Spouses in Happy Marriages Cheat. What Are We All Looking For?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
March 27 2014 11:31 PM

Why We Cheat

Spouses in happy marriages have affairs. What are we all looking for?

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Perel: In America, the primary discussion of affairs is about the impact of affairs, rarely about the meaning and motives of the affair. If you read 90 articles about affairs, they are all about what’s wrong with you or your marriage—early trauma, narcissism, addictive personality—injuries of all sorts. But there is very little in the general culture that probes the story of the affair—the plot. Just, did you sleep with anyone else? And you can’t glean anything from that. And then the other discussion is about the victim perpetrator model. We need to give the victim ample compassion and the perpetrator needs to feel remorse and repair.

Slate: Do most therapists understand this about affairs?

Perel: Therapists are the worst! They too think something must be wrong for a person to have an affair. Also most therapists in America will not work with secrets. Their attitude is, don’t tell me anything I can’t speak about with your partner. Either you end it or you tell your partner. So half of the time, people lie to the therapist and to the partner. And is it always the best thing to tell? Or can we examine that, rather than live with a blanket policy of which the therapist doesn’t have to live with the consequences.

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Slate: So the cheating partner shouldn’t tell?

Perel: In America, lying can never be an act of caring. We find it hard to accept that lying would be protective, this is an unexamined idea. In some countries, not telling, or a certain opaqueness, is an act of respect. Also, maybe the opposite of transparency isn’t intimacy, it’s aggression. People sometimes tell for their own good, as an act of aggression.

Slate: Is it different for women?

Perel: Because it was so fraught, women used to need a really good reason to take that risk. But today, female infidelity is the biggest challenge to the male-dominated status quo.

Slate: Do people see you as condoning cheating?

Perel: I make a distinction between cheating and non-monogamy. Cheating is about a violation of a contract. People misunderstand me because they think I’m saying affairs are OK. No! But I do think examining monogamy is our next frontier.

Slate: You mean as in Dan Savage’s idea that marriages should be non-monogamous? I can’t really see it working for heterosexual couples.

Perel: Not yet, but we couldn’t see premarital sex once either. We are a generation that believes in self-fulfillment, but also in commitment, and in their negotiations between these two ideas they will come up with new negotiations around monogamy.

Slate: Your really believe that?

Perel: Yes. It doesn’t mean it will fit everybody. But I do believe it’s the next frontier.

Slate: Will future arrangements look something like the Underwood marriage on House of Cards, where their non-monogamous arrangement is understood between them without being explicitly discussed?

Perel: The Underwoods are totally seen as a power couple. People do not see that they have a profound sense of intimacy. But their intimacy is about how each one supports the other in their own pursuits. So it’s an intimacy based on nurturing differentiation. We are there for each other, to help each of us be who we want to be. And one of the important axes in any relationship is how the couple negotiate togetherness and separateness. The ability to be myself in your presence versus having to let go of parts of myself to be together.

Slate: Do young people enter marriages with different assumptions now?

Perel: When I entered marriage I bought into the whole romantic package. I want my husband to take care of everything. I want to never feel anxious again, never feel a fear of abandonment. It’s the complete merge model. But that’s very different than the millennials I work with. Their fear is that they will lose themselves, because they’ve worked so hard to develop their own identities.

Slate: So it’s a good thing that we are moving away from the merge model?

Perel: But they have the opposite challenge, which is not to be immediately in the zone of fear when they need to get close, when they need to build something together with someone. That’s the price they pay for the highly individualistic culture in which they live.

Slate: What would you say to people who want to preserve a marriage?

Perel: Most people today, for the sheer length we live together, have two or three marriages in their adult life, and some of us do it with the same person. For me, this is my fourth marriage with my husband and we have completely reorganized the structure of the relationship, the flavor, the complementarity.

Slate: Explicitly, or it just happened organically?

Perel: Both. It became clear that we could either go into crisis mode and end it or go into crisis mode and renew. And that is one of the most hopeful sentences a betrayed partner can hear when they come into my office the day after they find out and they are in a state of utter shock and collapse: I say, your first marriage may be over, and in fact I believe that affairs are often a powerful alarm system for a structure that needs change. And then people say: But did it have to happen like that? And I say: I have rarely seen anything as powerful lead to a regenerative experience. This is a controversial idea, but betrayal is sometimes a regenerative act. It’s a way of saying no to a rotten system in need of change.

Slate: Would you ever recommend an affair?

Perel: No more than I would recommend cancer and yet a lot of people finally understand the value of life when they get sick.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Hanna Rosin is the founder of DoubleX and a writer for the Atlantic. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.