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How an affair can break – or remake – a marriage

Can cheating shake up a stale union? Zosia Bielski speaks to couples therapist Esther Perel, whose new book is a game changer on how we view infidelity

Esther Perel proposes a radically new way of thinking about infidelity that goes beyond the havoc it wreaks and drills down to its motives.

A wife sits down at her husband's computer and discovers eight years of e-mails between her spouse and his mistress. Masochistically poring over their rich correspondence, the wife realizes they exchanged love notes on her birthday.

A cuckolded husband meets his wife's lover and actually doesn't punch his lights out. He's here to find out what his spouse was missing in their marriage. The answer is feeling alive, which she no longer feels at home amid children, chores and exhaustion.

A daughter learns that her recently deceased mother was a mistress in an affair spanning three decades. The daughter finds herself consoling mom's grieving lover – a husband who never told a soul about his double life – and packing up the pair's clandestine "love nest."

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They are some of the riveting stories in Esther Perel's highly anticipated new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, for which the renowned couples therapist mined years of sessions with patients and mountains of confessional letters from people piqued by her popular TED Talks on marriage and its discontents. The new book comes on the heels of her chart-topping Audible podcast Where Should We Begin?, which launched this past spring and allowed subscribers to listen in on other couples' problems, straight from the therapist's couch. "Monogamy is the sacred cow," Perel writes. "Infidelity says, You're not so special after all."

Affairs happen in happy marriages, in miserable marriages and in open marriages. People cheat because they're lonely, resentful or wistful for their lost youth. Mostly, it's the sex and the thrill of transgression: The straying partner "shuts down at home and wakes up outside."

Controversially, Perel gives voice not only to betrayed spouses but also to those who hurt them: adulterers and the invasive third party. For this, some critics have labelled her a cheater apologist. When people demand if she's for or against infidelity, the therapist says she now just cryptically responds, "Yes."

Perel proposes a radically new way of thinking about infidelity that goes beyond the havoc it wreaks and drills down to its motives. Affairs, she argues, have the power to jolt a partner's attention and "shake up a stale system." She interviews many "marriage survivors" for whom infidelity was a catalyst for more depth and honesty in their relationships. It's a counterintuitive approach that works for some, but certainly not all.

Just as Perel's 2006 book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, changed the way we think about marital sex, The State of Affairs is poised to become a game changer on infidelity. What Perel is driving at is a more productive cultural conversation about infidelity, all in a bid to build more forthright and resilient marriages. Perel spoke with The Globe and Mail's Zosia Bielski from New York about rethinking fidelity and infidelity.

Perel says famous examples of infidelity, such as Hillary and Bill Clinton, Jay-Z and Beyoncé, and Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner, reveal cultural attitudes about relationships and the variety of responses to cheating.

What does the pervasiveness of affairs tell us about the institution of marriage in 2017?

Infidelity has existed since marriage was invented and has accompanied it throughout. When marriages were not about love but were primarily economic enterprises, infidelity was a sanctioned activity for men. We thought of affairs as the double standard that allowed men not to be monogamous and that forced women to be monogamous so that we could know which children he needs to feed and who will get the cows when he dies. Nobody thought of affairs as betrayal.

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The meaning of infidelity has dramatically changed because the meaning of marriage has dramatically changed. Modern marriage is about having a best friend, a confidante, a passionate lover, a co-parent, an intellectual equal and the one who inspires you to pursue your dreams and your career: one person to give you what the whole village used to provide.

Today, we look at infidelity as the shattering of the grand ambition of love. It is the ultimate breach of trust. It is a crisis in which you experience the loss of self. Infidelity redefines the entire marriage and divorce is the only solution.

This is an experience that 80 per cent of the population has been affected by in one way or another. It is very common and very poorly understood. The current conversation doesn't help people. It's not a healthy conversation.

You argue that there is now more shame in working it out after an affair than just getting a divorce. Why is that?

It used to be that divorce was the stigma. Now, staying when you can leave is the new shame. For so long, women have had to endure. Now that we can leave, we must leave. It's really become the norm of the moment: "Get the hell out."

The shame of staying is such today that when a couple comes in and the woman says, "I still love you," or, "I want to see if we can repair this," or, "I don't want to be divorced. I grew up in that shitshow and I don't want it" – she has to hide this. I can't tell you the number of women who have been dumped by girlfriends who tell them, "You have no spine," or, "You're letting him walk all over you." Fearing judgment, the betrayed spouse now sits alone with a double secret: the secret of the affair and the secret of wanting to stay with their partner despite the affair.

