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“Most descriptions of troubled marriages don’t seem to fit my situation,” Priya insists. “Colin and I have a wonderful relationship. Great kids, no financial stresses, careers we love, great friends. He is a phenom at work, fucking handsome, attentive lover, fit, and generous to everyone, including my parents. My life is good.” Yet Priya is having an affair. “Not someone I would ever date—ever, ever, ever. He drives a truck and has tattoos. It’s so clichéd, it pains me to say it out loud. It could ruin everything I’ve built.”
Priya is right. Few events in the life of a couple, except illness and death, carry such devastating force. For years, I have worked as a therapist with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. And my conversations about affairs have not been confined within the cloistered walls of my therapy practice; they’ve happened on airplanes, at dinner parties, at conferences, at the nail salon, with colleagues, with the cable guy, and of course, on social media. From Pittsburgh to Buenos Aires, Delhi to Paris, I have been conducting an open-ended survey about infidelity.
Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, yet this extremely common act remains poorly understood. Around the globe, the responses I get when I mention infidelity range from bitter condemnation to resigned acceptance to cautious compassion to outright enthusiasm. In Paris, the topic brings an immediate frisson to a dinner conversation, and I note how many people have been on both sides of the story. In Bulgaria, a group of women I met seem to view their husbands’ philandering as unfortunate but inevitable. In Mexico, women I spoke with proudly see the rise of female affairs as a form of social rebellion against a chauvinistic culture that has long made room for men to have “two homes,” la casa grande y la casa chica—one for the family, and one for the mistress. Infidelity may be ubiquitous, but the way we make meaning of it—how we define it, experience it, and talk about it—is ultimately linked to the particular time and place where the drama unfolds.
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.
Intimate betrayal hurts. It hurts badly. If Priya’s husband, Colin, were to stumble upon a text, a photo, or an email that revealed his wife’s dalliance, he would be devastated. And thanks to modern technology, his pain would likely be magnified by an archive of electronic evidence of her duplicity. (I am using pseudonyms to protect the privacy of my clients and their families.)
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.
Affairs are not what they used to be because marriage is not what it used to be. For much of history, and in many parts of the world today, marriage was a pragmatic alliance that ensured economic stability and social cohesion. A child of immigrants, Priya surely has relatives whose marital options were limited at best. For her and Colin, however, as for most modern Western couples, marriage is no longer an economic enterprise but rather a companionate one—a free-choice engagement between two individuals, based not on duty and obligation but on love and affection.
Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.
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.”
In such a blissful partnership, why would we ever stray? The evolution of committed relationships has brought us to a place where we believe infidelity shouldn’t happen, since all the reasons have been removed; the perfect balance of freedom and security has been achieved.
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?
Priya can’t explain it. She vaunts the merits of her conjugal life, and assures me that Colin is everything she always dreamed of in a husband. Clearly she subscribes to the conventional wisdom when it comes to affairs—that diversions happen only when something is missing in the marriage. If you have everything you need at home—as modern marriage promises—you should have no reason to go elsewhere. Hence, infidelity must be a symptom of a relationship gone awry.
The symptom theory has several problems. First, it reinforces the idea that there is such a thing as a perfect marriage that will inoculate us against wanderlust. But our new marital ideal has not curbed the number of men and women who wander. In fact, in a cruel twist of fate, it is precisely the expectation of domestic bliss that may set us up for infidelity. Once, we strayed because marriage was not supposed to deliver love and passion. Today, we stray because marriage fails to deliver the love and passion it promised. It’s not our desires that are different today, but the fact that we feel entitled—even obligated—to pursue them.
Second, infidelity does not always correlate neatly with marital dysfunction. Yes, in plenty of cases an affair compensates for a lack or sets up an exit. Insecure attachment, conflict avoidance, prolonged lack of sex, loneliness, or just years of rehashing the same old arguments—many adulterers are motivated by domestic discord. And then there are the repeat offenders, the narcissists who cheat with impunity simply because they can.
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.”
Many of these individuals were faithful for years, sometimes decades. They seem to be well balanced, mature, caring, and deeply invested in their relationship. Yet one day, they crossed a line they never imagined they would cross. For a glimmer of what?
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?
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.
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.”
As I listen to her, I start to suspect that her affair is about neither her husband nor their relationship. Her story echoes a theme that has come up repeatedly in my work: affairs as a form of self-discovery, a quest for a new (or lost) identity. For these seekers, infidelity is less likely to be a symptom of a problem, and more likely an expansive experience that involves growth, exploration, and transformation.
“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.
To doggedly look for marital flaws in order to understand cases like Priya’s is an example of what’s known as the “streetlight effect”: A drunk man searches for his missing keys not where he dropped them but where the light is. Human beings have a tendency to look for the truth in the places where it is easiest to search rather than the places where it’s likely to be.
