This Is Why Happy People Cheat

Infidelity isn’t always a dealbreaker

I am a romantic. Not a hopeless one, as the cliché goes, but a hopeful one. I know that long-term love is messy, and that it involves vulnerability, patience and continuous hard work. But at my core? I believe in it. So when I first heard that the legendary New York relationship therapist Esther Perel was writing a book about infidelity, and why happy people cheat, I wondered if her theories might make a dent in my optimism.
When it comes to relationships, Perel is the level best. Her international bestseller Mating in Captivity - the bible on erotic desire in long-term relationships - has been translated into 24 languages, and her TED Talks have collectively reached over 15.5 million viewers. Perhaps because her tough wisdom is rooted in listening - as a therapist, writer, trainer and lecturer she has been probing the nuances of intimacy for over three decades, and has spent the last eight years solely counselling couples dealing with infidelity. Now, in new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, she uses her findings to confront some of the most uncomfortable and controversial topics of our time: Why do happy people cheat? Is monogamy losing its relevance? Can we love more than one person at once? And why would someone value their sexual needs above their family?
These questions might make you wince; or perhaps you are in a committed relationship and think that they have nothing to do with you. But Perel believes that conversations around what infidelity really means to each of us are an important part of any adult, intimate relationship. By sharing the stories of couples who have experienced affairs - from a grieving 80-year-old widow who discovers her husband’s longstanding affair to the college sweethearts who reconnected through LinkedIn long after they’d gone on to build their own families  - she hopes to find a more compassionate and effective approach to discussing them. After all, as she points out in the introduction, “Whether we like it or not, philandering is here to stay.” With that in mind, we may as well learn from it.
Rather than over the phone, Perel requests I interview her via Skype, and as we begin to toss over topics from emotional affairs to sexting, I can see why. She fixes her blue eyes on me as if she’s probing every question for its true meaning with Superman-style X-ray vision (except Perel’s superpower is to look into your soul, not under your clothes). Even through a laptop screen she is captivating. Thoughtful, but firm; empathetic, but unapologetic - all qualities that must come in useful when she’s sitting in front a couple asking them to life the lid on their darkest secrets. I wonder, after 34 years of asking people about their sex and love lives, if she’s spotted a common thread in infidelity stories. “There is no common reason,” she shakes her head. “Definitely mortality, fear of ageing, deadness. A fear of, ‘Is it going to be like this for another 25 years? Nothing new? No change?’ That’s one narrative. Of course there are the others that find their justifications inside the relationship; neglect is probably the biggest one.” As we talk about the other reasons within a relationship people stray (“loneliness, sexlessness or sexual mediocrity, resentment, chronic conflict”) she finds fault in the narrow-minded language we use to dissect affairs. “‘Cheat’ is a problematic word to begin with,” she says. When you think about it, a lot of the words we use to signpost affairs - “victim”, “perpetrator”, “betrayal”, “the injured party” - force moralistic, ‘good or bad’ stereotypes onto the narrative. (Perel points out that the term “adultery” itself is derived from the Latin word meaning corruption.) While she’s clear that “not condemning does not mean condoning”, she does set out a case for removing the judgement, secrecy and shame from the conversation, and looking at what affairs can teach us instead.
Importantly, she also challenges the idea that there has to be a problem at home for an affair to bloom. “Even happy people cheat,” she insists. “I could be in a very good relationship with you, and love our life, but then something else might appear that connects with something inside of me that has nothing to do with us. It has something to do with my past, my longing, the lost parts of who I was, the person I could have been.”
In the last few years, Perel says she has not taken on a single new couple that didn’t have something to to do with the subject of infidelity. After her TED talk on the subject, she received 1,500 letters, mostly from wounded husbands and unfaithful wives (“the two groups that have the least permission to talk”) and at events, when she asks audiences who in the room has been affected by an affair, about 85% of people raise their hands. She realises this was topic that needed a new conversation, but had no interest in exploring why miserable people have affairs because “it’s all been said”. Instead, she wanted to understand the people who came into her office to discuss an affair after being happily married for 27 years. "These are not chronic philanderers, flakes or immature pricks - these are people who are responsible. And here, suddenly, they find themselves experiencing the last thing they ever thought they would. That’s intriguing. How did they get there?”
Perel points out one problem is “people renew their license on a regular basis, but they never renew their vows, they never renew their commitment.” What should they be doing, then? “Asking, how are we doing? How is this company going - you know, this little company of us? What needs to change? Where are we at? I mean there is not a single system that is left languishing like that for so long, with no input, with the hope that it will last forever.” Instead of leaving relationships and marriages to tick along on their own, Perel suggests couples should have “a little summit” every six weeks, or develop rituals that stave off neglect. We also discuss the importance of fostering mystery in a relationship. “When people think about mystery they have this bizarre idea of something big,” she explains. “Actually, mystery is right there if you stay curious and ask interesting questions. People go out to a party and have great conversations with friends. ‘Oh have you read this book? And this book?’ Then you go back into the car and instead of continuing the interesting conversation, you start talking about who is going to pick up the children tomorrow. There is something nice about this ease, but there is also something lazy about it. And over time the laziness does have consequences.”
When it comes to knowing how to prevent an affair, Perel’s theory in a nutshell is: “We learn from affairs that the forbidden will always hold an allure, for most. The ongoing challenge for steady couples is to find ways to collaborate in transgression, rather than transgressing against each other or their bond.” By this she means you cannot ‘affair proof’ a relationship by cutting out exes or preventing a partner socialising with attractive work colleagues. Instead, there might be a way to work out how to develop “illicit acts” within your relationship, together - Perel shares the example of Jade and Ross (who created secret email accounts to share X rated conversations in unlikely moments) or Bianca and Mags (“who can’t afford to go out, but they want to affirm that they’re not only parents. So once a week they put the babies to bed, light candles, dress up, and have a date at home. They call it “meeting at the bar.”)
Perel also isn’t afraid to explore the ways that an affair can open up a new relationship within an old one. She writes that infidelity is “a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart” and that “catastrophe has a way of propelling us into the essence of things.” There are, as her colleague Tammy calls them, two types: The Wake Up affair and the Break Up affair. "The Wakeup affair is a well that has not yet been fully explored," Perel explains. "That doesn’t mean you recommend it. It doesn’t mean it makes it right. It just means that this is not a deal breaker.” And for many of the couples in her book, infidelity is a gateway to honesty: “Somehow the damn is broken. There is nothing to lose and people actually open up for the first time about the quality of their sexual relationship, about all kinds of things they haven’t wanted to discuss before because they wanted to avoid conflict.” For this reason, she is often asked if she would recommend an affair to a struggling couple. Her response? “A lot of people have positive, life-changing experiences that come along with terminal illness. But I would no more recommend having an affair than I would recommend getting cancer.”
What motivates Perel, I think, is a deep desire to give couples the tools to understand their relationship, their affairs - and themselves. As we talk, I realise that she too is a hopeful romantic, albeit a pragmatic one. The dedication at the front of her book - "For Jack, who I have loved for three decades. And for anyone who has ever loved.” - now makes total sense. For this isn't a cynical book about the infidelity epidemic; more a look at who we are and how we love. In its pages, Perel offers us all an invitation. She writes, "I encourage you to question yourself, to speak the unspoken, and to be unafraid to challenge sexual and emotional correctness."
Here is a woman who, after spending three decades listening to tales of lies, pain and illicit sex, still believes in our ability to love and be loved in an honest, nuanced way. And what could be more hopeful than that?

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