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This was partly the Hillary Clinton story. How could this woman who had the option to go choose not to go? I think we should feel free to choose. Otherwise, once again, women will be prisoners to norms that tell them what to do and never ask them what they want.

Leaving and divorce are always viewed as better than any of the other more compromised solutions that people come up with. But these compromises are attempts at figuring out complicated situations. The more interesting question is why has divorce and the freedom to choose who we marry not rendered infidelity obsolete?

Perel says the way Hillary Clinton reacted to revelations about her husband’s infidelity demonstrates the stigma of staying in a relationship after infidelity.

Much of clinical practice focuses on helping the person who's been cheated on. You show compassion to everyone involved in an affair, including adulterers and their lovers. What does the therapy community make of your approach?

We are much more willing to blame the person who went to seek sex elsewhere than to hold accountable the person who has been refusing sex for years – men or women. Many of those who stray have spoken up many times over many years. Often there is no answer.

I have compassion for all the parties involved. There is zero condoning but there is also zero judgment. For some people, this nuanced, dual perspective is very welcome. You look at the impact as well as the meanings and motives.

When you write about this, people instantly think that you must be justifying infidelity. This is challenging and it will take time.

I have my enemies. None of these people have actually read my work or been at a presentation of mine. You expect people with differences of opinion to reach out and try to find out why their colleagues think the way they do, rather than distorting the whole thing based on one very misunderstood idea. The last thing that one can say about me is that I promote affairs. Nobody's ever waited around for Esther Perel in order to have their transgressions.

People actually perceive affairs quite differently around the world, from "bitter condemnation" to "outright enthusiasm." What did you find in your global scan?

I'll never forget the woman in Morocco to whom I said that in America, you're encouraged to leave your partner if they stray. She says, "All of Morocco would be divorced if we had to lose our straying husbands." In certain parts of the world, women are deeply hurt by infidelity but they think that they had bad luck, a bad apple. They don't necessarily think it's the end of their identity because their identity has never only been marked by the person they're with.

In Mexico and Argentina, women talk about the rise of female infidelity as a challenge to the chauvinistic male status quo. Still, the double standard is alive and well in many parts of the world. Straying is a male privilege backed up by all kinds of theories to explain why men are "natural roamers." Women only got the right to drive in Saudi Arabia last month. Give the woman a car, then we will know what she really wants.

You've seen a surge of heterosexual wives cheating in recent years. What's happening there?

Women's infidelity could only occur in greater numbers because of contraception. They could finally experience sexuality without the threat of pregnancy. Also, mobility, economic independence, greater equality which allows her to finally say, "I want something too," a greater sense of entitlement and individualism in the society at large and less fear of the consequences. She's not going to get killed, have a scarlet letter or get excommunicated.

You describe cheating wives who are bored with "mothering" their husbands and with the role of "house manager" that's been foisted on them.

I'm not saying this to justify their affairs but for quite a few women, if you really want to know what they want to experience emotionally and sexually, you have to go look at those affairs. They have a truth about themselves in their affairs that they often do not have in their marriages. In their marriages, they still continue to do that which they think is expected of them – the norms are loud and clear for what it means to be a good mother, a good wife, a good daughter.

You believe that for some, infidelity can actually restart a marriage that's been stuck in a domestic rut. Why are people so resistant to this idea?

An affair can be a make it or a break it for a couple. It can be the death knell that finishes off a relationship that was dying on the vine. Or, it is a powerful alarm system that can jolt people out of their state of complacency.

Nobody has an affair to improve their relationship, just as nobody would recommend getting sick because it reinvigorates your perspective. But many people who have had life-threatening situations say that those moments shift their priorities, propelling them to the heart of the matter.

We have a very difficult time seeing that a major relational crisis can also prompt people to re-engage in honest conversations they haven't had in years.

You've found that a not insubstantial number of married couples experience an erotic charge after one person cheats. Polly, one of your patients, tells you that since her husband's affair, "sex has been the most erotic we ever had – frantic, ardent and urgent." What's happening here?

It is the story that is less told. People are reluctant to share this, but crisis and the fear of loss can reignite a desire in them that they haven't experienced in years – not for everybody, for sure, but for some people. When your partner has an affair, the desire of the third person sheds a new light on that partner. They become eroticized.

Beyoncé’s Lemonade is an example of a break from traditional narratives about infidelity.

You write about jealousy as "erotic wrath," which brings to mind Beyoncé's Lemonade, a primal scream against husband Jay-Z's philandering. She described some complicated, postcheating sexual dynamics with her husband, including orgasms "heightened by grief." How did Lemonade break from traditional narratives about infidelity in North America?

