The State of Affairs
eBook - ePub

The State of Affairs

Esther Perel

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  1. 336 pagine
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The State of Affairs

Esther Perel

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"A fresh look at infidelity, broadening the focus from the havoc it wreaks within a committed relationship to consider also why people do it, what it means to them, and why breaking up is the expected response to duplicity — but not necessarily the wisest one."— LA Review of Books

From iconic couples' therapist and bestselling author of Mating in Captivity comesa provocative and controversial look at infidelity with practical, honest, and empathetic advice for how to move beyond it.

An affair: it can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness, their very identity. And yet, this extremely common human experience is so poorly understood. What are we to make of this time-honored taboo—universally forbidden yet universally practiced? Why do people cheat—even those in happy marriages? Why does an affair hurt so much? When we say infidelity, what exactly do we mean? Do our romantic expectations of marriage set us up for betrayal? Is there such a thing as an affair-proof marriage? Is it possible to love more than one person at once? Can an affair ever help a marriage? Perel weaves real-life case stories with incisive psychological and cultural analysis in this fast-paced and compelling book.

For the past ten years, Perel has traveled the globe and worked with hundreds of couples who have grappled with infidelity. Betrayal hurts, she writes, but it can be healed. Anaffaircan even be the doorway to a new marriage—with the same person. With the right approach, couples can grow and learn from these tumultuous experiences, together or apart.

Affairs, she argues, have a lot to teach us about modern relationships—what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to. They offer a unique window into our personal and cultural attitudes about love, lust, and commitment. Through examining illicit love from multiple angles, Perel invites readers into an honest, enlightened, and entertaining exploration of modern marriage in its many variations.

Fiercely intelligent, TheStateofAffairs provides a daring framework for understanding the intricacies of love and desire. As Perel observes, "Love is messy; infidelity more so. But it is also a window, like no other, into the crevices of the human heart."

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Part I
Setting the Stage

Chapter 1
A New Conversation About Marriage and Infidelity

It would take too long to explain the intimate alliance of contradictions in human nature which makes love itself wear at times the desperate shape of betrayal.
And perhaps there is no possible explanation.
—Joseph Conrad, Some Reminiscences
At this very moment, in all corners of the world, someone is either cheating or being cheated on, thinking about having an affair, offering advice to someone who is in the throes of one, or completing the triangle as a secret lover. No aspect of a couple’s life elicits more fear, gossip, or fascination than an affair. Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, and so too has the taboo against it. It has been legislated, debated, politicized, and demonized throughout history. Yet despite its widespread denunciation, infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy. So much so that it is the only sin that gets two commandments in the Bible, one for doing it and one just for thinking about it.
In every society, on every continent, and in every era, regardless of the penalties and the deterrents, men and women have slipped the confines of matrimony. Almost everywhere people marry, monogamy is the official norm and infidelity the clandestine one. So what are we to make of this time-honored taboo—universally forbidden yet universally practiced?
For the past six years I have been having this conversation—not just within the cloistered walls of my therapy practice, but on airplanes, at dinner parties, at conferences, at the nail salon, with colleagues, with the cable guys, and of course, on social media. From Pittsburgh to Buenos Aires, Delhi to Paris, I have been conducting my own open-ended survey about affairs today.
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 Bulgaria, a group of women seem to view their husbands’ philandering as unfortunate but inevitable. 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 Mexico, women proudly see the rise of female affairs as a form of social rebellion against a chauvinistic culture that has forever 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, suffer from it, and talk about it—is ultimately linked to the particular time and place where the drama unfolds.
Let me ask you: When you think of infidelity, what are the first words, associations, and images that come to mind? Do they change if I use the words “love affair” or “romance”? What about “tryst” or “fling” or “hookup” or “fuck buddy”? Do you find your reactions skewed toward disapproval or toward understanding? Where do your sympathies fall—with the jilted, with the unfaithful, with the lover, with the children? And have your responses changed because of events in your own life?
Convictions about extramarital affairs run deep in our cultural psyche. In the United States, where I live and work, the conversation tends to be visceral, loaded, and polarized.
“Infidelity? It’s a dealbreaker,” says one. “Once a cheater, always a cheater.”
“Come on,” counters another, “monogamy just isn’t natural.”
“That’s total bullshit!” retorts a third. “We’re not cats in heat, we’re humans. Grow up already.”
In the American marketplace, adultery is sold with a mixture of denunciation and titillation. Magazine covers peddle smut while preaching sanctimony. As a culture we’ve become sexually open to the point of overflowing, but when it comes to sexual fidelity, even the most liberal minds can remain intransigent. Curiously, our insistent disapproval keeps infidelity’s vigor in check without revealing how rife it really is. We can’t stop the fact that it happens, but we can all agree that it shouldn’t. Constituents clamor for public apologies as they pore over the tawdry details. From the upper echelons of the political and military elite to Angie down the block, infidelity bespeaks narcissism, duplicity, immorality, and perfidy. In this view, it can never be a simple transgression, a meaningless fling, or a genuine love.
Contemporary discourse about the topic can be summed up as follows: Infidelity must be a symptom of a relationship gone awry. If you have everything you need at home, there should be no reason to go elsewhere. Men cheat out of boredom and fear of intimacy; women cheat out of loneliness and hunger for intimacy. The faithful partner is the mature, committed, realistic one; the one who strays is selfish, immature, and lacks control. Affairs are always harmful and can never help a marriage or be accommodated. The only way to restore trust and intimacy is through truth-telling, repentance, and absolution. Last but not least, divorce affords more self-respect than forgiveness.
The moralizing tone of the current conversation tends to pin the “problem” on deficient couples or individuals, sidestepping the bigger questions that the scope of the phenomenon might invite. Infidelity says a lot about marriage—not just your marriage, but marriage as an institution. It also plunges us into today’s culture of entitlement, where we take our privileges for granted. Do we really think we can distill the proliferation of cheating to a few bad apples? Surely millions of renegade lovers can’t all be pathological.

