Your partner cheated on you—does it have to end your relationship? Can it actually benefit it? According to renowned therapist Esther Perel, no it doesn’t have to end your relationship and yes, it can even help it… sometimes.
It may be hard to wrap your head around the idea, but Perel makes some convincing arguments for thinking differently about cheating in her new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.
Why should we be rethinking infidelity? Because there’s a lot of cheating going on, and it’s not just guys—both men and women are seeing a rise in cheating. While it’s hard to pin down exact numbers (some say as high as 60 or 70 percent) the numbers really don’t matter; all that matters is, will it happen to you?
You may be thinking it could never happen to you and that you and your spouse are very happy. But love and happiness aren’t always the most important factors when it comes to determining whether someone will or won’t cheat.
In my chat with Eric Anderson, the American sociologist at England’s University of Winchester and author of The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love, and the Reality of Cheating, he explained that the college men in his study who cheated on their partners all said they loved them and didn’t want to lose them. They start off thinking they want monogamy, but after being in a relationship for months or years, they start missing sex with others. “But by this point, they don’t want to break up with their partners because they have long-standing love,” explains Anderson. So instead of talking about it with their partner, they cheat—a choice Anderson calls rational, though it probably won’t feel all that rational to their partner.
“Our model of romantic love assumes that if a union is healthy, there is no need to go elsewhere,” Perel writes. “People stray for a multitude of reasons… but one theme comes up repeatedly: affairs are 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 is more often described as an expansive experience that involves growth, exploration, and transformation.”
The most important thing a couple can do is talk about monogamy—are we choosing it, are we good at it, do we like it, would we prefer something else—and to continue to discuss it throughout their relationship. First, though, they should define monogamy and not assume they both are defining it the same way. And then they should define cheating because there are many ways to be unfaithful beside having sexual intercourse; it can be reconnecting with an old flame on Facebook, sending flirty texts to a friend, kissing a coworker at the company holiday party, getting or giving oral sex, watching porn alone, masturbating, going to a strip club—the list goes on and on.
A flirty text or even a one-night stand on a business trip may be a lot easier to forgive and move on from than a long-time, emotional affair.
So can a couple survive an affair? Can an affair bring a couple closer together?
After an affair, couples will, “have to create a whole new monogamy contract in order to clear away the implicit, unspoken expectations that led to the betrayal and hurt that may have contributed to the cheating in the first place,” writes psychotherapist Tammy Nelson, author of The New Monogamy. “This new vision of the relationship can lead to a new beginning, one in which many couples say is a fresh start and also a more mature, more connected, and many times more intimate experience of marriage. There is no more naiveté, no implicitly agreeing to things they don’t want. Some couples even end up saying about their new marriage, ‘maybe this is the best thing that could have happened to our relationship.”
“Some couples can integrate the contradictions of love and desire, but first we have to acknowledge that we’ll never eliminate the dilemma,” says Perel. “Reconciling the erotic and the domestic is not a problem to solve; it is a paradox to manage.”
Which is why trying to affair-proof a relationship by surveillance and self-policing won’t solve anything. “Rather than insulate ourselves with the false notion that it could never happen to me, we must learn to live with the uncertainties, the allures, the attractions, the fantasies—both our own and our partners,” Perel writes. “Couples who feel free to talk honestly about their desires, even when they are not directed at each other, paradoxically become closer.”
And isn’t that what we ultimately want?