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The Sugars will be spending the next couple of months working on new episodes. During the month of May, by popular demand, we're listening back to our 4-part series on Infidelity.
This episode was originally released on September 25, 2015.
The Sugars' exploration of infidelity continues with a conversation with Esther Perel, a psychotherapist with extensive insight and expertise on the subject. What qualifies as infidelity? Why do we go through with it? And, perhaps most importantly, what does it mean to us?
Esther is the author of "Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence" and host of Where Should I Begin?, a brand new Audible original audio series. Her forthcoming book, "The State of Affairs," comes out in October. She's also known for her TED Talks, "Rethinking infidelity...a talk for anyone who has ever loved" and "The secret to desire in a long-term relationship."
In Part 1 of our Infidelity series, the Sugars heard from people who had been betrayed by their partners. In Part 2, they heard from the betrayers. In the fourth and final installment, which we'll re-release next week, the Sugars hear from the "other woman."
Steve Almond: Since there are so many forms to which we ascribe the word infidelity — what do you think of as a useful definition for infidelity?
Esther Perel: The definition of infidelity keeps expanding. Is it a love affair? Is it paid sex? Is it a chatroom? Is it keeping your dating apps and your Tinder on when you are seeing somebody? Is it using porn? Where do we draw the line? For me, the constitutive element of an affair is the secrecy. It is the secrecy that leads to the lying, to the deception, to the duplicity. It is the structure of an affair — not the sexual or emotional behavior or what people actually are doing. It’s the fact that it’s not within the contract — spoken or unspoken, implicit or explicit — that they had with their partners. The same behaviors within an agreed-upon relationship have nothing to do with infidelity. They have to do with sexual freedom. The second element has to do with the fact that there is an emotional involvement, to one degree or another. There can be very minimal involvement emotionally, or there can be a massive love affair. I do consider even going to prostitutes, or seeing a hooker or an escort, as having an emotional component, even if it’s not an emotion necessarily in the relationship. Even if you are paying in order to absolve yourself of any emotional involvement. That’s the paradox. And the third one, which is probably even more important than the second, is that there is a sexual alchemy. That doesn’t mean that you look at the sexual act. It means that you look at the sexualization of the interaction. The kiss that you have never given is just as powerful as hours of actual lovemaking. The erotic isn’t just what is happening between people’s legs. It is also what’s happening in their erotic mind. It’s these elements, intersecting with each other — always in different ways, but always present — that constitute infidelity.
Cheryl Strayed: Many people who write us for advice feel so muddled — should I feel betrayed? Have I betrayed?
Esther: But it doesn’t mean that you are betrayed by it. For some people, a one-night stand doesn’t make any difference in a seven-year love affair. I don’t believe the degree of betrayal is always commensurate with the egregiousness of the behavior. They are two separate things.
Cheryl: It’s how the couple feels about it.
Steve: One letter that we received was from a woman who engaged in an emotional affair with a little sexting mixed in. She did it once and then reconciled with her husband. Then, she did it again, and he was utterly ruined by it. It leads to the question, why do people commit infidelities, of whatever sort, by whatever definition? What are the impulses that people have?
Esther: Sometimes people’s infidelity has to do with the power of their relationship. But come on — the power of transgression is the archetypal, foundational story of the Bible. We want to break our own codes — sometimes of morality, sometimes of ethics, sometimes of the power structure, sometimes of the institution of marriage — because there is freedom and power in transgression. To look at infidelity from the point of view of sex is a complete narrowing of the phenomenon. There’s a reason that the commandment is repeated twice in the Bible — once for doing it and once for thinking about it. We have always created structures and broken structures. It is essential to the human spirit.
I believe that the vast majority of people that are unfaithful are monogamous in their beliefs. The ones who are not monogamous in their beliefs either live in poly relationships or consensual non-monogamous relationships, or they have divorced. If it’s very bad, then people don’t stay married these days in the West. They can be married and have their family, but they want something else — they want something that they don’t have in their lives, or simply to be someone that isn’t who they are in the context of their marriage. The vast majority of unfaithful people are experiencing a conflict between their values and their behavior, and that is the mess of infidelity. It’s not an either-or. The idea that you would ask, “How can you say you love your husband and you want to stay married, and you also are having an affair?” Because we are not the same woman, or the same man. Because sexual revolutions don’t take place at home. Because for most of us, freedom wasn’t something that we experienced in our family, but usually outside of our family. Because there is something about going to a place where you are not the wife, the mother, the caretaker, the breadwinner. There are all of these meanings for what happened outside the boundaries of those lines that we want to preserve.
Cheryl: Obviously, infidelity causes people a lot of suffering and pain. What are you trying to do in terms of enlightening people who strive for monogamy, even though they don’t necessarily succeed?
Esther: For most couples who come to me — especially in the aftermath of the revelation of an affair, when they are in a state of crisis and fear the loss of a predictable future — they start to have conversations for the first time about love, sex, monogamy, and marriage. Most couples don’t negotiate or don’t even converse about any of these things until the crisis of the affair has actually forced them to. Why does it take infidelity to get us talking about the stuff that should be there from the start?
