on esther perel’s awful defense of adultery

Fuck adultery and everyone who has positive things to say about it. I lost my marriage because of adultery. I lost my next relationship because other people’s adultery that had nothing to do with me burned my ex so hard that everything I did was treated like a sign of adultery, and the level of distrust was toxic and anxiety-provoking. In an indirect but real way, these assholes are spreading their life-destroying poison beyond their own social circles.

Esther Perel has published a book excerpt in The Atlantic, giving intellectual pseudojustification to selfish and immoral people. Towards the beginning, there’s a perfunctory acknowledgement that everything she’s about to say is grotesque in the context of the damage caused:

In contemporary discourse in the United States, affairs are primarily described in terms of the damage caused. Generally, there is much concern for the agony suffered by the betrayed. And agony it is—infidelity today isn’t just a violation of trust; it’s a shattering of the grand ambition of romantic love. It is a shock that makes us question our past, our future, and even our very identity. Indeed, the maelstrom of emotions unleashed in the wake of an affair can be so overwhelming that many psychologists turn to the field of trauma to explain the symptoms: obsessive rumination, hypervigilance, numbness and dissociation, inexplicable rages, uncontrollable panic.

Yes, it’s a profound violation.

The terrible person always comes talking about how “both sides” and “fair-mindedness” and similar horseshit.

The damage that infidelity causes the aggrieved partner is one side of the story. For centuries, when affairs were tacitly condoned for men, this pain was overlooked, since it was mostly experienced by women. Contemporary culture, to its credit, is more compassionate toward the jilted. But if we are to shed new light on one of our oldest behaviors, we need to examine it from all sides. In the focus on trauma and recovery, too little attention is given to the meanings and motives of affairs, to what we can learn from them. Strange as it may seem, affairs have a lot to teach us about marriage—what we expect, what we think we want, and what we feel entitled to. They reveal our personal and cultural attitudes about love, lust, and commitment—attitudes that have changed dramatically over the past 100 years.

Yes, there has been a concerted effort to make adultery cool and rebrand it as “polyamory.”

The other sign of bullshit is the use of “we.”

Never before have our expectations of marriage taken on such epic proportions. We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.

Generally speaking, cooperation makes life easier. If you have sex with someone and cooperate with them, how could your life not improve in all the areas of cooperation? There’s already a destructive assumption that being friends with someone and having sex with them are opposed in some way (“to boot”).

Contained within the small circle of the wedding band are vastly contradictory ideals. We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.

No, that is what immature dumbasses who don’t know how to make a decision want. All the stuff about comfort, familiarity, safety, etc. is the point of marriage, and some people want that. Other people think that life is a movie and proceed to ruin their marriages when it doesn’t turn out to be.

Just because someone has an unresolved inner conflict about wanting to be married doesn’t mean the concept of marriage is self-contradictory. It just means people are getting married in bad faith.

We also live in an age of entitlement; personal fulfillment, we believe, is our due. In the West, sex is a right linked to our individuality, our self-actualization, and our freedom. Thus, most of us now arrive at the altar after years of sexual nomadism. By the time we tie the knot, we’ve hooked up, dated, cohabited, and broken up. We used to get married and have sex for the first time. Now we get married and stop having sex with others. The conscious choice we make to rein in our sexual freedom is a testament to the seriousness of our commitment. By turning our back on other loves, we confirm the uniqueness of our “significant other”: “I have found The One. I can stop looking.” Our desire for others is supposed to miraculously evaporate, vanquished by the power of this singular attraction.

What universe is this “sex is a right” bullshit coming from? Sex is, like, a rare privilege someone bestows on you before making you suffer. People die alone all the time! Large cities have an Office of Dealing With People Who Died Alone.

This kind of shit isn’t real to the author, for her to be writing that way. She might be a therapist, but it sounds like she steers clear of anyone who’s not the “worried well.” Her clients are like, “LOL I fucked someone low-class.”

