James, a 45 year old lawyer and his wife Jennifer, a 42 year old teacher attended for couple’s therapy. They came to see me because of James’s 2 year affair with a woman he had met in his weekly art class. The couple had been married for 10 years and were devoted parents to their two children. The picture they painted was of a loving relationship and a model of “the perfect family”.
Jennifer is both devastated and outraged by the discovery. Describing himself as a logical and level-headed individual, James could not fathom why he had cheated on his wife.
“Why do people in happy relationships stray?” This is a question that has perplexed not only my clients but also myself and do doubt, many of my fellow relationship therapists.
The “symptom” theory - infidelity as a symptom of a flawed relationship or individual
Our model of romantic love dictates that if a union is healthy, there is no need to go looking elsewhere. If you feel safe, appreciated and loved, why would you roam? Based on this theory, we have been led to believe that an affair is a clear and indisputable symptom of a problem with the marriage.
And in many cases, this holds true. Plenty of affairers are motivated by marital dysfunction such as conflict avoidance, resentment, emotional disconnection or loneliness. In such cases, affairs arise to fill a void or to as a prelude to an exit. In this context, infidelity is a product of a deficit and therapy aims to identify and heal the problems that caused the affair in the first place.
And yet like many couples counsellors, I see people like James and Jennifer who are best friends and have a happy marriage and one of them is having an affair.
When we can’t blame the relationship, we tend to blame the individual instead. When an affair is discovered, many individuals attribute such behaviour to pathology in themselves or their partner (sex addiction seems to be particularly common) in a bid to make sense of why it occurred. Whilst the right diagnosis does lend clarity to inexplicable and distressing behaviour suggestive of depression, compulsion or narcissism, many people having affairs are well-balanced, mature, caring men and women who are deeply invested in their primary relationships.
The idea that infidelity can happen in the absence of serious problems in the relationship or the individual is hard to accept in our culture because of entrenched ideas of love and romance. Nevertheless, the fact that many people who have affairs do not fit neatly into these categories mean that we must look beyond our assumptions.
The meaning of affairs
Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist and author set about to do just that. Moving away from the widespread view that infidelity is always a symptom of a flawed relationship or individual, she sought to understand the meaning and motives of affairs. In unearthing what the affairs meant to the people who sought them, she asked:
Why did you do it? Why him? Why her? Why now? Was this the first time? Did you initiate? Did you try to resist? How did it feel? Were you looking for something? What did you find?
What she found was unexpected and important. Rather than being a symptom of a problem, infidelity was more often described as an expansive experience that involves growth, exploration, and transformation. The following are a number of powerful themes which emerged from Perel’s research.
In search of a new self
For some people, an affair affords them an alternate reality in which they can re-imagine and reinvent ourselves. According to Perel, sometimes when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t our partner we are turning away from but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves. In this view, an affair is neither a symptom nor a pathology but rather, a crisis of identity.
The lure of unlived lives
Whilst some are invested in the quest for the unexplored self, others find themselves drawn by the memory of the person they once were and dreams about the person they could have been.
During periods of transition(such as mid-life and retirement), many people experience the unease that comes with the belief that something crucially important has been missed, neglected or left unexplored in their life. There is a sense of nostalgia for unlived lives and unexplored identities. Affairs, according to Perel are often the revenge of deserted possibilities.
The seductive power of transgression
Transgression is a central aspect of human nature. As Perel points out, flouting the rules is an assertion of freedom over convention, of possibility over constraints, and of self over society. As adults we can find this a powerful aphrodisiac.
The power of transgression lies in the risk of being caught doing something naughty or dirty, the breaking of taboos, the pushing of boundaries – all of these are titillating and highly arousing experiences especially if there is a lot at stake. The insight into our human tendencies helps to shed light on why people in happy, stable relationships are lured by the charge of transgression, in particular those upstanding citizens who have lived responsible, dutiful and committed lives.
An antidote to deadness
Above all else, the dominant theme that Perel has drawn from the sentiments expressed to her by those who have had an affair is that it makes them feel alive. Common words used to describe this sense of aliveness are “power”, “validation”, “freedom” and feeling “rejuvenated”, “revitalised”, “renewed” and “vibrant”.
Perel adds that in this context, affairs are usually in reaction to some loss or tragedy in our life such as a cancer diagnosis, infertility, unemployment or depression which diminishes our confidence, self-worth and robs us of hope and joy. In the face of the helplessness and vulnerability we feel in such moments, the jolt of love and sex (via an affair) delivers a vital affirmation of life and is a powerful antidote to “deadness”.
Seeing the bigger picture
People stray for a multitude of reasons. When an affair is uncovered, the pain experienced by the betrayal often obscures the meaning making process. But as Perel argues, infidelity needs to be seen not simply as pathological or a dysfunction.
So this takes me back to James and Jennifer. While it is essential to support Jennifer to process her intense emotions during this early stage, once the initial crisis subsides, it is equally important to make space for exploring the subjective experience of James’s affair alongside the pain that it has inflicted.
Understanding why the infidelity happened and what it signified is critical, both for couples who choose to end their relationship and for those who want to stay together and rebuild. By not doing so, the couple are left at risk of sinking back into status quo.
Material for this post was taken from: Perel, E. The State of Affairs – Rethinking Infidelity (HarperCollins, 2017).
Esther Perel is a Belgian psychotherapist and author, recognised as one of the important voices in modern love, marriage and human relationships. She is known for her work on sexual desire and infidelity.