Review of Esther Perel’s State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity

I am a big fan of Esther Perel’s work, which started from her famous TED talk on rethinking infidelity to her podcast and newsletters. Perel is having her much deserved moment and also helping to de-stigmatize mental health and the fact that all couples could use the support! For example, I recently listened to Ali Wong’s audiobook (which I highly recommend! She narrates the book and it had me laughing out loud at so many parts!) where she stated the “secret” to her marriage is attending couple’s therapy every Friday at 9 am. She said, “Couple’s therapy is cheaper than a divorce!”

But back to Perel. I remember watching her TED talk in 2015. The end of the talk was so powerful, and I often found myself replaying those last few sentences. She asserted, “and so when a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair that has been revealed, I will often tell them this: Today in the West, most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?”

A new marriage.

A chance at starting over completely. Such a different response as compared to prior models of repairing the marriage. As a long term believer of the concept of kintsugi in our lives, I wondered how my clients would be open to creating a second marriage. Some have been receptive. But for others, there is too much pain to even begin laying the first brick of a new foundation.

I was excited to read The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, and overall, it did not disappoint. She discusses many of the same themes I have shared with my individual and couples:

  • How to keep desire and passion alive in a long term relationship given that eroticism is based on longing and the unknown
  • Our innate and biological need for safety and security coupled with our need for passion and mystery
  • How we inherently lose parts of ourselves in a long term romantic relationship as two lives become merged into one… but the potential negative impact of tying our sense of identity into another person
  • Why running a household with a partner (co-CEOs of a non-profit called your family!) can reduce libido and energy
  • How desire waxes and wanes over the years and the difficulty of synching up
  • And the importance of doing the individual work before placing blame on your partner. What can you do for yourself that brings a sense of spark to the “I” that existed before the “we”?

The last bullet-point can be a sad irony because what the unfaithful partner is seeking outside relationships can often be what their partner gave up as a result of staying in the partnership. For example, Perel shared the story of a woman who gave up a successful professional career in the development world to stay at home and be a “dutiful and loving” mother. However, her husband cheated on her because he missed the “intellectual curiosity and drive” she once had and found it somewhere else! This realization does not condone the husband for the affair. However, it left both parties to see how they could re-balance their marriage so that she was able to find/nourish that part of herself again.

A lot of my clients are left to wonder, “Are we supposed to be monogamous? Does anybody know what they want? And don’t we change over time?

From a gender identity perspective, I also found it interesting how often we fall into traditional gender norms, no matter how evolved we all are. For example, in some couples where the husband was the stay at home parent and embodied more of the traditionally feminine characteristics whereas the woman became the primary “breadwinner,” there was also conflict due to the wife’s perception of her husband’s decreased masculinity. Subsequently, she cheated because she wanted a more “traditional” male. At the end of the day, how much of gender is just a performance?

I would have liked to see a more diverse range of stories, including more queer couples and families. Perel does note that the limitations in diversity in her book since it consisted of self-selecting couples who not only were able to see her in her practice but also agreed to have their stories shared.

So my take-away?

Relationships are hard.

But like Perel, I, too, believe that the “quality of our relationships, determines the quality of our lives.”

What about you? Are you open to couple’s work?