You’re madly in love, in lust, in everything. She’s divine. So you wouldn’t be unfaithful, right? And yet… Therapists are noticing a vigorous increase in couples explaining that, while they’re very happy together, one of them has had an affair. One guilty party, Serena, said to me, “I adore Jonathan. He is brilliant, hot, my soul mate. Sex is fantastic. I never would have believed I’d be unfaithful – we were great together.” So what went wrong? Why would she betray her perfect man? Or, to ask another way, why do happy people cheat?
Psychotherapist and relationship therapist Esther Perel is probably the world’s foremost authority on infidelity. A husky, French-accented New Yorker with piercing blue eyes, she has studied the subject for more than a decade; her TED talks on it have been watched some 20 million times. “I have travelled the globe and worked with hundreds of couples shattered by infidelity,” she tells me. Today, she estimates that in 80 per cent of her cases the infidelity is not prompted by a failing relationship. Instead, the common trigger is a desire for self discovery. “Very often we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person,” she says, “we go elsewhere because we are looking for another self.”
Statistics around infidelity are hard to come by. If we lie about how much we have sex, we lie so much more about how much we cheat
“Half fascinated and half horrified, Priya would tell me about her assignations,” Perel continues. “They had sex only half a dozen times; it was more about feeling sexy than having sex. As I listened to her, I started to suspect her affair was not about her husband or their relationship. Her story is about a quest for a new identity.” And she is using the truck-driving gardener as a way to explore a new and thrilling, transgressive facet of herself.
It is the same with Serena. “In every part of life I expect the very best,” she shrugs, tapping her long nails against her coffee cup. “While Jonathan is amazing, when I talked to Pete this fast, witty, dominant side of myself came out, which was a total trip. I couldn’t resist going for drinks with him; I loved this killer persona that came out in me.”
Statistics around infidelity are hard to come by. If we lie about how much we have sex, we lie so much more about how much we cheat. Definitions are also blurred: where is the line drawn when it comes to logging back into a hook-up app, to sexting, to an intense emotional affair where the not-yet-had sex is more potent than it could ever be IRL?
Citing stats that up to three quarters of us stray in some way, Perel shrugs. “We live in an age of entitlement. Personal fulfilment, we believe, is our due. In the West, sex is a right, linked to our individuality, our self-actualisation – and affairs can be an expansive experience that involves growth and transformation.”
UK-based sex therapist Kate Moyle agrees. “We are constantly peering through the metaphorical looking glass, aka our phone screens, into other people’s lives, comparing ourselves to them. It creates a heightened desire for more, more, more.”
Even those in open relationships are not immune. Perel notes examples where polyamorous lovers have broken the rules of their own open arrangements, having "affairs" with people who should have been out of bounds – the ex-girlfriend or the work colleague, for example – as their desire for self-actualisation (and, arguably the rush of transgression) overtook the importance of consensual but committed non-monogamy.
So does this lust for experience, this solipsistic drive sound a kind of death knell for the grand ambition of romantic love? Or, what if this passion for self-furthering, for ticking off ever more boxes on life’s bucket list, might be done without the assistance of some third party?
Set up a secret email account exclusively for X-rated messages, bringing back the attention and intensity of hooking up
“People often look for new selves outside of their relationship,” continues Moyle. “If only they transformed their attitude, they might not need to.” An awareness of how likely it is you’ll be tempted to cheat might be just the spur needed to evade actually doing it. Instead of risking everything, a more strategic path would be to capture the vitality and reinvention of an affair within your current status quo.
As to how, Perel is quite clear. You must cultivate distance, be enigmatic, surprise and delight one another; use a little jealousy, why not, to stoke the flames. “Continue to have new experiences, not sexual per se, but across the board, and make them as intense as possible: you want to bring fresh energy and curiosity, and avoid anything that is consistent or repetitive. Bring the veuve, the boldness and the playfulness you’d have in an affair to your home.”
To jolt clients into something more electric, Perel advised one couple to set up a secret email account exclusively for X-rated messages, bringing back the attention and intensity of hooking up. Another client took up singing in clubs, as she was what she was doing when she met her husband; he now sits in the back and watches her with the eyes of a stranger.
And at the same time as cultivating your twin personas, let us not, of course, forget the transcendent, bonding power of sensational sex. According to erotic educator and pain-pleasure maîtresse Betony Vernon, “As well as maintaining individual interests, lives and friends and doing things separately, you must keep recreating your intimate time together. Treat sex as something sacred that will enrich your lives and take you to new planes."
Moreover, Vernon points out that swathes of the more adventurous sexual landscape are best explored with someone you know extremely well. “There are huge aspects of arousal that are not opened up until you build trust and intimacy. This doesn’t happen in the first five dates.”
Both Perel and Vernon exhort that sex should not always be spontaneous, and celebrate the power of a longer seduction. “Foreplay pretty much starts at the previous orgasm,” smiles Perel.
“You should plot,” Vernon continues. “Tell her, 'Tonight, I am going to dress you, this is how I want to see you, this is what I am going to do to you.' If you learn ways to make love at length, for hours, with the mind and with the whole body, you can move into an ongoing orgasmic state in which you travel into another erotic dimension.” And this deeper, mind-body communion, perhaps straying into the seductive eddies of BDSM, might be more magnetic, more self-enriching than anything that could be achieved in a newer dalliance.
In the wake of devastating betrayals, so many couples tell me they are having some of the deepest, most honest conversations
Nor is the end necessarily nigh in couples where one person has already strayed. Yes, the fallout will be dreadful. “The flip side of the digital and hook-up culture is that after years of sexual nomadism, when you finally commit you bet you value exclusivity,” explains Perel. “When that is broken, your whole identity is called into question. But, catastrophe has a way of propelling us into the essence of things. In the wake of devastating betrayals, so many couples tell me they are having some of the deepest, most honest conversations: their unfulfilled expectations, unspoken resentments, unmet longings.”
The ideal would be that we can have these conversations while things are good, to give long-distance relationships wings. But Perel also believes that infidelity can be a fire which will forge a stronger allegiance. She is hopeful that Priya and Colin’s marriage will survive, as long as they are able to metabolise her transgression.
“Often when a couple come to me in the wake of an affair, it is clear to me their first marriage is over. So I ask them, 'Would you like to create a second one together?'"
And for those of us still tangled in a bed of clover, do we care enough consciously to reinvent ourselves, and each other, to unearth all the people we can be, in a single monogamous bond?
Original article published in GQ, in January, 2018