Reasons Why You Should Rethink Your Stance On Cheating
Psychotherapist and relationship expert Esther Perel thinks we’d be a lot better off if we weren’t so hard on infidelity.
By Hannah Smothers
In decades of relationship counseling, psychotherapist, relationship expert, and author Esther Perel has seen quite the gamut of experiences on cheating and infidelity. So much so that she could — and did! – fill a whole book with them. Perel’s latest work of non-fiction, cheekily titled “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity” is basically a convincing crash course in rethinking the strict American standards on monogamy and shame around cheating.
Though she’s Belgian (not French), Perel recently sat down to answer questions about her book and her views on how cheating should be reframed at New York City’s French Institute Alliance Francaise. Here are eight key reasons why we should all relax our views on infidelity a little bit, from probably the foremost scholar on cheating that the world has to offer.
- It affects probably everyone you know. At one point during her talk, Perel asked the audience to raise their hands if they’ve experienced infidelity in any capacity — whether by being of the three primary actors involved, having a parent or parents who cheated, having a friend confide in you about cheating, etc. Nearly the entire audience raised their hands. Perel said acknowledging how common cheating is is an important step in breaking down the taboo that exists around it in U.S. culture.
- Cheating is way more complicated than most people think. Perel’s dealt with infidelity extensively in her career as a therapist, and while she maintained she hasn’t seen it all, she’s seen most things. And from that wealth of knowledge that she has on why people cheat an what cheating looks like, she has drawn a strong conclusion: “It really can’t be summarized in black and white,” she said. “It can’t just be a good person and a bad person. This conversation is wrong.” Perel added that the conversation of right and wrong is incomplete and leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of cheating. The narrative that a cheater is bad and the person who was cheated on is a victim erases all the emotions and experiences that play into a decision to cheat, and by better understanding all those things, people are more likely to take a compassionate approach to infidelity, rather than prematurely cutting a person out of their lives because of it.
- Treating cheating with shame only hurts people more. Perel said the judgmental nature with which people in this culture approach cheating is ultimately harmful to the people who’ve experienced it (which is pretty much everyone). “People can tell you they’re divorced, they will not tell you they have experienced infidelity,” Perel said. “This becomes one of the most isolating experiences.” This is bad for a couple of reasons — it hurts people who stand to benefit from talking about something happening in their life, and it dimishes the possibility of working through infidelity as a couple (something plenty of couples have done, *cough* Beyoncé and Jay-Z *cough.
- Cheating is hardly ever about just the sex. One of the big motivators Perel sees for cheating has nothing to do with simply wanting to have sex with someone else because you just think they’re attractive. For people in a long relationship or marriage, it’s often about searching for themselves. “Suddenly you have an affair, and for the first time, you are doing something that is just for you,” she said. “What you’re doing is reconnecting with lost parts of yourself, with a different version of you, with a sense of aliveness.” Even though you may not have gone about trying to figure out what you’re missing in your relationship in the not-so-kindest way, the cheating could be an indicator of what it might be.
- An affair can be an affair without any sex at all. It also helps, Perel said, to rethink what you define as “cheating” in the first place. “What you are experiencing is an experience of desire,” she said. “Affairs are not about sex — affairs are about desire for connection, for intensity, for physical touch, for feeling alive. You can have a whole affair with no sex, and it is just as intense and as passionate as if you had actually had the act. It is more enchantment than performance.” All the more reason not to judge someone else’s situation.
- Jealousy in moderation isn’t a bad thing. Perel admits that jealousy is by no means a fun feeling. But she takes issue with the idea that jealousy is an inherently traumatic experience that’s absolutely to be avoided. “[Jealousy] is part of the erotic self,” she said. “It is intrinsic to love. It reconnect people with a part of their erotic self, it is part of the erotic — that darker corner of the erotic.”
- Monogamy can’t and shouldn’t be assumed. Perel credits LGBT communities with carrying the conversation around non-monogamy and more realistic, freeing approaches to dating. “When you are not part of the heterosexual norm, you are more isolated, but you are also sometimes a lot more creative,” she said. “You get to actually invent your own norms, you’re not beholden to a system that is telling you how to live.” She added that conversations around monogamy should be just that – a conversation, and not an assumption. It lessens the odds that you’ll ask something from a partner that they can’t or don’t want to deliver, and makes sure everyone’s on the same page in a healthier way.
- Getting over monogamy squeamishness allows people more room to breathe. And that freedom can often lead people to feel more comfortable and happy in a relationship, and feel less tempted to cheat or have an affair or lie. Perel likened this to the way people only feel antsy and want to leave a place when they feel enclosed in it. Just like no one feels like they need to get some air when they’re already outside, people who feel less restricted by boundaries in a relationship feel less likely to “get some air” by seeking freeing experiences elsewhere.