Cheater’s Poker

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity BY Esther Perel. Harper. Hardcover, 336 pages. $26.

The cover of The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity

“We never know our partner as well as we think we do,” the psychotherapist Esther Perel writes in Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic (2006), a guide for couples weathering periods of sexual disconnection. Even after many years, she points out, your partner can be inscrutable, as hard as you try to convince yourself you know them—or, worse, that there’s nothing much to know. “The grand illusion of committed love is that we think our partners are ours,” Perel continues, whereas “in truth, their separateness is unassailable.”

Her new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (Harper, $27), is about the crisis that ensues when that separateness can no longer be denied—or you realize you tied yourself to a sex-addicted, egomaniacal monster (or both). I kid, mostly. True to form, the unfailingly empathetic Perel—Belgian expat; multilinguist; sexual sophisticate—dismisses the notion that infidelity must automatically involve a villain and a victim, or that it necessarily means there’s anything amiss with a couple’s bond. “What if the affair had nothing to do with you?” she suggests to the wronged party at the start of chapter 9, “Even Happy People Cheat.” Later, she uses a magnanimous we to align herself with the transgressor: “Sometimes, when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become.” It’s a neat trick, this first-person plural, because it pulls in the wronged party, too. Cheating isn’t the only form of turning away—as many cheaters will eagerly tell you.

The State of Affairs is packed with such sage insights into the disappointing human heart. Through her formidable elegance, Perel manages to infuse some dignity into the pettiness of most betrayals: the unconvincing lies both parties tell and permit; the self-delusions (again, on each side); the flagrant, gratuitous gestures of disrespect (fucking a third party in the marital bed, say, or letting a girlfriend wear a piece of the wife’s clothing). “You’d think the second time around he’d have gotten better at it,” one woman says of her philandering husband, but infidelity, like most human behavior, is fundamentally graceless. “She says she was just curious, that it’s like a game,” another patient complains, raw as a shucked oyster. “But we both agreed to delete Tinder as part of our commitment ceremony!” Truly, there are few things more poignant or humiliating than love.

Perel’s tactfully expansive we is indicative of her approach in general. She avoids laying blame. After all, it’s likely each spouse has let the other down in some way, or that the roles have at some point been reversed. When a patient who ended a marriage because of her husband’s transgressions takes up with a married man, Perel is intrigued by her insistence that her new relationship is not “really an affair”: “Her notion of infidelity has become conveniently elastic now that she is on the other side.” (That’s European for “What an asshole.”) I can’t be the only conveniently elastic reader who’s been unfaithful but always identifies with the partner who hasn’t, and Perel’s book draws out the dynamic behind this intellectually incoherent impulse. In love, we are all at a disadvantage: in a state of perpetual preharm thanks to the tremendous power we give our beloveds, which could be turned against us at any time. Partnership, then, is like a truce between two people who forever have their fingers on the triggers of loaded guns. (I won’t break your heart if you don’t break mine.) Whoever gets shot first is easy to sympathize with because their vulnerability is so close to the surface. “Yes,” I think, when reading about the anguish of a faithful woman betrayed, “this is just how love feels.”

Part of Perel’s charm is the nimbleness with which she assigns responsibility without condemning anyone outright. She embraces ambiguity, not equivocation—“There is a world of difference between understanding infidelity and justifying it”—so cheater and cheatee are held accountable for their failings but not provoked into (counterproductive) defensiveness. It’s a little like a Marshall Plan for romantic offenders: If the goal is to keep a family together, there has to be more rebuilding than punishment.

This is one of the shrewdest ways The State of Affairs challenges accepted so-called wisdom about what infidelity indicates and how it should be handled. Perel is sensitive to shifting norms, noting that while divorce was once considered the ultimate mark of shame, it’s now the surest way for the cheated-on or otherwise mistreated to demonstrate “self-respect.” (Since the modern woman “lives with a different bill of rights, our culture demands that she exercise them.”) As Perel emphasized in Mating in Captivity, people are now expected to provide their partners with every imaginable type of satisfaction—“Emotional closeness has shifted from being the by-product of a long-term relationship to being a mandate for one,” she writes in The State of Affairs—and delivery of anything less cannot be tolerated. Unreasonable expectations set us up for failure, and we’re then told that it would be too embarrassing to stick around, learn from our mistakes, and try again.

Louisa Gagliardi, 2:30 am (Sleeping but still streaming) (detail), 2016, ink on vinyl, 65 × 45 1/4".
Louisa Gagliardi, 2:30 am (Sleeping but still streaming) (detail), 2016, ink on vinyl, 65 × 45 1/4".

