Rethinking Infidelity

It’s interesting that over 90% of our culture says “cheating is always wrong,” and yet something like 30-40% of people will cheat at some point (the definition of what this cheating means, of course, is not a blanket one.  Cheating is determined by the boundaries and perimeters set by the couple in that relationship.  Thus, this can and will differ, from person to person, in each varying relationship).

Further, that is only the reported number who admit to it.  Estimates peg the number of people who will step outside the agreed-upon perimeters of some relationship in their life (at one point or another), as potentially anywhere from 50-70%.

For as long as we have monogamy, there will be cheating.

Why? Because we are creatures that, while we do pair bond, and while we do crave and enjoy (even need) the deep connection with one chosen poignant love, simultaneously, we yearn for connecting with others.  The human heart is designed to love.  It seeks connection.  We will continue to feel desire and draw towards others, even as we may love our romantic partner deeply.  These are not mutually exclusive. 

For some people, this will be more so than others. Still, it is a basic, normal, common human experience and challenge.

So how do we grapple with such a thing?  When our society touts the black and white, one size must fit everybody, automatically assumed script in any and all relationships of monogamy, when in fact for many, in reality, this is an extremely challenging thing to maintain, and so rigidly, over years.

We can love someone very much.  And at the same time, feel attracted to, curious about, desire toward, and even have feelings for others.

The human heart does not compartmentalize love.  Love and affection isn’t a zero-sum game.  Though our culture, in its yearning and demand for a sense of control and order, very much tries to make it so.  Drilling this idea into our heads as “the” way it is, the only right way, and only moral and true means by which to love.

Do you not feel a depth of affection, even love, for a handful of close friends?  Do you not love both your parents?  How about your siblings?  Is there just enough room to love one of them?  The rest, then excluded?  What about beloved pets?  If you have more than one, do you not love the others?

Why, in all other types of love, do we acknowledge and permit the loving of many, while in romantic love, we deem this impossible?  Especially when, via observation by the method of numerous books, poems, songs, and even in listening to our loved one’s experiences, we know this is just not accurate?

It is a human and societal construct.  Monogamy.  It is not a scientific fact, nor truth of the human heart.  We made it up.  We decided that this is how relationships function.  It’s a rule and standard we have enacted.  Technically, when you remove the human construct and human imagined moral of things, there is no “one way” or even “right” way for anything.  Even morals, a human imagined creation.

So, monogamy is how most relationships function.  Some of them, quite happily so, while others struggle quietly, often to the detriment of the relationship and people within it, because this is how culture pressures us “you will be” or else.

“But when we reduce the conversation to simply passing judgment, we are left with no conversation at all.” 
― Esther Perel, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity

Funny though, that our culture is one so short-sighted and pigheaded about something which, very plainly, does not work for whole hosts of people.  One need only peer closer at the rates of divorce, the reported stats on cheating (which, let’s remember, are not even close to accurate numbers and in reality are much higher), as well as consider those who remain in relationships that only partially satisfy, those in which they feel resigned, too afraid or too lazy to leave.  The relational landscape makes it plain that uncompromising monogamy does not work for a lot of people.  Why are we so dogged and inflexible about admitting this?

There is nothing wrong with monogamy when it truly works, feels healthy, and fits well for those involved.  In this case, it is a worthwhile, admirable, beautiful thing.  There is, however, something incredibly sad, as well as unfair, and even wrong, for those who are living in such a way because they feel shoehorned and pressured into it, by means of our culture’s inflexible and closed-minded views on the matter.

Anyone who might approach love differently is deemed immoral, unethical, unable to love, noncommital, disloyal, a sex fiend.  When in fact, several studies have shown that those who choose alternate relationship styles and approaches are 1. no less happy than those who are monogamous, and 2. no less committed.  In fact, research shows that most people who mindfully, maturely, and carefully choose other relational scripts and approaches are just as happy, consider themselves quite committed to the ones they love, and often have even better, healthier, and more open communication than couples in traditional relationship styles.

This book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel, challenges the wildly narrow, judgmental, exclusive, black and white, rigid way in which we are told relationships must be.

We live in a culture that automatically demonizes cheaters, even though most of us, at one time or another, will cheat!  We take a moralistic, patronizing stance that anyone who cheats is a shitty, terrible, misguided person who cannot possibly love their partner.  That love is and can only be synonymous with lifelong, unyielding, total physical, emotional, and spiritual monogamy and nothing else.  This is absurd.

