Y Photo Studio/Shutterstock
Source: Y Photo Studio/Shutterstock

Esther Perel is one of the most insightful and provocative voices on the paradoxical nature of human interaction in intimacy. She is the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence and has been featured in two highly popular TED Talks (19 million views and counting). Born in Antwerp, she is the daughter of Holocaust survivors and was educated in Israel and the United States. As a psychologist, her early work focused on couples and families in cultural transition, a subject she knew intimately from her own family history, later moving on to gender roles, child-rearing practices, and finally arriving at the subject that would make her famous: sexuality in human relationships.

Prompted by the Clinton-Lewinsky debacle, Perel wrote an article called "In Search of Erotic Intelligence" that went viral and led to a book deal and the publication of Mating in Captivity. She was hoping to begin an "honest, enlightened, and provocative conversation on relationships and sexuality that was beyond the common labels of smut or sanctimony," she says, encouraging readers "to question themselves, to speak the unspoken, and to be unafraid to challenge sexual and emotional correctness."  

Ten years later, Perel is back with a second book, The State of Affairs, which examines the phenomenon of infidelities as "a doorway to deeper conversation" about "the places we’re blocked, can’t communicate with one another, and other reasons people stray in relationships — often having very little to do with sex itself." Like the author herself, the new book is boundary-pushing, dynamic, and brave, propelled by a fierce intelligence and the provocative style that has turned her into a culture hero. I sat down with Perel recently to talk about what infidelity can teach us about the limits of reason and the heart's dual calls to security and adventure.  

Mark Matousek: Why did you choose infidelity as the subject of your new book?

Esther Perel: The story of infidelity is the parallel story that has accompanied marriage from its inception and encompasses the entire human drama — the dilemmas of love and desire, longings, yearnings, aspirations, and transgressions. This one very complex, multi-determined human experience is a window into the crevasses of the human heart in more ways than we can imagine.

MM: What are some of the misconceptions about infidelity?

EP: Modern infidelity is different than traditional infidelity and sits on top of the romantic ideal that you find “the one,” and that if you have everything that you need at home, you absolutely have no reason to go looking elsewhere. And if you do have an affair, it’s a symptom of a flawed relationship. If you don’t apply the deficiency model to the relationship, then you apply it to the person. The person who strays is selfish, immature, narcissistic, addicted, borderline, suffers from insecure attachment, you name it. And the person who doesn’t stray is the committed partner—mature, stable, and non-selfish. So, one of the misconceptions is that it’s a symptom theory, and another is the deficiency model.

The betrayal of infidelity sits at the top of all other relational betrayals, and that’s another misconception, along with the idea that affairs must be a deal-breaker. We also tend to think nothing good can come out of an affair and believe that “once a cheater, always a cheater.”

MM: You say that some affairs inspire change that was sorely needed. Can you give an example?

EP: Many couples have never had a conversation about sexuality and sexual boundaries—the presence or lack of sex, the quality of it, the satisfaction and dissatisfaction, the unmet needs. An affair upsets the status quo by not only bringing the subject of sexuality to the forefront, but every other aspect of their relationship as well. An affair yields conversation that should have happened in the beginning, but that people were afraid to have, because, well, what would that mean about their relationship? 

After an affair is revealed, many couples tell me they are finally talking honestly and deeply for the first time in years. Once there is nothing left to lose, they finally go for it.

MM: Is it primarily shame that prevents people from having that conversation?

EP: People grow up learning to be silent about their sexuality, so where are they going to learn to talk about it when they are in a relationship? Shame, guilt, ignorance, reservation, prudishness, all kinds of different cultural systems and social stereotypes shroud sexuality in secrecy and in silence. And there’s the romantic notion I mentioned before: “If I say in the beginning that I am missing something, you are instantly going to think that means you are not enough.”

MM: Right.

EP: The whole notion of one person being enough for everything gets instantly challenged when you start to talk with somebody about wanting more or of wanting something else. They take it personally, feel like a failure or like they lack something, so you don’t talk about it, because you don’t want to hurt, offend, or scare the other person. You also don’t want to be rejected or have them leave you, whatever the reason.

Then later, you don’t talk for a different host of reasons, but mostly because people don’t know how. Real sexual conversations are enormously intimate and beautiful, because they reveal so much about who we are and what we want. What are the emotional needs we bring to our sexuality, and how do we connect to ourselves and connect to a partner? There’s such a rich tapestry that can be revealed, but the vast majority of couples have never had those talks.

