Rethinking infidelity

Esther Perel’s recent release “The State of Affairs” is a masterful look at relationships in the 21st century—masterful because it invites us to think outside the proverbial box. Not only does it focus on the intricacies of infidelity, but it also explores the state of intimate relationships in our world today. When I read Esther Perel’s previous book, “Mating in Captivity”, it opened the aperture on working with intimacy and desire with couples in my practice. Her refreshing, internationally-infused perspective introduced an expansive clinical dialogue, and once again, Perel offers us a unique angle on infidelity, exclusivity and every imaginable variation.

“Affairs have a lot to teach us about relationships—what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to.” And this is the premise of her research and her work. Affairs come in all shapes and sizes, but do we punish one another or offer opportunities for growth and learning? Keep in mind that Perel’s definition of affairs includes one or more of the following: secrecy, sexual alchemy, and emotional involvement, and it only requires one of these ingredients. Yet, infidelity is a much larger window including sexual infidelities, emotional affairs, compulsive use of porn, strip clubs or erotic massage. The list goes on and on.

One of the primary themes of “State of Affairs” is the opportunity to learn from infidelity rather than being sentenced to wearing the Scarlet Letter. Perel makes a clear distinction between shame and guilt. “Shame is a state of self-absorption, while guilt is an empathic, relational response, inspired by the hurt you have caused another. In the aftermath of betrayal, authentic guilt, leading to remorse is an essential repair tool.” Again, her healing focus is on movement toward repair—not pouring more salt into the wound.

Shame is like quicksand, as clients often lose themselves in the experience of feeling defective. If not addressed, shame often cycles into resentment and despair. Yet, excavating the layers beneath the suffering can be a productive process toward shame resiliency, and in turn, the recognition of guilt often becomes a more useful emotion–promoting connection rather than division.

Perel emphasizes how infidelity is a growth opportunity for the couple if they’re open-hearted enough to do the deeper work on themselves and their relationship. When a couple makes the courageous choice to work on their relationship after an infidelity, Perel feels that the person who had the affair needs to explicitly re-commit to the partner and express the deep value of the other person and the relationship.

The mental health community is divided about disclosure after an affair. Some clinicians believe in full disclosure and some do not. Perel offers a wise clinical suggestion when it comes to sharing the details of an affair. “Respect is not necessarily about telling all, but about considering what it will be like for the other to receive the knowledge.” In other words, disclosure is not a one-size fits all process. Before you unload onto an unsuspecting partner, consider, whose well-being are you really thinking of? And what is your partner supposed to do with this information?” It’s a delicate moment requiring meticulous assessment and thoughtful planning with the couple.

Disclosure is often used as a therapeutic tool with couples recovering from sex addiction. Many couples have found healing through this approach, yet others have been harmed or even re-traumatized. There isn’t an absolute right or wrong approach, but it’s a significant decision not to be taken lightly. As much as our training and experience may be extensive, we’re still learning, and a dose of humility goes a long way as we grow beside our clients.

Perel also writes at length about couples who love each other, who are devoted to one another, but have never been able to stay faithful. There is a myth that infidelity is always connected to dissatisfaction in the relationship. But this isn’t true. The reasons for betrayal are limitless but not always related to the relationship itself.

In her practice, Perel asks the unfaithful party to work through all rationalizations—stories that have been constructed to justify continuing the infidelities. She suggests this three-part method:
1. Take RESPONSIBILITY for the hurtful behavior—the way he rationed his closeness by only giving her a fragment of his divided self.
2. Be VULNERABLE about his own proclivities and how for years he justified it to himself at her expense.
3. Pour out his LOVE for her and fight for their relationship.

Instead of writing an inventory of offenses often utilized in sex addiction treatment–Perel suggests a Love Letter instead. Not that this takes the betrayer off the hook—the betrayer still needs to be accountable for their actions, but the minute details of the transgressions may not always be necessary. Perel often asks partners, “Do you really want the answer to your question, or do you want your partner to know that you have the question? It’s okay if you don’t want all the details. Let him carry the burden of that knowledge and take responsibility for figuring out who he wants to be as a man, as a person.” Not only is “The State of Affairs” intended to enlighten mental health professionals, but it’s also written in such a way that is helpful and meaningful for clients. Whether you specialize in couples therapy or not, this book spells out the complex challenges and genuine opportunities that reveal themselves in “affairs that are universally forbidden yet universally practiced.”

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