Esther Perel: Rethinking infidelity ... a talk for anyone who has ever loved
March 19, 2015
Infidelity is the ultimate betrayal. But does it have to be? Relationship therapist Esther Perel examines why people cheat, and unpacks why affairs are so traumatic: because they threaten our emotional security. In infidelity, she sees something unexpected — an expression of longing and loss. A must-watch for anyone who has ever cheated or been cheated on, or who simply wants a new framework for understanding relationships.Esther Perel
- Relationship therapist
Psychotherapist Esther Perel is changing the conversation on what it means to be in love and have a fulfilling sex life. Full bio
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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 a happy ending?
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
of 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 percent to 75 percent.
But on top of it, we are
So 95 percent 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,
our economic security.
But now that marriage
is a romantic arrangement,
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.
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's 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.
I'm thinking about
another patient of mine, Priya,
who is blissfully married,
loves her husband,
and would never want to hurt the man.
But she also tells me
that she's always done
what was expected of her:
good girl, good wife, good mother,
taking care of her immigrant parents.
Priya, she fell for the arborist
who removed the tree from her yard
after Hurricane Sandy.
And with his truck and his tattoos,
he's quite the opposite of her.
But at 47, Priya's affair is about
the adolescence that she never had.
And her story highlights for me
that when we seek the gaze of another,
it isn't always our partner
that we are turning away from,
but the person that
we have ourselves become.
And it isn't so much that we're
looking for another person,
as much as we are
looking for another self.
Now, all over the world,
there is one word that people
who have affairs always tell me.
They feel alive.
And they often will tell me
stories of recent losses --
of a parent who died,
and a friend that went too soon,
and bad news at the doctor.
Death and mortality often live
in the shadow of an affair,
because they raise these questions.
Is this it? Is there more?
Am I going on for another
25 years like this?
Will I ever feel that thing again?
And it has led me to think
that perhaps these questions
are the ones that propel
people to cross the line,
and that some affairs are
an attempt to beat back deadness,
in an antidote to death.
And contrary to what you may think,
affairs are way less about sex,
and a lot more about desire:
desire for attention,
desire to feel special,
desire to feel important.
And the very structure of an affair,
the fact that you can
never have your lover,
keeps you wanting.
That in itself is a desire machine,
because the incompleteness, the ambiguity,
keeps you wanting
that which you can't have.
Now some of you probably think
that affairs don't happen
in open relationships,
but they do.
First of all, the conversation
about monogamy is not the same
as the conversation about infidelity.
But the fact is that it seems
that even when we have
the freedom to have other sexual partners,
we still seem to be lured
by the power of the forbidden,
that if we do that which
we are not supposed to do,
then we feel like we are really
doing what we want to.
And I've also told
quite a few of my patients
that if they could bring
into their relationships
one tenth of the boldness,
the imagination and the verve
that they put into their affairs,
they probably would never need to see me.
So how do we heal from an affair?
Desire runs deep.
Betrayal runs deep.
But it can be healed.
And some affairs are death knells
for relationships that were
already dying on the vine.
But others will jolt us
into new possibilities.
The fact is, the majority of couples
who have experienced
affairs stay together.
But some of them will merely survive,
and others will actually be able
to turn a crisis into an opportunity.
They'll be able to turn this
into a generative experience.
And I'm actually thinking even
more so for the deceived partner,
who will often say,
"You think I didn't want more?
But I'm not the one who did it."
But now that the affair is exposed,
they, too, get to claim more,
and they no longer have
to uphold the status quo
that may not have been working
for them that well, either.
I've noticed that a lot of couples,
in the immediate aftermath of an affair,
because of this new disorder
that may actually lead to a new order,
will have depths of conversations
with honesty and openness
that they haven't had in decades.
And, partners who were
find themselves suddenly
so lustfully voracious,
they don't know where it's coming from.
Something about the fear
of loss will rekindle desire,
and make way for an entirely
new kind of truth.
So when an affair is exposed,
what are some of the specific things
that couples can do?
We know from trauma that healing begins
when the perpetrator
acknowledges their wrongdoing.
So for the partner who had the affair,
one thing is to end the affair,
but the other is the essential,
important act of expressing
guilt and remorse for hurting his wife.
But the truth is
that I have noticed that quite a lot
of people who have affairs
may feel terribly guilty
for hurting their partner,
but they don't feel guilty
for the experience of the affair itself.
And that distinction is important.
And Nick, he needs to hold
vigil for the relationship.
He needs to become, for a while,
the protector of the boundaries.
It's his responsibility to bring it up,
because if he thinks about it,
he can relieve Heather from the obsession,
and from having to make sure
that the affair isn't forgotten,
and that in itself
begins to restore trust.
But for Heather,
or deceived partners,
it is essential to do things
that bring back a sense of self-worth,
to surround oneself with love
and with friends and activities
that give back joy
and meaning and identity.
But even more important,
is to curb the curiosity
to mine for the sordid details --
Where were you? Where did you do it?
How often? Is she better
than me in bed? --
questions that only inflict more pain,
and keep you awake at night.
And instead, switch to what I call
the investigative questions,
the ones that mine
the meaning and the motives --
What did this affair mean for you?
What were you able to express
or experience there
that you could no longer do with me?
What was it like for you
when you came home?
What is it about us that you value?
Are you pleased this is over?
Every affair will redefine a relationship,
and every couple will determine
what the legacy of the affair will be.
But affairs are here to stay,
and they're not going away.
And the dilemmas of love and desire,
they don't yield just simple answers
of black and white and good and bad,
and victim and perpetrator.
Betrayal in a relationship
comes in many forms.
There are many ways
that we betray our partner:
with contempt, with neglect,
with indifference, with violence.
Sexual betrayal is only
one way to hurt a partner.
In other words, the victim of an affair
is not always the victim of the marriage.
Now, you've listened to me,
and I know what you're thinking:
She has a French accent,
she must be pro-affair.
So, you're wrong.
I am not French.
And I'm not pro-affair.
But because I think that good
can come out of an affair,
I have often been asked
this very strange question:
Would I ever recommend it?
Now, I would no more
recommend you have an affair
than I would recommend you have cancer,
and yet we know that people
who have been ill
often talk about how their illness
has yielded them a new perspective.
The main question that I've been asked
since I arrived at this conference
when I said I would talk
about infidelity is, for or against?
I said, "Yes."
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
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?
- Relationship therapist
Psychotherapist Esther Perel is changing the conversation on what it means to be in love and have a fulfilling sex life.Why you should listen
For the first time in human history, couples aren’t having sex just to have kids; there’s room for sustained desire and long-term sexual relationships. But how? Perel, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a practicein New York, travels the world to help people answer this question. For her research she works across cultures and is fluent in nine languages. She coaches, consults and speaks regularly on erotic intelligence, trauma, sexual honesty and conflict resolution. She is the author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. Her latest work focuses on infidelity: what it is, why happy people do it and how couples can recover from it. She aims to locate this very personal experience within a larger cultural context.
The original video is available on TED.com