“The “symptom” theory goes as follows: An affair simply alerts us to a preexisting condition, either a troubled relationship or a troubled person.” 
― Esther Perel, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity

From the NY Times, they write that in “The State of Affairs,” Perel delves into cheating, asking the usual questions (Why did it happen? How can we recover?) and some that might occur only to her (What if an affair is good for a marriage?). She doesn’t dispense advice as much as scratch at orthodoxies, and pose questions with wit and a Continental exasperation with American mores. Our obsession with transparency, total disclosure and suffocating intimacy stanches desire, she argues — “fire needs air.” Furthermore, our expectations have gotten all out of hand. “Lovers today seek to bring under one roof desires that have forever had separate dwellings,” she writes.  (You can read the full review here).

“Our partners do not belong to us. They are only on loan with an option to renew – or not. Knowing that we can lose them does not have to undermine commitment. Rather, it mandates an active engagement that longterm couples often lose. The realization that our loved ones are forever elusive should jolt us out of complacency in the most positive sense.” – Esther Perel, The State of Affairs

Where is the room in our culture’s current conversation about infidelity for the complexity of what it means to be human?  For the contrasting, even contradicting nuances of what it means to be a person and to be alive.

To both love and hate the same person simultanously.  To lie, in a moment of knowing it’s wrong, feel suffocated with guilt, and yet, still feel as though it’s what one needs at that moment.  To make a decision which hurts someone you love, heartbroken by it, while knowing that for you it was the right one.  To love someone deeply, while also desiring, crushing on, and wanting someone else.  To feel an urge to leave your partner in certain moments, while at the same time, loving and not truly wishing for a life without them.

What about selfish moments in generally unselfish people?  Harsh words flung by someone with a generally kind heart?  A betrayal committed by an otherwise good person?  A moment of anger and snapping in someone who is a generally patient, loving individual?  A moment of foolishness in someone who is usually smart?

Is our culture so attached and hardheaded to chosen blindness, willful ignorance, and a one-track way of thinking?  Can we not look instead with more openness, curiosity, and flexibility, about these complex, many-layered nuances of the human heart?

When we refuse to make room for human complexity, for our shadow sides, for mistakes, darkness, jealousy, or error, even for surprising contradiction, we are setting ourselves up to lead a life of much frustration and strife.  In which case, we are way off the mark about human nature, and in for much internal pain and struggle experienced throughout the course of our lives.

None of this is to condone or encourage cheating.  Far from it.  Cheating is a dishonest, deeply painful, and often a very damaging decision made in a relationship.  What this book, The State of Affairs, as well as this article, are challenging and offering is the thought that it can be possible that the way in which we are considering, judging, and approaching relationships and infidelity might be too fixed, limited, restricted, and even unfair.

That just because someone cheats does not automatically make them a terrible person.  Cheating and badness are not synonymous.  Nor is it an automatic indicator that the relationship is a lousy one, void now of any worth.  This type of thinking can, at times, and not infrequently, result in throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

Cheating can be an indicator of a crappy person.  It can mean the relationship is a poor one.  It can suggest that this person no longer loves their partner.  There are many cases in which a cheater should not be forgiven.

However, these are far from automatic correlations or conclusions.

There can be and are innumerable reasons one might cheat.  Some of which have almost nothing to do with the romantic partner.  Certain instances of cheating can be a death keel for the relationship, others need not be, even far from it.

“The swiping culture lures us with infinite possibilities, but it also exerts a subtle tyranny. The constant awareness of ready alternatives invites unfavorable comparisons, weakens commitment, and prevents us from enjoying the present moment.” 
― Esther Perel, The State Of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity – a book for anyone who has ever loved (

(In her remark above, in “swiping culture,” she is referring, of course, to Tinder and the relational mindset these dating apps encourage and promote).

I highly recommend this read, The State of Affairs.  We need more thinking like it put out into the culture at large.  Esther Perel has worthwhile, thought-provoking, important things to say on the topic of infidelity.  Ones which, if we were able to receive with a curious and open heart (and again, this does not mean condoning or being ok with cheating.  Not even), can result in a far richer, happier, more emotionally poignant, and healthier relational life.

Check out more musings by Brooke at https://medium.com/@brookemeredith

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