Rethinking infidelity … a talk for anyone who has ever loved | Esther Perel


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 cheat
out of boredom and fear of intimacy, but women cheat out of loneliness
and hunger for intimacy? And is an affair always
the end of a relationship? For the past 10 years,
I have traveled the globe and worked extensively
with hundreds of couples who have been shattered by infidelity. There is one simple act of transgression that can rob a couple
of their relationship, their happiness and their
very identity: an affair. And yet, this extremely common
act is so poorly understood. So this talk is for anyone
who has ever loved. Adultery has existed
since marriage was invented, and so, too, the taboo against it. In fact, infidelity has a tenacity
that marriage can only envy, so much so, that this is
the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible: once for doing it, and once
just for thinking about it. (Laughter) So how do we reconcile
what is universally forbidden, yet universally practiced? Now, throughout history, men
practically had a license to cheat with little consequence, and supported by a host
of biological and evolutionary theories that justified their need to roam, so the double standard
is as old as adultery itself. But who knows what’s really going on
under the sheets there, right? Because when it comes to sex, the pressure for men
is to boast and to exaggerate, but the pressure for women
is to hide, minimize and deny, which isn’t surprising when you consider
that there are still nine countries where women can be killed for straying. Now, monogamy used to be
one 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 monogamy
had 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 question
since I arrived at this conference. (Laughter) It applies to you. But the definition of infidelity
keeps on expanding: sexting, watching porn, staying
secretly active on dating apps. So because there is no
universally agreed-upon definition of what even constitutes an infidelity, estimates vary widely,
from 26 percent to 75 percent. But on top of it, we are
walking contradictions. So 95 percent of us will say
that it is terribly wrong for our partner to lie
about having an affair, but just about the same
amount of us will say that that’s exactly what we
would do if we were having one. (Laughter) Now, I like this definition
of an affair — it brings together the three key elements: a secretive relationship,
which is the core structure of an affair; an emotional connection
to one degree or another; and a sexual alchemy. And alchemy is the key word here, because the erotic frisson is such that
the 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 responsible
for love, not the other person. So it’s never been easier to cheat, and it’s never been more
difficult to keep a secret. And never has infidelity exacted
such a psychological toll. When marriage was an economic enterprise, infidelity threatened
our economic security. But now that marriage
is a romantic arrangement, infidelity threatens
our emotional security. Ironically, we used to turn to adultery — that was the space where
we sought pure love. But now that we seek love in marriage, adultery destroys it. Now, there are three ways that I think
infidelity hurts differently today. We have a romantic ideal
in 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 shatters
the 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 patient
Heather is telling me, when she’s talking to me
about her story with Nick. Married, two kids. Nick just left on a business trip, and Heather is playing
on his iPad with the boys, when she sees a message
appear on the screen: “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 me
that her father had affairs, but her mother, she found
one little receipt in the pocket, and a little bit of lipstick
on the collar. Heather, she goes digging, and she finds hundreds of messages, and photos exchanged
and desires expressed. The vivid details
of Nick’s two-year affair unfold in front of her in real time, And it made me think: Affairs in the digital age
are death by a thousand cuts. But then we have another paradox
that we’re dealing with these days. Because of this romantic ideal, we are relying on our partner’s
fidelity with a unique fervor. But we also have never
been more inclined to stray, and not because we have new desires today, but because we live in an era where we feel that we are
entitled to pursue our desires, because this is the culture
where I deserve to be happy. And if we used to divorce
because we were unhappy, today we divorce
because 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 they
will 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 assumption
is that if someone cheats, either there’s something wrong
in your relationship or wrong with you. But millions of people
can’t all be pathological. The logic goes like this: If you
have everything you need at home, then there is no need
to go looking elsewhere, assuming that there is such
a thing as a perfect marriage that will inoculate us against wanderlust. But what if passion
has a finite shelf life? What if there are things
that even a good relationship can never provide? If even happy people cheat, what is it about? The vast majority of people
that I actually work with are not at all chronic philanderers. They are often people who are
deeply 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 have
actually 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. But for a glimmer of what? Affairs are an act of betrayal, and they are also an expression
of longing and loss. At the heart of an affair,
you will often find a longing and a yearning
for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom,
for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture
lost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring back
vitality in the face of loss and tragedy. I’m thinking about
another 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 done
what was expected of her: good girl, good wife, good mother, taking care of her immigrant parents. Priya, she fell for the arborist
who 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 about
the adolescence that she never had. And her story highlights for me
that when we seek the gaze of another, it isn’t always our partner
that we are turning away from, but the person that
we have ourselves become. And it isn’t so much that we’re
looking for another person, as much as we are
looking for another self. Now, all over the world, there is one word that people
who have affairs always tell me. They feel alive. And they often will tell me
stories 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 live
in the shadow of an affair, because they raise these questions. Is this it? Is there more? Am I going on for another
25 years like this? Will I ever feel that thing again? And it has led me to think
that perhaps these questions are the ones that propel
people to cross the line, and that some affairs are
an 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 can
never have your lover, keeps you wanting. That in itself is a desire machine, because the incompleteness, the ambiguity, keeps you wanting
that which you can’t have. Now some of you probably think that affairs don’t happen
in open relationships, but they do. First of all, the conversation
about monogamy is not the same as the conversation about infidelity. But the fact is that it seems
that even when we have the freedom to have other sexual partners, we still seem to be lured
by the power of the forbidden, that if we do that which
we are not supposed to do, then we feel like we are really
doing what we want to. And I’ve also told
quite a few of my patients that if they could bring
into 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 were
already dying on the vine. But others will jolt us
into new possibilities. The fact is, the majority of couples who have experienced
affairs stay together. But some of them will merely survive, and others will actually be able
to turn a crisis into an opportunity. They’ll be able to turn this
into a generative experience. And I’m actually thinking even
more 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 have
to uphold the status quo that may not have been working
for them that well, either. I’ve noticed that a lot of couples, in the immediate aftermath of an affair, because of this new disorder
that may actually lead to a new order, will have depths of conversations
with honesty and openness that they haven’t had in decades. And, partners who were
sexually indifferent find themselves suddenly
so lustfully voracious, they don’t know where it’s coming from. Something about the fear
of loss will rekindle desire, and make way for an entirely
new kind of truth. So when an affair is exposed, what are some of the specific things
that couples can do? We know from trauma that healing begins when the perpetrator
acknowledges 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 lot
of people who have affairs may feel terribly guilty
for hurting their partner, but they don’t feel guilty
for the experience of the affair itself. And that distinction is important. And Nick, he needs to hold
vigil 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 sure
that the affair isn’t forgotten, and that in itself
begins to restore trust. But for Heather, or deceived partners, it is essential to do things
that bring back a sense of self-worth, to surround oneself with love
and with friends and activities that give back joy
and meaning and identity. But even more important, is to curb the curiosity
to mine for the sordid details — Where were you? Where did you do it? How often? Is she better
than me in bed? — questions that only inflict more pain, and keep you awake at night. And instead, switch to what I call
the investigative questions, the ones that mine
the meaning and the motives — What did this affair mean for you? What were you able to express
or experience there that you could no longer do with me? What was it like for you
when 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 answers
of black and white and good and bad, and victim and perpetrator. Betrayal in a relationship
comes in many forms. There are many ways
that we betray our partner: with contempt, with neglect, with indifference, with violence. Sexual betrayal is only
one 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 good
can come out of an affair, I have often been asked
this very strange question: Would I ever recommend it? Now, I would no more
recommend you have an affair than I would recommend you have cancer, and yet we know that people
who have been ill often talk about how their illness
has yielded them a new perspective. The main question that I’ve been asked
since I arrived at this conference when I said I would talk
about 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 me
in 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 have
two or three relationships or marriages, and some of us are going
to do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create
a second one together? Thank you. (Applause)

