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Why People Cheat

Affairs are decidedly messy and yet our culture tends to swiftly oversimplify them—bad guy, victim—in a way that, frankly, serves no one. In her new book, The State of Affairs, sexuality expert and psychotherapist Esther Perel takes a peel-the-layers approach to infidelity that surprises on every page. Perel, who spent several years focusing her practice on couples dealing with infidelity, and talking to hundreds of others affected by it, weaves together a collection of personal stories that is both thrilling (you feel like you’re eavesdropping) and moving: Don’t be so quick to judge, we’re ultimately reminded.

To be clear, Perel doesn’t condone infidelity, betrayal, or deception of any kind—and she certainly doesn’t take affairs lightly. As she explains, she would no sooner recommend having an affair than a doctor would recommend getting cancer. At the same time, she argues that there is a lot we can learn from infidelity: “Through the worst, we try to understand the best, and through broken people, we try to understand whole people.” Through the always-provocative lens of infidelity, she explores love, fidelity, commitment.

Here, Perel offers nuanced support for individuals, couples, and other lovers in the throes of an affair, or its aftermath. She counsels the friends who may be shoulders to lean on. And she shares the most important lessons everyone else can learn from infidelity—without having to live through it—that can revitalize or strengthen any intimate relationship. As always, she pushes the conversation forward to be more inclusive, complex, and compassionate.

(For more from Perel on goop, click here for what women need to hear about desire, here for who really gets bored first, here for what your upbringing says about you in bed, and here for backstage footage. See her first, equally revelatory book, Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence here, and get ready for season two of her podcast Where Should We Begin? which kicks off on October 24—(talk about eavesdropping!)

A Q&A with Esther Perel

Q

Why do you advocate for rethinking infidelity?

A

It’s an experience that so many of us share in one way or another—whether directly in our own intimate relationships, as the children of parents who had affairs, as siblings of brothers/sisters who strayed, as friends who have counseled the betrayed, and so on. Whenever I’m meeting with a new group of people or I’m in front of an audience, and I ask who has experienced infidelity, about 80 percent of the people say they have (or raise their hand). And yet, infidelity is very poorly understood.

“You can learn a lot about trust by understanding betrayal, and much about fidelity by understanding infidelity.”

Infidelity is universally practiced—and universally condemned. The conversation around it is often judgmental and polarizing, and it doesn’t help the couple trying to deal with it, whether they are looking to recover and stay together or part ways. We need a different dialogue to help couples and individuals to become more resilient and stronger, whatever they may choose for their futures.

Also, you can learn a lot about trust by understanding betrayal, and much about fidelity by understanding infidelity.

Q

People have affairs for many reasons—but what’s typically going on when someone who is happy and in love with their partner strays?

A

The idea of a no-fault affair is difficult for our culture to accept. The “symptom” theory of betrayal is that an affair points to a preexisting condition—a troubled relationship or a troubled person, which holds true in many cases. I also regularly talk to people in good relationships, who love their partners, who have been highly responsible in every sense previously, who show up for their partners in many ways—who have strayed. Why?

I often find that the affair is a form of self-discovery. It’s not that the individuals having the affairs want to leave their partners, but the people they have become. They are looking for another version of themselves—which is the most powerful variety of “other” there is. (This line of thinking does not justify or condone infidelity, but it may help us understand why people in happy and otherwise committed relationships transgress.) What’s exhilarating isn’t so much the new partner, but the new self or what the person may experience in terms of growth, exploration, transformation.

Who are you, or who do you allow yourself to be with the other partner, that you are not in your marriage/relationship? If you are someone who has always lived responsibly, dutifully, what does the entitlement and rebellion of an affair mean to you? What pieces of yourself have you lost or abandoned in your life that you may be trying to reclaim? Everyone has multiple selves, but in our most intimate, long-term relationships, there’s a tendency to reduce our complexity.

“It’s not that the individuals having the affairs want to leave their partners, but the people they have become. They are looking for another version of themselves—which is the most powerful variety of ‘other’ there is.”

For example, women and mothers who I speak with often feel they have lost their sense of self. They describe spending their time taking care of everyone in the family, and ask: Where have I gone? Sometimes, an affair can make them feel reconnected with the woman in them who disappeared behind wife and mom.

Longing and loss are often at the heart of an affair—whether it’s a longing for self, for sexual authenticity, or triggered by an event. People regularly bring about the shadow of mortality when I talk to them about infidelity. They may have recently lost a parent or a friend, received a diagnosis, or otherwise been reminded that life is short. They are thinking: Is this it?