Perel’s cooler-headed views have made her famous. The ted talk that came out of Mating in Captivity has been watched at least ten million times. Presumably, a lot of its viewers aren’t just looking for the usual one-size-fits-all tips on how to have better sex or stave off divorce. Perel offers them something else: a sense that their relationship is special and has the potential to be extraordinary. She does this by delivering her insights in a tone of great significance and then dialing back to a mode of gentle playfulness that implies everything can work out all right in the end. Even a brief exposure to this style can make you feel mischievous and profound and impervious to lasting harm, like the protagonist in a smart French comedy. It’s the emotional equivalent of hope in a jar. “When a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair,” Perel writes, “I often tell them this: Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?” She provides no concrete instructions for accomplishing this feat, though. Readers in need must deduce the next steps for themselves or wait for her to resume seeing new patients, which her website suggests might happen in 2018. I’ve heard the starting rate for couples is $1,500 a session.

If you doubt she’s worth it, you can sample the goods by listening to Where Should We Begin?, a new podcast in which Perel ministers to a different couple every week. In the gripping first episode, “I’ve Had Better,” which focuses on a man who has “strayed” and his aggrieved wife, Perel explains, “Both use the other person’s transgressions to justify their own. Each of them has a plot of entitlement.” She’s right about that, and yet it doesn’t mean the partners are equally sympathetic. The drawback to Perel’s mature approach is that it seems to foreclose pure reaction—the screamed excoriations, the militant silent treatment, the broken family heirloom. In the long run, tactics like these are clearly not healthy or helpful. But might they be as necessary to the healing process as carefully explaining one’s pain to the partner who caused it? I’m not a therapist, but it seems indisputable to me that there are times when someone has earned the right to be a raging lunatic. It would be unfair to require that person to absorb the indignity of being cheated on without any fleeting bad behavior of his or her own.

That’s why I’ll fist-fight anyone who doesn’t side with the belligerent Russian wife in “I’ve Had Better,” who refuses to play nicely just because she’s being recorded and instead clings to the shreds of her self-esteem by disagreeing with almost everything her husband and Perel say. When the therapist observes that the couple is locked in “a competition about who destroyed the relationship first,” the wife sniffs, “I don’t think I’ll be competing over anything.” (“She is so mad,” Perel narrates unnecessarily, sounding like the David Attenborough of feminine aggression.) It’s not simply that I found the seething Russian irresistible; her husband struck me as a smart, impatient, only mildly remorseful modern man who’d absorbed the language of therapy just well enough to spout it back without having to do much real self-examination. It’s a luxury not to be thrust into childishness by your passions, and there’s no way for an outsider to know if such composure is a function of diminished emotional investment or an admirable feat of self-control. The husband here presents as the more reasonable and even the more loyal partner, but I’m of the mind that, given the context, his unflappability should almost count against him.

He’s not alone in his relative detachment, of course. Cheaters—me, you, and the many we know—are hardly ever as guilt-stricken as their partners or even an eavesdropping third party might wish they were. In its pragmatic way, The State of Affairs aims to ease the suffering caused by this and other obvious but pretty much intolerable truths. For instance: However complex the preceding circumstances, infidelity happens because one person decides, “I deserve what I want.” And that’s the kind of impulse that could recur at any time, no matter how many good talks you’ve had about it in between. In “The Addict,” episode 4 of Where Should We Begin?, a husband who cheated on his wife for decades insists he’ll never do it again, and Perel firmly tells him, “You can’t be that certain.” We can’t be certain when we exchange vows, either, and we make the promise anyway. It’s not that once the seal is broken, the relationship is compromised; relationships start out compromised because they rely on the integrity of messy, careless, selfish human beings. That’s the permanent shadow under which partners must learn to live if they are to stay together.

There’s no inoculation against betrayal. As Perel notes in her introduction, people cheat “even when adultery is punishable by death.” To repeat: We choose infidelity over longer life—that’s the type of sexual animal we are. Since even mutual attraction, emotional connection, regular sex, and the incentive to stay alive can’t make a relationship affair-proof, it may be time to consider the possibility that affairs are a feature of partnering, not a bug. “The ongoing challenge for steady couples is to find ways to collaborate in transgression, rather than transgressing against each other or their bond,” Perel writes, wisely. I wish all of us the best of luck with that.

Charlotte Shane is the author of Prostitute Laundry (TigerBee, 2016).