The State of Affairs by Esther Perel

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The narrative around affairs is very narrow-minded. It’s all about blaming, taking things personally, harshly judging behaviors, recalling stereotypes, etc. The truth is that the nature of infidelity is complex, and we need to think about it more deeply.

For millennia marriage was a strategic partnership between families. Love might arise but it was not essential. Romanticism redefined marriage in the early 19th century as a free choice between people based on love and affection. However, due to the rise of urbanization and the disruption of small-scale communal living, many couples find themselves isolated from friends and families, having to rely entirely on one another to meet all of their emotional needs. This is a recipe for disaster. One person can’t fulfill all our emotional needs, we need to diversify the portfolio of our emotional investments.

Because today we rely so much on our partner for our emotional wellbeing, then affairs become ever more painful. Another reason why affairs are deeply painful is that they undermine our memories and self-image. Since our success in life is given by how well we can predict the future based on past experiences, when we become aware that our model of the world was incorrect, we suffer deeply. It will also take a lot of time to revisit our memories and upgrade them with the newly acquired knowledge about our partner’s affair, especially when it has been going on for years. We will need to update our self image based on what we think other people will think of ourselves. We will need to find a new coherent self-narrative.

Sex can bring to surface aspects of our personality and identity that we have lost, supress, or forgotten about. We shouldn’t shrink ourselves to a standardized sexual life but we should first own and integrate all our multitudes. Once we do that, we can choose a partner based on the sexual connection or teach them how we want to express our sexuality, giving them space to do that too.

It’s very important to acknowledge that we have two main needs in relationships: security and exploration; familiarity and novelty; predictability and excitement. This dichotomy is part of us since we are little: we want to be safe in our mothers arms, but also free to explore in the playground. This dichotomy should be part of our adult relationships too. It’s like a seesaw, so it can never be perfectly balanced. But if it’s too imbalanced on one side or the other, it must be readjusted.

In the 21st century, we need to find new ways to stay together in the long-term. Monogamy doesn’t work. Not even open relationships work against infidelity. They too are often subject to secrecy.

Affairs are tempting because we like to transpass boundaries. By definition relationships have boundaries, so the best way to reduce the possibility of infidelity, is to be more open minded to it happening, not putting too many restrictions but rather having uncomfortable conversations about it and validating each other’s freedom.

What keeps the erotic spark alive is not taking the partner for granted. Desire is rooted in absence, in longing. If a person is longing for something which the relationship doesn’t fulfill, he or she might look for it elsewhere.

Book Notes

→ Contemporary discourse says infidelity must be a symptom of a relationship gone awry. In reality, it's complicated.

Infidelity is not merely a story of two or three; it binds entire networks.

Even open relationships are no guarantee against deception.

→ Infidelity includes one or more of these three constitutive elements: secrecy, sexual alchemy, and emotional involvement.

→ Secrecy is precisely what intensifies the erotic charge of an affair.

→ Desire is rooted in absence and longing.

→ The elusiveness of the other that keeps keeping the erotic spark alive. Fire needs air.

→ Lovers today seek to bring under one roof desires that have forever had separate dwellings. When we channel all our intimate needs into one person, we actually stand to make the relationship more vulnerable.

→ For millennia, matrimony was less a union of two individuals than a strategic partnership between two families that ensured their economic survival and promoted social cohesion. Love might arise, but it certainly was not essential. In any event, it was too flimsy an emotion to support such a weighty institution.

→ Romanticism redefined marriage in the early nineteenth century. It evolved from an economic enterprise to a companionate one — a free-choice engagement between two individuals, based not on duty and obligation but on love and affection. But with the advent of urbanization and the loss of community, the expectations of marriage took epic proportions.

In a time when we depend on our partners emotionally for so much, never have affairs carried such a devastating charge.

Our sexuality is an expression of who we are, no longer merely something we do.  

The constant awareness of ready alternatives invites unfavorable comparisons, weakens commitment, and prevents us from enjoying the present moment.

→ “Culturally, young adults have increasingly come to see marriage as a ‘capstone’ rather than a ‘cornerstone’ “that is, something they do after they have all their other ducks in a row, rather than a foundation for launching into adulthood and parenthood.”

→ Infidelity is a direct attack on one of our most important psychic structures: our memory of the past. As humans, we expect the past to be dependable. Betrayed by our beloved, we suffer the loss of a coherent narrative.

"Are there any secrets to long-lasting relationships? The threat of infidelity." Alain de Botton

→ A good relationship or good intimacy is not a guarantee against infidelity. There is none, ultimately.

Affairs are often a form of self-discovery, a quest for a new (or a lost) identity. The most intoxicating other that people discover in the affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self. Sex can be an expansive experience that involves growth, exploration, and transformation.

→ We all have multiple selves, but in our intimate relationships, over time, we tend to reduce our complexity to a shrunken version of ourselves.

“The tendency toward infidelity depends to a great extent on being able to justify it to ourselves” - Dan Ariely

→ Freedom and commitment: we straddle these opposing drives from the moment we come into this world—alternating between the safety of our mothers’ laps and the risks we take in the playground. We carry this dichotomy into adulthood. One hand clings to the known and the familiar; the other reaches out for mystery and excitement. We seek connection, predictability, and dependability to root us firmly in place. But we also have a need for change, for the unexpected, for transcendence.

→ It’s easier to be different with a different person. But you can change a dynamic, given both partners change how they see each other.

→ Every relationship, from the most stringent to the most lenient, has boundaries, and boundaries invite trespassers. Breaking the rules is thrilling and erotic.

→ We are the most attracted to our partners when others desire them.

→ We are trying to define new boundaries for the modernity deal. Rather than insulate ourselves against infidelity, we must learn to live with the uncertainties, the allures, the attractions, the fantasies—both our own and our partners’. When we validate each other’s freedom within the relationship, we may be less inclined to go looking for it elsewhere.

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