Steve: Are there circumstances you could envision in which it would be a good idea to keep quiet about an affair? Let’s say a person comes to you and says, “I feel gratification from my relationship outside the partnership, it makes me feel good, and it allows me to enjoy my marriage and keep it together without feeling frustrated and angry. But I know if I say one word to my partner, our marriage will be over.” In that instance, do you feel qualms about advising that person not to say anything?
Esther: People have to live with their choices and their consequences — not me. I will not interfere there — I will help people foster their own self-determination. I think this is very much a case-by-case issue. There’s no basic rule. Sometimes I think, “Find out already!” Sometimes, I think, “Let the affair die a natural death.” Most affairs do die a natural death. Today, you look at your partner’s phone to find out the weather, and you find out about a lover. It has never been as easy to cheat as it is today, and it has never been harder to keep a secret. Your question cannot be taken out of a cultural conversation about the meaning of secrecy. The meaning of secrecy is very different when the model of love is one of transparency. So to understand the politics of secrecy and revelation, you need to understand the larger culture in which the couple lives and also the culture of the couple itself. What does intimacy mean to them? Where does the couple draw the line between togetherness and separateness? That’s what informs you. You always ask, “What would happen if I tell? What would happen if I don’t tell?” Sometimes, the partner doesn’t want to know. I have had so many people in my office say, “I wish you had never told me,” because you can never take it back. You need to ask, do you want to hear the answer to your question? Or do you want your partner to know that you have the question?
Cheryl: As you noted, we tend to aspire to a deeper kind of intimacy. What are the challenges when it comes to sex and monogamy, fidelity and infidelity?
Esther: At this point, we are living one of the greatest experiments in humankind — to create something that has, throughout history, been considered a contradiction in terms — a passionate marriage. Passion has always existed, but it took place somewhere else. Everything that we wanted from a traditional marriage – companionship, family, children, economic support, a best friend, a passionate lover, a trusted confidante, an intellectual equal — we are asking from one person what an entire village once provided. And couples are crumbling under the weight of so much expectation.
Cheryl: Are you saying this is impossible?
Esther: Very few people achieve this marital bliss. A lot more people are miserable from it, because that’s the Kool-Aid that they drink. They think they are deficient if they have not been able to accomplish that nirvana. It’s realism, and it’s understanding that marriage isn’t meant to make you happy — it’s there because it gives you a life in which you can find happiness.
Steve: I think that people in long-term, monogamous relationships are crushed by the expectation that a partner is going to provide everything they are looking for and wondering why they are dissatisfied when they have four of the ten boxes checked. But I was talking with a friend who likes to go out dancing or to a bar — she is happily married, but she wants to go out into the world and gather a certain amount of sexual energy and flirtation and be awakened in that way — and that’s okay with her husband. Is one way to deal with this impossible set of expectations for couples to talk more explicitly about what their contract is, and what might be allowed to help them find passion outside the marriage in ways that are acceptable?
Esther: Yes, but it’s a continuum. The question is, how do I turn myself on? Not, how do you turn me on? How do I awaken my sense of vitality? If a woman isn’t feeling sexual with herself, she won’t respond to advances from any partner, male or female. When this woman goes dancing, she’s finding a connection with her own erotic self. It might be about being on a dance floor, feeling free, not having to feel at all responsible for anybody else’s well-being. For other people, it might be about going on a hike for four days by herself and reconnecting with nature and strength and endurance and beauty. Instead of being specific about the dance floor and the other men, the framework has to be, how do people stay connected with their own sense of aliveness and their own erotic pulse?
Steve: Can you talk about what you have done in your own life to feel passionate within the context of your marriage?
Esther: As a teenager growing up in Europe, I embraced the romantic ideal. For me, I had to give up the ideal that one person would be there for everything. Once you give up that ideal, then you begin to accept the person that you are with — the person who won’t be able to give you everything and who won’t be able to know exactly what you want and feel without you even needing to say it.
Steve: One question that comes up over and over again is, how can I repair the marriage and get it back after the betrayal? What should I do? What do you say to someone who says, “I am desperate to heal this marriage”?
Cheryl: Or, how can I trust again?
Esther: It starts with, tell me what happened. What kind of a betrayal has it been for you? Where did it touch you? Then, what do you need? Do you need acknowledgment and to know that the other person feels deep regret and remorse for having hurt you? What is it that you feel responsible for in the relationship? You want to feel that it will never happen again? Is that a fair question? Will it give you a sense of peace? Or will peace come when you know the relationship is good and strong and that both people want to be there? Then that becomes what stops it — the renewed sense of connection and devotion and loyalty that is within the couple.
I am a married 53-year-old man with two high school-aged children. My wife and I provide a nice home, good schools and opportunities for our kids to grow and explore. However, our marriage isn’t what I want it to be. I am about deep conversations, exploring the arts and nature and finding spirituality through life, deep connection and sex. My wife’s world is that of Tiger Mom and her professional career. She makes time for friends, school activities and women’s outings, with space for bubble baths and magazines to relax. She leaves little of herself for me. Activities I would choose to do with my wife I end up doing alone. She has sex with me for fifteen minutes once a week because she knows it is necessary. Our sex is perfunctory, vanilla, time-limited and flat because she is disengaged.
