In contemporary discourse in the United States, affairs are primarily described in terms of the damage caused. Generally, there is much concern for the agony suffered by the betrayed. And agony it is—infidelity today isn’t just a violation of trust; it’s a shattering of the grand ambition of romantic love. It is a shock that makes us question our past, our future, and even our very identity. Indeed, the maelstrom of emotions unleashed in the wake of an affair can be so overwhelming that many psychologists turn to the field of trauma to explain the symptoms: obsessive rumination, hypervigilance, numbness and dissociation, inexplicable rages, uncontrollable panic.
The damage that infidelity causes the aggrieved partner is one side of the story. For centuries, when affairs were tacitly condoned for men, this pain was overlooked, since it was mostly experienced by women. Contemporary culture, to its credit, is more compassionate toward the jilted. But if we are to shed new light on one of our oldest behaviors, we need to examine it from all sides. In the focus on trauma and recovery, too little attention is given to the meanings and motives of affairs, to what we can learn from them. Strange as it may seem, affairs have a lot to teach us about marriage—what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to. They reveal our personal and cultural attitudes about love, lust, and commitment—attitudes that have changed dramatically over the past 100 years.
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.
We also live in an age of entitlement; personal fulfillment, we believe, is our due. In the West, sex is a right linked to our individuality, our self-actualization, and our freedom. Thus, most of us now arrive at the altar after years of sexual nomadism. By the time we tie the knot, we’ve hooked up, dated, cohabited, and broken up. We used to get married and have sex for the first time. Now we get married and stop having sex with others. The conscious choice we make to rein in our sexual freedom is a testament to the seriousness of our commitment. By turning our back on other loves, we confirm the uniqueness of our “significant other”: “I have found The One. I can stop looking.” Our desire for others is supposed to miraculously evaporate, vanquished by the power of this singular attraction.
At so many weddings, starry-eyed dreamers recite a list of vows, swearing to be everything to each other, from soul mate to lover to teacher to therapist. “I promise to be your greatest fan and your toughest adversary, your partner in crime, and your consolation in disappointment,” says the groom, with a tremble in his voice. Through her tears, the bride replies, “I promise faithfulness, respect, and self-improvement. I will not only celebrate your triumphs, I will love you all the more for your failures.” Smiling, she adds, “And I promise to never wear heels, so you won’t feel short.”
And yet, it does. Infidelity happens in bad marriages and in good marriages. It happens even in open relationships where extramarital sex is carefully negotiated beforehand. The freedom to leave or divorce has not made cheating obsolete. So why do people cheat? And why do happy people cheat?
However, therapists are confronted on a daily basis with situations that defy these well-documented reasons. In session after session, I meet people like Priya—people who assure me, “I love my wife/my husband. We are best friends and happy together,” and then say: “But I am having an affair.”
The more I’ve listened to these tales of improbable transgression—from one-night stands to passionate love affairs—the more I’ve sought alternate explanations. Once the initial crisis subsides, it’s important to make space for exploring the subjective experience of an affair alongside the pain it can inflict. To this end, I’ve encouraged renegade lovers to tell me their story. I want to understand what the affair means for them. Why did you do it? Why him? Why her? Why now? Was this the first time? Did you initiate? Did you try to resist? How did it feel? Were you looking for something? What did you find?
In taking a dual perspective on such an inflammatory subject, I’m aware that I risk being labeled “pro-affair,” or accused of possessing a compromised moral compass. Let me assure you that I do not approve of deception or take betrayal lightly. I sit with the devastation in my office every day. But the intricacies of love and desire don’t yield to simple categorizations of good and bad, victim and perpetrator. Not condemning does not mean condoning, and there is a world of difference between understanding and justifying. My role as a therapist is to create a space where the diversity of experiences can be explored with compassion. People stray for a multitude of reasons, I have discovered, and every time I think I have heard them all, a new variation emerges.
