As a culture, we are ever more open about sex, but infidelity remains shrouded in a cloud of shame and secrecy.”
Those are the words of psychotherapist Esther Perel, whose 2006 bestseller Mating in Captivity asked the crucial question:
Can we sustain sexual desire by sleeping with one person for the rest of our lives?
It’s a legitimate question. Sex gets boring over time. But somehow, the power of love is supposed to triumph over the weakness of the flesh.
Therein lies the problem…
Love isn’t lust.
Love can’t make boring sex better. It can even (gasp) make it worse.
Don’t get me wrong. Those statements shock me, too. I don’t want to believe that monogamy is incompatible with sexual desire.
And Perel isn’t saying it is. She’s just saying that we have to ask ourselves some pretty hard questions about the way we’ve set up our relationships.
If love is enough, then why is infidelity so widespread?
Why hasn’t the flood of affair-proofing advice out there not made a single difference to the flood of affairs?
Why can nothing stem the tide of infidelity—not Biblical commandments, not death threats, not loss of home and family?
These questions inspired Perel to write a second book, over a decade after her first. Its name? The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.
The literature on infidelity is well-stocked with marriage experts striving to help couples get past an affair with relationship intact. But Perel isn’t one of them.
She wants us to rethink everything we’ve always believed to be true about affairs.
Maybe cheating is not a crime.
Maybe it’s not a symptom of a deficient marriage.
Maybe it’s an attempt at transformation. To find something within oneself that’s been lost in everyday life.
The Criminalization of Infidelity
These days, with casual sex and hookups endemic to the singles scene, sexual fidelity is the one gift that married partners can give each other.
It’s intended as a gift of love. “I love you so much that I willingly forsake all other sexual fantasies and partners for you, my beloved.”
We proclaim our faithfulness by wearing a ring, which marks us as off-limits to all others.
Yet does sexual fidelity really have anything to do with love?
Historically, monogamy had more to do with property rights than romance. Fathers needed to know their children were their own before they passed down an inheritance.
This is why infidelity in men has historically been overlooked—“They’re just men, they can’t help themselves”—while infidelity in women carried the direst of consequences.
Moral disapproval of cheating remains strong today, despite looser attitudes toward sex in general.
A 2013 Gallup poll found that we disapprove of infidelity more than most other morally suspect acts, like abortion, suicide, even polygamy.
Nothing is worse than having sex with someone outside your marriage.
And that’s where things get really interesting.
Why We Still Cheat
If you need more proof that love and fidelity are not necessarily related, consider this:
Even happily married couples stray.
Perel is adamant that it’s impossible to affair-proof a marriage. Affairs happen even to the best of marriages. No matter how well you fulfill each other’s needs, there’s always a gap.
She believes we bring superhuman expectations to the institution of marriage. We expect marriage to save us. Marriage will give us everything we need and everything we’ve always dreamed of.
Of course marriages fail to live up to the hype. No marriage can be everything to everyone.
But instead allowing for the gap, we try to plug all the holes. We try to force all our needs and desires into one solitary relationship.
Perhaps, then, infidelity is not necessarily an indictment of a failing marriage or moral weakness.
Perhaps it’s an attempt to connect with something inside that hasn’t been nurtured. Something that hasn’t had air to breathe.
The allure of affairs is that it brings people alive. It’s not the sex. It’s the rediscovery of a part of them they’ve been missing.
Perel tells one cheating client, “You think you had a relationship with [that man]…. Actually, you had an intimate encounter with yourself, mediated by him.”
Rebuilding Life after an Affair
Perel is not an apologist for affairs. She’s well aware of the pain they cause.
She simply wants us to see that there’s another way to talk about affairs. One that doesn’t demonize the cheater or shame the woman who didn’t see it coming.
What I appreciate about Perel’s approach is that it helps couples shed the shame caused by cheating. That shame does as much damage to the relationship as the affair itself. Even if a couple manages to stick together, discomfort and embarrassment about what happened can poison what they feel for each other.
How would it change things if we didn’t see an affair as a brutal act of rejection?
Could we have empathy for the man who betrayed us, rather than feeling the shame of being the victim?
But if we could, then we could certainly see the possibility of loving each other past the affair. We could feel the truth of this quote by Rumi:
Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden. I will meet you there.”