Why do we cheat? And why do happy people cheat? And when we say “infidelity,”what exactly do we mean? Is it a hookup, a love story,paid sex, a chat room, a massage with a happy ending? Why do we think that men cheatout of boredom and fear of intimacy, but women cheat out of lonelinessand hunger for intimacy? And is an affair alwaysthe end of a relationship? For the past 10 years,I have traveled the globe and worked extensivelywith hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. There is one simple act of transgression that can rob a coupleof their relationship, their happiness and theirvery identity: an affair. And yet, this extremely commonact is so poorly understood. So this talk is for anyonewho has ever loved. Adultery has existedsince marriage was invented, and so, too, the taboo against it. In fact, infidelity has a tenacitythat marriage can only envy, so much so, that this isthe only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible: once for doing it, and oncejust for thinking about it. (Laughter) So how do we reconcilewhat is universally forbidden, yet universally practiced? Now, throughout history, menpractically had a license to cheat with little consequence, and supported by a hostof biological and evolutionary theories that justified their need to roam, so the double standardis as old as adultery itself. But who knows what’s really going onunder the sheets there, right? Because when it comes to sex, the pressure for menis to boast and to exaggerate, but the pressure for womenis to hide, minimize and deny, which isn’t surprising when you considerthat there are still nine countries where women can be killed for straying. Now, monogamy used to beone person for life. Today, monogamy is one person at a time. (Laughter) (Applause) I mean, many of you probably have said, “I am monogamous in all my relationships.” (Laughter) We used to marry, and had sex for the first time. But now we marry, and we stop having sex with others. The fact is that monogamyhad nothing to do with love. Men relied on women’s fidelity in order to know whose children these are, and who gets the cows when I die. Now, everyone wants to know what percentage of people cheat. I’ve been asked that questionsince I arrived at this conference. (Laughter) It applies to you. But the definition of infidelitykeeps on expanding: sexting, watching porn, stayingsecretly active on dating apps. So because there is nouniversally agreed-upon definition of what even constitutes an infidelity,
of what even constitutes an infidelity, estimates vary widely,from 26 percent to 75 percent. But on top of it, we arewalking contradictions. So 95 percent of us will saythat it is terribly wrong for our partner to lieabout having an affair, but just about the sameamount of us will say that that’s exactly what wewould do if we were having one. (Laughter) Now, I like this definitionof an affair — it brings together the three key elements: a secretive relationship,which is the core structure of an affair; an emotional connectionto one degree or another; and a sexual alchemy. And alchemy is the key word here, because the erotic frisson is such thatthe kiss that you only imagine giving, can be as powerful and as enchanting as hours of actual lovemaking. As Marcel Proust said, it’s our imagination that is responsiblefor love, not the other person. So it’s never been easier to cheat, and it’s never been moredifficult to keep a secret. And never has infidelity exactedsuch a psychological toll. When marriage was an economic enterprise, infidelity threatenedour economic security. But now that marriageis a romantic arrangement, infidelity threatensour emotional security. Ironically, we used to turn to adultery — that was the space wherewe sought pure love. But now that we seek love in marriage, adultery destroys it. Now, there are three ways that I thinkinfidelity hurts differently today. We have a romantic idealin which we turn to one person to fulfill an endless list of needs: to be my greatest lover, my best friend, the best parent, my trusted confidant, my emotional companion,my intellectual equal. And I am it: I’m chosen, I’m unique, I’m indispensable, I’m irreplaceable, I’m the one. And infidelity tells me I’m not. It is the ultimate betrayal. Infidelity shattersthe grand ambition of love. But if throughout history,infidelity has always been painful, today it is often traumatic, because it threatens our sense of self. So my patient Fernando, he’s plagued. He goes on: “I thought I knew my life. I thought I knew who you were,who we were as a couple, who I was. Now, I question everything.” Infidelity — a violation of trust,a crisis of identity. “Can I ever trust you again?” he asks. “Can I ever trust anyone again?” And this is also what my patientHeather is telling me, when she’s talking to meabout her story with Nick. Married, two kids. Nick just left on a business trip, and Heather is playingon his iPad with the boys, when she sees a messageappear on the screen: “Can’t wait to see you.”