Q

Can you describe the three phases of post-affair recovery? What’s critical in the immediate aftermath?

A

The trajectory of an affair is, of course, not neatly aligned and stages don’t typically follow orderly, one after another, but crash into each other. It might be three steps forward, and then one back. But I divide post-affair recovery into three general phases: crisis, meaning making, and visioning.

Crisis

In the acute crisis phase, people need structure to figure out what requires their most urgent attention. Are the children (if they exist) okay? Are there any health issues? Is anyone at risk—reputation, mental health, livelihood, etc.?

This phase also requires a safe and gentle container for the intensity of emotions that are likely to arise. My job is to hold the moment for the couple. Two people are experiencing losses of identity and of their future, at least as they had imagined it.

What’s important in the immediate after is for the person who has had the affair to show remorse and to express guilt. Even if you don’t feel remorse—you might think the affair was important to you—understand that there is a difference between what the affair meant to you and what it did to your partner.

Also, it’s important to be there for the partner who has been betrayed—which can look differently moment to moment. The partner is likely confused and shock: I can’t believe this is my life. Their whole sense of reality has been upended—who they thought you were, who they thought you two were as a couple. The partner in the crisis phase can experience many seemingly contradictory emotions. One minute it is hold me, the next it’s get away from me, one minute it’s f%*k you, the next it’s f%*k me. Let them feel all of these things.

“Understand that there is a difference between what the affair meant to you and what it did to your partner.”

Sometimes, the infidelity feels so egregious that the couple can’t see a way to come back. Sometimes, people will find that they have surprisingly healing conversations with one another, with a level of honesty they haven’t had in years. Sometimes, couples have intense, passionate sex, and they don’t understand why—there’s been a combustible sexual awakening—which isn’t something that we typically feel permitted to speak about. It’s a spectrum, and there isn’t right or wrong.

Meaning Making

This is the stage where you are trying to make sense of it all: Why did this happen? What role might each person have played in the bigger picture? What did the affair mean? Is there something we can learn from this?

Visioning

What lies ahead? Eventually people determine where to go next, whether separately or together. Every affair will redesign the relationship, and every relationship will define what the affair meant. The story of the affair may be written by one person, but the story of the relationship is written by both people. It’s important for both people to feel and exercise power and authorship—and for others to recognize this as well.

“The story of the affair may be written by one person, but the story of the relationship is written by both people.”

Q

Why is it so important that the person who had the affair shift from shame to guilt?

A

Affairs involve entitlement: It’s something I give myself permission to do. They are often committed by people with a strong sense of narcissism—I deserve this—but not always, as noted earlier. In any case, people rationalize and justify the affair in their own ways to make it acceptable to themselves. They close themselves off to the pain of their partners. When a partner finds out about an affair, we feel a sense of shame. I’m a terrible person—how could I do something like this? We are busy with self-absorption. Guilt is more empathic. It’s a relational response inspired by hurt you have caused.

“If you feel bad about yourself, that’s just more self-involvement, and you can’t feel bad about what you did to the other person.”

We know from studying trauma that healing begins when you relate to another. You have to give your partner time and space to heal. If you feel bad about yourself, that’s just more self-involvement, and you can’t feel bad about what you did to the other person. You have to feel bad about making your partner feel bad. Grief involves taking responsibility for your actions.

Q

What do you say to partners seeking justice after infidelity?

A

We all feel a need for justice. What helps is to distinguish the difference between retributive justice (only seeking punishment) and restorative justice (which works through repair). In other words: Do you want to punish and hurt your partner, or do you want him/her to make right by you? Do you want them to suffer, or do you want to see acts of accountability and repair?

Vengeance can eat you up alive, because it keeps you focused on the other person. One patient of mine said they wanted no other form of vengeance than to feel happy again—to let it go: “I realized there was no stronger way than to love and trust again with someone else.”

Q

For couples who stay together after an affair, how do you go about rebuilding trust, and ultimately a stronger relationship?

A

When you have been betrayed, you’ve been devalued. You’ve been told that you don’t hold interest in your partner’s mind. One of the ways for people who have had affairs to rebuild trust is to show their partners that they matter and that they value them. Show them that you honor them, that you want to be with them, and help them reclaim their sense of value.

Trust isn’t just about proving that you aren’t going to do it again. A patient said to me, “I trust that he won’t do it again, but I’m not sure I trust that he wants to be with me. I need to know that he isn’t thinking about her. So what if he doesn’t call her? What I need to trust is that he truly has chosen me again.”

