The Modern Model
Marriage is a lot like physics – it runs into trouble when a third body is introduced.
Both fields also experienced a revolution in the last century or two, with old ideas being replaced by new conceptions of how things work. For marriage, what was once a mostly economic and societal arrangement is now a romantic one, and is subject (at least in the West) to the “Modern Model of Marriage”.
The modern model goes something like this: a couple meets, feels strong chemistry, discovers shared interests, and starts having sex. The next step is emotional intimacy, as the partners are expected to become each other’s best friends and confidants. Next comes economic partnership: living together, making and spending money together, getting ready for parenthood. A spiritual dimension is added as each partner finds meaning and transcendence in their shared love. Finally, the wedding vows lock in the final requirement: that all of the above will now be provided exclusively within the couple, forever.
This exclusivity is meant to provide security, which has to take precedence in the trade-off against the other benefits of marriage. A union that scores a B grade on chemistry, engagement, sex, meaning, intimacy, and economics with an A+ on security is considered a great marriage, about as good as one can hope for. We accept that couples may face financial troubles, a drifting apart of interests and hobbies, decreased intimacy, and lackluster sex. But it’s an oxymoron to say: “my marriage is great, there’s just a bit of infidelity”.
And yet, as Esther Perel quips:
Infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy.
The quote is from Perel’s book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. I bought it on audio (Perel narrates it herself with passion and a delightful Belgian accent), then immediately ordered a paperback copy for my wife, who read it in one day.
Relationship science seems to lag about 24 centuries behind physics, the modern model of marriage is quite reminiscent of Aristotelian physics. It is a neatly organized package of rules that makes sense when you see it on the page. But it is not built on solid first principles, and it certainly doesn’t hold up to a close inspection of reality.
The State of Affairs is a close inspection of the reality of marriage and adultery. For the most part it relies not on p<0.05 studies but on Perel's three-decade career as a therapist in a dozen countries. The diversity of perspectives in the book is its great strength; it does not offer a single Theory of Relationships and is skeptical of all such attempts. Instead, Perel explores how affairs happen, what it means for all three people involved, and what we can learn from them about the foundation of human desire, fear, sexuality, and love.
The book is subtitled “Rethinking Infidelity”, but I read it as a primer for rethinking relationships more broadly. The multitude of affairs recounted in the book happen in good marriages and bad, new marriages and old, gay and straight, Morrocan and Swiss. Combined, the point to myriad structural weaknesses of the modern model, to the point where launching into a relationship guided by it seems as reckless as sailing into the ocean on a leaky ship.
The book doesn’t offer an alternative set of rules but encourages a fluid approach to marriage that requires constant attention, flexibility, and communication. The romantic dance can only take so many missteps before it falls apart, which is where The State of Affairs comes in. It allows the reader an opportunity to learn from the mistakes and successes of others. Or simply, to learn from their affairs. The book concludes:
At their peak, affairs rarely lack imagination. Nor do they lack desire, abundance of attention, romance, and playfulness. Shared dreams, affection, passion and endless curiosity – all these are natural ingredients found in the adulterous plot. They are also the ingredients of thriving relationships.
Cheating for Utilitarians
Why do we get married? The reason for most people used to be “because father said so”, along with a citation from the appropriate religious text. But modern individualist culture is based on an explicit rejection of the power of family and tradition to dictate our choices. Having enough children to work the farm used to be a core motivation as well, but we don’t use procreation to justify a romantic relationship (and what about infertile, same-sex, and voluntarily childless couples?)
We enter relationships not out of duty and obligation, but rather in the pursuit of happiness. We tell others to “do what makes you happy” in relationships and don’t judge whatever sexual kinks or corny nicknames this entails. We warn against excess sacrifice, neediness, or co-dependence.
