I first heard Esther Perel when she was a guest on Dan Savage’s relationship podcast. She’s been a therapist for many years and has distinctive ideas regarding romantic relationships and infidelity. Apparently, there was so much interest in the chapter on affairs in her first book, Mating in Captivity (2009), that she decided to write a second book entirely on that subject. When I saw this book, The State of Affairs, on NPR’s List of Best Books of 2017, I decided to put it on my list. I found it both interesting and thought provoking.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, my relationships tend to end before cheating becomes an issue. Although some of the stories of long-term betrayal were so bad, they made me hurt and angry, I don’t have any personal experiences that would make this book particularly difficult (or maybe helpful) to read.
Perel has great sympathy for spouses or partners dealing with the devastation of discovering that their loved one had lied to them and cheated on them. However, she also argues for a more nuanced view of cheating and what it means. Affairs have occurred for as long as we can remember, and they are so widespread that she argues we need to look deeper into why they’re happening. It may be easier to demonize the cheater and move on, but couples who don’t want to throw away their family and past can sometimes work through a cheating scandal and end up stronger on the other side. Perel does not recommend that all couples going through a cheating crisis should try to stick it out, she just doesn’t think divorce should be an automatic requirement after cheating. She also thinks it is helpful to look deeper and try to figure out where the cheating is coming from.
My views of cheating have softened somewhat since I was younger and more idealistic. What if the cheater has been denied love and affection in their marriage for years? What about an elderly man whose wife is in an Alzheimer’s unit and can’t even remember him? He wants to continue to care for her, but is it bad if he finds some love and affection for himself? What if the cheater is physically or emotionally abused by their partner and finds someone who finally makes them feel worthwhile? On the other hand, honesty is incredibly important to me. I don’t think I could ever trust my partner again if he lied to my face–especially if it were a long-term affair.
A theme that runs throughout this book is the thrill of new relationships and the seductive power of secrecy that motivates many affairs. Relationships can become so stagnant that one or both people can feel that they’ve lost their sexuality entirely–until they meet someone new who inspires them again. For this reason, Perel argues that it is helpful to keep your sex life new and exciting. She floats Dan Savage’s idea of “monogamish” and discusses some couples who have opened their relationship to other sex partners. She makes sure to emphasize that even with open relationships there are betrayals and cheating, but that it has helped some couples keep the spark alive.
This is a can of worms that is fascinating to think about, but I’m pretty sure an open relationship would be impossible for me. It doesn’t help that the only open relationships I’ve seen firsthand (not very many) were decidedly unequal. One side of the couple only agreed to it because they didn’t want to lose their partner. However, if it works for others, the more power to them. One thing that bothered me, though, was Perel’s encouragement of using a third party to up the sexual thrill in a marriage. For example, a wife would sleep with another man, with her husband listening in the next room. Personally, if you’re setting that kind of thing up, you need to tell that third party–otherwise it’s super creepy. Agreeing to no strings sex is not the same thing as agreeing to have sex with a married woman while her husband listens in the next room. I’m sure a couple could find someone who would enjoy that, but–again–honesty matters a lot to me.
This book definitely covered an interesting subject in a unique and compassionate way that I admired. However, I did not finish it thinking I’d figured out the problems of cheating. On the contrary, The State of Affairs only illuminated some of the many layers of heartbreaking complication.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.