Why do people in happy marriages cheat? (DW#368)

Esther Perel is a world-renowned authority on committed relationships and on infidelity in those committed relationships. 

In her ground-breaking new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, she provides new insight into why people cheat. 

I found this book extremely useful in working with people reeling from the devastation of affairs because of one very important insight.

It is common for the betrayed spouse to lose their confidence, their sense of identity and undergo signs of emotional trauma when they discover that the person whom they trusted most in the world has betrayed them. It is common for these spouses (especially women) to question themselves and what they could have done to prevent the affair from taking place. 

This book explains that affairs have little or nothing to do with the marriage or the betrayed spouse and everything to do with the spouse who has been unfaithful. 

She explains that people have affairs as a form of self-discovery, a quest for a new (or lost) identity. For these people, infidelity is less likely to be a symptom of a problem, and more likely an expansive experience that involves growth, exploration, and transformation for themselves. In other words, it is a completely selfish experience, with little or no thought to how their quest for their lost youth or identity is likely to impact their spouse or their marriage. 

The person who is cheating is not turning away from the spouse but rather from who they have become. And what they are looking for is not someone else but rather another, happier, more adventurous and alive version of themselves. Away from the humdrum of daily life and responsibilities, an affair offers an escapism from reality and from the reality of who they have become. 

From my perspective, she is not letting the betrayer off the hook. On the contrary I believe this perspective can provide some much-needed comfort to the betrayed spouse that they did not contribute to the affair by somehow not working hard enough at the marriage. 

She advises betrayers that what they had during the affair was an intimate encounter with themselves, mediated by the affair person. She offers that they can terminate the other relationship and keep some of what it gave them, the energy and the youthfulness.

Lastly, she advices her patients that if they could bring into their marriage one-tenth of the boldness and the playfulness that they brought to their affair, their home life would feel quite different.

Some of her writing can appear as if Perel is condoning affairs but she is not. In order to recover from affairs when they do happen, it is essential that both people understand and reflect on why it happened. 

Otherwise, the betrayer will continue to feel shame and to justify their behavior and the betrayed will continue to feel alternately responsible and enraged. 

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