And yet, when it comes to infidelity, we become deontologists. A woman rationalizing an affair by calculating that the pleasure shared by her and her lover exceeds the husband’s pain wouldn’t get much sympathy. In the United States, infidelity is the single most condemned legal behavior, clocking a moral disapproval rate of 91%. In a culture that leaves little room for the sacred, romantic fidelity is a sacred value.
In the past, sexual infidelity used to cause tangible harm. Men ran the risk of raising other men’s children, women ran the risk of their husband’s vital resources being diverted elsewhere. Both partners were exposed to sexually transmitted diseases which could be life-threatening. In the age of birth control, paternity testing, child support, condoms, antibiotics, and female economic empowerment, these harms are significantly mitigated. And yet, infidelity seems to hurt more than it did in previous centuries.
Perel explains that infidelity today is not a threat to our economic or physical security, but to our emotional security. It’s a threat to our very identity.
At so many weddings, starry-eyed dreamers recite a list of vows, swearing to be everything to each other, from soul mate to lover to teacher to therapist.
It is a grand ambition, and infidelity tells the betrayed partner that they failed at it. A prerequisite for romantic marriage is succumbing to the illusion that one can make their partner happy like no one else can, that the union is unique and special. The marriage ceremony fuses this illusion into one’s identity, reinforced by the social proof of friends and family offering their tearful congratulations. Infidelity shatters this illusion in a moment.
Affairs can also unmoor the betrayed partner from their own past. Realizing that they lived a lie forces them to reassess their entire personal history for the length of the relationship. The loss of personal history is also experienced as a loss of identity.
The trauma caused by affairs is real, as both the cheater and the betrayed know. Infidelity certainly deserves moral condemnation. And yet, Perel suggests that a focus on moralizing isn’t the most productive reaction to the discovery of an affair.
First, she considers cheating in the context of all other marital misdemeanors. The book recounts the stories of people who cheated on spouses who for years ignored them, bullied and belittled them, emotionally abused them, sacrificed their relationships for work or gambling or crystal meth. It is strange that in all those cases we support the right of the abused partner to find love and comfort with someone else, but only on the condition that they first go through the drawn-out and potentially ruinous process of official divorce. If someone seeks an escape from loneliness and misery before the final papers are signed we turn them from victim to villain.
More importantly, the more moral opprobrium a society has for cheating, the harder life becomes for the betrayed partner. In countries where infidelity is expected, betrayal hurts but is not life-shattering:
We would love to think that pain is pain, democratic and universal. In fact, an entire cultural framework shapes the way we give meaning to our heartbreak. In my conversations with a group of Senegalese women, several of whom had been cheated on by their husbands, none talked about having lost their entire identity. They described sleepless nights, jealousy, endless crying, outbursts of anger. But in their view, husbands cheat because “that’s what men do,” not because their wives are mysteriously inadequate.
Other cultures leave space for jealousy:
In Latin America, the term “jealousy” is bound to appear in the first breath. “In our culture, jealousy is the gut issue,” a woman in Buenos Aires told me. “We want to know, does he still love me? What does she have that I don’t?”
“What about the lying?” I asked. She laughed dismissively. “We’ve been
lying since the Spanish arrived!”
Such cultures tend to emphasize the loss of love and the desertion of eros over the deception.
Jealousy arises from the fear of losing the love you have. Admitting to jealousy gives people social (and personal) permission to fight to reclaim the love that is dear to them. It is the absence of jealousy that signals the end of the relationship.
In other cultures, however, jealousy is absent by default:
In the United States and other Anglo-Saxon cultures (which tend to be Protestant), people are remarkably silent on the subject of this perennial malady of love. Instead, they want to talk about betrayal, violated trust, and lying. Jealousy is denied in order to protect the victim’s moral superiority. We take pride in being above such a petty sentiment that reeks of dependency and weakness. “Me, jealous? Never! I’m just angry!” […]
As Sissa points out in her refreshing book on the subject, jealousy has a built-in paradox—we need to love in order to be jealous, but if we love, we should not be jealous. And still, we are. Everybody speaks ill of jealousy. Therefore, we experience it as an “inadmissible passion.” We are not only forbidden to admit we are jealous, we are not allowed to feel jealous. These days, Sissa warns us, jealousy is politically incorrect.
