Infidelity Shouldn't Always Mean The End Of A Marriage, Author Esther Perel Says

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Esther Perel, author of "The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity." (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Esther Perel, author of "The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity." (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Belgian couples therapist Esther Perel has reached millions through her TED Talks and podcast. Her new book takes on the tender topic of affairs, making the case that while they take a wrecking ball to many marriages, there are what she calls the "explorers" — couples who form a new relationship out of the ashes of the old.

Here & Now's Robin Young speaks with Perel (@EstherPerel) about "The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity."

Interview Highlights

On what makes infidelity even more devastating today, and its capacity to strengthen relationships

"When you are the one and only, and you have waited 10 more years of sexual nomadism before you even enter into committed relationships that you think will be life stories, you bet that infidelity becomes the grand shattering of the ambition of love. And for the first time it is not just painful, it becomes traumatic, and it becomes an experience that is gutting to my identity, to my sense of trust not just of you, but of my own perceptions, and I don't know anymore what's real.

"When this crisis occurs, people think that it speaks a truth that is bigger than anything that preceded. Either you have affairs that are breakup, that's it — the relationship was already dying on the vine, and this is just the end. But sometimes you have relationships that are makeup. And when I speak about the fact that out of a crisis, people can come out stronger, more resilient, more robust, very quickly I'm often asked, would I recommend people to have an affair? So many people will tell you that if they have a life-threatening illness, it gives them a new perspective on life, and yet nobody would recommend them to have cancer. That said, we grow from experiences that sometimes can almost annihilate us. We do."

On the pain an affair can cause

"It can be excruciatingly painful. It's everything. In the parts of the world where women, in this instance, experience this as part of the possibilities of the landscape of marital life, they are hurt, but they are not destroyed. Americans have lost between 30 and 60 percent of their social capital in the last 25 years, meaning people that you reach out to when you have important experiences in your life. The partner has become everything. When that best friend then hurts you, and falls in love with another person, you feel like you've become worthless."

"In marriage, sometimes you start out face to face, and then after a while you start to live side by side. It takes one crisis, and it puts people back face to face."

Esther Perel

On why affairs happen

"Resentment, loneliness, sexual frustration for decades on end, violence. Two people are responsible for a relationship. One person chooses to have an affair, always. But there is a context. And when you pick a person, you pick a story, and you live that story, and sometimes you've been recruited for a play that you didn't audition for. And why this is happening, every time I said something, something else came to tell me, 'It's not so simple.' Do you want to punish the other person, or do you want to repair with the other person?"

On going from punishing the person involved in the affair to repairing with them

"The first thing: You need the person who hurt you to acknowledge it. You show the remorse, and you show the guilt for hurting the person — even if what you've just experienced was a unique thing in your life that you will forever cherish. You need to be able to give them a place to say, 'I hurt you,' without saying, 'I'm bad.'

"One of the ways you recalibrate is you actually say to this person, 'All these compromises that I made, I was willing. But now, no. I demand more, too.' And actually that newfound sense of entitlement is one of the most curative factors on the part of the person who is hurt. But sometimes, in some relationships, it's the death knell. But in other relationships, it's the alarm system that jolts people out of a state of complacency. You know, in marriage, sometimes you start out face to face, and then after a while you start to live side by side. It takes one crisis, and it puts people back face to face. And it's this that the explorers then capitalize on."

This article was originally published on January 01, 2018.

This segment aired on January 1, 2018.


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Robin Young brings more than 25 years of broadcast experience to her role as host of Here & Now.



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