Transcript – Esther Perel, a relationship therapist talks on Rethinking Infidelity – a talk for anyone who has ever loved at TED
Esther Perel – Relationship therapist
Why do we cheat? And why do happy people cheat? And when we say infidelity, what exactly do we mean? Is it a hookup, a love story, paid sex, a chat room, a massage with happy endings? Why do we think that men cheat out of boredom and fear of intimacy, but women cheat out of loneliness and hunger for intimacy? And is an affair always the end of a relationship?
For the past 10 years, I have traveled the globe and worked extensively with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. There is one simple act of transgression that can rob a couple from their relationship, their happiness and their very identity: an affair. And yet, this extremely common act is so poorly understood. So this talk is for anyone who has ever loved.
Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, and so, too, the taboo against it. In fact, infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy, so much so that this is the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible: once for doing it, and once just for thinking about it.
So how do we reconcile what is universally forbidden, yet universally practiced?
Now, throughout history, men practically had a license to cheat with little consequence, and supported by a host of biological and evolutionary theories that justified their need to roam, so the double standard is as old as adultery itself. But who knows what’s really going on under the sheets there, right? Because when it comes to sex, the pressure for men is to boast and to exaggerate, but the pressure for women is to hide, minimize and deny, which isn’t surprising when you consider that there are still nine countries where women can be killed for straying.
Now, monogamy used to be one person for life. Today, monogamy is one person at a time. I mean, many of you probably have said, “I am monogamous in all my relationships.”
We used to marry, and had sex for the first time. But now we marry, and we stop having sex with others. The fact is that monogamy had nothing to do with love. Men relied on women’s fidelity in order to know whose children these are, and who gets the cows when I die.
Now, everyone wants to know what percentage of people cheat. I’ve been asked that question since I arrived at this conference. It applies to you. But the definition of infidelity keeps on expanding: sexting, watching porn, staying secretly active on dating apps. So because there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what even constitutes an infidelity, estimates vary widely, from 26% to 75%. But on top of it, we are walking contradictions. So 95% of us will say that it is terribly wrong for our partner to lie about having an affair, but just about the same amount of us will say that that’s exactly what we would do if we were having one.
Now, I like this definition of an affair — it brings together the three key elements: a secretive relationship, which is the core structure of an affair; an emotional connection to one degree or another; and a sexual alchemy. And alchemy is the key word here, because the erotic frisson is such that the kiss that you only imagine giving, can be as powerful and as enchanting as hours of actual lovemaking. As Marcel Proust said, it’s our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person.
So it’s never been easier to cheat, and it’s never been more difficult to keep a secret. And never has infidelity exacted such a psychological toll. When marriage was an economic enterprise, infidelity threatened our economic security. But now that marriage is a romantic arrangement, infidelity threatens our emotional security. 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.
Now, there are three ways that I think infidelity hurts differently today. We have a romantic ideal in which we turn to one person to fulfill an endless list of needs: to be my greatest lover, my best friend, the best parent, my trusted confidant, my emotional companion, my intellectual equal. And I am it: I’m chosen, I’m unique, I’m indispensable, I’m irreplaceable, I’m the one. And infidelity tells me I’m not. It is the ultimate betrayal. Infidelity shatters the grand ambition of love. But if throughout history, infidelity has always been painful, today it is often traumatic, because it threatens our sense of self.
So my patient Fernando, he’s plagued. He goes on: “I thought I knew my life. I thought I knew who you were, who we were as a couple, who I was. Now, I question everything.” Infidelity — a violation of trust, a crisis of identity. “Can I ever trust you again?” he asks. “Can I ever trust anyone again?”
And this is also what my patient Heather is telling me, when she is talking to me about her story with Nick. Married, two kids. Nick just left on a business trip, and Heather is playing on his iPad with the boys, when she sees a message appear on the screen: “Can’t wait to see you.” Strange, she thinks, we just saw each other. And then another message: “Can’t wait to hold you in my arms.” And Heather realizes these are not for her. She also tells me that her father had affairs, but her mother, she found one little receipt in the pocket, and a little bit of lipstick on the collar. Heather, she goes digging, and she finds hundreds of messages, and photos exchanged and desires expressed. The vivid details of Nick’s two-year affair unfold in front of her in real time. And it made me think: Affairs in the digital age are death by a thousand cuts.
But then we have another paradox that we’re dealing with these days. Because of this romantic ideal, we are relying on our partner’s fidelity with a unique fervor. But we also have never been more inclined to stray, and not because we have new desires today, but because we live in an era where we feel that we are entitled to pursue our desires, because this is the culture where I deserve to be happy.
And if 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. So Heather, she can’t talk to her friends because she’s afraid that they will judge her for still loving Nick, and everywhere she turns, she gets the same advice: Leave him. Throw the dog on the curb. And if the situation were reversed, Nick would be in the same situation. Staying is the new shame.
So if we can divorce, why do we still have affairs?
Now, the typical assumption is that if someone cheats, either there’s something wrong in your relationship or wrong with you. But millions of people can’t all be pathological. The logic goes like this: If you have everything you need at home, then there is no need to go looking elsewhere, assuming that there is such a thing as a perfect marriage that will inoculate us against wanderlust.
But what if passion has a finite shelf life? What if there are things that even a good relationship can never provide? If even happy people cheat, what is it about?
The vast majority of people that I actually work with are not at all chronic philanderers. They are often people who are deeply monogamous in their beliefs, and at least for their partner. But they find themselves in a conflict between their values and their behavior. They often are people who have actually been faithful for decades, but one day they cross a line that they never thought they would cross, and at the risk of losing everything.
But for a glimmer of what? Affairs are an act of betrayal, and they are also an expression of longing and loss. At the heart of an affair, you will often find a longing and a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.
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