Last Saturday I had the unique opportunity of attending Esther Perel’s workshop in NYC entitled When Desire Goes Looking Elsewhere. She has become a leading expert in the field of infidelity and relationship betrayal. Following the release of her second book, State of Affairs, she opened up this teaching space to professionals, many of them members of her Sessions platform.
She is really an amazing woman.
If you haven’t heard of her, she is a trained psychotherapist who has become the icon for sexual ‘desire’; that is, she has written two books, Mating in Captivity, Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, about the culture of passion, desire, sex and sexuality and The State of Affairs, Rethinking Infidelity, about the taboo topic of infidelity. Both best sellers. She has now joined the teaching/speaking circuit.
There were a few new and enlightening key points that came out of this workshop for me and the other 150 in-person attendants and 250 livestream. Regardless listening to Esther speak is nothing less than stimulating.
Infidelity is Always Relational
For one, not every affair or pattern of chronic infidelity or out of control sexual behavior is a symptom of the relationship. Not every transgression is relational. As her tendency leans towards the relational component of the topic of adultery, she notes that for many it may not be about how you feel about your partner. Not a new concept for me, I have worked with many for whom they love their partner and, in fact, would like to spend their lives with none other. However, in the context of their individual pains or trauma points, they are directed out-sometimes as a way to find and reclaim parts of themselves that they lost or never had or sometimes with erotic rage at the core. When they reach out they turn away from their partner and when they turn away from their partner they don’t have to face the person they are or the person they have become. And they don’t have to face their pain. It’s a convenient pattern of avoidance—avoidance of facing the self, something with which we have all done at one point or another.
That said, there are times, quite often, when the affair(s) is relational; that it, it is about the connection or lack thereof. This is more often the case when the sex has dwindled within the relationship. (Believe it or not there are many relationships that incur an active and satisfactory sex life when there is infidelity). With this, the philosophy is—when you fix the relationship, the sex will follow. Sometimes it works this way.
We are and have been redefining the definition of infidelity. It’s not just sex in some hotel room or office or even one’s marital bed or classified ads for intermittent liaisons. That is, in fact, long gone. Enter (perhaps for some time) texting, sexting, tinder, ihookup, grindr, social media Ashley Madison, sex without clothes, sex with clothes, Clinton sex, flirting, nude pics and dick pics, passive porn, active porn, interactive porn, the deep web, the dark web and much more. The idea that you can go on an app and find the number of people within a 5 miles’ radius that are available for dating and/or sex is yes drastically antithetical to the days of the classified ads.
For some betrayal is intercourse. For others its flirting, its sharing pics or searching the apps, even if the latter is all one does. And yes it signals someone stepping away. Penis in vagina sex is not the only definition of a betrayal for a heterosexual couple anymore in modern times.
Sexual satisfaction is at a crossroads. Where we do it, with whom, how much, how and why has and is changing. With the numbers at 50% for men and 40% approximately for women stepping outside says we have to redefine relationships, marriage, monogamy
Perel is highly relational because despite that the etiology of the betrayal may arise within the self, within the intrapsychic walls of the person, the repair and recovery dictates a relational process; the behavior has hurt not just the perpetrator but the partner, and often the affair partner(s) as well as family members. Both or all need to make meaning of the experience.
See my other blogs on infidelity and relationship therapy.