We would all like to believe that affairs are the refuge of the discontented, that only people in unhappy marriages cheat. But “happy,” it turns out, is not a sufficient antidote to affair.
We may be in a golden age of marriage, when elites at least are more likely to report that their marriages are “very happy” than ever before. But the tight, companionable, totally merged nature of the modern marriage is one of the factors pushing people in happy marriages to have affairs, according to therapist Esther Perel. In a recent New York Times profile, Perel is described as the nation’s “sexual healer,” an updated Dr. Ruth. She is the author of Mating in Captivity, which argues that in seeking total comfort, the modern marriage might be squashing novelty and adventure, which are so critical for a sexual charge. She is now working on a new book, provisionally called Affairs in the Age of Transparency, which she considers a sequel, a picture of what the stifling marriage might lead to.
I recently met with Perel in the downtown New York apartment she shares with her husband and two sons. In person, the only thing she has in common with Dr. Ruth is a strong accent, which in Perel’s case is a combination of French and Israeli. She was raised in Antwerp, Belgium, and has lived all over the world, which leads her to regard many American assumptions about affairs to be priggish and provincial. These days, Perel accepts only patients who are involved in affairs, and the vast majority of them, she says, are “content” in their marriages. In fact in surveys that ask adulterers whether they want to leave their marriages, the majority say no. Her book, still very much a work in progress, will be about “people who love each other and are having affairs,” she says, and what that paradox says about the rest of our marriages.
Slate: What do you mean by the age of transparency?
Perel: Transparency is the whole culture. The way a regular person tells everything about themselves on television. The way technology allows us to find out anything—99 percent of the people I see, their affairs are discovered through email or phones. But transparency is also our organizing principle of closeness these days. I will tell you everything, and if I don’t tell you it means I don’t trust you or I have a secret. It doesn’t mean I choose to keep certain things to myself because they are private. Privacy is the endangered species in between two extremes of secrecy and transparency.
Slate: Isn’t the closeness between partners good? Wouldn’t it lead to fewer affairs?
Perel: We have this idea that our partner is our best friend, that there is one person who will fulfill all our needs, which is really an extraordinary idea! So by definition, people must transgress because something is missing at home. We think, if you had what you needed at home, you wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, instead of thinking that marriage is at best an imperfect arrangement.
Slate: It isn’t true that people transgress because something is actually missing?
Perel: We don’t know the exact numbers because people lie about sex and 10 times more about adultery. But the vast majority of people we come into contact with in our offices are content in their marriages. They are longtime monogamists who one day cross a line into a place they never thought they would go. They remain monogamous in their beliefs, but they experience a chasm between their behavior and their beliefs. And what I am going to really investigate in depth is why people are sometimes willing to lose everything, for a glimmer of what?
Slate: And what’s your best guess from your research so far?
Perel: I can tell you right away the most important sentence in the book, because I’ve lectured all over the world and this is the thing I say that turns heads most often: Very often we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.
Slate: Is this motivation for an affair particular to our age?
Perel: What’s changed is, monogamy used to be one person for life. If I needed to marry you to have sex for the first time and I knew this is it for the rest of my life, then infidelity becomes one of the ways to deal with those limited choices. But now we come to our marriages with a profoundly different set of experiences and expectations. So the interesting question is, why did infidelity continue to rise even when divorce became available and accepted and nonstigmatized? You would think an unhappy person would leave. So by definition they must not be that unhappy. They are in that wonderful ambivalent state, too good to leave, too bad to stay.
Slate: So what are people looking for?
Perel: What’s changed is, we expect a lot more from our relationships. We expect to be happy. We brought happiness down from the afterlife, first to be an option and then a mandate. So we don’t divorce—or have affairs—because we are unhappy but because we could be happier. And all that is part of the feminist deliberation. I deserve this, I am entitled to this, I can have this! It allows people to finally pursue a desire to feel alive.
Perel: That’s the one word I hear, worldwide—alive! That’s why an affair is such an erotic experience. It’s not about sex, it’s about desire, about attention, about reconnecting with parts of oneself you lost or you never knew existed. It’s about longing and loss. But the American discourse is framed entirely around betrayal and trauma.
Slate: What prevents people from feeling alive in a marriage?
Perel: Marriages are so much more merged, and affairs become a venue for differentiation, a pathway to autonomy. Women will often say: This is the one thing I know I am not doing for anyone else. I am not taking care of anyone, this is for me. And I have a harder time doing that in the context of marriage because I have become the mother who needs to protect the child 24/7 from every little boo-boo and scratch, and I am constantly other-directed so much so that I am utterly disconnected from my erotic self and my partner is longing for sex and I can’t even think about it anymore. And then suddenly I meet somebody and discover something in my body I haven’t experienced for the last eight years, or I didn’t even know existed inside of me.
Slate: So why is the reality of affairs, and the way we talk about affairs, so different?