After more than 30 years in practice, couples therapist Esther Perel has seen firsthand the havoc that infidelity can wreak on a relationship. She’s also witnessed the blossoming of new love and understanding between partners after the discovery of an affair.
Which is why, when people ask her whether she’s “for” or “against” cheating, Perel answers, simply and frustratingly, “Yes.”
In her new book, “The State of Affairs,” Perel offers a nuanced perspective on infidelity – one that deliberately eschews labels and generalizations. In the book’s first chapter, Perel writes:
“Because I believe that some good may come out of the crisis of infidelity, I have often been asked, ‘So, would you recommend an affair to a struggling couple?’ My response? A lot of people have positive, life-changing experiences that come along with terminal illness. But I would no more recommend having an affair than I would recommend getting cancer.”
When she visited the Business Insider office in September, Perel described the paradoxical regrowth of affection and intimacy that often happens after someone is caught straying:
“It’s a reevaluation of what happened: How did we become so estranged from each other? How did we lose our connection? How did we become so numb to each other? And the galvanizing of the fear of losing everything that we have built sometimes brings us back face-to-face, with a level of intensity that we haven’t experienced in a long time. …
“In the aftermath of the revelation of an affair, some people stand to have a level of depth and honesty and openness in their conversations with each other that they haven’t had in years. As well as a reconnecting of an erotic intimacy with each other that also had gone flat. Something about the fear of loss makes us take action about what we really want to hold onto.”
In other words, the process of recovery in the wake of infidelity can be just the jolt a relationship needs. That said, no one should wish the devastation and emotional exhaustion that accompanies this process on themselves, or on anyone else.
Other therapists take a similar approach to cheating – despite Americans’ generally Puritanical attitudes toward sexual immorality.
In a 2013 Slate article, Hanna Rosin describes therapist Emily Brown’s work with one couple affected by infidelity. Specifically, “Brown has to quickly move the affair off center stage and get to the underlying issues.” The husband learns that the wife (who strayed) has been lonely, but also that she doesn’t want the marriage to end.
Here again, the effects of infidelity can transform a marriage in a positive way, bringing couples closer than they’ve been in years. But that doesn’t negate the trauma they cause.
Perel likes to describe the post-affair recovery process with one particular image, which she shared with Business Insider: “Many of us are going to have two or three relationships in our adult life or marriages. Some of us will do it with the same person. Sometimes an affair means the end of the first marriage with each other and perhaps the beginning of a second one, with each other.”