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Surviving Infidelity: A Dive into Esther Perel’s Famous Ted-Talk

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Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

“Monogamy used to be one person for life. Today, monogamy is one person at a time.” That’s Esther Perel’s way of providing comic relief for her audience during one of her most famous TED talks, this time on surviving infidelity and what that means for marriage and long-term relationships. 

People cheat, it’s nothing new. They’ve been doing it for ages. Some studies even say the wiring of our brains is to be blamed for it. 

One statistic from IFS, the Institute of Family Studies, says that according to a survey they made between the years 2010-2016, 20% of men and 13% of women have cheated on their spouses at least once. 

The percentage, of course, varies between age groups. So, women cheat slightly more than men from the ages of 18-20. (There’s just 1% difference between 11% for women and 10% for men). And, as it turns out, middle-aged people tend to cheat more than other age groups. Surprised? 

Another stat by the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT) gives a slightly bigger number of adulterers in the US. 15% of women and 25% of men, to be more precise. 

What do the statistics imply?

These are big numbers, no doubt about that, a quarter of the married/committed people out there. 

But the statistics are here to also tell us something more than just how many people are engaging in adulterous activities. They’re also here to tell us something more about the dynamics of modern relationships. 

Cheating is a statement for any relationship, regardless of who finds out about it or doesn’t. It says something about its status, about the needs and wants of the people involved in it. 

Statistics are always much more than just numbers, and we should always consider the other side of them. Yes, I’m talking about the people behind the numbers, as well as the people behind the people. 

Cheating doesn’t necessarily imply an end to the relationship 

And while all of this might seem like a pretty tough topic of discussion – and I’m not saying it isn’t’ – still, there’s a reason why I began the article with that particular quote. 

Much like Esther (and greatly inspired by her, as well), I’m trying to approach the subject from multiple angles. I refuse to see cheating as a strictly tragic or despicable event. 

I don’t want to sound like I’m being pro-infidelity or something like that. What I want to point out is that infidelity doesn’t necessarily need to mean the end of a relationship. Infidelities aren’t always a sign of unhappy relationships. Also, even if you are in an unhappy relationship, and you’ve experienced infidelity, it doesn’t mean you should end the relationship by all means necessary

This is because relationships consist of big structures of emotional investments and emotional entanglements. And if you see even a trinket of worth, of history, of love in it, it most certainly deserves to be saved. 

In this article, I’ll try to show you the different ways to think about infidelity:

  • how it relates to your marriage/relationship, 
  • how you can position yourself towards it,
  • whether you should consider it as a reason for the end of your relationship or the beginning of a new, maybe even better era with your long-term partner/spouse. 

Surviving Infidelity/Recovering from Infidelity

Marriage has changed in the last couple of centuries, and especially in the last couple of decades. 

The sexual revolution and the fact that women have gained more and more financial and societal independence, as well as the fact that discriminated groups such as the LGBT community have also significantly improved their worldwide societal status (although the struggle is by no means over, unfortunately), have all contributed to how marriage and monogamous commitment, in general, are perceived globally.

Nowadays more and more people get married because they feel they genuinely love each other – as Perel says, “Ironically, we used to turn to adultery – that was the space where we sought pure love. But now that we seek love in marriage, adultery destroys it.” 

So it seems like, nowadays, adultery has a bigger “psychological toll” than ever before. 

At the same time, it has also become much easier to cheat, since there are so many ways to meet people who are ready for short-term liaisons, people just looking for casual sex and transient hookups. Just look at all the networks designed to find somebody for a one night stand or a short affair: Tinder, Grindr, Bumble, Wingman, Her… 

And that’s not counting your regular social networks. The list is almost endless. 

Love is demystified by cheating

Now that marriage has become a sign of emotional unity (albeit still remaining an economic institution as well, to a certain extent), infidelity hits harder. It hits harder and it hurts differently. 

Infidelity demystifies love. It toys around with our romantic notions of it and our belief that we’re the perfect person for our special someone – their friend, their family, their lover, their emotional crutch, their intellectual equal… Infidelity slaps you in the face, with all the might and cruelty under its wing and tells you – well no, you’re not necessarily all that, you’re replaceable. 

One of the problems is that it hits at the center of self – it threatens our sense of self, which is what Perel says in her talk. 

You wonder whether you can trust your partner again, whether you’ll ever feel the same about what you’ve built together as a couple, as a two, considering now that a third has entered your compact world, your perfect union. Adultery means that there’s been an undeniable breach – of confidence, of emotional stability, of identity. 

Choosing to stay over the pressure to leave the relationship

And the society we live in doesn’t help. Its ideology is one of individuality and accumulation, which are kind of the opposite principles of love, at least the romanticized kind we tend to stick to. It’s all about individual happiness – or ‘the pursuit of happiness’ as it also stands in the Declaration of Independence. 

Perel reminds us of the times when “… we used to divorce because we were unhappy, today we divorce because we could be happier.  And if divorce carried all the shame, today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.” 

But what if we did stay? 

