This may all be true. At the same time, she is compartmentalizing. This is a compromise that always has costs.
What can we learn from affairs to better our relationships without having to live through infidelity?
Look at the intensity of affairs, the imagination, the creativity, the attention, the focus that goes into them: If we could bring a little bit of that into our marriages, we would be doing a lot better.
I was at a conference recently where 20,000 women were talking about claiming their lives and career. I was asking everyone, “When you go home, is this the person you are?” (I ask men the same question.) “You’re dressed up, charming, curious about me, not on your phone. Is this the person you are with your partner? Or do you bring the leftovers home?”
“Look at the intensity of affairs, the imagination, the creativity, the attention, the focus that goes into them: If we could bring a little bit of that into our marriages, we would be doing a lot better.”
We take our partners for granted. We become lazy. We don’t talk to them. We don’t dress nice. We call them our best friends but we treat our best friends very differently than we treat them. We become complacent. We lose the connection and we pretend our partners are going to be there no matter what—like a cactus that rarely needs to be watered.
What do you do?
Nobody likes to be left with the leftovers. Relationships and the people in it (including yourself) need daily care. Stay intentional. Still relate to each other like people. Remain curious about the other person and who they are. Don’t save all your interesting conversations for the office or for when you’re with friends or people you’re meeting for the first time. Instead of looking for ways to feel engaged outside of the home, have the conversations you’re interested in with your partner, too.
When you partner tells you things, listen. Often, after an affair, the person who was betrayed will say to their partner, “Why didn’t you tell me you were unhappy?” But in many cases they did, but weren’t taken seriously. Or, sometimes we’re too busy and we misinterpret what our partner is asking for. We might keep saying, we need to reconnect and spend time together—but do you?
“Remain curious about the other person and who they are.”
A woman told me, “I thought my husband was asking me to take care of him, but he was asking me to have an adult relationship with him. It felt like one more person asking for something from me, when in fact he was coming to be with me and to give me something.”
Many couples don’t have real conversations about desire, attraction, turn-ons, and monogamy until after an affair. Monogamy is a practice you do for the sake of the relationship. Don’t wait until you are in a crisis; talk to one another now. Don’t let sexual connection with your partner dry out.
A safe-guarding or “affair-proofing” approach generally leads to uncomfortable constraints that only enhance the erotic appeal of transgressions. Make space for yourself and your partner to experience creativity, energy, and vitality in your relationship. Strangers paying attention to us can point toward what’s been missing in our relationships. Romantic ideals mandate that marriage should shut us off from the force of eros. But acknowledging the erotic separateness of your partner—that his/her sexuality does not revolve around just you—and that the gaze of others exists, can be charging and intimate.
Rather than denying the allure of the forbidden, you can collaborate in transgression. In other words, go outside whatever your comfort zone might be—with your partner. Maybe this is taking a salsa dancing class, maybe this is a new sexual experience, maybe it’s going out to dinner without the kids.
The most important thing is to maintain the sense of energy and vitality and aliveness in your own relationship so you don’t have to go outside of it to capture a lost dimension of life.
People who choose to stay together after an affair often face shame—how might we change this?
It used to be that divorce carried the shame. Today, it is choosing to stay when you can leave that carries new shame. Affairs are painful and they are often terrible betrayals, but people may want to find a way to recover from them and continue their lives with their partners. Too many people are afraid to tell their friends that their partners cheated on them and that they still love them. They are terrified of being judged, so they live with a toxic secret; they have to protect the person who betrayed them.
We need to make room for people to make their own determinations about what happened. We should believe in the resilience of human beings to overcome the crisis of infidelity—as we do with so many other kinds of crises.
“The best friends are the ones who can tolerate other people making their own decisions, even if they are not the decisions they would have made.”
Couples who decide to stay together need support, not to be ostracized. If your friend is in this situation, make room for him or her to scream and cry and to doubt and fight. Give them the space they need to figure it out.
The best friends are the ones who can tolerate other people making their own decisions, even if they are not the decisions they would have made. People have all kinds of reasons for leaving and staying and they don’t always make sense to others. If you’re asked for your opinion, give it, but too often people insert their own story into someone else’s. (And since so many of us had brushes with infidelity in one way or another, we generally have a story to insert.)
Love is messy. Infidelity even more so. But infidelity is also a lens into the crevices of the human heart. We need to let people heal their own hearts, which is helped along with compassion—not judgment.
Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the bestselling author of Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs. She is also the executive producer and host of Audible original series, Where Should We Begin? Sign up for her monthly newsletter and relationship wisdom here.