“Can’t wait to see you.” Strange, she thinks,we just saw each other. And then another message: “Can’t wait to hold you in my arms.” And Heather realizes these are not for her. She also tells methat her father had affairs, but her mother, she foundone little receipt in the pocket, and a little bit of lipstickon the collar. Heather, she goes digging, and she finds hundreds of messages, and photos exchangedand desires expressed. The vivid detailsof Nick’s two-year affair unfold in front of her in real time, And it made me think: Affairs in the digital ageare death by a thousand cuts. But then we have another paradoxthat we’re dealing with these days. Because of this romantic ideal, we are relying on our partner’sfidelity with a unique fervor. But we also have neverbeen more inclined to stray, and not because we have new desires today, but because we live in an era where we feel that we areentitled to pursue our desires, because this is the culturewhere I deserve to be happy. And if we used to divorcebecause we were unhappy, today we divorcebecause we could be happier. And if divorce carried all the shame, today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame. So Heather, she can’t talk to her friends because she’s afraid that theywill judge her for still loving Nick, and everywhere she turns,she gets the same advice: Leave him. Throw the dog on the curb. And if the situation were reversed,Nick would be in the same situation. Staying is the new shame. So if we can divorce, why do we still have affairs? Now, the typical assumptionis that if someone cheats, either there’s something wrongin your relationship or wrong with you. But millions of peoplecan’t all be pathological. The logic goes like this: If youhave everything you need at home, then there is no needto go looking elsewhere, assuming that there is sucha thing as a perfect marriage that will inoculate us against wanderlust. But what if passionhas a finite shelf life? What if there are thingsthat even a good relationship can never provide? If even happy people cheat, what is it about? The vast majority of peoplethat I actually work with are not at all chronic philanderers. They are often people who aredeeply monogamous in their beliefs, and at least for their partner. But they find themselves in a conflict between their values and their behavior. They often are people who haveactually been faithful for decades, but one day they cross a line that they never thought they would cross, and at the risk of losing everything.
puzzle table and at the risk of losing everything.
and at the risk of losing everything. But for a glimmer of what? Affairs are an act of betrayal, and they are also an expressionof longing and loss. At the heart of an affair,you will often find a longing and a yearningfor an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom,for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapturelost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring backvitality in the face of loss and tragedy. I’m thinking aboutanother patient of mine, Priya, who is blissfully married, loves her husband, and would never want to hurt the man. But she also tells me that she’s always donewhat was expected of her: good girl, good wife, good mother, taking care of her immigrant parents. Priya, she fell for the arboristwho removed the tree from her yard after Hurricane Sandy. And with his truck and his tattoos,he’s quite the opposite of her. But at 47, Priya’s affair is aboutthe adolescence that she never had. And her story highlights for methat when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t always our partnerthat we are turning away from, but the person thatwe have ourselves become. And it isn’t so much that we’relooking for another person, as much as we arelooking for another self. Now, all over the world, there is one word that peoplewho have affairs always tell me. They feel alive. And they often will tell mestories of recent losses — of a parent who died, and a friend that went too soon, and bad news at the doctor. Death and mortality often livein the shadow of an affair, because they raise these questions. Is this it? Is there more? Am I going on for another25 years like this? Will I ever feel that thing again? And it has led me to thinkthat perhaps these questions are the ones that propelpeople to cross the line, and that some affairs arean attempt to beat back deadness, in an antidote to death. And contrary to what you may think, affairs are way less about sex,and a lot more about desire: desire for attention,desire to feel special, desire to feel important. And the very structure of an affair, the fact that you cannever have your lover, keeps you wanting. That in itself is a desire machine, because the incompleteness, the ambiguity, keeps you wantingthat which you can’t have. Now some of you probably think that affairs don’t happenin open relationships, but they do. First of all, the conversationabout monogamy is not the same as the conversation about infidelity. But the fact is that it seemsthat even when we have the freedom to have other sexual partners,
