Slate interviewed (the fascinating) therapist Esther Perel a couple weeks ago, the new age Dr. Ruth, the “sexual healer” of Mating in Captivity, about her most recent project, Affairs in the Age of Transparency. In this new research, she speaks solely to patients involved in extramarital affairs, the vast majority of whom describe themselves as “content” in their marriages. In being asked whether or not her patients are interested in leaving their marriages, the vast majority say ‘no.’ Why, then, the infidelity? Why do we cheat, when today we are asked to be more honest than ever about our lives—more companionable with our information—text messages and e-mails—stored for us to be transparent about, every minute of every day?

Perel says that the emphasis on transparency and closeness, while being a sound idea, requires the myth that “everything you need can be found at home.” The spouse is, in the perfectly transparent relationship, the perfect, need-fulfilling spouse. It doesn’t take much to see where these expectations fall—Perel describes, as we have before, that knowing is not half the battle:

Perel: We have this idea that our partner is our best friend, that there is one person who will fulfill all our needs, which is really an extraordinary idea! So by definition, people must transgress because something is missing at home. We think, if you had what you needed at home, you wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, instead of thinking that marriage is at best an imperfect arrangement.

Slate: It isn’t true that people transgress because something is actually missing?

Perel: We don’t know the exact numbers because people lie about sex and 10 times more about adultery. But the vast majority of people we come into contact with in our offices are content in their marriages. They are longtime monogamists who one day cross a line into a place they never thought they would go. They remain monogamous in their beliefs, but they experience a chasm between their behavior and their beliefs. And what I am going to really investigate in depth is why people are sometimes willing to lose everything, for a glimmer of what?


What Perel says next, though, takes it a step further. More than just understanding that adultery is a profound example of trespass, of Romans 7 inner-conflict, Perel says that this confliction has more to do with the unfaithful’s understanding of herself/himself. For Perel, infidelity happens because we believe we’ve missed out on something; it’s not that we seek to leave the one we love—we feel discomfort at who we have become. The cognitive dissonance is alarming. Talk about “sharing our lives with the people we have failed to be.”

Perel: I can tell you right away the most important sentence in the book, because I’ve lectured all over the world and this is the thing I say that turns heads most often: Very often we don’t go elsewhere because we are looking for another person. We go elsewhere because we are looking for another self. It isn’t so much that we want to leave the person we are with as we want to leave the person we have become.

Slate: Is this motivation for an affair particular to our age?

Perel: What’s changed is, monogamy used to be one person for life. If I needed to marry you to have sex for the first time and I knew this is it for the rest of my life, then infidelity becomes one of the ways to deal with those limited choices. But now we come to our marriages with a profoundly different set of experiences and expectations. So the interesting question is, why did infidelity continue to rise even when divorce became available and accepted and nonstigmatized? You would think an unhappy person would leave. So by definition they must not be that unhappy. They are in that wonderful ambivalent state, too good to leave, too bad to stay.

Slate: So what are people looking for?

Perel: What’s changed is, we expect a lot more from our relationships. We expect to be happy. We brought happiness down from the afterlife, first to be an option and then a mandate. So we don’t divorce—or have affairs—because we are unhappy but because we could be happier. And all that is part of the feminist deliberation. I deserve this, I am entitled to this, I can have this! It allows people to finally pursue a desire to feel alive.