Why Happy People Cheat
We can assure ourselves that affairs only happen because of broken people or broken relationships but do we really think millions of people are pathological?
How many of you have been personally affected by infidelity?*
I was in the audience when Esther Perel asked this and 80% raised their hands.
What about you? Would your hand have gone up?
Maybe you had a parent who had an affair. Maybe that affair broke up your parents’ marriage. Maybe it was your best friend or your sister who strayed. Maybe it was your spouse. Maybe it was you.
In her recent TED talk, Rethinking Infidelity … a talk for anyone who has ever loved, Esther Perel examines why people cheat, why infidelity is so devastating and how, at the heart of most affairs you’ll find issues of longing and loss — longing for novelty, sexual intensity, freedom, and a wish to recapture vitality in the face of tragedy or loss.
Esther tells us that she’s asked all the time: “What percentage of people cheat?” Her answer: because there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what constitutes infidelity — Sexting? Watching porn? Staying secretly active on dating sites? Kissing? Thinking about kissing? — there’s no way to measure. “Estimates vary,” she says, “from 26% to 75%.”
“What if even a good marriage cannot inoculate us against wanderlust?What if passion has a finite shelf life? What if there are things that even a good relationship cannot give us?”
She’s also asked, “For or against?” — as in, do you think affairs are a good or bad thing? And here’s where what she’s saying gets interesting. Though her somewhat mischievous reply to the pro or con question is “yes,” her more serious message is that we need to look at infidelity in a more nuanced way. We need to move the conversation beyond good and bad; beyond victim and perpetrator.
And in order to do that, we need to understand what affairs are really about.
Myth # 1- Affairs are about unhappy marriages (or unhealthy people.)
It’s a common assumption: if someone has an affair, there’s either something wrong in their relationship or there’s something wrong with them. But as Esther points out, “millions of people can’t all be pathological.” Nor are they all fleeing miserable marriages.
The one thing people all over the world have told her about their affair — it makes them feel “alive.“
Conventional wisdom says that if everything is going well at home — good sex, good times — there’s no need to look elsewhere. But the questions Esther raises in her talk challenge us to rethink.
“What if even a good marriage cannot inoculate us against wanderlust?” she asks. “What if passion has a finite shelf life? What if there are things that even a good relationship cannot give us?”
With this, she isn’t condoning affairs as an antidote to the predictable boredom or restlessness of a long term relationship. What she’s saying is that it’s complicated, that the answer to the question of why people stray is not black and white. It’s not simple. And it’s often not what we tend to think.
Myth # 2 — Affairs are about sex.
Contrary to what many of us assume, affairs are a lot less about sex and a lot more about desire. A desire for attention, a desire to feel special, to feel important — a desire to be desired.
The very structure of an affair: the secrecy, the ambiguity, the fact that you have to go days or weeks without seeing each other, that you can never have your lover — these things keep you hungry, they keep you wanting. “This in itself,” she says, “is a desire machine.”
Of course, affairs are not just about sex. Many people — hundreds…thousands — find themselves crossing a line that they’ve never imagined crossing. They risk everything… for what? An erotic text message? The kiss of a stranger? A hot night in bed?
Esther’s hypothesis: the one thing people all over the world have told her about their affair — it makes them feel “alive.”
A friend dies. A parent dies. Someone is diagnosed with cancer. They themselves have a health scare. And they think, is this all there is? Am I simply going to go on living this way for another 25 years? Will I ever feel passion again? Death and mortality often live in the shadow of an affair because they raise existential questions like these.
Questions that are more about life and death, about passion and desire, than about when and where and with whom I’ll get laid.
Myth # 3 — Infidelity will destroy a marriage.
For all couples, an affair constitutes a betrayal, a crisis. For some, the crisis is a relationship deal-breaker, while for others the crisis becomes an opportunity.
The vast majority of couples stay married in the wake of an affair. I’ve seen statistics that suggest that as many as 75% of couples survive. Some will do that and no more. They’ll “survive.” Others will embark on a process of growth, of self-exploration.
“Every affair redefines the relationship,” Perel says, “and every couple will determine what the legacy of the affair will be.”
In the immediate aftermath of an affair, many couples “will have depths of conversations with honesty and openness that they haven’t had in decades,” she says.
My clinical experience bears this out. I’ve seen it time and again with the couples I work with, many of them saying that post-affair their relationship is better — as in healthier and more rewarding — than it had ever been.
Myth # 4 — Monogamy is a set up for infidelity.
Everyone’s got an opinion about why people have affairs. They blame marriage, monogamy, testosterone, porn…
Marriage is too hard.
“Most of us are going to have 2 or 3 relationships or marriages, 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?”
Monogamy is a prison sentence.
Here’s what Esther has to say:
Affairs happen even in open relationships. The conversation about monogamy is not the same conversation as the one about infidelity. Even when we have the freedom to have other sexual partners, we still seem to be lured by the power of the forbidden. If we do that which we are not supposed to do then we feel that we are really doing what we want.
Here are some things to keep in mind:
It’s been said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. If that’s true, then “Rethinking Infidelity…” is going to give your intelligence a workout.
Esther Perel invites us to think about infidelity in terms of both/and as opposed to either/or. She asks us, as well, to make sense of a good number of contradictions.
While she in no way recommends that people have affairs, experience has shown her that some good things can come from them.
Affairs are almost universally devastating and many couples use them to revitalize their relationships.
She says that 95% of us will say it is terribly wrong for our partner to lie about having an affair and the same number of us will say that’s exactly what we would do if we were having one.
And while many people who have affairs may feel terribly guilty for hurting their partner, they don’t feel guilty for the experience of the affair itself.
As Esther says, she looks at affairs from a dual perspective: hurt and betrayal on one side, growth and self-discovery on the other.
Some of you may be offended by her talk. You may think she makes light of what may well have decimated your marriage. Others of you will be made curious. You may find it illuminating, refreshing. You may be relieved that there’s a way to talk about infidelity that reaches beyond villains and victims. You may understand your own longings and behaviors in a new way.
And maybe you’ll pause to consider her final thought: “Most of us are going to have 2 or 3 relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over,” she tells her clients. “Would you like to create a second one together?”
For more on love, marriage, and creating lasting and satisfying relationships, check out my blog, Speaking of Marriage.
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This story was previously published on The Good Men Project.