the freedom to have other sexual partners, we still seem to be luredby the power of the forbidden, that if we do that whichwe are not supposed to do, then we feel like we are reallydoing what we want to. And I’ve also toldquite a few of my patients that if they could bringinto their relationships one tenth of the boldness,the imagination and the verve that they put into their affairs, they probably would never need to see me. (Laughter) So how do we heal from an affair? Desire runs deep. Betrayal runs deep. But it can be healed. And some affairs are death knells for relationships that werealready dying on the vine. But others will jolt usinto new possibilities. The fact is, the majority of couples who have experiencedaffairs stay together. But some of them will merely survive, and others will actually be ableto turn a crisis into an opportunity. They’ll be able to turn thisinto a generative experience. And I’m actually thinking evenmore so for the deceived partner, who will often say, “You think I didn’t want more? But I’m not the one who did it.” But now that the affair is exposed, they, too, get to claim more, and they no longer haveto uphold the status quo that may not have been workingfor them that well, either. I’ve noticed that a lot of couples, in the immediate aftermath of an affair, because of this new disorderthat may actually lead to a new order, will have depths of conversationswith honesty and openness that they haven’t had in decades. And, partners who weresexually indifferent find themselves suddenlyso lustfully voracious, they don’t know where it’s coming from. Something about the fearof loss will rekindle desire, and make way for an entirelynew kind of truth. So when an affair is exposed, what are some of the specific thingsthat couples can do? We know from trauma that healing begins when the perpetratoracknowledges their wrongdoing. So for the partner who had the affair, for Nick, one thing is to end the affair, but the other is the essential,important act of expressing guilt and remorse for hurting his wife. But the truth is that I have noticed that quite a lotof people who have affairs may feel terribly guiltyfor hurting their partner, but they don’t feel guiltyfor the experience of the affair itself. And that distinction is important. And Nick, he needs to holdvigil for the relationship. He needs to become, for a while,the protector of the boundaries. It’s his responsibility to bring it up, because if he thinks about it, he can relieve Heather from the obsession, and from having to make surethat the affair isn’t forgotten, and that in itselfbegins to restore trust. But for Heather, or deceived partners, it is essential to do thingsthat bring back a sense of self-worth, to surround oneself with loveand with friends and activities that give back joyand meaning and identity. But even more important, is to curb the curiosityto mine for the sordid details — Where were you? Where did you do it? How often? Is she betterthan me in bed? — questions that only inflict more pain, and keep you awake at night. And instead, switch to what I callthe investigative questions, the ones that minethe meaning and the motives — What did this affair mean for you? What were you able to expressor experience there that you could no longer do with me? What was it like for youwhen you came home? What is it about us that you value? Are you pleased this is over? Every affair will redefine a relationship, and every couple will determine what the legacy of the affair will be. But affairs are here to stay,and they’re not going away. And the dilemmas of love and desire, they don’t yield just simple answersof black and white and good and bad, and victim and perpetrator. Betrayal in a relationshipcomes in many forms. There are many waysthat we betray our partner: with contempt, with neglect, with indifference, with violence. Sexual betrayal is onlyone way to hurt a partner. In other words, the victim of an affair is not always the victim of the marriage. Now, you’ve listened to me, and I know what you’re thinking: She has a French accent,she must be pro-affair. (Laughter) So, you’re wrong. I am not French. (Laughter) (Applause) And I’m not pro-affair. But because I think that goodcan come out of an affair, I have often been askedthis very strange question: Would I ever recommend it? Now, I would no morerecommend you have an affair than I would recommend you have cancer, and yet we know that peoplewho have been ill often talk about how their illnesshas yielded them a new perspective. The main question that I’ve been askedsince I arrived at this conference when I said I would talkabout infidelity is, for or against? I said, “Yes.” (Laughter) I look at affairs from a dual perspective: hurt and betrayal on one side, growth and self-discovery on the other — what it did to you,and what it meant for me. And so when a couple comes to mein the aftermath of an affair that has been revealed, I will often tell them this: Today in the West, most of us are going to havetwo or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are goingto do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to createa second one together? Thank you. (Applause)