I stumbled across a TED Talk recently. The title, Why Happy Couples Cheat. The presenter was psychotherapist/relationship therapist, Esther Perel.
Introduction – An Affair is a Robber
I was immediately drawn to the speaker and her topic. She could have been talking to me personally about my own situation. You could say that this is a matter very close to my now, fully restored, but previously shattered heart.
One of the presenter’s opening statements was, that “an affair can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness and their very identity”.
For years, infidelity, to me, was a word containing far too many ‘i’s and with not one ‘u’ to be found, the word reeked of narcissism. If the word was self-serving, then the experience was self-demoralising. It seemed to me that infidelity meant that one person in the marriage could have their cake and eat it too. The other partner, however, was left with an empty plate and the remaining crumbs of what had once been a sumptuous dessert.
So why do people cheat, especially happy people? How has the impact of infidelity changed in the digital age? Can a relationship survive infidelity?
Death by a Thousand Cuts
According to Esther Perel, if affairs in days gone by were painful, affairs in the modern digital age are traumatic. In fact, she describes current day affairs as “death by a thousand cuts.”
Perel points out that in this digital age, infidelity has never been easier to take part in. It is also harder than ever, to keep it a secret.
When an affair is discovered, modern technology will reveal the hundreds of messages and photographs shared between the adulterous couple. Not only that , but the desires expressed and the moments illicitly shared, are all there in real time, in ways not possible in the past. In this way, infidelity exacts such an emotional toll. “Affairs are psychologically exacting”.
Is Modern Day, Romantic Love Realistic?
It seems that in days gone by, as the TED talk Presenter explains, an affair challenged our economic security. Today, an affair is more likely to threaten our emotional security. This is because not only do we now marry for love, we are idealists. We have a romantic ideal that one person can fit the bill.
I am the One!
As it is now, there is one person. This is the person we marry who we turn to fulfil an endless list of needs.
So, if I am chosen as a marriage partner, I am expected to be the greatest lover, the best friend, the best co-parent, the trusted confidante, the emotional companion and an intellectual equal. As the chosen person, I am the one person to fulfil these needs.
“I am chosen. I am the one. I am it. I am unique. I am irreplaceable. I am indispensable.
BUT infidelity tells me I am not. Infidelity is the ultimate betrayal.”
Infidelity -The Ultimate Betrayal
The reason that the betrayal is so damaging is that for the cheated on partner, it threatens the very sense of one’s self. As Perel explains, this is manifested through thinking such as…….
“I thought I knew my life, I thought I knew who I was, who you were, who we were as a couple, now I question everything.” An affair brings up questions surrounding trust……..”Can I ever trust you again? Can I ever trust anyone again?”
If We Can Divorce So Easily, Why Cheat?
If we are living in times when it is so easy to divorce, why will a partner cheat? And if a partner has everything at home, then why do happy people cheat? Why does a partner risk everything in their relationship to cheat? These are the questions, Perel raises and the answers might not be what you think.
To answer the questions, from the therapist’s experience, it seems she is suggesting that passion can only last so long. Perhaps passion has a “finite shelf life”. But quite often,it seems, that infidelity “is an expression of longing and lost”.
There is often a yearning for amongst other things, “an emotional connection, freedom, autonomy, novelty and sexual intensity.” In fact an affair is much less about sex and far more about desire, according to Perel.
At the Heart of an Affair
The therapist goes to point out that, if the truth be told, at the heart of an affair there is desire, but not the obvious sort of desire. The desire is an actual “desire to recapture lost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of the loss and tragedy”. So in effect, “it is not our partner that we are turning away from but the person that we have become ourselves”, according to Perel.
Why a Partner Might Cross the Line?
From her experience, the therapist has discovered that those who have affairs feel alive. You see, it seems that death and mortality often live in the shadow of affairs. It is not uncommon for her, in her work, to hear of stories of loss from her clients/patients. It may be the loss of a parent, a friend, or receiving bad news from a doctor. This will often bring up questions such as “Is this it? Is there more?”
Why People Divorce?
As Perel explains, in the age in which we live, it is considered our entitlement to pursue our desires. We all have desires and our present day culture sends us the message that we deserve to be happy. She suggests that today we divorce, not because we are unhappy, so much, but because we could be happier.
Can Relationships Recover From an Affair?
Despite the fact that desire runs deep and betrayal also runs deep, from Perel’s experience, relationships can be healed. Not all relationships survive, some will survive narrowly and other relationships will be able to turn a crisis into an opportunity.
How Does a Relationship Heal?
It seems when an affair is exposed it often allows a change in the status quo of a relationship. This is actually an opportunity for the ‘cheated on’ partner to change things that haven’t been working so well for him/her in the relationship either. Perel points out that an affair can actually open up communication for a couple in ways in which they haven’t experienced for some time. Also a fear of loss can rekindle desire.