She wasn't a victim. She was a woman who was hurt and who claimed her passion. It hurts no less, but she took the pain to a place where she wanted to fight for something, to say, "I want you back. This is ours." There is pride in a woman or a man who fights for their partner.

Your patients are embarrassed to admit that marital sex can, at least momentarily, get better after an affair. Who are the other quiet cohorts in the plotlines of modern infidelity?

The majority of people who write to me are straying women and wounded husbands – the shame of staying is even bigger for men whose wives have affairs. These are the two groups that are now most vulnerable and speak the least. Meanwhile, in the clinical literature, "the other woman" is never mentioned. She's not a human being. She is despised by all.

Another quiet cohort is the man in my book whose wife has Alzheimer's. He goes to visit her daily at the nursing home. How many years is he going to live with her not recognizing him? He wants to have a connection and meets another woman at the home. The two of them are in a beautiful relationship with each other while they are each taking care of their partners. They are facing the ambiguous loss of their partners: physically there and psychologically gone. Things are changing rapidly because we live a lot longer.

The majority of the people we work with are not actually chronic philanderers. They are people who have been faithful for years, decades. In the midst of their affairs, an adulterer might visit his wife's mother in hospital when she's sick. Or he might talk to his wife's niece who's been cutting herself and take her out for breakfast. You see responsible people who are doing right by their beloveds and their families, who are at the same time having a relationship or flings that are deep breaches of trust. It all co-exists.

That's one version. You can have another version where the person is completely absent, travels all the time and is never home. The plots of infidelity are vast.

You believe that some affairs are actually "an act of courage," namely the people who cheat on abusive spouses.

Is an affair always just an act of cowardice or is it sometimes also an act of boldness, a way of saying no to a rotten system? Some people need to betray to go against a marital regime that goes wrong. A woman or a man who is beleaguered, demeaned, degraded or neglected seeks or meets a new person with whom they can have a completely different experience – someone who respects them, values what they have to say and shows them that this is not their fate. This scenario doesn't represent the majority of infidelity cases, not by far, but when we canvass the broad spectrum of affairs, this is one that says, "I may be doing something that's not nice to you but it's nice for me, for the first time."

You touch on infidelity in open relationships. Even here, people find ways to break the few rules that have been explicitly set out – sex with a specific friend, or using the marital bed, or not using protection. Why do people with such wide latitude in their relationships still go out and cheat?

Even in relationships that have consensual non-monogamy, where people have the permission to be with other partners, they still may go to the one place that was forbidden. It speaks to the power of transgression as part of human nature. It gives us a sense of empowerment and autonomy. We're on a hedonic treadmill: When we get what we want, we still want more.

Have you observed any pronounced differences between gay and heterosexual affairs?

The pain of betrayal is no different if you are gay or straight.

Gay couples understand that monogamy needs to be negotiated – that it can't be assumed. They understand that monogamy is not necessarily sexual exclusivity. Monogamy can also be defined by the power and primacy of emotional commitment. This is a distinction heterosexual couples can learn a lot from.

Men come with a different heritage of thinking about sexuality than women, lesbian or not. If you are a man, the pressure on you has been that sexual adventures should not be a big deal. Sexual freedom is part of the gay movement. Gay couples need permission to be jealous because gay men have been inculcated not to be. You have to actually make room for gay men to accept this emotion as a natural response and not as, "that's not part of the gay repertoire."

Every group has its incentives and its prohibitions, the things it is allowed to feel and to complain about and the things it is not allowed to feel and complain about.

You acknowledge that many couples who stay together after an affair don't "metabolize" infidelity well: Many can't let it go and "endlessly gnaw at the same bone." But some married couples are able to overcome resentment and build something new out of the rubble of infidelity. What characteristic unites these "marriage survivors?"

I had a couple last month that I thought to myself, "Oh my God, this is what I mean."

She's crying. She just found out she has a sexually transmitted disease by going to a doctor's visit. It didn't come from her. In the midst of this, her husband starts talking about his childhood. She starts to talk very compassionately about the hardships he went through. He starts to talk about the abuse and alcoholism she had to face. They talk about how they had created a family that was so different from the ones they grew up in.

That is a unique feature of couples who make it: They can still see the other person empathically for who they are beyond the acute crisis of the affair. Crisis, the worst that can happen, can sometimes lead you to a renewal you didn't know was possible, if you are guided properly.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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