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- Esther Perel is a couples therapist and the author of “The State of Affairs.” She says people don’t always cheat because there are problems in their relationship or with their partner. Sometimes people stray as a form of “self-seeking,” searching for lost parts of themselves.
No one wants to be cheated on. Not least because the discovery of an affair raises the inevitable question – even if only in your own head: What’s wrong with you?
That is to say, we take it for granted that if someone cheats on their partner, it’s because there were problems with said partner, or with the relationship in general.
And yet if you ask couples therapist Esther Perel, she’ll tell you that this assumption is part of what she calls a “deficiency model” of infidelity. We mistakenly see infidelity “as a symptom of a relationship gone awry,” Perel said when she visited the Business Insider office in September.
“This is true in many cases,” she added. “There are many motives for why people stray that have to do with the discontents of a relationship: loneliness, neglect, rejection, complacency, sexlessness.
“But then there is also the motivation that often has nothing to do with the partner, and that has to do with a form of self-seeking. Many times, people who stray are also hoping to reconnect with lost parts of themselves, with the lives un-lived, with the sense that life is short and there are certain experiences … that they are longing for. They are looking not just for another person but in a way they’re looking for another self.”
In her new book, “The State of Affairs,” in which she explodes all kinds of conventional thinking about infidelity, Perel shares the story of a woman named Priya. Priya’s marriage was stable and fulfilling, but still, she found herself involved in an affair – with a tattooed truck owner she said she’d never seriously date.
Perel learned that Priya had always been a good student, as well as a dutiful daughter, wife, and mother. At the time of the affair, Priya’s daughters were entering adolescence.
Perel writes: “Priya is at once supportive and envious. As she nears the mid-century mark, she is having her own belated adolescent rebellion.” It was, as Perel calls it, a “crisis of identity.”
This might seem like too much psychic excavation: Identity crisis? Belated adolescent rebellion? But in a way this approach is simpler than digging for problems in Priya’s marriage when, in fact, there might not be any. The affair is about her, full stop.
Perel’s insights reminded me of research, published in 2014 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which found that men are more likely to seek extramarital affairs on the website Ashley Madison when their age ends in the number nine. In other words, as men approach milestone birthdays – say, the big 5-0 – they’re more likely to do something rash.
It seems unlikely that men’s marriages start spontaneously deteriorating right around their big birthdays. And while the researchers couldn’t say for sure, perhaps it has something to do with that identity crisis and self-seeking Perel mentioned.
That’s not to say the betrayed partner should excuse or brush off the affair – for most people, that would be impossible. But Perel’s observations allow betrayed partners to better understand why their partner cheated, and even to feel some relief in knowing that they weren’t the problem.
Perel told us:
“Instead of thinking that the person who cheats is unhappy with their partner or with their relationship, it is sometimes important to think that they may be unhappy with themselves. Or, at least uncomfortable, restless, longing for something else, longing to reconnect with lost parts of themselves, longing to transcend a sense of deadness that they are feeling inside, longing to experience a sense of autonomy over their life.
“They’re finally doing something they want. Paradoxically, while they are lying to their partner, sometimes they find themselves in this strange situation, where maybe for the first time they are not lying to themselves.”