I have learned how easy it is to ask for sex from women and actually get it. As a man who travels for work, I have been able to find multiple lovers and numerous sexual liaisons over the years. I am not proud, but this life has allowed me to maintain a comfortable and stable home for my kids, while exploring my sexual being. Keeping my soul alive in this way has allowed me to maintain some semblance of masculine energy where it might have otherwise dwindled away, leaving me an emasculated shell.
With all my heart I wish to turn this around and have a happy, passionate, engaged, monogamous marriage. The obvious suggestion is to talk to my wife. But she avoids all discussions about the relationship. She simply tunes me out, finds things to blame me for to distract the conversation, or leaves the room.
At 53, I am fit and have great sexual energy, though I am sensing my stamina is not what it was decades past, and I fear that the kind of connection I seek will be harder as years pass. Even if middle ground could be achieved, I have a secret legacy of unfaithfulness to contend with. And even if that could be comfortably buried, I have tasted great connection, and feel the need to have experiences with greater intensity and pleasure than I have ever dared pursue. At the same time, I’m not ready to give up. I know my wife, I love her, I feel indebted to her for being devoted to the kids, and I do not wish to hurt her. What should I do?
Cheryl: His sexual infidelity is the least of my concerns when I read this letter. I am really worried about the fact that he is married to this person who he feels very little personal connection to. They don’t share common interests or make time for each other. He puts the blame on her, saying, “She doesn’t make time for me.” We don’t know if that’s fair. But the sexual infidelities are almost a side note. Of course he has been unfaithful — because he is so lonely in his marriage. The greatest betrayal here is that they are holding up this kind of intimacy without being intimate. They have a marriage, and they aren’t best friends. This man is saying, my wife and I have lost interest in each other. The most surprising line in the letter to me was, “I’m not ready to give up, and I love my wife.” He said nothing in the letter, up until that point, that convinces us of that. There is something there that he is trying to save.
Steve: I think he esteems his wife for companionship, for maintaining the household, for her devotion to the kids, and he recognizes that he’s not open for business when it comes to the passionate desire that he also values. The secrecy and sneaking off is hard to stomach. But the desires themselves are the natural order of things. A part of him is saying, “I don’t want to hurt my wife. And I know if I say something to her, that will hurt her. And when I try to talk to her, she leaves the room.” But that might be a rationalization.
Cheryl: There is a point where you say, “You are going to talk to me about this, or I’m leaving you.” Now, I am an advocate of honesty and openness, and I think deceit is a dangerous seed to plant and let grow in relationships. But there are two things going on here. One is, he has been unfaithful and should he fess up? And two is, he wants to feel close to his wife again. So there are two conversations he can have. Maybe he should keep the sexual affairs to himself, at least for now. If he wants to walk into the marriage and ignite that bomb, it will destroy something. The emotional connection he wants is with his wife. It’s amazing to me that he hasn’t fallen in love with one of his other lovers. Maybe the more meaningful bomb is one where he says, “You and I need to work on our marriage, and we need to be closer, and we need to find the connection we lost, or I want out.” It sounds like it would help to go to a counselor together. Maybe that infidelity confession comes later. It can cause all of this pain when it was really just a sexual release for a man who still loves his wife. Maybe that’s a side note that comes out if they do regain that intimacy, as part of a deeper conversation they need to have about sex, where he says, “I need to come clean.” My impulse is to put their primary bond — the emotional bond — at the center of their confrontation.
Steve: We are well aware that we are getting one side of the story. I would question what he says about his wife being disengaged during sex. She is likely disengaged for a whole host of reasons — some of which are your responsibility, Married Man. We have a very particular portrayal of the wife here, Married Man. The question is, was this always how it was? Or was there a different way your marriage functioned, and if you go back some years, was there a different way your marriage functioned? And if that’s the case, do you believe it’s possible to get that back in an honest relationship with your wife? But that’s going to take work on your part as well. When two people become this disconnected, they are both responsible for that. Married Man, you need to turn it around and ask, what do you do for her?
Cheryl: Married Man, please demand that your wife have this necessary conversation with you. Please do that. You are dying inside. That’s no way to live. You deserve a richer life with a partner who gives you more. So much of that has to do with not just going forward with your dissatisfaction, but also being mindful of what it is that she has given you.
Steve: You can see him building the case for feeling entitled to these affairs. But clearly he wants more than that. And the question is, does he want that within this marriage? And then you have to do some work. Even if you don’t bring it up right away, at a certain point, your legacy of unfaithfulness is going to have to be excavated if you really feel like you both want to go forward in a new way.
Cheryl: I don’t know that I agree with you. Not everyone wants to know everything their partner did. Maybe it’s enough to say, “Things aren’t going well in our marriage. I’ve made mistakes. I don’t think you’ve been a good partner to me. How do we go forward together?” I think there’s a different answer for every couple. But I think intimacy is asking that question.
New episodes of Dear Sugar Radio are released weekly. Do you have a question for the Sugars? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.