Marriage & Life Partners

Can Happily Married People Be Unfaithful?

Noted author Esther Perel, whose unconventional ideas about sex and marriage have earned her high marks and a wide audience, is at it again. Her new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, challenges the notion that cheating is a symptom (and a result) of a bad marriage.

Not so fast, says Perel. She says that to understand this problem, we have to take a larger, more inclusive view, looking not just at both as partners but at the individuals in the marriage as well. Often, she finds, couples come to her for treatment whose relationship is actually in pretty good shape. Except that one of them is having an affair. How is that possible?

Perel has long been interested in the lust-numbing effects of marriage. Her last book, Mating in Captivity, examined why it is so hard to keep passion alive. She sees intimacy itself as an unacknowledged antidote to lust. In my review, I wrote,

“I know—how can intimacy be bad for your marriage? It’s not, according to Perel, but it’s murder on your sex life. Lust is sparked by distance, mystery, and even aggression, all of which have little place in our daily lives. Everything about “mating in captivity” conspires to promote closeness and minimize conflict. The problem is that eroticism flourishes in an atmosphere of uncertainty—in fact, how much uncertainty you can tolerate may be commensurate with the amount of passion in your relationship.”

Affairs have the advantage of having uncertainty baked in. And often, that is the very thing that keeps it going, according to Perel: “It is a poetic interlude in a prosaic life . . . . Because we cannot have our lover, we keep wanting. It is this just-out-of-reach quality that lends affairs their erotic mystique and keeps the flame of desire burning.”

This author’s latest foray into the tangled world of marital sex suggests that often affairs occur in marriages that are not troubled, and that they are more reflective of the state of an individual’s psyche than the marital dynamics. While every marriage has some issues (and we all know that some never get completely resolved), having a solid bond does not mean that you are affair-proof. She writes that “we can always find problems in a marriage. They just may not be the right keys to unlock the meaning of the affair.”

Her main point is that the affair is often a symptom not of a problem you have with your partner, but one you have with yourself. Though they stoke passion and bring out wild emotions, affairs sometimes begin for reasons other than sex: identity issues, fear of ageing and mortality, the wish for excitement, insecurity, the need to be admired, etc. The list is long, and each case is different, though there are common themes. In my clinical experience I have found that men are often looking for a way to feel more vital and alive, while women seem to be drawn by the need to feel admired and wanted.

Part of the problem is that our expectations of what marriage is “supposed to be” have become much broader than there were in the past. Perel writes in an excerpt from the book published this month in The Atlantic,

“Contained within the small circle of the wedding band are vastly contradictory ideals. We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer. . .”

In earlier eras, we didn’t expect getting married to satisfy our need for passion. For women, until very recently, this wasn’t even an acceptable goal (let alone a recognized need). Men were often expected, or even encouraged, to find mistresses rather than bother their wives too much with their carnal desires. As Perel puts it, “We used to get married and have sex for the first time. Now we get married and stop having sex with others.”

Expectations are high: once we find our perfect beloved, it is assumed that we will not feel significant attraction to anyone else. This, in fact, will be one of the chief measures of the depth of our love. This idea is not only false but it is dangerous, in Perel’s opinion. If you are naïve enough to hold this view, you are likely to be more vulnerable to an affair, not less. And when you discover that your partner has strayed you may be shattered.

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  • Maggie q September 21, 2017 at 7:19 pm

    I don’t know if I agree. You can come up with a lot of scenarios. But should there be a higher norm? If you don’t meet the perfect that’s you, not what should be.