real life

Rethinking infidelity: Why happy couples cheat.

I have been cheated on. Finding out was one of the most awful, stomach-churning, devastating experiences of my life. Just thinking about it makes my stomach hurt. I was a 22-year-old idiot at the time, so I stayed in the relationship for another year before, surprise, more cheating. And because of that experience I have a hard-line, zero tolerance rule when it comes to cheating. I have no sympathy for cheaters and no real desire to hear about where they were coming from, or why they did it. Completely uninterested in those excuses.

One of the things I love most about my job at Flo & Frank is the opportunity to read, watch, and listen to ways of thinking that are so far away from my own. So, while I had no desire to hear about why a person would cheat, I’m glad that I did, because I gained a new perspective and learned to forgive myself for past mistakes.

In her TED Talk, “Rethinking infidelity…a talk for anyone who has ever loved,” sex therapist Esther Perel points out that, “Monogamy used to be one person for life. Today, monogamy is one person at a time.” People used to get married and then have sex for the first time, but now we get married and stop having sex with other people. “The fact is that monogamy had nothing to do with love,” Esther explains. “Men relied on women’s fidelity in order to know whose children these are, and who gets the cows when I die.”

“Monogamy used to be one person for life. Today, monogamy is one person at a time.” Image via iStock. 

Esther says that when marriage was simply an economic arrangement, infidelity was a threat to our economic security. Now that marriage is a romantic arrangement, infidelity is a threat to our emotional security. “Ironically, we used to turn to adultery—that was the space where we sought pure love,” she explains. “But now that we seek love in marriage, adultery destroys it.”

The part I could never understand about my own cheating experience was why he didn’t just break up with me. I hear stories of people cheating on their spouses and think, why wouldn’t they just ask for a divorce? I always viewed cheating as a symptom of something wrong with the relationship or with the cheating person. But Esther suggests that, “Millions of people can’t all be pathological.”


Watch The Motherish team confess when they knew it was time for a divorce. Post continues after video. 

Even happy couples cheat, she says. “Affairs are an act of betrayal, and they are also an expression of longing and loss,” she explains. “At the heart of an affair, you will often find a longing and a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves, or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.” She says affairs are less about sex and more about desire; “desire for attention, desire to feel special, desire to feel important.”

So, are all marriages doomed? Esther says, “I look at affairs from a dual perspective: hurt and betrayal on one side, growth and self-discovery on the other—what it did to you, and what it meant for me.” She says that for some couples an affair means death, “But the fact is, the majority of couples who have experienced affairs stay together. But some of them will merely survive, and others will actually be able to turn a crisis into an opportunity.” When couples come to her in the aftermath of an affair she tells them that most couples in the Western world are going to have two or three major relationships or marriages, and some of us are going to have those relationships with the same person. “Your first marriage is over,” she tells them. “Would you like to create a second one together?”

I still don’t think I could get past an affair, but I’m glad to have gained a deeper understanding of why some people do the things they do. And this talk allowed me to forgive myself for giving my ex another shot.

Bonus info: Esther Perel does online marriage workshops that you can check out here, and her book Mating in Captivity is available here.

This post was originally published on Flo & Frank and has been republished with full permission. 

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