Are Affairs Okay?

Written by Michele Weiner-Davis

Are affairs okay? Yes, at least according to one of the media darlings in the therapy profession, Esther Perel, psychotherapist and author of Mating in Captivity. To Perel, infidelity can spice up a relationship. She is convinced that Americans are too parochial about their views of infidelity and she wants us to loosen up.

I attended one of Perel’s workshops where she described her work with couples and how she handles betrayal in marriage. Occasionally, an unfaithful spouse contacts her and she offers “couples therapy” with this spouse and his or her affair partner. When she discussed her approach, I couldn’t help but notice a queasy feeling in my stomach, one that wouldn’t go away, regardless of how often I told myself, “Just listen, stay open, don’t judge.” My stomach had a mind of its own.

I told myself that there’s a reason Perel has an uncommon view about affairs. A European by birth and having lived in many countries, she has a unique perspective about other cultures. She tells us that, because infidelity is more socially acceptable in other places around the world, marriages don’t seem to take the same emotional hit as they do here in the United States. Perel encourages us uptight Americans to lighten up and broaden our perspective about infidelity. She advises us judge less and try to understand affairs from a broader context.

Nonetheless, when she discussed her work with the unfaithful spouse and the affair partner, I kept hearing my inner voice that was saying, “Seeing a married spouse and an affair partner in therapy legitimizes the relationship, condones partnership and violates the marriage.” Call me a prude, but I still think monogamy and faithfulness to one’s spouse, despite its inherent challenges, is the best choice given the alternatives.After nearly three decades of working with couples on the brink of divorce, most of whom have dealt with infidelity, I have seen the fallout of betrayal, and I’m here to tell you, infidelity isn’t for sissies. Even when marriages heal in the aftermath of betrayal – and they do – the toll it takes on both partners, the marriage, and the family is monumental. And while I agree that the emotional response to infidelity might be more intense due to our socialization in America, after all is said and done, we do, after all, live in America. If we were Italian, we might be less troubled by our spouse’s decision to stray. But when last I looked, we don’t live in Italy. When not in Rome, don’t do as the Romans.

Although I sincerely appreciate Perel’s pushing us to question whether our assumptions about monogamy and marriage are antiquated or less-than-useful, I can’t help but be barraged by images of the pain-stricken faces of spouses in my office who just discovered that the love in their lives shared their hearts, souls and bodies with other people. I could swear that I could hear the sound of hearts breaking.

Perel also contends that in order to keep eroticism alive in marriage, it is important to “not tell all.” She insists that privacy and separateness in marriage is not only not a bad thing, it can be the vehicle for fueling sexual aliveness. Couples who share every thought and feeling, Perel tells us, become more like brother and sister- a surefire passion buster.

While I certainly agree that for some couples, a “tell-all” marriage is boring and lifeless, I see many cases where the opposite is true. For about two thirds of women and at least 10 to 15% of men in my practice, sharing openly and honestly, and talking about the details of daily life is the hottest and most x-rated aphrodisiac going. In fact, with many in my practice, unless there is complete emotional transparency, sex just doesn’t happen. Now that’s hardly erotic.So, while I’m sincerely appreciative that Perel’s multicultural views of infidelity are inviting Americans to question our more conservative values and urge us to expand the way we view betrayal, I’m thinking of grabbing my passport and traveling to affair-friendlier countries to put a plug in for monogamy. Anyone care to join me?


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  1. Percel’s view differ from my beliefs. I’m with you, sexy monogamy! Not sure about the tell all, each couple would be different I think.

  2. I am a betrayed women and can just say it hurts like the death of a beloved one… And I am one of the ladies that just need honesty and transparency to feel secure and now, after betrayal, to heal. I am still fighting for my marriage, although my partner doesn’t want to talk about anything…

    • Caroline,I am sorry that you have been betrayed. I know that you are having a hard time. If you get good help, maybe your husband will understand the importance of his being willing to talk about what happened. If you can’t find someone locally, you might consider speaking to a Divorce Busting telephone coach. A coach can help you and your husband through this. If you’re interested, call 800-664-2435. Hang in there!

      • Dear MIchele
        Thanks for your empathy! It means a lot to me.
        I am hanging in there since a long time and I have talked to one of your coaches and she helped me a lot =)
        I encourage everybody who wants to fight for their marriages get good help and don’t give up! It is worth it no matter what our spouses do or don’t do. I can tell because my marriage is still on the edge and my husband still doesn’t want to talk and sometimes it hurts so terribly BUT: I am learning and growing and I know that I am on the right track because even if it didn’t work out I will have learnt so much more about living good relationships and how I can take responsability over my part, my temper, my acting and so on.
        And Michele, for me Divorce Busting is a great gift from God, who gave me strenghth and hope through your program and your coach.
        May He bless you abundantly!