For me personally, this TED talk brought back so many memories. What was so surprising, is that I could watch this and recall the memories without any emotional charge. I could be a mere observer rather than reliving every heart wrenching moment. Believe me, this is truly amazing!
There was a time, when watching this, would have triggered so much pain and discomfort for me.
At that time I faced this crisis, I didn’t think I was going to survive and move beyond it. It just didn’t seem at all possible. Now I can write and speak about it – scarred but no longer bearing the nasty wounds.
My own marriage did not survive infidelity.
Despite entering couples therapy, I found it incredibly hard going to move beyond infidelity. Rebuilding trust seemed impossible for me. The fact that my husband appeared to be a repeat offender,of course, offered next to little hope.
Anger & Frustration
I do recall that communication did open up for us a little, but once again lack of trust was an impediment. Questions would run through my mind like is the affair over? Is it really finished?
I was extremely vulnerable, cautious and guarded.
Let’s just say that I was extremely pissed off with the situation. It was going to take a great deal of patience to move past this stage of anger.
I was just as frustrated as I was angry. I remember asking why? over and over again. It simply made no sense to me. To my knowledge, these romantic dalliances were relatively short-lived, so I couldn’t understand how you could put a long term relationship, not to mention a family, children and a home we had created on the line. For what? Who actually gained anything from the situation?
I would often think if my partner had wanted to leave, could he not have just told me? It would have been a less extreme and hurtful way of going about it. In reality, it doesn’t make any more sense to me now than it did then.
Replaying images over and over in my mind, of my partner in adulterous’ trysts, was a form of extreme self-torture. In fact,this was probably more painful than making the initial discovery of an affair. This, of course, was the worst thing I could do to myself, but for some time I found myself unable to stop.
One of the important parts of the healing process, that Esther Perel mentions, is that the perpetrator needs to acknowledge their wrong doing. This to some extent was my own experience but the essential factor was that the affair must stop. This is definitely a ‘no brainer’.
An important point that Perel makes is that it is important that “the perpetrator needs to hold vigil for the relationship and that he/she needs to be the protector of the boundaries.” I understand that this was the perpetrator’s responsibility to bring up the topic of the affair as the other partner will be obsessing about it. This makes sense and sadly this appeared to be missing from my own experience.
Recovery of Self-Identity
I think the greatest cost of infidelity is to one’s own self-worth. I disliked the person I became in the face of infidelity. I felt a victim, down-trodden, insecure, undesirable and needy. Not at all a good way to feel about yourself. This was one of my greatest resentments.
The vital point that was raised in the TED talk was the recovery of the aggrieved partner’s sense of self-worth. It is so important to surround yourself with “love, friends, activities that bring back joy, meaning and identity.” From my own experience this is just as important if you stay or if you decide to go. If you go, you may find that you need to find new friendships, not all may remain.
Upon discovering my partner’s infidelity and then the separation and divorce, my immediate focus was on my children’s well being and on my own healing. My healing was essential to me because of the pain and distress I was experiencing. I didn’t have the luxury of a great deal of financial security, but nevertheless I made healing a priority. It was vitally important to me to be able to continue to be the mother that I wanted to be and to be the person I wanted to be. I could lose the old identity, but it was imperative that I retained the true essence of me. At the heart of it, was that I wanted to be a better person for the experience, at some point, and not come out of it for the worse.
Growth and self-discovery
Personally speaking, experiencing infidelity and then divorce can truly rob you of your self-identity. But there is also an enormous opportunity for a new identity. Through the hurt and betrayal, as Perel puts it, there is “growth as well as self-discovery on the other side”, even if it is hard earned.
If you are reading this and you are currently in this situation, then my heart goes out to you. You may be swept up in a maelstrom of emotions as you attempt to process the experience and comes to terms with it. I understand the extreme exhaustion in dealing with such intense emotions whilst trying to keep up appearances of normalcy. At this time, ask for what you need. I sought assistance through counselling, rested whenever I could, took long walks often and surrounded myself in nature. Massage, reiki and meditation also helped me enormously.
There is life beyond infidelity, whether you choose to stay or whether you decide to go. It is now my belief that some relationships fail because they were meant to fail, and others can be revitalised, but it takes an unwavering commitment from both parties.
Clare Lavender is a Mother, Creative Entrepreneur, a Mosaic Artist, an Accredited Life Coach, Facilitator of The Desire Map Workshops (by Danielle LaPorte) and Facilitator of Mosaic workshops.
(This means that I facilitate, create, and deliver one-on-one personal development, life coaching programmes and art therapy workshops for women. I am also pleased to have created my own ‘Daring, Divorced and Divine’ coaching programme for women aimed at inspiring, empowering and supporting women to move on to greater well-being following divorce).
If you are interested in any further information, working with me one on one or joining a workshop please contact Clare at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.coaching-i-am.com.
There is no joy in coming to terms with a situation that you didn’t want or ask for, only graceful acceptance which you seem to have reached in abundance. Well done Clare, I hope he reads this one day.
Thank you for taking the time to comment, Steph.