I’m working with one couple right now—the man has been unfaithful his entire marriage (and in his previous marriage). He told me, “I’ve lied and cheated, but I’m not a liar or a cheater.”

I said, “You’re going to have to explain that to her, show you know how much it hurt her, and prove that none of this has been about her.” For starters, he wrote a letter by hand that was both a letter of accountability and a love letter, acknowledging that he needed to examine the affair and himself, and affirming her value. He flew across the country to deliver it by hand.

“The assumption is that the person who had the affair is the only person who was missing something in the relationship, but this isn’t typically the case.”

Some other things people can do: Have new experiences together that affirm your connection. It’s like cells that need to regenerate. You need new experiences to regenerate. Add novelty to the relationship—take a trip to a new place, do something adventurous together, plan a breakfast rendezvous after dropping the kids off at school. An affair can sometimes be (among many things) a powerful alarm system that ends up shaking people out of complacency to save their marriages.

Affairs light up the score cards of relationships—all the agreements, disagreements, compromises, hurts, and so on. The assumption is that the person who had the affair is the only person who was missing something in the relationship, but this isn’t typically the case. The other partner may say, “You think you were the only person who wasn’t happy but the relationship wasn’t working for me either. Going forward, I’m going to need different things from you.” So it isn’t solely about rebuilding trust, but the potential to change the relationship in a way that is better for both partners.

Q

For people who decide to end their relationship, what’s important?

A

It’s important that we, as a society, stop judging an entire marriage (or relationship) by its end. It’s terrible to lose your partner, to see someone else chosen instead of you. That doesn’t have to mean, though, that the entire twenty-seven years that preceded the separation were a failure. We don’t let people feel that the relationship and the time they spent together had value and merit. It’s unfair to the institution of marriage and to the couples to dismiss the time they did spend together—the children they may have given birth to, family members they buried, jobs they’ve supported one another through, homes they built and lived in, communities they were a part of. Infidelity, divorce, and break-ups are hurtful and lonely—but they don’t equate to failure.

“It’s important that we, as a society, stop judging an entire marriage (or relationship) by its end.”

Marriages should be allowed to end with dignity and grace. As we have marriage ceremonies to celebrate the start of unions, we should have rituals to mark their end. I often have couples I work with write goodbye letters to each other about what they’ll miss, cherish, and wish for one another, but other couples may choose another form of closure.

Q

What about ending an affair?

A

Any relationship should be ended with integrity. Remember that there is a person on the other side. If you’ve been having a long-term affair, this partner will be experiencing a sense of loss. The third person is often lied to as well. Have a level of accountability to this person—apologize and show remorse. Tell the person that he or she has been important, beautiful, and matters. But if you’ve made your decision to stay with your spouse, also be very clear about this. Don’t make the other person wait or leave the relationship lingering.

“What people often fear losing, though, when they end an affair is not really the lover, but the thing the affair awakened in themselves.”

Know that this is a relationship that will need to be mourned but of course don’t look toward your spouse who you are returning to for help doing so.

What people often fear losing, though, when they end an affair is not really the lover, but the thing the affair awakened in themselves. We go elsewhere to connect with lost parts of ourselves, but we ultimately need to see that they belong to us, and can come back with us.

Q

Can you talk about the potential appeal, and also cost of being “the other woman”?

A

Both men and women have affairs, but long-terms lovers who I encounter are almost exclusively women. We don’t have a phrase for the other man. Men have not historically accepted living in the shadow of women. (I’m reminded of the classic movie, Back Street, where a man—John Gavin—rents his lover—Susan Heyward—an apartment in a back alley, and that’s where she lives, in shadow.)

The other woman may face a lack of security, lack of commitment, and fear being labeled a home-wrecker. There may be ultimatums that are never honored. For six years, I’ve seen a man promise his lover that he would leave his wife—when this happens and when that happens, when the kids go to school—buying her presents and making grand gestures along the way to keep the lover, who is always left waiting.

“We don’t have a phrase for the other man. Men have not historically accepted living in the shadow of women.”

The appeal is feeling adored. Some women I speak to tell me that they get out of the affair what was denied them in their own previous marriages: a deep, intimate sexual relationship; romance; connection; joy. As one woman put it: “I value all of these things more than what his wife gets (loyalty, financial support, holidays, and so on). So maybe I get the best of him. Maybe his wife feels exactly the same.” (Of course, the wife hasn’t been allowed to weigh in.)

This may all be true. At the same time, she is compartmentalizing. This is a compromise that always has costs.