Half-fascinated and half-horrified, Priya tells me about her steamy assignations with her lover: “We have nowhere to go, so we are always hiding in his truck or my car, in movie theaters, on park benches—his hands down my pants. I feel like a teenager with a boyfriend.” She can’t emphasize enough the high-school quality of it all. They have had sex only half a dozen times during the whole relationship; it’s more about feeling sexy than having sex. Unaware that she is giving voice to one of the most common experiences of the unfaithful, she tells me, “It makes me feel alive.”
“Expansive?!,” I can hear some people exclaiming. “Self-discovery?! Cheating is cheating, whatever fancy New Age labels you want to put on it. It’s cruel, it’s selfish, it’s dishonest, and it’s abusive.” Indeed, to the one who has been betrayed, it can be all these things. Intimate betrayal feels intensely personal—a direct attack in the most vulnerable place. And yet I often find myself asking jilted lovers to consider a question that seems ludicrous to them: What if the affair had nothing to do with you?
Sometimes when we seek the gaze of another, it’s not our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves. The Mexican essayist Octavio Paz described eroticism as a “thirst for otherness.” So often, the most intoxicating “other” that people discover in an affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self.
A forensic examination of Priya’s marriage would surely yield something—her disempowered position as the partner who earns less; her tendency to repress anger and avoid conflict; the claustrophobia she sometimes feels; the gradual merging of two individuals into a “we,” as in, Did we like that restaurant? If she and I had taken that route, we may have had an interesting chat, but not the one we needed to have. The fact that a couple has “issues” doesn’t mean that those issues led to the affair.
“I think this is about you, not your marriage,” I suggest to Priya. “So tell me about yourself.”
“I’ve always been good. Good daughter, good wife, good mother. Dutiful. Straight A’s.” Coming from a traditional family of modest means, for Priya, What do I want? has never been separated from What do they want from me? She never partied, drank, or stayed out late, and she smoked her first joint at 22. After college, she married the right guy, and helped to support her family, as so many children of immigrant parents do. Now she is left with a nagging question: If I’m not perfect, will they still love me? A voice in her head wonders what life is like for those who are not so “good.” Are they more lonely? More free? Do they have more fun?
These explanations may seem superficial—petty First World problems, or rationalizations for immature, selfish, hurtful behavior. Priya has said as much herself. We both agree that her life is enviable. And yet, she is risking it all. That’s enough to convince me not to make light of her behavior. If I can help her make sense of her actions, maybe we can figure out how she can end the affair for good—since that’s the outcome she says she wants. It’s clear this is not a love story that was meant to become a life story (which some affairs truly are). This started as an affair and will end as such—hopefully without destroying Priya’s marriage in the process.
Few of these types of affairs withstand discovery. One would think that a relationship for which so much was risked would survive the transition into daylight. Under the spell of passion, lovers speak longingly of all the things they will be able to do when they are finally together. Yet when the prohibition is lifted, when the divorce comes through, when the sublime mixes with the ordinary and the affair enters the real world, what then? Some settle into happy legitimacy, but many more do not. In my experience, most affairs end, even if the marriage ends as well. However authentic the feelings of love, the dalliance was only ever meant to be a beautiful fiction.
there is always a suspicion … that one is living a lie or a mistake; that something crucially important has been overlooked, missed, neglected, left untried and unexplored; that a vital obligation to one’s own authentic self has not been met, or that some chances of unknown happiness completely different from any happiness experienced before have not been taken up in time and are bound to be lost forever.Bauman speaks to our nostalgia for unlived lives, unexplored identities, and roads not taken. As children, we have the opportunity to play at other roles; as adults, we often find ourselves confined by the ones we’ve been assigned or the ones we have chosen. When we select a partner, we commit to a story. Yet we remain forever curious: What other stories could we have been part of? Affairs offer us a view of those other lives, a peek at the stranger within. Adultery is the revenge of the deserted possibilities.
