Thank God for infidelity. It’s the one thing this very divided nation agrees on. Per a 2013 Gallup poll surveying moral attitudes, we hate it more than we hate divorce. We hate it more than polygamy. We hate it more than human cloning. We hate it more than suicide.
For all that, "infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy," the psychotherapist Esther Perel writes in her new book, The State of Affairs. "So much so that it is the only sin that gets two commandments in the Bible, one for doing it and one just for thinking about it."
Perel is the charismatic, Belgian-born sex and relationship guru whose two TED Talks have been viewed close to 20 million times. Her first book, Mating in Captivity (2006), was a worldwide phenomenon. This new book was an instant bestseller. The second season of her hit podcast, the riveting Where Should We Begin, which allows us to listen in on her therapy sessions, was out last month. Her empire grows.
Endorsed by Goop and Tony Robbins, she’s one of the brightest stars in the suspect self-actualization firmament, but she has maintained her sense of seriousness. For 33 years she has worked with couples, many of them migrants and refugees. Her interest is always in the different expectations people bring to marriage, and how culture informs them.
In The State of Affairs, Perel delves into cheating, asking the usual questions (Why did it happen? How can we recover?) and some that might occur only to her (What if an affair is good for a marriage?). She doesn’t dispense advice as much as scratch at orthodoxies, and pose questions with wit and a Continental exasperation with American mores.
Our obsession with transparency, total disclosure and suffocating intimacy stanches desire, she argues — "fire needs air." Furthermore, our expectations have gotten all out of hand. "Lovers today seek to bring under one roof desires that have forever had separate dwellings," she writes.
There is an aura of Gulliver about her; it’s as if she can’t believe how small Americans have made their lives, how we’ve settled for coziness and peaceably binge-watching the weekend away.
The matter of the erotic has gravity for her. Her parents were Holocaust survivors, and the only ones from their families to make it out of the camps. Later, they moved to a community of survivors in Belgium, where Perel distinguished between two types of people: those who were alive and those who didn’t die. Her parents "understood the erotic as an antidote to death," she once said.
As a writer, Perel is nimble and playful, and she knows her way around a phrase. We can hear these qualities on the podcast, where her good ear and gentle teasing produce quick complicity with each client.
But as a thinker, she’s essentially a synthesizer — albeit a talented and confident one. The State of Affairs is a patchwork of (mostly attributed) common references. The concept she’s most associated with — that we are torn between our desires for adventure and security — comes from the work of the psychoanalyst Stephen A. Mitchell and others.
The tone — wry, worldly, aphoristic — owes much to Alain de Botton and Adam Phillips’ amused laments on coupling and its discontents. But the biggest debt she owes might be to herself; she trots out some favorite jokes and epigrams from Mating in Captivity. On occasion, she dusts off and repurposes whole chunks of text with minor tweaks.
Perel writes: "Mine is not an evidenced-based scientific survey, nor is it a sociological study based on data collected by the various websites for people seeking affairs. Rather, my approach is akin to that of an anthropologist and an explorer. I talk to people, and I listen."
This is true, but I’ve always found the pleasure of reading Perel or listening to her (when she’s not repeating herself) lies in how literary her approach is. In case studies, she gives us each partner’s account — and then unravels them, pulling on this strand and that, investigating the stories we tell about ourselves, where these stories come from and who they serve. On the podcast, we can hear her practicing a supple kind of literary criticism, on the fly, in front of the authors.
Her ambitions for clients and readers are literary, too — she wants them to develop more plots in their lives, more possibilities. She wants them to live without easy, limiting certainties: "Reconciling the erotic and the domestic is not a problem to solve; it is a paradox to manage."
And the script we have inherited when it comes to infidelity is pitifully narrow, its language cribbed from addiction and criminalization: "Clinicians often label the faithful spouse as the ‘injured party’ and the unfaithful one as the ‘perpetrator.’?"
Perel takes a broader, global view. "An entire cultural framework shapes the way we give meaning to our heartbreak," she writes. In her work in India, Argentina and across Europe, she has seen a variety of responses to infidelity — indifference, outrage, tacit acceptance, vocal acceptance.
She has also seen a variety of reasons that people stray: "One person may cross the border for a simple fling, while another is looking to emigrate. Some infidelities are petty rebellions, sparked by a sense of ennui, a desire for novelty, or the need to know one still has pulling power."
Like other writers on sex — Emily Witt and Dan Savage come to mind — Perel is inspired by communities of queer and polyamorous people; "monogamy’s dissidents," she calls them, who are rethinking the boundaries of the couple. It’s an idea that’s easy to dismiss as outre but, Perel reminds us, so was premarital sex not so long ago.
This is the kind of maneuver that makes Perel so bracing to read, this quick pivot to remind us how culturally specific our traditions are and, in some cases, how new. She doesn’t peddle bromides or offer a shoulder to cry on — she’s too busy trying to shake you to your senses, insisting on your agency, your vitality and your complicity in what happens in your marriage. She’s a tonic, and sometimes a tough one to swallow.
As Alexandre Dumas wrote, "The bonds of wedlock are so heavy that it takes two to carry them, sometimes three." We’re lucky to have Perel help bear the burden — but also to challenge us, to ask us why we accept it as natural in the first place.
The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity
By Esther Perel
Harper/HarperCollins, 319 pages, $26.99