Why an Affair Isn’t the End of a Relationship

Couples therapist Esther Perel on rethinking infidelity

By The Editors
October 11, 2017 9:00 am

In her new book The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity (out this week), renowned couples therapist, NY Times bestseller and InsideHook contributor Esther Perel reexamines betrayal.

One thing she doesn’t offer? Simple answers.

But she does look at the common denominators that precipitate affairs, the evolution of relationship expectations, and the steps couples can take to recover from infidelity.

In an adapted excerpt for InsideHook, Perel discusses the “dagger of romantic betrayal” that drives many to seek revenge, along with an alternative:

Actually processing the pain of loss, in the hopes that a relationship — like most things — can one day be repaired.

Esther Perel: Image by Karen Harms

“You’ve Made Me Suffer, Now You’ll Pay!”

For many of the people I see, facing the anguish of infidelity leads first to rage, then to grief and only later to self-examination. The rage sparks the mortal urge for retaliation — that ancient rite of the injured.

The vengeful heart is wickedly imaginative. “I dug up the court records on him and sent them to her parents. I thought they should know whom their daughter was f*cking.” “One day I boiled his favorite clothes with the sheets. Oops.” “I told the women in her parenting group what she did to me. I wouldn’t want my kids to come to the house of a mother like that.” “I had a yard sale and sold all his stuff while he was away on some dirty weekend with that whore.” “I uploaded our sex tape to PornHub.” Jilted love seeks retribution. “You’re not getting off scot-free. I’m going to make you pay for this.”

Revenge implies an attempt to “get even,” often colored by vindictiveness and anticipated satisfaction. Avenging heroes strut through the Greek myths, the Old Testament, and countless great love stories, and while contemporary culture might claim to be less brutish, we have our own celebrations of payback, especially when the offense is infidelity. We relish seeing a cad get his comeuppance. We amp up the volume and sing along as Carrie Underwood describes how she took a Louisville Slugger to the headlights of her boyfriend’s car while he danced with a “bleached blond tramp” inside the bar. Even in their most deadly form, so-called crimes of passion are often treated more leniently than cold-blooded murder, especially in Latin cultures.

Settling the Score

With the revelation of an affair, suddenly the scoreboard of a marriage is lit up: the giving and the taking, the concessions and the demands, the allocation of money, sex, time, in-laws, children, chores. All the things we never really wanted to do but did in the name of love are now stripped of the context that gave them meaning. “Of course I’ll move to Singapore so you can take your dream job. I’m sure I can make new friends.” “I’ll have my son circumcised because your religion believes that’s the right thing.” “I’m willing to put my career on hold for you and raise our family.” “I’ll let your mother come live with us even though that means I will be her caregiver.” “If it means that much to you, let’s have another child.” When infidelity robs us of the future we were working for, it invalidates our past sacrifices.

When things are good in a relationship, there’s a spirit of abundance and love that breeds generosity. “I did it for us” makes sense as long as there is trust in that basic unit called “us.” But intimate betrayal turns these graceful accommodations into a farce. The compromises that worked so well yesterday become sacrifices we will no longer stand for today. Healthy boundaries become insurmountable walls. Yesterday’s harmonious sharing of power is today’s all-out tug-of-war. Now, looking back, we add up every time we took one for the team. Heaps of regrets and contained resentments come crashing down, demanding redress.

When Shaun found out that Jenny had been sleeping with a fellow PhD student, he felt like years of unconditional support had been repaid with a slap in the face. “I managed to stop myself from kicking the sh*t out of the guy, but just barely.” Instead he called her parents (less dangerous, more damaging) because he felt they needed to know who their daughter really was. “I worked so hard to give her everything she wanted — to let her leave her full-time job to get that expensive and useless PhD in medieval history — and this is what I get? That motherf*cker understands her? He inspires her? The $100,000 education wasn’t inspiring enough?” Shaun feels robbed. And now he wants to ransack her life like she’s ransacked his. They have broken up, but his hatred keeps him glued to her, even more than when they were together.

Revenge often looks petty, but I have come to respect the depth of hurt it conceals. Unable to reclaim the feelings we’ve lavished, we grab the engagement ring instead. And if that’s not enough, we can always change the wills. All are desperate attempts to repossess power, to exact compensation, to destroy the one who destroyed us as a means of self-preservation. Each dollar, each gift, each treasured book we extract from the rubble is meant to match a broken piece inside. But in the end, it’s a zero-sum game. The urge to settle the score corresponds to the intensity of the shame that eats us up. And the deepest shame is that we were stupid enough to trust all along.

Trying to reason with Shaun is useless. Intellectually, he grasps the futility of his retaliation, but emotionally he’s seething. At this stage my focus is twofold. First, containment. I ask him to send me his list of “the worst things you want to do to her” for safe storage. Second, challenging the revisionism. The edited story of the relationship that he’s now telling leaves out much of the context for the decisions that both he and Jenny made. It misses the fact that she once supported him through school, for instance, and myriad other shared responsibilities. As we deconstruct the one-sided view, we reveal the pain behind the rage.

Esther Perel is a best-selling author, a practicing psychotherapist, celebrated speaker and organizational consultant to Fortune 500 companies. The New York Times, in a cover story, named her the most important game-changer on sexuality and relationships since Dr. Ruth. Her new book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, is out now, and her podcasts can be found here.

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