What if we still love our partners even if they’ve hurt us deeply and wrecked our trust? 

Is it mendable, can we weather it? 

How does one do that? How can you beat the shame of staying? 

Reconsider the Notion of Betrayal (Try Not to Think in Binaries)

Betrayal and infidelity aren’t necessarily that straightforward. 

Adulterers aren’t evil per se, nor do they deserve to be burned at the stake. Love and desire are complex forces and bonds. Relationships are also complex structures consisting of giving and returning, balancing acts, compromises, the occasional and potentially unavoidable disappointments. But they’re also largely consisting of the bliss that comes out of togetherness.

And oftentimes there isn’t one bad guy and one good guy in the relationship, especially when it comes to infidelity. I’m not trying to justify anyone, I’m just pointing to the fact that we should maybe try and think outside of black-and-white categorizations of betrayal and infidelity, and not exclusively rely on the ‘victim’ role and image.

Esther Perel has another wise word to say about this – she says: “The victim of an affair is not always the victim of the marriage.” 

What does this tell us? 

Well, for one thing, it tells us that betrayal in a romantic relationship is not reserved only for infidelity. It can actually come in many forms. 

People betray their partners in marriage in lots of ways: 

  • They refuse to communicate time and time again;
  • They neglect their partner’s explicit pleads, needs and attempts to (re)-connect and work on their intimacy; 
  • They neglect their emotional and physical needs;
  • They look down upon them, they undermine them, 
  • they’re abusive and violent, verbally and/or physically; 
  • They’re simply indifferent. 

In this context, Perel notes how affairs have the potential to “redefine a relationship”, and it’s the couple’s own choice in the end to determine the legacy of that affair

And ‘compassion’ is another keyword here. By being judgmental towards adulterers, we don’t make ourselves any less likely to become one eventually, nor do we exclude ourselves from other types of damage we do to our spouses/partners and with that, our relationships. 

We need a more nuanced treatment of infidelity 

In her book, “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” that treats precisely the topic of infidelity and its potential to redefine relationships, Perel argues for a “more nuanced and less judgmental conversation about infidelity.” 

She says, “we reject our unruly yearnings as immaturities we should have outgrown, and double down on our comfort and safety.” But this, she claims, is another type of illusion. All of us may long for the perfect marriage/relationship, but the reality is different, the reality is often flooded with insecurities and almost nothing is guaranteed. 

So, instead of clinging to fantasy ideals, we need to “learn to live with the uncertainties” inherently present in our relationship, no matter how strong or comfortable it seems. The same goes for each of our fantasies and desires. 

“Couples who feel free to talk honestly about their desires, even when they are not directed at each other, paradoxically become closer.” 

Rethinking Infidelity a book by Esther Perel

I’d like to finish this part of the article with a longer quote from Esther’s book. Honestly, I find this book so reassuring and so fascinating. I also urge you to read the book regardless of whether you’ve experienced infidelity or not. It definitely opens some new doors of perception I never knew could possibly be unlocked. 

When we validate each other’s freedom within the relationship, we may be less inclined to go looking for it elsewhere. Moreover, when we acknowledge the existence of the third, we affirm the erotic separateness of our partner. We admit that as much as we may want it to, their sexuality does not revolve solely around us. They may choose to share it only with us, but its roots are far-reaching. We are the recipients, not the sole sources, of their unfurling desires. This recognition of the other as an independent agent is part of the shock of infidelity, but it is also what can reignite the erotic spark at home. While it may be a scary proposition, it is also exquisitely intimate.

— Esther Perel, “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity”, Harper 2017

Final Thoughts 

Surviving infidelity is not about getting back to how things used to be, to the “good, old days” of your marriage. Rather, it’s about journeying towards a new place with your partner. It’s about creating a new relationship for yourselves. Look at it as a second marriage, but with the same person. 

Perel says a similar thing at the end of her talk “Rethinking Infidelity…”: 

“I look at affairs from a dual perspective: hurt and betrayal on one side, growth and self-discovery on the other — what it did to you, and what it meant for me. And so when a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair that has been revealed, I will often tell them this: Today in the West, most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?” (162) 

People often cheat not because they lack something in their marriage or their long-term relationship. But because they want more of it. 

Sometimes it’s because partners have strayed to different avenues throughout the years. Sometimes they don’t find themselves on the same plane anymore. 

There is such a thing as “it’s not you, it’s me”, although we hate how it sounds. It’s not always about failure, about lack or deficiency, about the disappointment that people commit adultery. Sometimes they just do because they can. 

And sometimes it’s because of all of the above. 

But what’s important here is to get to the bottom of it. That’s why Perel says that affairs hold the potential to redefine relationships. And they also show the cracks in them, albeit in a pretty radical way. 

For more articles on relationships and desire, make sure to also check out my special article on “Love and Marriage During Lockdown: Is there room for pleasure in the midst of crisis?” And while you’re at it, you might want to read “How to Rekindle Desire in a Long-Term Relationship” as well. 

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