“Most descriptions of troubled marriages don’t seem to fit my situation,” Priya insists. “Colin and I have a wonderful relationship. Great kids, no financial stresses, careers we love, great friends. He is a phenom at work, fucking handsome, attentive lover, fit, and generous to everyone, including my parents. My life is good.” Yet Priya is having an affair. “Not someone I would ever date—ever, ever, ever. He drives a truck and has tattoos. It’s so clichéd, it pains me to say it out loud. It could ruin everything I’ve built.”

Two excerpts ago, she said, “Our desire for others is supposed to miraculously evaporate, vanquished by the power of this singular attraction.” This is incorrect. Stupid shit usually comes from stupid assumptions.

The premise of marriage is that adults have some degree of self-discipline and ability to reflect before doing things. Responsible adults aren’t slaves to their urges, but weigh the consequences of their actions. Responsible adults that are honest with themselves will know the obvious fact that adultery is a terrible cruelty to inflict on anyone, so they’d think about it and not do that to someone they love.

The attitude of expecting to not want other people comes from expecting a serious decision like marriage to have no ethical obligations. Shouldn’t desire alone sustain things? No, only if you want to have a bad relationship and get divorced.

Priya can’t explain it. She vaunts the merits of her conjugal life, and assures me that Colin is everything she always dreamed of in a husband. Clearly she subscribes to the conventional wisdom when it comes to affairs—that diversions happen only when something is missing in the marriage. If you have everything you need at home—as modern marriage promises—you should have no reason to go elsewhere. Hence, infidelity must be a symptom of a relationship gone awry.

Is it surprising in the United States of America that victim-blaming should be the conventional wisdom?

One of the most uncomfortable truths about an affair is that what for Partner A may be an agonizing betrayal may be transformative for Partner B. Extramarital adventures are painful and destabilizing, but they can also be liberating and empowering. Understanding both sides is crucial, whether a couple chooses to end the relationship or intends to stay together, to rebuild and revitalize.

In taking a dual perspective on such an inflammatory subject, I’m aware that I risk being labeled “pro-affair,” or accused of possessing a compromised moral compass. Let me assure you that I do not approve of deception or take betrayal lightly. I sit with the devastation in my office every day. But the intricacies of love and desire don’t yield to simple categorizations of good and bad, victim and perpetrator. Not condemning does not mean condoning, and there is a world of difference between understanding and justifying. My role as a therapist is to create a space where the diversity of experiences can be explored with compassion. People stray for a multitude of reasons, I have discovered, and every time I think I have heard them all, a new variation emerges.

Absolutely, there is something wrong with her moral compass. Real liberation and empowerment cannot be at the expense of people who did nothing to deserve one of life’s most painful betrayals. She’s accepting the destructive illusion of freedom as morally legitimate.

This is really no different than saying, “Gee, once you consider both sides, you can make a lot of money being a fucking thief!”

Half-fascinated and half-horrified, Priya tells me about her steamy assignations with her lover: “We have nowhere to go, so we are always hiding in his truck or my car, in movie theaters, on park benches—his hands down my pants. I feel like a teenager with a boyfriend.” She can’t emphasize enough the high-school quality of it all. They have had sex only half a dozen times during the whole relationship; it’s more about feeling sexy than having sex. Unaware that she is giving voice to one of the most common experiences of the unfaithful, she tells me, “It makes me feel alive.”

As I listen to her, I start to suspect that her affair is about neither her husband nor their relationship. Her story echoes a theme that has come up repeatedly in my work: affairs as a form of self-discovery, a quest for a new (or lost) identity. For these seekers, infidelity is less likely to be a symptom of a problem, and more likely an expansive experience that involves growth, exploration, and transformation.

“Expansive?!,” I can hear some people exclaiming. “Self-discovery?! Cheating is cheating, whatever fancy New Age labels you want to put on it. It’s cruel, it’s selfish, it’s dishonest, and it’s abusive.” Indeed, to the one who has been betrayed, it can be all these things. Intimate betrayal feels intensely personal—a direct attack in the most vulnerable place. And yet I often find myself asking jilted lovers to consider a question that seems ludicrous to them: What if the affair had nothing to do with you?