Perhaps this explains why so many people subscribe to the symptom theory. Blaming a failed marriage is easier than grappling with our existential conundrums, our longings, our ennui. The problem is that, unlike the drunk, whose search is futile, we can always find problems in a marriage. They just may not be the right keys to unlock the meaning of the affair.
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?
Priya’s affair is neither a symptom nor a pathology; it’s a crisis of identity, an internal rearrangement of her personality. In our sessions, we talk about duty and desire, about age and youth. Her daughters are becoming teenagers and enjoying a freedom she never knew. Priya is at once supportive and envious. As she nears the mid-century mark, she is having her own belated adolescent rebellion.
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.
Secluded from the responsibilities of everyday life, the parallel universe of the affair is often idealized, infused with the promise of transcendence. For some people, like Priya, it is a world of possibility—an alternate reality in which they can reimagine and reinvent themselves. Then again, it is experienced as limitless precisely because it is contained within the limits of its clandestine structure. It is a poetic interlude in a prosaic life.
Forbidden-love stories are utopian by nature, especially in contrast with the mundane constraints of marriage and family. A prime characteristic of this liminal universe—and the key to its irresistible power—is that it is unattainable. Affairs are by definition precarious, elusive, and ambiguous. The indeterminacy, the uncertainty, the not knowing when we’ll see each other again—feelings we would never tolerate in our primary relationship—become kindling for anticipation in a hidden romance. Because we cannot have our lover, we keep wanting. It is this just-out-of-reach quality that lends affairs their erotic mystique and keeps the flame of desire burning. Reinforcing this segregation of the affair from reality is the fact that many, like Priya, choose lovers who either could not or would not become a life partner. By falling for someone from a very different class, culture, or generation, we play with possibilities that we would not entertain as actualities.
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.
The affair lives in the shadow of the marriage, but the marriage also lives in the center of the affair. Without its delicious illegitimacy, can the relationship with the lover remain enticing? If Priya and her tattooed beau had their own bedroom, would they be as giddy as they are in the back of his truck?
The quest for the unexplored self is a powerful theme of the adulterous narrative, with many variations. Priya’s parallel universe has transported her to the teenager she never was. Others find themselves drawn by the memory of the person they once were. And then there are those whose reveries take them back to the missed opportunity, the one that got away, and the person they could have been. The sociologist Zygmunt Bauman wrote that in modern life,
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.
Dwayne had always cherished memories of his college sweetheart, Keisha. She was the best sex he’d ever had, and she still featured prominently in his fantasy life. They’d both known they were too young to commit, and parted reluctantly. Over the years, he had often asked himself what would have happened had their timing been different.
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.
Priya is mystified and mortified by how she is putting her marriage on the line. The constraints she is defying are also the commitments she cherishes. But that’s precisely where the power of transgression lies: in risking the very things that are most dear to us. No conversation about relationships can avoid the thorny topic of rules and our all-too-human desire to break them. Our relationship to the forbidden sheds a light on the darker and less straightforward aspects of our humanity. Bucking the rules is an assertion of freedom over convention, and of self over society. Acutely aware of the law of gravity, we dream of flying.
Priya often feels like she’s a walking contradiction—alternately dismayed by her reckless behavior and enchanted by her daredevil attitude; tormented by fear of discovery and unable (or unwilling) to put a stop to the affair. She is bewitched by this thought: What if just this once, I act as if the rules don’t apply to me?
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.
It is not my place to tell Priya what she should do. Besides, she has already made it clear that for her, the right thing is to end the affair. She’s also telling me, however, that she doesn’t really want to. What I can see, and what she has not yet grasped, is that the thing she is really afraid to lose is not her lover—it’s the part of herself that he awakened. This distinction between the person and the experience is crucial. She needs to know that if she lets Truck Man go, she isn’t doomed to lose herself as well.
“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.”
If Priya succeeds in ending the affair, and doing so with finality, a new dilemma will arise: Should she tell her husband, or should she keep her secret to herself? Could her marriage survive the pain of revelation? Could it continue with a lie undisclosed? I have no tidy answer to offer. I don’t condone deception, but I’ve also seen too many carelessly divulged secrets leave unfading scars. In many instances, however, I have helped couples work toward revelation, hopeful that it will open up new channels of communication for them.
Catastrophe has a way of propelling us into the essence of things. In the wake of devastating betrayals, so many couples tell me that they are having some of the deepest, most honest conversations of their entire relationship. Their history is laid bare—unfulfilled expectations, unspoken resentments, and unmet longings. Love is messy; infidelity, more so. But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.
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?
For me, these conversations should be part and parcel of any adult, intimate relationship from the beginning. It’s far better to address these issues before a storm hits. Talking about what draws us outside our fences, in an atmosphere of trust, can actually foster intimacy and commitment. But for many couples, unfortunately, the crisis of an affair is the first time they talk about any of this. Priya and Colin will have to negotiate these questions while also dealing with the ravages of betrayal, dishonesty, and broken trust.
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.