Comments 33

  • Sorry but I cannot agree with this title. I'll listen but I know I cannot simply just allow it. You forgive them for this, most times than naught they will do it again. It is a deal breaker.

  • I am not going to led a TED talk or TedX change my view on infidelity.

  • oh she is right on

  • Wow ! Brilliant !

  • Infedelity is any interaction with anyone your partner does notvlike and wants to make you miserable aboutveven knowing……

  • Someone who cheats on you is disrespecting your entire existence, never give them a second chance even if you have kids together. It is toxic to your soul to try and make things work, don’t do it. Once a cheater always a cheater.

  • Lo máximo!!!!! No se trata del engaño en sí, si no del auto descubrimiento y crecimiento sobre tú mismo.

  • YES THE FIRST MARRIAGE IS OVER AND SHE AND HER TEAM OF LAWYERS JUST STOLE HALF MY HOUSE HALF OF ALL MY CARS HALF OF MY BOAT HALF OF MY CABIN HALF OF MY JETSKIS AND HALF OF MY TOYS AND SANITY AND HALF OF ALL MY AIR MILES EVEN . MARRIAGE WITHOUT A PRENUP IS NOW A DAYS NOTHING MORE THAT A SCAM TO STEAL ALL YOU ACHEIVED AND EVER WORKED FOR AND BUILT UP JUST TO BE DESTROYED BY HER INSANITY !!!!! WARNING TO ALL MEN

  • Ahh well then …ahhh Go ..go ..rethink just leave the rest of us out of you're stupid thoughts

  • Thank you.