MM: You say there are fulfillments a marriage can never provide. What do you mean?

EP: There is not one person who can fulfill all your needs. You may choose a partner who is your intellectual equal, and he may not be your most compatible sexual partner. And then there’s the duality between security and adventure. A relationship that gives you plenty of novelty, challenge, and adventure may not provide the stability you long for. Time, continuity, and familiarity with somebody give you other things in life, but won’t necessarily give you the kind of intense, lustful experiences that you may have when you first meet someone and are massively curious about penetrating the mystery of them.

Even a good marriage leaves people with longings for certain things their marriage will never be. At best, we’ve seen perfect lives in imperfect relationships. So, do they accept that, make compromises, and say, “You can’t have everything in life,” which is what we always did? Or do they say, “I deserve more. I want to experience that thing, and, you know, I have fifty more years to live than I used to.” It’s not necessarily that we have more desires today, but we do feel more entitled to pursue them. We live in this “right to happiness” culture, and yes, we do live half a century longer than we used to.

MM: I found your three elements of infidelity fascinating—secrecy, sexual alchemy, and emotional involvement. What is the distinction between sex and sexual alchemy?

EP: One of the big misconceptions is that affairs or trysts are flings about sex. And sometimes they are, but much more often they are about desire. And that is very different. The desire to feel special, to feel seen, to feel appreciated, to be laughed at or with. The desire to be desired. That does not manifest in a sexual act, per se. Affairs make you feel alive. Sometimes there are massive amounts of sex, and sometimes there is just a longing or fantasies. The kiss you only imagine can be just as powerful as hours of lovemaking, because it can carry the same charge. Alchemy means it’s not about the actual sex, but the sexuality, the energy, the aura. It’s the imagination and anticipation of it as much, or instead of, the actual experience of it.

MM: It reminds me of Keats's poem, "Ode on a Grecian Urn": “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.” Sometimes it’s in the not doing that you find the deepest intensity.

EP: Of course. We know desire is rooted in absence and yearning. What you don’t have is often ten times richer than what you actually experience. An affair is a perfect erotic plot, because it fits the erotic equation of psychotherapist Jack Morin: “Attraction plus obstacle equals excitement.”

MM: Brilliant.

EP: Secrecy also fuels erotic intensity, because it makes you feel like you’re doing something that is entirely yours. It gives you the sense of autonomy, the sense of freedom, and the sense of sovereignty. That in itself is already erotic. And then you add to that the sexual energy.

In many affairs, people will tell you they slept with the person three or four times, but the story went on for months. That’s an important thing, because many people who have affairs often have very good sexual relationships at home. It’s not necessarily a compensation story. But affairs offer a different sexuality with a different context.

MM: What do you mean by “romantic consumerism,” and how does it affect our understanding of infidelity?

EP: Our consumer economy peddles these notions of finding “the one,” of being the one. It’s the narcissistic enhancement of, “I’m the one you stopped your nomadic life for.” And sometimes it’s your promiscuous life. It’s one thing when you have sex for the first time when you marry, but it’s another thing altogether when you stop having sex with others when you marry.

So the marital commitment becomes, “I must be really special. I have stopped your ruminations. I have stopped your FoMO (fear of missing out). With me, you have deleted your apps. With me, you no longer think you can find better next door.” Romantic consumerism is thinking you can’t find better, younger, or newer.

MM: Are you describing a selfish approach to love?

EP: I think love is often a bit selfish, even before we had consumerism. That’s not new. A consumer society gives you the illusion of having massive amounts of choice and saddles you with the freedom of being able to dabble in that choice. And at the same time, you are left with the tyranny of self-doubt and uncertainty about whether you made the right choice.

MM: And when you say that some affairs are acts of resistance, what do you mean?

EP: This relationship is terrible. This relationship is unequal. This relationship is oppressive. This relationship is patriarchal. This relationship is suffocating. This relationship is abusive, intimidating. You name it, and I am saying, “No.” 

I say no to a social status quo. I say no to a double standard that men can roam, and women must stay put at home. I say no to the fact that men are allowed to claim their sexuality, and women just have to pretend that it doesn’t matter to them. It’s resisting a bunch of social scripts in society. It’s resisting our inequities. It’s resisting poor relational arrangements.

