the stakes are low, so they’re not risking that much.
Perel: And when people invest, it becomes the complete opposite. From not wanting to invest at all, it becomes massive investment into one person. This person, this one and only that you’re going to find, is the one for whom you can stop looking. It’s the one who’s cured your case of FOMO. It’s the one for whom you’re deleting your apps. Can you imagine how powerful that one person then becomes? So then when you have an affair, it makes you feel like: How could you have been so mistaken about what you thought you had together?
That, to me, is one of the most incredible contrasts that I see these days: Meeting people and making it as unaffiliated as possible. And then on the other side is this most ideological, ideal-filled utopian version of love. These two are living side by side.
Bonos: So how do you get from one to the other?
Perel: Not by looking for the one and only. There’s this idea that one person will stand out from the masses, in the middle of the paradox of choice, while at the same time people have unprecedented freedom and crippling uncertainty. How do I know if this is the one? There is no “the one.” There’s just a one.
There could have been another. There could have been plenty of others. This is the one you picked, and you’re going to write a story with that person. When you pick a partner, you pick a story.