  • You’ve totally sold me. I’m having an affair as soon as possible.

  • I can’t help but hate you, even though I feel like you understand this well.

  • I can’t help but hate you, even though I feel like you understand this well.

  • i think we need to return to the traditional ideals of marriage … to secure a political alliance with France

  • Man, meaning people are made for serial monogamy.It's the law, the church and other outside influences that make that impossible.

  • Have relevence in many other aspects of life, a profound talk

  • Some of this only relates to young people, and some of this only relates to old people.
    Regardless, it all boils down to stagnation and fantasy.

  • ok props for a ted talker to be self aware about their background like that

  • Excellent speaker indeed – charismatic and insightful <3

  • Relax yall. Its just cheating. Not a big deal!

  • Normalization then novelty seeking. Our brains our designed this way. It's both the best and worst trait that we have.

  • Notice she says He when describing how to repair the relationship after having an affair. I can't find anything so great here.

  • She's looking at the problem from a very limited perspective. Obviously most people don't have the balls to confront themselves about how they misrule and abuse their own life. That's where one should start from. If a person can't take care of themselves they can't take care of a relationship. And if they can't do that, nor work from within the relationship instead of searching for what's missing outside of it, then they are better refraining from one and starting to work on themselves. Of course, this topic relates as well to how most people don't know how to choose a good and right partner too. My point is all of those problems are more fundamental and fixing them would fix to a great part the loose lifestyle we have descended into….

  • women cost to much over time .

    I concentrate on me my money I make is mine .

    I’m happy on my own
    I get to do what I want when I want
    Sexual relationship with women never appealed to me.

    Women will go digging even when your not cheating .

    Women are a waste of time an resource and more and more young men are realizing this.

    Thank God for MGTOW

  • I'm openly polyamorus and I can honestly tell you very little really ignites passion for my partner than other women. When I get bored the NRE is often excilerating but it can very easily turn into a situation where I remember why I fell in love with her in the first place…. it reinforces the two of us… People's ego is whack, we basically think we can provide an endless list of needs/desires for exactly one person and the moment they stray our identity is shattered…

    it wasn't like this for me, I guess I've always been somewhat detached from my relationships in that I never exactly derived identity from them, I guess because I view that as a dangerous situation that gives too much power to others.

    I've never thought of myself as the endlesss satisfier of lyssa's heartfelt desires…

    I don't expect her to be either, I think the Ideal around monogamy is unrealistic, we expect one person to fulfill every one of our needs and desires
    but I can't even find a friend to go to all of the same concerts I'd want to go to…

    Yet alone all the television shows, the foreign media… etc I've been into. I've done so much on my own… I don't think ANYONE is going to get all the things I was into at once…. I don't think it's fair to expect them to…

  • Fear not Boonan.

  • Yes, longing and loss; however, not all affairs are partners simply being wayward. Sometimes it is their way out of the relationship. And if you're a debilitatingly ill partner (mortality) who's working hard to keep your relationship together–intimacy alive–, when you've tried to talk with your partner about the loss they're experiencing as a result of your illness, it's difficult have people tell you that "it takes two to tango." Both people are blamed, which is traumatising to the ill person. I was blamed by my partner for finding out about the affair while my partner took no responsibility and went so far to say, "I thought you'd be happy I found love." Illness can be an opportunity for greater intimacy and deeper love… it can be a growth inducing journey. I might have considered going along with ongoing infidelity if I thought that was something my partner could do, but my partner believed in happy ever after and I'd delivered disability. Not only does the ill person lose the person they love, they're in the position to not have love in their life again. Ask me how I know. That's a joke. I'm not going to respond. My father was not well and my mother stuck buy him until he could be well enough for them to have a better life. He was still ill. I've become better and am still ill. Yes, people think that love, honor, duty means nothing.

  • Someone has some pretty damaging dirt on me and he has been blackmailing me that he will go to town with this information. Sometime last year, so I hired @brandhackers1 on Instagram or you can send them a chat on Whatsapp +19163042321..It turns out these guys are even better, they hacked the blackmailer's phone and we were able to extract some damaging dirt on him too. Now, I have invoked what is termed mutually assured destruction (MAD). I informed him on the things I found out about him with evidence and he has now pledged not to release the dirt he has on me.

  • So I should wife up a chick, pay her bills and not mind other dudes hittin it? I think I'll just continue to string girls along till they gives an ultimatum. Then we're done. This strategy is not without it's kinks, but it works.

  • “Random analogy from the video we watched “ exclamation of approval!!

  • Had an relationship with woman but her real love was a married man I was just to fill the void in her life

  • WHO THE HECK THOUGHT SHE HAD A FRENCH ACCENT. SHE HAS A GERMAN ACCENT.

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