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?