Life / Health

The ‘new shame’ of staying with a partner who’s cheated

Couples therapist Esther Perel says we need to have a new kind of conversation about the effects of infidelity.

Couples therapist and author Esther Perel says an affair can be a powerful learning experience that helps a couple to grow, though not always together.

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Couples therapist and author Esther Perel says an affair can be a powerful learning experience that helps a couple to grow, though not always together.

While most people agree those in committed relationships shouldn’t cheat, it still happens all the time. Infidelity has inspired great pop albums and toppled political careers, but do we really understand it?

Esther Perel, renowned couples therapist and author of Mating in Captivity, is sharing what she’s learned from 10 years of researching and helping couples around the world work through the pain of their affairs. Her new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, out this month, looks at how, with the right approach, an affair can be a powerful learning experience that helps a couple to grow (though not always together).

Perel spoke about the “new shame” of staying with a partner and how there is more pressure on romantic relationships than ever before.

Why is it important to change the way we talk about infidelity?

Because the dilemma of love and desire, the dynamics of relationships, and relationships all together are all too complex to be reduced into black and white: perpetrator/victim; all or nothing. And we don’t gain anything from having such a black and white, polarizing view of the topic.

We need a new conversation. It’s ubiquitous. We need a conversation that is actually more caring and more compassionate for all people involved. This is a topic that is taboo, that is shrouded in secrecy and shame and that gets passed on across generations. Nobody benefits from that.

In your book you talk about a “new shame,” the shame of staying with someone after an affair. Where did this new shame come from?

Among the few surprises I discovered in writing and researching this book is the notion that long after divorce became a possibility, it still was divorce that carried all the shame. Divorce was the stigma. But today, when people can have no-fault divorce, choosing to stay is the new shame. And so what happens is that not only was I betrayed by the person that I love and with whom I share my life, but on top of that I can’t talk about it with my friends, with my family, with the people who are close to me, for fear that they will judge me.

So now I’m living with a double secret. And I end up protecting the person who deceived me from people who would otherwise pour a lot of advice that is not necessarily what I need to hear. I need help, I need support, I need loving people around me to help me figure out what I want to do. We don’t really know the other considerations that make people to decide that this is worth it for them to stay, to work it through, and maybe even to come out the other side stronger and more honest.

The revelation of an affair is devastating. It shatters the entire relationship for awhile, and sometimes forever. Staying is not for everybody. But for those who ultimately will decide to be together, the revelation of an affair can launch them into conversations and into a level of depth and honesty that they haven’t experienced in years.

You mention that there is more pressure on marriage now than ever before, what do you mean by that?

I think that our relational expectations today are at an all-time high. When people used to say “the one and only,” it used to mean God. Today it is our partner. We often turn to one person for everything: all the traditional things that marriage was meant to provide, as well as all the other needs that we’ve added to the traditional model. So now we have family, children, economic support. Then we add the romantic layer, which is the best friend, and the confidant, and the passionate lover. And then we add the self-actualization marriage, which is I want authenticity, and I want to be met at my essence and I want you to help me become a better version of myself, or the best version of myself.

And we are doing this at a time when many people are experiencing a massive depletion of their social capital. Fewer people to turn to for advice, for support, for commiseration. Never have we brought more expectations into our committed relationship than today. It’s a tall order, to demand of one person what an entire village used to provide.

What’s your biggest piece of advice for couples to avoid infidelity?

At the heart of affairs is betrayal and duplicity and lies, but also longing and loss — lost parts of one’s self, actually. Thus the more you trust your relationship, the more parts of yourself you can bring into a relationship, the less likely you may be to look for those other parts elsewhere.

The conversations that people have after they have an affair, they are often talking about some of these things for the first time. Have safe conversations early on about sexuality, about desire, about fantasy, about intimacy about your fears, about your history with infidelity. I wish people would have these conversations before the crisis, rather than what happens for so many, which is after the crisis; after the revelation of the affair. I hope this book gives people vocabulary. The book, as well as the podcast.

Yes! I saw that the first three episodes of your new podcast, Where Should We Begin, is on iTunes.

The whole series is available on Audible, but we just dropped it on iTunes this week. You can hear how couples are actually having the conversations. These are not my patients, they are about 1,500 couples who applied for the podcast, but they follow the same process — same intake, same length of sessions — as if they were patients in my own practice. The idea is to take the couple out of its isolation. To bring them into the raw and intimate space of other couples who are going through similar things. Through these couples I hope to give listeners the vocabulary to have the conversations they need to have, and ultimately to realize that while you are listening to them, you are standing in front of your own mirror.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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