Sunday, 20 April 2014

Why even happily married people cheat

Why even happily married people cheat


by Hanna Rosin


We would all like to believe that affairs are the refuge of
the discontented, that only people in unhappy marriages cheat. But
“happy,” it turns out, is not a sufficient antidote to affair.

We may be in a golden age of marriage, when elites at least are more likely to report that their marriages are “very happy
than ever before. But the tight, companionable, totally merged nature
of the modern marriage is one of the factors pushing people in happy
marriages to have affairs, according to therapist Esther Perel. In a
recent New York Times profile, Perel is described as the nation’s “sexual healer,” an updated Dr. Ruth. She is the author of Mating in Captivity,
which argues that in seeking total comfort, the modern marriage might
be squashing novelty and adventure, which are so critical for a sexual
charge. She is now working on a new book, provisionally called Affairs in the Age of Transparency, which she considers a sequel, a picture of what the stifling marriage might lead to.

Daily Life: And what’s your best guess from your research so far?
Perel: I can tell you right away the most
important sentence in the book, because I’ve lectured all over the world
and this is the thing I say that turns heads most often: Very often we
don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go
elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that
we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person
we have become.
Daily Life: Is this motivation for an affair particular to our age?
Perel: What’s changed is, monogamy used to
be one person for life. If I needed to marry you to have sex for the
first time and I knew this is it for the rest of my life, then
infidelity becomes one of the ways to deal with those limited choices.
But now we come to our marriages with a profoundly different set of
experiences and expectations. So the interesting question is, why did
infidelity continue to rise even when divorce became available and
accepted and nonstigmatized? You would think an unhappy person would
leave. So by definition they must not be that unhappy. They are in that
wonderful ambivalent state, too good to leave, too bad to stay.
Daily Life: So what are people looking for?
Perel: What’s changed is, we expect a lot
more from our relationships. We expect to be happy. We brought happiness
down from the afterlife, first to be an option and then a mandate. So
we don’t divorce—or have affairs—because we are unhappy but because we
could be happier. And all that is part of the feminist deliberation. I
deserve this, I am entitled to this, I can have this! It allows people
to finally pursue a desire to feel alive.
Daily Life: Alive?
Perel: That’s the one word I hear,
worldwide—alive! That’s why an affair is such an erotic experience. It’s
not about sex, it’s about desire, about attention, about reconnecting
with parts of oneself you lost or you never knew existed. It’s about
longing and loss. But the American discourse is framed entirely around
betrayal and trauma.
Daily Life: What prevents people from feeling alive in a marriage?
Perel: Marriages are so much more merged,
and affairs become a venue for differentiation, a pathway to autonomy.
Women will often say: This is the one thing I know I am not doing for
anyone else. I am not taking care of anyone, this is for me. And I have a
harder time doing that in the context of marriage because I have become
the mother who needs to protect the child 24/7 from every little
boo-boo and scratch, and I am constantly other-directed so much so that I
am utterly disconnected from my erotic self and my partner is longing
for sex and I can’t even think about it anymore. And then suddenly I
meet somebody and discover something in my body I haven’t experienced
for the last eight years, or I didn’t even know existed inside of me.
Daily Life: So why is the reality of affairs, and the way we talk about affairs, so different?

Perel: The primary discussion of affairs is
about the impact of affairs, rarely about the meaning and motives of the
affair. If you read 90 articles about affairs, they are all about
what’s wrong with you or your marriage—early trauma, narcissism,
addictive personality—injuries of all sorts. But there is very little in
the general culture that probes the story of the affair—the plot. Just,
did you sleep with anyone else? And you can’t glean anything from that.
And then the other discussion is about the victim perpetrator model. We
need to give the victim ample compassion and the perpetrator needs to
feel remorse and repair.

Daily Life: Do most therapists understand this about affairs?
Perel: Therapists are the worst! They too
think something must be wrong for a person to have an affair. Also most
therapists in America will not work with secrets. Their attitude is,
don’t tell me anything I can’t speak about with your partner. Either you
end it or you tell your partner. So half of the time, people lie to the
therapist and to the partner. And is it always the best thing to tell?
Or can we examine that, rather than live with a blanket policy of which
the therapist doesn’t have to live with the consequences.
Daily Life: So the cheating partner shouldn’t tell?
Perel: In America, lying can never be an act
of caring. We find it hard to accept that lying would be protective,
this is an unexamined idea. In some countries, not telling, or a certain
opaqueness, is an act of respect. Also, maybe the opposite of
transparency isn’t intimacy, it’s aggression. People sometimes tell for
their own good, as an act of aggression.
Daily Life: Is it different for women?
Perel: Because it was so fraught, women used to need a really good reason to take that risk. But today, female infidelity is the biggest challenge to the male-dominated status quo.
Daily Life: Do people see you as condoning cheating?
Perel: I make a distinction between cheating
and non-monogamy. Cheating is about a violation of a contract. People
misunderstand me because they think I’m saying affairs are OK. No! But I
do think examining monogamy is our next frontier.
Daily Life: You mean as in Dan
Savage’s idea that marriages should be non-monogamous? I can’t really
see it working for heterosexual couples.
Perel: Not yet, but we couldn’t see
premarital sex once either. We are a generation that believes in
self-fulfillment, but also in commitment, and in their negotiations
between these two ideas they will come up with new negotiations around
Daily Life: Your really believe that?
Perel: Yes. It doesn’t mean it will fit everybody. But I do believe it’s the next frontier.
Daily Life: Will future arrangements look something like the Underwood marriage on House of Cards, where their non-monogamous arrangement is understood between them without being explicitly discussed?
Perel: The Underwoods are totally seen as a
power couple. People do not see that they have a profound sense of
intimacy. But their intimacy is about how each one supports the other in
their own pursuits. So it’s an intimacy based on nurturing
differentiation. We are there for each other, to help each of us be who
we want to be. And one of the important axes in any relationship is how
the couple negotiate togetherness and separateness. The ability to be
myself in your presence versus having to let go of parts of myself to be
Daily Life: Do young people enter marriages with different assumptions now?
Perel: When I entered marriage I bought into
the whole romantic package. I want my husband to take care of
everything. I want to never feel anxious again, never feel a fear of
abandonment. It’s the complete merge model. But that’s very different
than the millennials I work with. Their fear is that they will lose
themselves, because they’ve worked so hard to develop their own
Daily Life: So it’s a good thing that we are moving away from the merge model?
Perel: But they have the opposite challenge,
which is not to be immediately in the zone of fear when they need to
get close, when they need to build something together with someone.
That’s the price they pay for the highly individualistic culture in
which they live.
Daily Life: What would you say to people who want to preserve a marriage?
Perel: Most people today, for the sheer
length we live together, have two or three marriages in their adult
life, and some of us do it with the same person. For me, this is my
fourth marriage with my husband and we have completely reorganized the
structure of the relationship, the flavor, the complementarity.