  3. Perel’s view is complete nonsense, since it is ignoring the effect that infidelity and instability have on children. Of course marraiges will be more stable if neither partner cheats, and of course family stability is better for the kids.

    But I’m not sure that I agree with you about America’s “more traditional values” or that America is less “affair-friendly” than some other countries such as Italy. We have No Fault Divorce in all fifty states. Isn’t a big reason for No-Fault Divorce to eliminate discrimation against cheaters? Infidelity is the leading cause of divorce according to many sources, but divorce is always considered as 50% the fault of the plaintiff and 50% the fault of the defendents. In America, if a man leaves his wife of 30 years for a younger woman, or if a woman leaves her husband to “upgrade” to a wealthier husband, there are no legal or social consequences whatsoever. What is it that we have to teach “affair-friendlier” countries? But Indians and Chinese have much to teach us about family values, and their stronger families and lower divorce rates contribute to their economic strength.

    • MustRespond says

      I know this is old, and I usually don’t do this; but, I must respond. I urge anyone to not accept these broad and unsupported conclusions of Perel’s ideas. As for the existence no-fault divorce, it exists because it saves lives, time, and money. Thirty-three states still retain fault based divorce. Adultery is cause in each of those jurisdictions. The reason why people go no-fault is because one thing people like even more than nominal affirmation of their beliefs is money. The money you would spend on a lawyer and the longer legal process would offerset the equitable distribution. Moreover, most people want the painful and ugly process done as quick and efficiently as possible.

      I firmly disagree there are no social and legal consequences in a divorce in those two situations. It is well-settled that our legal system does not have an interest in enforcing contracts which one party does not have interest to continue performance and damages in contract are almost always compensitory. I detect bitterness in this rhetoric, I suggest these issues are much deeper than presented in the above post.

      What I find interesting is that the contract of marriage is illusory. Illusory contracts are not enforceable otherwise. Illusory contracts fail for lack of tangible consideration. But I think that is part of the unpleasant proposition that Perel puts forth. Society sends us mixed signals. We are in a culture of “me” and individuality that began in the 1960s. Happiness is not earned; its expected. Living in an increasingly isolated society, we are expected to find one person who is expected to fulfill 100% of our needs 100% of the time. And how do you reconcile these ideas? To think that can happen and expect it is absolutely absurd. But that doesn’t mean you don’t love your partner or will cheat to get those needs fulfilled. That is what friends and family are for. The healthiest partners do not lose their identity in the other. They have a healthy support system with MANY relationships and some friends of the same sex that are not friends of the partner. Not because that’s betrayal but because that’s only feasible way to maintain a life time partnership. If you expect perfection and lose your identity in the process and do not maintain any relationships outside your spouse; you will cheat. You have lost yourself and have nowhere to go because all your social ties have merged and because society says you are entitled to happiness (cake and eat it too). Can you see this only leads to more questions than answers in a very gray and scary subject? I encourage you to think deeper about these very complex issues.

  4. Manuel de la Lastra says

    Thing is very simple… just try to find out if Mrs. Perel is married, if she has children… I read her website and nothing of this sort is shown there. I have never seen a happy family in which he or she shares intimacy with outsiders as a form of cultivating happiness and eliminating marriage boredom.
    On the contrary, infidelity is one of the principal causes of divorce.

    Google Mrs. Perel and find out somthing on her life… I can guarantee that you will find is not something you would like for you, your mate or your family…

  5. “infidelity is more socially acceptable in other places around the world, marriages don’t seem to take the same emotional hit as they do here in the United States.”

    Perel is justifying and selling her own beliefs about monogamy and using a drummed up pitch that infidelity is more socially acceptable in “other places.” As someone who has lived abroad and has many, many European friends I can say for a fact that infidelity damages a marriage regardless of what part of the world it takes place.

    Just because a wife in Europe is more likely to look the other way when her husband cheats does not mean the pain and damage or less. It does not mean she accepts or approves of what is happening in her marriage. What it means is, a married woman’s need for fidelity is marginalized. Something we don’t do to victims of infidelity in the U.S.

    Perel is failing to understand the difference between acceptance and viewing something as insignificant. Just because those who cheat in some parts of the world think their spouse’s need for fidelity is insignificant does not mean their behavior is accepted by the society they live in.

  6. Carol Ann Lynn says

    Infidelity hurts beyond words! I am also trying to save a marriage husband wants to stay married and remain friends with affair partner. He has said many times that this is socially acceptable in other countries. Infidelity is not OK or acceptable period!

    • Carol Ann,
      You’re right. Infidelity hurts beyond words. If you are in pain, there’s a good reason for it. I hope you get the help you need to heal. I also hope your husband understands that it isn’t workable, given the way you feel, for him to continue with that relationship. Hang in there!

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