Affairs are decidedly messy and yet our culture tends to swiftly oversimplify them—bad guy, victim—in a way that, frankly, serves no one. In her new book, The State of Affairs, sexuality expert and psychotherapist Esther Perel takes a peel-the-layers approach to infidelity that surprises on every page. Perel, who spent several years focusing her practice on couples dealing with infidelity, and talking to hundreds of others affected by it, weaves together a collection of personal stories that is both thrilling (you feel like you’re eavesdropping) and moving: Don’t be so quick to judge, we’re ultimately reminded.
To be clear, Perel doesn’t condone infidelity, betrayal, or deception of any kind—and she certainly doesn’t take affairs lightly. As she explains, she would no sooner recommend having an affair than a doctor would recommend getting cancer. At the same time, she argues that there is a lot we can learn from infidelity: “Through the worst, we try to understand the best, and through broken people, we try to understand whole people.” Through the always-provocative lens of infidelity, she explores love, fidelity, commitment.
Here, Perel offers nuanced support for individuals, couples, and other lovers in the throes of an affair, or its aftermath. She counsels the friends who may be shoulders to lean on. And she shares the most important lessons everyone else can learn from infidelity—without having to live through it—that can revitalize or strengthen any intimate relationship. As always, she pushes the conversation forward to be more inclusive, complex, and compassionate.
(For more from Perel on goop, click here for what women need to hear about desire, here for who really gets bored first, here for what your upbringing says about you in bed, and here for backstage footage. See her first, equally revelatory book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence here, and get ready for season two of her podcast Where Should We Begin? which kicks off on October 24—(talk about eavesdropping!)
A Q&A with Esther Perel
People have affairs for many reasons—but what’s typically going on when someone who is happy and in love with their partner strays?
The idea of a no-fault affair is difficult for our culture to accept. The “symptom” theory of betrayal is that an affair points to a preexisting condition—a troubled relationship or a troubled person, which holds true in many cases. I also regularly talk to people in good relationships, who love their partners, who have been highly responsible in every sense previously, who show up for their partners in many ways—who have strayed. Why?
I often find that the affair is a form of self-discovery. It’s not that the individuals having the affairs want to leave their partners, but the people they have become. They are looking for another version of themselves—which is the most powerful variety of “other” there is. (This line of thinking does not justify or condone infidelity, but it may help us understand why people in happy and otherwise committed relationships transgress.) What’s exhilarating isn’t so much the new partner, but the new self or what the person may experience in terms of growth, exploration, transformation.
Who are you, or who do you allow yourself to be with the other partner, that you are not in your marriage/relationship? If you are someone who has always lived responsibly, dutifully, what does the entitlement and rebellion of an affair mean to you? What pieces of yourself have you lost or abandoned in your life that you may be trying to reclaim? Everyone has multiple selves, but in our most intimate, long-term relationships, there’s a tendency to reduce our complexity.
“It’s not that the individuals having the affairs want to leave their partners, but the people they have become. They are looking for another version of themselves—which is the most powerful variety of ‘other’ there is.”
For example, women and mothers who I speak with often feel they have lost their sense of self. They describe spending their time taking care of everyone in the family, and ask: Where have I gone? Sometimes, an affair can make them feel reconnected with the woman in them who disappeared behind wife and mom.
Longing and loss are often at the heart of an affair—whether it’s a longing for self, for sexual authenticity, or triggered by an event. People regularly bring about the shadow of mortality when I talk to them about infidelity. They may have recently lost a parent or a friend, received a diagnosis, or otherwise been reminded that life is short. They are thinking: Is this it?
Can you describe the three phases of post-affair recovery? What’s critical in the immediate aftermath?
The trajectory of an affair is, of course, not neatly aligned and stages don’t typically follow orderly, one after another, but crash into each other. It might be three steps forward, and then one back. But I divide post-affair recovery into three general phases: crisis, meaning making, and visioning.
In the acute crisis phase, people need structure to figure out what requires their most urgent attention. Are the children (if they exist) okay? Are there any health issues? Is anyone at risk—reputation, mental health, livelihood, etc.?
This phase also requires a safe and gentle container for the intensity of emotions that are likely to arise. My job is to hold the moment for the couple. Two people are experiencing losses of identity and of their future, at least as they had imagined it.
What’s important in the immediate after is for the person who has had the affair to show remorse and to express guilt. Even if you don’t feel remorse—you might think the affair was important to you—understand that there is a difference between what the affair meant to you and what it did to your partner.
Also, it’s important to be there for the partner who has been betrayed—which can look differently moment to moment. The partner is likely confused and shock: I can’t believe this is my life. Their whole sense of reality has been upended—who they thought you were, who they thought you two were as a couple. The partner in the crisis phase can experience many seemingly contradictory emotions. One minute it is hold me, the next it’s get away from me, one minute it’s f%*k you, the next it’s f%*k me. Let them feel all of these things.
“Understand that there is a difference between what the affair meant to you and what it did to your partner.”
Sometimes, the infidelity feels so egregious that the couple can’t see a way to come back. Sometimes, people will find that they have surprisingly healing conversations with one another, with a level of honesty they haven’t had in years. Sometimes, couples have intense, passionate sex, and they don’t understand why—there’s been a combustible sexual awakening—which isn’t something that we typically feel permitted to speak about. It’s a spectrum, and there isn’t right or wrong.
This is the stage where you are trying to make sense of it all: Why did this happen? What role might each person have played in the bigger picture? What did the affair mean? Is there something we can learn from this?