For or Against?

There are few neutral terms to describe adultery. Moral opprobrium has long been the prime tool for containing our unruly impulses, so much so that we have no words to speak of them without it. The language that is available to us clasps to its bosom the taboo and the stigma that infidelity represents. While the poets speak of lovers and adventurers, most people’s preferred vocabulary includes cheaters, liars, traitors, sex addicts, philanderers, nymphos, womanizers, and sluts. The entire lexicon is organized around an axis of wrongdoing that not only reflects our judgment but fosters it. The term “adultery” itself is derived from the Latin word meaning corruption. Even as I strive to bring a more balanced perspective to this topic, I am aware of the compromised language I will often be using.
Among therapists, too, balanced, unbiased dialogue is rare. Affairs are overwhelmingly described in terms of the damage caused, with a focus on either prevention or recovery. Borrowing from the language of criminalization, clinicians often label the faithful spouse as the “injured party” and the unfaithful one as the “perpetrator.” Generally, there is much concern for the betrayed, and detailed repair advice for the unfaithful to help his or her partner overcome the trauma.
The revelation of an affair can be so wrecking; it’s no surprise that most people want to take sides. Whenever I tell someone I’m writing a book about infidelity, the immediate reaction is usually “Are you for or against?” as if there were only two options. My answer is “Yes.” Behind this cryptic response lies my sincere desire to initiate a more nuanced and less judgmental conversation about infidelity and its concomitant dilemmas. The intricacies of love and desire don’t yield to simple categorizations of good and bad, victim and culprit. To be clear, not condemning does not mean condoning, and there is a world of difference between understanding and justifying. But when we reduce the conversation to simply passing judgment, we are left with no conversation at all.
We are also left with no room for people like Benjamin, a mild-mannered gentleman in his early seventies, who approached me after a talk in Los Angeles to ask, “Is it still called cheating when your wife no longer knows your name?” “My wife has Alzheimer’s,” he explained. “She has been in a nursing home for the past three years, and I visit her twice a week. For the past fourteen months, I have been seeing another woman. Her husband is on the same floor. We have found great comfort in each other.” Benjamin may be one of the nicest “cheaters” I’ve ever met, but he is by no means alone. Plenty of people care deeply for the well-being of their partners even while lying to them, just as plenty of those who have been betrayed continue to love the ones who lied to them and want to find a way to stay together.
For all of these people, I am committed to finding a more compassionate and effective approach to infidelity. People often see an affair as a trauma from which there is no return, and indeed, some affairs will deliver the fatal blow to a relationship. But others may inspire change that was sorely needed. Betrayal cuts to the bone, but the wound can be healed. Affairs can even become generative for a couple.
Because I believe that some good may come out of the crisis of infidelity, I have often been asked, “So, would you recommend an affair to a struggling couple?” My response? A lot of people have positive, life-changing experiences that come along with terminal illness. But I would no more recommend having an affair than I would recommend getting cancer.

Have You Been Affected by Infidelity?

When I first became interested in the topic of infidelity, I used to ask audiences if anyone had ever experienced an affair. Not surprisingly, no hands went up. There are not many people who will publicly admit to fooling around or being fooled.
Bearing this in mind, I changed my question to “How many of you have been affected by infidelity in your lives?” Overwhelmingly, hands went up, and have done so in every audience to whom I have addressed this query. A woman saw a friend’s husband kissing a beautiful stranger on the train. Now the question of whether or not she should tell hangs heavy over her friendship. A teenage girl discovered that her father’s double life was as old as she was. A mother cannot fathom why her son has stayed with “that hussy,” as she refers to her daughter-in-law, no longer welcome at Sunday dinner. The echoes of secrets and lies resound across generations, leaving unrequited loves and shattered hearts in their wake. Infidelity is not merely a story of two or three; it binds entire networks.
The wanderers themselves may not readily raise their hands in public, but they tell me their tales in private. People take me aside at parties or visit my office to deposit their secrets and suspicions, transgressive desires and forbidden loves.
The majority of these stories are much more banal than those that make the headlines: no babies, no STDs, no stalking ex-lover ext...

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