In her new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, bestselling author and popular TED-talker Esther Perel gets real about infidelity, exploring why it’s been around as long as marriage has, and whether it’s always a bad thing. Here, she answers three key questions on the topic.
You note that we used to cheat because marriage wasn’t meant to deliver love and passion; now, we cheat because it fails to do so. How’d we get here?
There has been a shift in marriage from a model of obligation to a model of fulfillment. And there has been a shift in sex from a woman’s marital duty to an extension of a couple’s intimacy. A hundred years ago, intimacy was with same-sex siblings, cousins, friends, but all that has been siphoned into this one relationship with this one person. We ask for the intimate connection from our partner, rather than an entire social network.
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And so when we fail to get that connection from a partner, we look for it elsewhere. But you introduce the concept of a no-fault affair.
By idealizing the model of coupling, we think we have removed all the reasons for an affair. If you are my best friend, my confidant, my equal partner and parent, and my passionate lover, there should be no reason to want to stray anymore. So if we do, it’s because there is something missing. But there are things people want that have nothing to do with a deficiency in their partner, that in fact they might not want from their partner or in their home. And in one relationship, you can live only one life: You pick a partner, you pick a story and stay committed to that story. But today, we wonder: What are the other stories? Who would I have been if I had stayed with the one I just reconnected with on Facebook?
Technology makes it laughably easy to project yourself into another life.
One day, I’m swiping away on hundreds of people; the next day, I meet you and am willing to forgo all those options. Options mean freedom but also a lot of uncertainty and self-doubt: How do I know it’s you? And that’s a tremendous amount of pressure for the partner, too, to stand on a mountain of other people and say, “It’s me!” The romantic quest for The One has existed for a while. But the context in which we find that one is deeply changed by technology.