Enter Facebook. The digital universe offers unprecedented opportunities to reconnect with people who exited our lives long ago. Never before have we had so much access to our exes, and so much fodder for our curiosity. “Whatever happened to so-and-so?” “I wonder if she ever got married?” “Is it true he’s having difficulties in his relationship?” “Is she still as cute as I remember?” The answers are a click away. One day, Dwayne searched for Keisha’s profile. Lo and behold, they were both in the same city. She, still hot, was divorced. He, on the other hand, was happily married, but his curiosity got the better of him and “Add Friend” soon turned into a secret girlfriend.
It seems to me that in the past decade, affairs with exes have proliferated, thanks to social media. These retrospective encounters occur somewhere between the known and the unknown—bringing together the familiarity of someone you once knew with the freshness created by the passage of time. The flicker with an old flame offers a unique combination of built-in trust, risk taking, and vulnerability. In addition, it is a magnet for our lingering nostalgia. The person I once was, but lost, is the person you once knew.
Our conversations help Priya bring clarity to her confusing picture. She is relieved that we don’t have to pick apart her relationship with Colin. But having to assume full responsibility leaves her heavy with guilt: “The last thing I’ve ever wanted to do is hurt him. If he knew, he would be crushed. And knowing that it had nothing to do with him wouldn’t make a difference. He would never believe it.”
She may be right. Perhaps knowing what motivated his wife’s duplicity would do nothing to alleviate Colin’s pain. Or perhaps it would. Even after decades of this work, I still cannot predict what people will do when they discover a partner’s infidelity. Some relationships collapse upon the discovery of a fleeting hookup. Others exhibit a surprisingly robust capacity to bounce back even after extensive treachery.
Priya has tried to end her affair several times. She deletes her lover’s phone number, drives a different route home from dropping the kids off at school, tells herself how wrong this entire thing is. But the self-imposed cutoffs become new and electrifying rules to break. Three days later, the fake name is back in her phone. Yet her torment is mounting in proportion to the risks she is taking. She’s beginning to feel the corroding effects of the secret, and getting sloppier by the day. Danger follows her to every movie theater and secluded parking lot.
“You think you had a relationship with Truck Man,” I tell her. “Actually, you had an intimate encounter with yourself, mediated by him. I don’t expect you to believe me right now, but you can terminate your relationship and keep some of what it gave you. You reconnected with an energy, a youthfulness. I know that it feels as if, in leaving him, you are severing a lifeline to all of that, but I want you to know that over time you will find that the otherness you crave also lives inside you.”
I often say to my patients that if they could bring into their marriage even one-tenth of the boldness, the playfulness, and the verve that they bring to their affair, their home life would feel quite different. Our creative imagination seems to be richer when it comes to our transgressions than to our commitments. Yet while I say this, I also think back to a poignant scene in the movie A Walk on the Moon. Diane Lane’s character has been having an affair with a free-spirited blouse salesman. Her teenage daughter asks, “You love [him] more than all of us?” “No,” the mother replies, but “sometimes it’s easier to be different with a different person.”
The revelation of an affair forces couples to grapple with unsettling questions: What does fidelity mean to us and why is it important? Is it possible to love more than one person at once? Can we learn to trust each other again? How do we negotiate the elusive balance between our emotional needs and our erotic desires? Does passion have a finite shelf life? And are there fulfillments that a marriage, even a happy one, can never provide?
Every affair will redefine a marriage, and every marriage will determine what the legacy of the affair will be. Although infidelity has become one of the prime motives for divorce in the West, I’ve seen many couples stay together after the revelation of an affair. I believe the odds are in favor of Priya and Colin’s marriage surviving, but the quality of their future connection will depend on how they metabolize her transgression. Will they emerge stronger as a result? Or will they bury the affair under a mountain of shame and mistrust? Can Priya step out of her self-absorption and face the pain she caused? Can Colin find solace in knowing that the affair was not meant to be a rejection of him? And will he get to meet the carefree, youthful woman Priya became in her parallel life?
These days, many of us are going to have two or three significant long-term relationships or marriages. Often when a couple comes to me in the wake of an affair, it is clear to me that their first marriage is over. So I ask them: Would you like to create a second one together?
This article is adapted from Esther Perel’s book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, which is being published this month by Harper.