On a sunburnt Greek island recently, sipping Aperol spritzes and eating fried cheese, the topic of infidelity came up with my closest friends. “Why do people cheat?” someone asked. “Instead of instantly judging people, couldn’t we learn something from it?” Things got unusually tense, fast. Our varying definitions of fidelity and the possibility of monogamy clashed, and there was an entirely unfamiliar acrimony in the group – even with the sun setting amber behind us over a cliff of white, blue-tipped villas. I’ve been thinking about it since – our incapacity, our paralysis, when that one topic came up.
“Infidelity is a major taboo. It is one of few almost universal taboos we have left,” says the renowned New-York-based, Belgian-born psychotherapist Esther Perel, when I tell her about this strange fissure in a group of adoring adult friends who can usually talk about anything and everything. “Even the act of speaking about infidelity can feel transgressive. It is forbidden; it is still shrouded in such secrecy and shame – even though it is ubiquitous, even though it has existed since the invention of marriage, even though it has historically been a basic privilege for men and a death sentence for women. Infidelity – or the traditional word for it, “adultery” – is our last remaining major taboo.”
It is with serious courage, then, that Perel chose to write an entire, diligently researched, deeply personal book on the subject of infidelity. In The State Of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, she gives us permission to ask questions about cheating that we are usually too frightened to utter aloud. Why do happy people cheat, for instance, and why are we so secretive about the feeling of jealousy? Is it better to tell someone when you’ve cheated? Do we owe them truth or do they deserve a relationship that stays intact? Can a family survive infidelity? Should we stop getting married altogether?
When we marry, we expect to merge two sets of utterly contradictory human needs: the need for stability, commitment and safety with the need for novelty, transcendence
On the matter of marriage, Perel is characteristically, elegantly astute: “Our relationship expectations are at an all-time high. The rulebook is literally changing beneath our feet. If you look at friendship, sibling relationships, even the pain you feel at the dentist, none of these things have really changed in the past 200 years. But the couple? The couple has changed fundamentally. When we marry or come together, we expect to merge two sets of utterly contradictory human needs: the need for stability, commitment and safety with the need for novelty, transcendence and art. Once, when we said “the one and only”, we used to mean God, not our partners. We know that now marriages that meet all those needs do better than any marriage in history. But we also know how few people actually achieve that.”
In this moment, I can’t help but think of the dedication at the front of Perel’s book. “For Jack, whom I have loved for three decades, and for anyone who has ever loved.” For someone professionally and intellectually absorbed in the business of affairs, Esther Perel is sweetly, encouragingly hopeful about love. Even reading the many betrayals and transgressions Perel writes about in her book, I catch myself still absolutely believing in love. So, what do we do, when estimates suggest that anywhere up to 70 per cent of marriages involve infidelity? What do we do about the failures of love? Do we stop getting married altogether? Abandon monogamy? Give up on romance?
“We will always need to connect and to bond with one another,” Perel says, after a long, thoughtful pause. “Today, we have single-parent families, we have gay families, we have all these different family units, and that tells us that we know how to be creative and we know how to adapt, we know how to morph. Look how much has changed – the institute of marriage is barely recognisable. It used to be that the only way out of a marriage was death. It used to be that monogamy meant being faithful to one person your whole lifetime; now, it means to one person at a time. We want a passionate marriage, which used to be a contradiction in terms. We want to have kids and then remain desirous of our partners for 30 more years. We are not going to give up on the romantic ideal, but our expectations do not match the attention we give our relationships. We have more expectations and devote less attention to our partners. One date night is not enough – we must improve the quality of attention we pay the people we love.”
Strangely enough, that intimacy we crave could come from speaking openly about infidelity. So few of us, no matter how committed we are to the people we cherish, have actually spoken explicitly about our definitions of fidelity and our expectations of love. That – perhaps over an Aperol spritz in the setting sun – is where we can start.
The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel is published by Yellow Kite