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Why Do People Cheat? Esther Perel Has the Answer in “State of Affairs”

6 Min Read
Why Do People Cheat? Esther Perel Has the Answer in “State of Affairs”

When it comes to sex experts, Esther Perel is basically a household name. She’s one of the top educators about relationships and sex — you’ve probably read (or at least heard about) her book,  Mating in Captivity, which helps readers to understand their own “erotic intelligence” and how to implement it successfully in their own relationships. 

A psychotherapist, author, and social-media mainstay, Perel firmly believes that “The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives.” Her work is dedicated to understanding intimate relationships and making them stronger. 

In her book State of Affairs, however, she explores a far more taboo side to relationships: Infidelity. Perel explains that her aim is not to justify the actions of a so-called “cheater,” but to explore the dynamics of the phenomenon in hopes of better understanding human desire. Because answering the age-old question “Why do people cheat?” can help you heal and move on from past experiences, and process infidelity if it (unfortunately) happens in your own dating life.

Perel starts State of Affairs by noting that people often blame affairs or cheating as the end result of marital or relationship issues, or an individual person’s “hard-wiring.” In her book, she debunks that: “As adults we often find ourselves confined by the ones we’ve been assigned or the ones we have chosen,” Perel writes. “Yet we remain forever curious: What other stories could we have been part of? Affairs offer us a window into those other lives, a peek at the stranger within. Adultery is often the revenge of the deserted possibility.” 

While no two cheaters are exactly alike, infidelity may be a way for some people to cope with feelings of being trapped or locked in. Not only that, but this is a feeling that both parties likely relate to. Let’s break things down even further.

What is cheating?

It might seem obvious at first glance, but there’s way more than one definition of cheating — and it all depends on how you and your partner each interpret the act. 

To demonstrate this, Perel gives examples of various acts which some people may consider cheating, while others do not. That can include: sexting, watching porn, joining a fetish community, remaining secretly active on dating apps, paying for sex, and lap dances. Perel also provides some interesting examples of different cultural perspectives on cheating. For example, women in Bulgaria tend to view their husband’s extramarital affairs as unfortunate but inevitable. By contrast, women in Mexico may associate their own infidelity as an act of social rebellion against chauvinistic culture.

All this is to say, cheating isn’t always as clear-cut as it seems. It’s important to make sure you and your partner are on the same page about what constitutes a fundamental break in trust and what is permissible.

Why is there so much pressure to find “The One”?

The concept of finding your soulmate — otherwise known as “The One” — is often accompanied by an expectation of ownership, especially when it comes to your partner’s sexual desires. However, Perel encourages people to remember that this is incredibly unrealistic. In fact, understanding and even discussing desire when it flares up outside of your relationship can be a great way to build trust and nurture your sense of freedom, while you remain monogamous. “Love is an ideal thing, marriage is a real thing: a confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished,” Perel warns.

Monogamous relationships will inevitably experience periods of stagnation, and this can actually be a good thing. Sometimes boredom in your relationship looks like both you and your partner feeling comfortable and fully secure. “The human imagination has conjured up a new Olympus: that love will remain unconditional; intimacy, enthralling; and sex, oh-so-exciting for the long haul with one person,” Perel explains. “And the long haul keeps getting longer.”

Taking a step back to understand your partner in a different context can introduce an element of excitement and allow both parties to consider what drives their attraction, including to each other. Or as Perel puts it, ask your partner to “Give me comfort and give me an edge.”

How does cheating make me feel?

Cheaters are often depicted as the villian (and, to be clear, in some instances, they certainly are). But they are often driven by feelings that are very relatable and, well, human. While Perel doesn’t make excuses for people who should have acted better, she does provide a level of understanding: For some people, having an affair can re-ignite a loss sense of independence and control over ones life.

In fact, cheating doesn’t even typically happen because a better partner was available: It can be very impersonal. “Sometimes, when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t our partner we are turning away from but the person we have become,” Perel notes. Instead, cheaters might be seeking... “nostalgia for unlived lives, unexplored identities, and roads not taken.”

They often miss being single — and yes, breaking up with someone to get to that point of singleness is often neater than cheating, but it isn’t always easier. In other words, cheating is a poor reaction to some of the most fundamental issues facing monogamous relationships. Understanding this can help to reframe the experience for both the person being cheated on (who might internalize their partner cheating as evidence of their individual faults) and the perpetrator (who might think that infidelity was an issue only in that particular relationship).

How does cheating break the illusion of a relationship?

Affairs can be so earth-shattering because they destroy an illusion that love provides those in their relationships. This is what often hurts the most. 

“Being chosen has taken on an importance it never had before; infidelity says, you're not so special after all,” Perel explains. Cheating, meanwhile, “marks the passing of two innocent illusions — that your marriage is exceptional, and that you are unique and prized.” 

Though the narrative of exceptionality feels amazing when things are going well, it is ultimately harmful. Finding other ways to build self-worth and being realistic about your relationship’s shortcomings requires intentionality and maturity. These foundations will actually make for a much healthier relationship than one that is validation-driven and built on unrealistic expectations.

How do I heal from being cheated on? 

If an affair has already occurred, the most important thing you can do for yourself is to take the action that empowers you most. “Wherever I can,” writes Perel, “I try to help people create narratives that are empowering rather than victimizing.”

She encourages people to reframe their ideas of monogamy through this radical statement: “It is a reductionist to make sexual exclusivity the sole marker of devotion.” 

Contrary to popular belief, cheating does not automatically negate all the other good things that were a part of the relationship. Even if the incident ends in a breakup, it can be helpful to acknowledge that the time spent with that partner was not wasted just because of how things ended. 

"To repair is to re-pair"

But what if you do want your relationship to recover? Well, “to repair is to re-pair,” Perel posits.  Healing from infidelity together is about creating the space where both you and your partner can have a candid conversation without it becoming a “me-versus-you” narrative. It can be helpful to discuss the incident in terms of a mutual crisis, which includes acknowledging the underlying issues and emotions that led to one or both people’s infidelity in the first place.

It’s worth acknowledging, of course, that  this strategy can feel incredibly unfair or one-sided to the person who was cheated on. It will bring up many emotions, and it’s difficult not to want to inflict the same amount of pain and anger that your partner inflicted on you. 

But if the ultimate goal is to move beyond the incident, there’s no easy way out. It will take time, patience, and most likely therapy. Just be reassured that Perel has seen many examples of couples who have made it out on the other side, and are more communicative, patient, and dedicated to one another than ever.