Esther Perel and Infidelity

It was recommended to me by many friends that I should watch therapist Esther Perel’s TED Talk on Infidelity: Rethinking infidelity…a talk for anyone who has ever loved.

Amongst my women friends, this is one of their favorite TED Talks. I resisted for a long time because I don’t view infidelity in the same way as most women do. I am quite tired of all the books, lectures, Oprah appearances and essays written by people across various disciplines (rabbis, pastors, preachers, psychologists, animal behaviorists, anthropologists, and religious fundamentalists) on the subject. They always arrive at two conclusions: sanctimony or excusing the behavior. The first, it’s a sin, and you’ll burn in hell for cheating on your spouse – but here’s how you can ‘affair proof’ your marriage, a most ridiculous notion. The second conclusion, and is equally repugnant, which is humans aren’t really biologically wired to be monogamous citing evidence back to the caveman days, and marital monogamy and fidelity only existed in the past few thousand years, which short compared to the existence of the human race. Humans weren’t ‘biologically wired’ to eat with a knife and fork either, but now most humans eat with some form of utensil.

I view each case of infidelity to be a unique case. There is no one major reason why men cheat and there’s no one major reason why women cheat, each person steps out on their marriage for his or her own reasons. On the surface it may appear the same but if you dig deeper, it really isn’t. Marriage and relationships are one of the most complicated things in the world. Even for just one couple, who on the outside may appear conventional even almost boring, but if you just dig deeper, there are layers and layers of feelings, hurt, betrayals and disappointments. And the idea that you can ‘affair proof’ your marriage is the most ridiculous of all. We never know what our spouse is really thinking and vice versa. Even the most ‘open and honest’ relationships have their secrets. No one man or woman tells their other half everything they are thinking and feeling, otherwise World War III will erupt every other day.

I decided to watch Esther Perel’s TED Talk on this often expounded upon subject and it was a breath of fresh air. A Jewish woman, a daughter of two Holocaust survivors from Belgium (not France as she pointed out) was able to articulate this very sensitive subject matter which is so personal to many in a way that is non-judgemental, non-sanctimonious, delivered in a matter-of-fact manner but not totally devoid of emotion as she’s aware how devastating to an individual infidelity can be. And I understood why this particular TED Talk is so popular among people. To date, it’s been watched 3,348,652 times.

She articulated my deeply held belief that each affair is unique and to lump them all together as a monolithic entity is wrong. People cheat for many different reasons and most importantly, cheating is ‘here to stay’ in her own words.

In modern times, we put too much emotional investment in our relationships, as Esther Perel points out:

There are three ways that I think infidelity hurts differently today. We have a romantic ideal in which we turn to one person to fulfill an endless list of needs: to be my greatest lover, my best friend, the best parent, my trusted confidant, my emotional companion, my intellectual equal. And I am it: I’m chosen, I’m unique, I’m indispensable, I’m irreplaceable, I’m the one. And infidelity tells me I’m not. It is the ultimate betrayal. Infidelity shatters the grand ambition of love. But if throughout history, infidelity has always been painful, today it is often traumatic, because it threatens our sense of self.

This passage I hits home to me because there was one incident many years ago with my then boyfriend, who is now my husband; we go into an argument or misunderstanding of some kind and a horrible exchange ensued. I was enraged and shattered. I cried for days. There was no infidelity involved but it still felt like a betrayal, a betrayal of trust, a betrayal of all that I put into this relationship to make him happy. After it was over, I told myself that this will never happen again, me crying for days over an ‘incident’ and if threatened to leave again, he was welcome to and I won’t stop him. This was a turning point for me and my relationship with myself. I never told him this. I never told anyone this, but just as a resolve to myself, I will NEVER let anyone do this to me again and the door is always open for anyone to walk out. There are no prisoners in this relationship. I suppose one would say a part of me hardened and the vulnerability one should be able to have with one’s spouse is no longer present for me, but it’s fine with me because I understand that one person cannot be everything to another person. I recognize the strength and weaknesses of my husband and I manage my expectations accordingly. It was a huge lesson of personal growth for me and 11 years later, we are still here.

And as for the cheating part, and I say this flippantly, tongue-in-cheek, if my husband were to cheat on me, he can go right ahead, but I have one caveat. His mistress must take him lock stock and barrel. She will be the one to put up with him and all of him, not just when he’s nice funny and charming. You don’t get to send him back to me when you are done with him. It doesn’t work that way. If you can stomach him day in and day out like I did for the past 11 years, then he’s all yours. Otherwise, don’t even think about it.

Affairs are for amateurs. Affairs are immature. If anyone thinks an affair will solve whatever is wrong with your life, inject a bolt of shazzazz into the boredom that’s become your life, you are sadly mistaken. Affairs are usually short term, potentially ruinous and in the end to be regretted, especially if it caused more problems than it solves. It’s also disrespectful to the institution of marriage, not just to your spouse. Marriages are usually unhappy because the parties in the marriage are unhappy. Unhappiness is like a poison that infects every part of your life, not just your marriage, it makes the smallest nuisances and annoyances unbearable. Before any decisive step is taken to end marriages and relationships, especially when there are children involved, it is incumbent upon us to fix that personal unhappiness and see what happens. If we don’t fix what we are unhappy with, we will just bring it to the next relationship.

Betrayal in a relationship comes in many forms. There are many ways that we betray our partner: with contempt, with neglect, with indifference, with violence. Sexual betrayal is only one way to hurt a partner. In other words, the victim of an affair is not always the victim of the marriage.

Her TED Talk is also a great read. Here is the full transcript.

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