“Almost everywhere people marry, monogamy is the official norm, and infidelity the clandestine one.” So writes relationship therapist Esther Perel in the opening of her new book, “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.” So why does happily ever after so often turn into a wandering eye—and what does it say about us?
Perel has become something of a modern guru in matters of the heart—a writer, TED Talker, and producer of the podcast “Where Should We Begin?”, which lets us be fly on the wall to real couples counseling sessions. The Belgian-born, polyglot daughter of Holocaust survivors, Perel is no stranger to trauma and its halo effects on those surrounding it. Her multi-cultural, multi-lingual practice has spanned continents and cultures, and if you get anything from reading this book, it’s that when it comes to relationships, nothing is predictable or formulaic.
Perel’s critical ability to take a wide lens to society as well as a close zoom into the dynamics of our most intimate interactions make her work stand apart from the usual American self-help canon, which so often makes up with can-do optimism what it lacks in substance. With chapters on defining infidelity, jealousy (which Perel calls “the spark of Eros”), the “politics of secrecy and revelation,” and the “emotional economics of adultery,” Perel has written a book that is as curious, nuanced, and adult as they come.
As Perel reminds us as she navigates these treacherous waters, “therapists don’t work with principles—they work with real people and real-life situations.” So she brings us the people first—her patients (names changed), who span genders, races, ages, sexual orientations, and relationship arrangements—and uses them to define the principles. People like “Danica,” the mother of two who is no longer interested in sex with her husband, yet is very interested in sex with a younger co-worker—but doesn’t want to leave an otherwise functional marriage. Or “Andrea,” who has been the “other woman” to a married man for seven years and convincingly rationalized every day of it.
Like a crime novel narrated by an unreliable protagonist, it dawns on us quickly after hearing both parties’ sides of the story that no infidelity is as simple as our usual storylines indicate—the Lothario who betrays a doting wife and selfless mother; the succubus who steals him away. Perel also shows us that our ideas about infidelity are rooted in our ideas of marriage, which are specific to our time and place: 21st-century America. The belief that our partner should be our everything—object of erotic desire and bastion of domestic stability—is recent, and without precedent. Historically, marriages were more contractual than romantic, with larger communities (and, for some, liaisons dangereuses) filling in monogamy’s gaps.
Despite our culture’s fixation on finding “the one” to satisfy our every need, relationships, Perel writes, are still very much a “patchwork of unspoken rules and roles that we begin stitching on the first date.” Her goal as both a therapist and, indeed, cultural critic, is not to tell us these “rules and roles” are right or wrong, but to help us see the boundaries we’ve set and ask us, honestly, if we dare knock them down.
What makes “The State of Affairs” provocative is that it questions values that go deeper than the cause du jour. Of all the hurts that one person can inflict on another, is infidelity really the worst? Do we stray because we’re unhappy, or because we “could be happier”? Does the patriarchy also put an unnatural pressure on men that contributes to mutual dissatisfaction in the bedroom?
Perel’s outside-in lens is a reminder of our specifically American impulse to create fair, equal, and even-handed relationships along with everything else. Emotions and erotics, Perel reminds us, are not politically correct. As she tells one woman, the betrayed party in an affair, on an episode of her podcast: “Do you want to listen or do you want to be right? Because if you’re going to listen, you’re going to have to stop being so right.” Good advice for us all.