Infidelity is typically portrayed as the death of a relationship; the worst case scenario short of the actual death of a partner. But our view of infidelity as “the ultimate betrayal” isn’t necessarily accurate, argues relationship expert Esther Perel. It’s actually rooted in our own problematic views of romantic relationships. Perel recently sat down with Jada Pinkett Smith and Adrienne Banfield-Norris on Red Table Talk to discuss why infidelity is now seen as “the ultimate betrayal.” As per usual, her thoughts were disorienting (in a good way).
“The modern romantic ideal is a tenacious model,” she explained. “The model is that, ‘I’m going to have with you everything that I was supposed to get in a traditional marriage, you’re going to co-parent and I’m going to have economic support, and we’re going to be partners, but on top of it you’re going to be my best friend and you’re going to be my confidante and you’re going to help me become the best version of myself.'”
When we have the expectation to have all of our needs must be met by one person, infidelity becomes a crisis on multiple levels, she argues; it seems perhaps more holistically meaningful than it necessarily is because of how much stock we put in our romantic relationships. “I start to think this whole thing we created was a lie, and the whole thing comes crumbling down,” Perel explained.
The conclusion that infidelity occurs because of a deficiency in a relationship is generally wrong, said Perel. So, too, is the conclusion that a relationship must end because of it. “Everyone thinks that as soon as you find out there is an affair, you’ve got to get a divorce,” she said. “God forbid you still love the person who cheated on you.” Meanwhile, myriad other betrayals happen in relationships, she says, like contempt, neglect, and indifference. Yet “nobody tells people to get the hell out it,” she said. “It’s a real pressure, especially for women.” For the first time in all of human history, she said, there’s even shame attached to staying with an unfaithful significant other. (Recall public criticism of Khloe Kardashian when she refused to leave Tristan Thompson, or condemnation of Hillary Clinton after she chose not to divorce Bill.)
“Everyone thinks that as soon as you find out there is an affair, you’ve got to get a divorce. God forbid you still love the person who cheated on you.” —Esther Perel
To this end, Smith agreed: “You might just be married to someone who has an innate sense of adventure—there’s just certain kinds of desires within that have nothing to do with you, per se, but they are personal desires that need to be explored in some manner.”
Still, Perel isn’t suggesting you simply tell your partner to go “adventuring” willy nilly because it’s something they “need.” What she is suggesting, however, is that having difficult conversations from the get-go about love and commitment while staying an autonomous being can help couples navigate rocky waters, especially when it comes to infidelity. “I think of relationships as stories, so when you pick a partner you pick a story. But sometimes you find yourself recruited for a play that you didn’t audition for. It’s the role that’s wrong, but people confuse changing the role with wanting to change the whole relationship and leave,” explained Perel.
For Smith, such feelings around ill-fitting roles led to a redefinition of her marriage with Will Smith as a life partnership by “finding the core of us that wants to be together outside of the constraints of traditional ideas of marriage because they weren’t working for us.” And while this type of work may not lead to the same outcomes as it did in Smith’s marriage—whatever those may be—vulnerable communication around needs and wants rarely hurts a (healthy) relationship.
“[When asked why they cheat], what people tell you all the time is not that ‘I wanted to find another person’, it’s that ‘I wanted to find another self,'” explained Perel. Her takeaway? You shouldn’t have to leave the relationship to find that new you.
IMO, Perel is a freaking genius. Find out why she thinks relationships are particularly laborious these days, your sex life will get better as you age, and the rules of dating are changing too quickly to keep up. Plus, she’s got advice for your friendships, too.
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