Q

What can we learn from affairs to better our relationships without having to live through infidelity?

A

Look at the intensity of affairs, the imagination, the creativity, the attention, the focus that goes into them: If we could bring a little bit of that into our marriages, we would be doing a lot better.

I was at a conference recently where 20,000 women were talking about claiming their lives and career. I was asking everyone, “When you go home, is this the person you are?” (I ask men the same question.) “You’re dressed up, charming, curious about me, not on your phone. Is this the person you are with your partner? Or do you bring the leftovers home?”

“Look at the intensity of affairs, the imagination, the creativity, the attention, the focus that goes into them: If we could bring a little bit of that into our marriages, we would be doing a lot better.”

We take our partners for granted. We become lazy. We don’t talk to them. We don’t dress nice. We call them our best friends but we treat our best friends very differently than we treat them. We become complacent. We lose the connection and we pretend our partners are going to be there no matter what—like a cactus that rarely needs to be watered.

What do you do?

Nobody likes to be left with the leftovers. Relationships and the people in it (including yourself) need daily care. Stay intentional. Still relate to each other like people. Remain curious about the other person and who they are. Don’t save all your interesting conversations for the office or for when you’re with friends or people you’re meeting for the first time. Instead of looking for ways to feel engaged outside of the home, have the conversations you’re interested in with your partner, too.

When you partner tells you things, listen. Often, after an affair, the person who was betrayed will say to their partner, “Why didn’t you tell me you were unhappy?” But in many cases they did, but weren’t taken seriously. Or, sometimes we’re too busy and we misinterpret what our partner is asking for. We might keep saying, we need to reconnect and spend time together—but do you?

“Remain curious about the other person and who they are.”

A woman told me, “I thought my husband was asking me to take care of him, but he was asking me to have an adult relationship with him. It felt like one more person asking for something from me, when in fact he was coming to be with me and to give me something.”

Many couples don’t have real conversations about desire, attraction, turn-ons, and monogamy until after an affair. Monogamy is a practice you do for the sake of the relationship. Don’t wait until you are in a crisis; talk to one another now. Don’t let sexual connection with your partner dry out.

A safe-guarding or “affair-proofing” approach generally leads to uncomfortable constraints that only enhance the erotic appeal of transgressions. Make space for yourself and your partner to experience creativity, energy, and vitality in your relationship. Strangers paying attention to us can point toward what’s been missing in our relationships. Romantic ideals mandate that marriage should shut us off from the force of eros. But acknowledging the erotic separateness of your partner—that his/her sexuality does not revolve around just you—and that the gaze of others exists, can be charging and intimate.

Rather than denying the allure of the forbidden, you can collaborate in transgression. In other words, go outside whatever your comfort zone might be—with your partner. Maybe this is taking a salsa dancing class, maybe this is a new sexual experience, maybe it’s going out to dinner without the kids.

The most important thing is to maintain the sense of energy and vitality and aliveness in your own relationship so you don’t have to go outside of it to capture a lost dimension of life.

Q

People who choose to stay together after an affair often face shame—how might we change this?

A

It used to be that divorce carried the shame. Today, it is choosing to stay when you can leave that carries new shame. Affairs are painful and they are often terrible betrayals, but people may want to find a way to recover from them and continue their lives with their partners. Too many people are afraid to tell their friends that their partners cheated on them and that they still love them. They are terrified of being judged, so they live with a toxic secret; they have to protect the person who betrayed them.

We need to make room for people to make their own determinations about what happened. We should believe in the resilience of human beings to overcome the crisis of infidelity—as we do with so many other kinds of crises.

“The best friends are the ones who can tolerate other people making their own decisions, even if they are not the decisions they would have made.”

Couples who decide to stay together need support, not to be ostracized. If your friend is in this situation, make room for him or her to scream and cry and to doubt and fight. Give them the space they need to figure it out.

The best friends are the ones who can tolerate other people making their own decisions, even if they are not the decisions they would have made. People have all kinds of reasons for leaving and staying and they don’t always make sense to others. If you’re asked for your opinion, give it, but too often people insert their own story into someone else’s. (And since so many of us had brushes with infidelity in one way or another, we generally have a story to insert.)

Love is messy. Infidelity even more so. But infidelity is also a lens into the crevices of the human heart. We need to let people heal their own hearts, which is helped along with compassion—not judgment.

Psychotherapist Esther Perel is the bestselling author of Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs. She is also the executive producer and host of Audible original series, Where Should We Begin? Sign up for her monthly newsletter and relationship wisdom here.

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