Belgian-born sex therapist Esther Perel is an expert on the subject of sex, intimacy, love, and desire in long-term relationships. The author of Mating in Captivity and the subject of a very smart and widely-circulated TED talk on desire, she was recently interviewed by Mark Leviton in The Sun, an excellent literary magazine renowned for its in-depth Q-and-As with remarkable thinkers.
I’m a tough customer when it comes to speaking and writing in this field, I suppose because these subjects are near and dear to my heart, and I hate the amount of misinformation, bad advice, and stale thinking that goes out under the rubric of relationship counseling. But Perel passes my bullshit-detector with flying colors. I found myself completely engrossed in this article (“A More Perfect Union”) and in agreement with her almost every step of the way. I particularly like the way she talks about fantasies and also how she addresses the subject of parenting in contemporary life. Since I’ve quoted those passages online already, I’ll offer an excerpt here in which she talks about the subject of infidelity:
I don’t abide by the perpetrator-victim model of infidelity, in which the cheater is criminalized and the victim is given all the empathy. I also don’t believe an affair automatically means the relationship is bad. Here’s the usual view: If we, as a couple, have everything we want from each other, there’s no reason for either of us to go elsewhere. Hence, if one of us goes elsewhere, there’s something missing between us; infidelity is a symptom of a problem in the relationship.
That’s sometimes the case, but affairs often have more to do with the unfaithful individual than with the couple. People go elsewhere for sex not so much because they want to leave their partners but because they want to escape who they themselves have become. They are looking for parts of themselves that they’ve lost because of the relationship. But many adulterers are reasonably content in their marriage and monogamous in their beliefs. In my experience most have been faithful for ten or fifteen years before they’ve cheated.
If you see adultery only as a symptom, you sometimes take good relationships that have worked well for decades and make them look like failures. I don’t think that’s right…
I’ve seen couples in which I’m convinced there’s an affair going on but no one wants to talk about it. I’ve seen couples in which one person keeps asking the question and the other keeps denying it, or one keeps dropping hints and the other doesn’t want to pick up on them. I’ve had clients who are resisting having an affair, and others who can’t talk clearly about their marriage because they are intoxicated by an ongoing affair and everything else pales in comparison. Or they are irritable and don’t want to go home because of their guilt or because they don’t like their partner at the moment. Other clients might want to be in the relationship, but their partner has Alzheimer’s and can’t recognize them, and they need a way to rejuvenate themselves so they can spend an hour every day with their partner at the nursing home. I hear about kinds of infidelities that never existed before now, but infidelity itself is timeless. At all four corners of the world, at any moment, someone is either betraying a beloved or being betrayed. Infidelity: historically condemned, universally practiced.
You can read the entire interview online here. Check it out and let me know what you think.