It sometimes happens that I praise a writer and then we meet and discover we like one another. That’s how a couples therapist and I became friends. And then, later, how we sat together and talked about ideas, some of which made their way into our work. I’m grateful to Esther Perel for her contribution to my novel, Married Sex; she acknowledges me in this book. I’m not completely objective when I say “The State of Affairs” is required reading for everyone whose life has been touched by infidelity. On the other hand, speaking statistically, isn’t this a book for you and you and you and you and…. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
Infidelity is now about a lot more than Tab A merging with an unsanctioned Tab B. It’s also — and how typical is this? — the emotional cheating we do on the Internet: “When it’s no longer an exchange of kisses but an exchange of dick pics… when the secretive lunch has been replaced with a secret Facebook account, how are we to know what constitutes an affair?” So Perel expands her focus. Her book is about “the trajectory of desire when it goes looking elsewhere.” About “examining illicit love from multiple angles.” This isn’t a book about overcoming the crisis of an affair, it’s an attempt to launch a fresh conversation.
Who is Esther Perel? You may know her from her first book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, which asks — and answers — the question: How can we desire what we already have?
Or maybe you saw her TED talk (almost 10 million have) about keeping desire alive in a long-term relationship…
Or her more recent TED talk, exploring why we cheat…
What’s refreshing about Perel is that’s she’s mostly interested in what happens after the discovery of an affair — in the relationship that can begin after the deception. As she writes:
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.
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?
One of the most uncomfortable truths about an affair is that what for Partner A may be an agonizing betrayal may be transformative for Partner B. Extramarital adventures are painful and destabilizing, but they can also be liberating and empowering. Understanding both sides is crucial, whether a couple chooses to end the relationship or intends to stay together, to rebuild and revitalize.
As tempting as it is to reduce affairs to sex and lies, I prefer to use infidelity as a portal into the complex landscape of relationships and the boundaries we draw to bind them. Infidelity brings us face-to-face with the volatile and opposing forces of passion: the lure, the lust, the urgency, the love and its impossibility, the relief, the entrapment, the guilt, the heartbreak, the sinfulness, the surveillance, the madness of suspicion, the murderous urge to get even, the tragic denouement. Be forewarned: Addressing these issues requires a willingness to descend into a labyrinth of irrational forces. Love is messy; infidelity more so. But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.
I could quote at greater length — my copy of the book is so underlined and tabbed you’d think I was about to take an exam on it. But let me leave you with the last sentence, which is something I’ll bet you never expected to read in a book about cheating: “It is no accident that many of the most erotic couples lift their marital strategies directly from the infidelity playbook.” Which circles us back to her first book — making your spouse your hottest lover. Better read both.
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(via The Good Men Project)