Again, this is complete bullshit, and patronizing at that.

The rhetorical technique here is to acknowledge the obvious objection, but then not really refute it convincingly. It still seems like you did.

This is the opening of the Damore memo:

I value diversity and inclusion, am not denying that sexism exists, and don’t endorse using stereotypes. When addressing the gap in representation in the population, we need to look at population level differences in distributions. If we can’t have an honest discussion about this, then we can never truly solve the problem.

Just because it says that doesn’t mean he’s not a right-wing troll. Donald Trump is on the record against the Klan.

As it was happening to me, I understood full well that the adultery “had nothing to do with me.” I did nothing to deserve it! My ex’s mental health improved and then she wanted to do cool-people stuff I figured out I’m not into in my early 20s. She dragged me to a Tycho concert on a weeknight. I like Tycho, and it sucked.

Listening to it now on my computer is actually relaxing.

When I lose a relationship, there are simultaneously enough external stressors that it’s easy to attribute the failure to those things rather than something intrinsic to the relationship. It’s the relationship + context that don’t work.

Again with the victim-blaming, Perel is assuming I’d think it’s all my fault, and that understanding impersonal factors somehow makes it more forgivable. Absolutely not. Hooray! You betrayed me and said “It’s not you, it’s me.” I feel so much better now!

Sometimes when we seek the gaze of another, it’s not our partner we are turning away from, but the person we have become. We are not looking for another lover so much as another version of ourselves. The Mexican essayist Octavio Paz described eroticism as a “thirst for otherness.” So often, the most intoxicating “other” that people discover in an affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self.

As an Other, I think that’s fucking gross. If that’s “eroticism,” leave me out of it.

Being attracted to someone’s good qualities that aren’t necessarily the same as yours is NOT what “thirst for otherness” means here. It’s the way creepy people talk about how “exotic” mixed-race people are. It’s the way racists want to have sex with black people or Asian people.

Forbidden-love stories are utopian by nature, especially in contrast with the mundane constraints of marriage and family. A prime characteristic of this liminal universe—and the key to its irresistible power—is that it is unattainable. Affairs are by definition precarious, elusive, and ambiguous. The indeterminacy, the uncertainty, the not knowing when we’ll see each other again—feelings we would never tolerate in our primary relationship—become kindling for anticipation in a hidden romance. Because we cannot have our lover, we keep wanting. It is this just-out-of-reach quality that lends affairs their erotic mystique and keeps the flame of desire burning. Reinforcing this segregation of the affair from reality is the fact that many, like Priya, choose lovers who either could not or would not become a life partner. By falling for someone from a very different class, culture, or generation, we play with possibilities that we would not entertain as actualities.

OBVIOUSLY you can’t marry a nigger. But haven’t you wondered about their big black cocks? Live a little!

It doesn’t even occur to her that telling people to go out and fetishize people is really shitty for those people.

If a social barrier exists, she’s saying that you should have sex with someone and treat them like your dirty little secret. My relationship in college was like that. I could never meet her dad (Persian family), but she had no issues marrying a white guy after we broke up. It was super lame, actually.

The revelation of an affair forces couples to grapple with unsettling questions: What does fidelity mean to us and why is it important? Is it possible to love more than one person at once? Can we learn to trust each other again? How do we negotiate the elusive balance between our emotional needs and our erotic desires? Does passion have a finite shelf life? And are there fulfillments that a marriage, even a happy one, can never provide?

For me, these conversations should be part and parcel of any adult, intimate relationship from the beginning. It’s far better to address these issues before a storm hits. Talking about what draws us outside our fences, in an atmosphere of trust, can actually foster intimacy and commitment. But for many couples, unfortunately, the crisis of an affair is the first time they talk about any of this. Priya and Colin will have to negotiate these questions while also dealing with the ravages of betrayal, dishonesty, and broken trust.

So the whole premise of the article is wrong. People with superficially good relationships and extremely poor communication within the marriage are cheating on each other. People who said the words and had no idea what they meant, and now they can’t make peace with their decision so they have to hurt their partner.

Close