One of the factors pushing people away from happy marriages to having affairs is the tight, companionable, completely “merged” nature of the modern marriage, according to therapist Esther Perel, who is described as the nation’s “sexual healer,” an updated Dr. Ruth, as described in a recent New York Times profile. She is the author of Mating in Captivity, which says that in seeking comfort, the modern marriage might be squashing novelty and adventure, elements that are critical for sexual charge. She is currently working on a new book called Affairs in the Age of Transparency, which she considers a sequel, a picture of what stifling marriages might lead to.
Perel, raised in Antwerp, Belgium, but who has lived all over the world, considers American assumption about affairs to be priggish and provincial and only accepts patients who are involved in affairs. Her book is still a work in progress but she does say that the vast majority of people having affairs are “content” in their marriages and what’s more, when asked whether or not they would want to leave their marriages, the majority say no. Her book will be about “people who love each other and are having affairs,” she says, and what that paradox says concerning the rest of our marriages.
Perel describes the age of transparency as the whole culture or the way a regular person tells everything about him or herself on television and also the way technology allows us to find out anything. She says that 99 percent of people she sees learned their affairs were discovered through email or phones. But these days, transparency is also our organizing principle of closeness. It means I will tell you everything and if I don’t, that means I have a secret or I don’t trust you. It doesn’t mean I choose to keep things to myself because they are private. Privacy is in between the two extremes of secrecy and transparency and is almost an endangered species.
You would think the “merge” model of marriage with the closeness between partners would lead to fewer affairs but this is not always the case. We tend to look at our marriage partner as our best friend, one who will fulfill all our needs. So wouldn’t this mean that people transgress because something is missing at home? Perel disagrees. She says “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.” The vast majority of people Perel comes in contact with are content in their marriages and are longtime monogamists who cross the line into a place they thought they would never go. Their beliefs remain monogamist but they undergo a chasm between their behavior and their beliefs. Perel is trying to investigate why some people are willing to lose everything.
Perel believes people are looking for another self. So if divorce is not a stigma these days, why does infidelity continue to rise. Perel believes this is because people are in an ambivalent stare, too good to leave yet too bad to stay. This is the reason why people have affairs. She goes on further to say that people don’t divorce or have affairs because they are unhappy but because they could be happier. They want to feel “alive” and this is what makes having an affair so attractive. Marriages are so much more merged and affairs become an avenue for differentiation. Women, who are responsible for taking care of the kids 24/7 will often say this is the one thing I am doing for me. Today female infidelity is the biggest challenge to the male-dominated status quo.
Perel says that in America, the primary discussion of affairs is about the impact of affairs and rarely about the meaning or motives. She says that therapists are the worst, thinking that something must be missing in the marriage to have an affair. And therapists won’t work with secrets, meaning that anything a person tells must be disclosed to their partner so half the time, people lie to their therapist.
When asked if people see her as condoning cheating, Perel says no. She says she makes a distinction between cheating and non-monogamy. When you cheat, you violate a marital contract. But Perel does think that examining monogamy is the next frontier.
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Source: Why We Cheat, By Hanna Rosin, Slate