An affair is a way of saying, “No. I’m not playing by the rules. I’m not going on as is. I’m upsetting the status quo.” And sometimes betrayal is part of that, because you deceive somebody else, but you feel like you are, for the first time, being honest with yourself. Sometimes when people have affairs, they actually feel like they have been lying to themselves for years.

MM: Right. So it’s a way of taking their own side finally?

EP: Yes. It’s a vindication, a claiming. But that is such a controversial idea, because it instantly becomes seen as selfish rather than self-interested. I mean, it’s selfish, of course, but it’s done by people who have been catering to others for decades. It really requires understanding how important the transgression of infidelity or breach of contract around affairs is. One guy said to me, “At least I haven’t been sleeping around,” and my reply to him was, “My dear, indifference, contempt, neglect — you’ve been treating your wife like shit for a long time.” That is also marital betrayal. But we know battered women who live in shelters that keep going back to the guy who hits them, but they will finally leave him when he cheats on them.

MM: Is that right?

EP: Yes. Something about infidelity topples all other betrayals.

MM: Have you ever seen polyamory work?

EP: Many times.

MM: Can you give me an example of what a healthy, mutually-satisfying polyamorous relationship looks like?

EP: I have one very close couple of friends who live it beautifully. But they do have a hierarchy. They are the primary relationship. They have the child. They bring in other people who are involved with the child as well as with each other. It requires a very active communication, and they tweak it all the time. They adapt it during different stages—when they are pregnant, when they have young babies, when they have older children. It breathes with them. It’s not a static thing. They fundamentally care about the erotic freedom of the other person. And they have what polyamorous people call “compersion,” which is appreciating the experiences their partner has with others.

I know many more non-monogamous couples than I know polyamorous couples. And I know polyamorous couples who are doing it in the traditional “don’t ask, don’t tell” version, where it’s very clear that both partners have long-term lovers—sometimes for decades. They have a good amount of differentiation in the relationship, but they don’t share every aspect of their life together. And often their entire cohort is long-divorced and remarried, and they have lasted, because they have had different kinds of relationships with each other. There are less of these, because it demands more work than saying, “This is not so good anymore. It’s time to divorce and start all over with someone else.”

MM: When you say that infidelity can be seen or treated as an antidote to death, what do you mean?

EP: The one word I hear all over the world when people have affairs is that they feel alive. They don’t talk about the fact they’re having sex. They feel like they are engaged with their life and doing something they want, when often they have not for a long time. They feel awake. They feel curious. They are intrigued with themselves, because they are acting in ways they never have before. They describe an experience that beats back the deadness inside, which isn’t the fault of the marriage or the fault of the partner, by the way. It’s often the deadness that they have allowed to creep in for years on their own. But by definition, it’s a transgressive act. And transgression is a breaking of the rules. And breaking the rules gives you a sense of ownership and freedom. And ownership and freedom gives you a feeling of aliveness. It’s a chain.

I’m not justifying any of it. But the minute you don’t condemn it, you’re instantly seen as condoning it or even promoting it. I am neither for or against any of this, I am simply guiding the conversation about it. For me, the question isn’t whether infidelity is good or bad. It’s that right now, the conversation about it is closed and not especially helpful. Judgment is not going to help us with this. To explore this common and impactful event in our relationships, in order to open up the conversation, will create something healthier.

My broader critique is that the prevalence of the question, “Is infidelity bad in all its variants?” speaks to a kind of essentialist framework, where things have to be either good or bad. And typically, the notion is that the one who didn’t stray is by definition good. And that is not necessarily honest. That’s what I’m trying to open up here. I want to explore the phenomenon from an observational standpoint, because I think that is the only way we’re going to create something that is more evolving, more understanding, with new treatment modalities and the whole thing.

MM: One last question: In your opinion, when is sex a spiritual experience?

EP: That depends on what people define as spiritual. For some people, the experience of sexuality is that they are entirely inside their body, but others feel they have totally transcended the physical boundaries of their body. Transcendence is the ability to no longer feel you are contained within the physical world. For many people, the definition of spiritual is a sense of complete abdication of the self. For some people, it’s union with another that transcends the borders between where one stops and where the other person starts, and creates a sense of infiniteness and timelessness.

MM: Do you consider that one of the properties of sexuality?

EP: Absolutely. One of the most amazing abilities of sexuality is to momentarily transcend the borders of self into something that is no longer defined by physical property, and that is utterly unique. It’s really what many call a religious experience.

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