Discovering that your beloved is having an affair plunges people into a maelstrom of emotions that can be hard to interpret. How much of the emotional force is righteous anger, and how much is it fear of abandonment, resentment, loss of history, crumbling of future plans, social shame, inadequacy, or a dozen other things? This interpretation shapes the universe of possible responses.
The moralization of cheating pushes the victim of an affair to resolve the emotional confusion in favor of moral indignation, which makes angry divorce the default response. As Hillary Clinton and others have found out, now that divorce is allowed it is the choice to stay with a cheating partner that carries a stigma. The Anglo-Saxon norm of punishing defectors can be constructive, but there no evidence that divorce-as-default is good for the cheated-on partner, the cheater, or society as a whole.
The rush to divorce makes no allowance for error, for human fragility. It also makes no allowance for repair, resilience, and recovery. And it makes no allowance for people who want to learn and grow from what happened.
As a relationship therapist, Perel’s job is not to moralize but to help both partners have the best relationships they can, whether together or apart. And for that, the first step is to investigate the reasons an affair happened.
The prevailing view of infidelity is that it’s a symptom of a troubled relationship. Perel agrees that is quite often the case.
Plenty of relationships culminate in an affair to compensate for a lack, to fill a void, or to set up an exit. Insecure attachment, conflict avoidance, prolonged lack of sex, loneliness, or just years of being stuck rehashing the same old arguments—many adulterers are motivated by marital dysfunction.
And yet, marital dysfunction is clearly neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for infidelity. Plenty of miserable couples are faithful. Plenty of other couples come to Esther Perel in the wake of an affair while assuring her that their marriage is full of love and joy.
Why do people have sex and then don’t tell their partners about it? One may propose a naive hypothesis: sex is fun, and getting shit for it isn’t. I think there is a lot of truth in this hypothesis, but it doesn’t lend itself to the framework that Americans want to apply to infidelity. That framework is one of sin and absolution, or, in its modern incarnation:
The idea that infidelity can happen in the absence of serious marital problems is hard to accept. Our culture does not believe in no-fault affairs. So when we can’t blame the relationship, we tend to blame the individual instead. The clinical literature is rife with typologies for cheaters—as if character always trumps circumstance. Psychological jargon has replaced religious cant, and sin has been eclipsed by pathology. We are no longer sinners; we are sick. Ironically, it was much easier to cleanse ourselves of our sins than it is to get rid of a diagnosis.
This view of infidelity is monetized by the burgeoning industry of sex addiction, the “diagnosis” and “treatment” of which are so Kafkaesque there’s literally a psychiatrist named Kafka involved in promoting it. For a sober overview of the issue, you can read Dr. David Ley’s The Myth of Sex Addiction. For the opposite of sobriety: Neil Strauss’ deranged voyage through sex addiction therapy in The Truth.
Perel does recognize people whose individual affliction stands in the way of a fulfilling and faithful marriage. But often the affliction is a lot more complex than a compulsive desire for sex.
It is my first session alone with Garth. He proceeds to tell me a “sordid” tale of the assorted infidelities that have played out, not just with Valerie, but in each of his two prior marriages. […]
“Believe me, I don’t like it this way,” Garth tells me. “I don’t want to be the kind of guy who cheats. Plus, I feel very bad that I’m not able to satisfy Valerie, and I try to make up for it by taking care of her in all other ways. She thinks the ED is because of my diabetes, but this happened to me long before.” […]
Garth’s is a long, sad tale in which his father played a central role. An alcoholic and a violent man prone to bursts of wrath, he left both visible and invisible marks on his firstborn son. More often than not, Garth chose to take the blows to protect his helpless mother and his younger brother. […]
The emotional resonance between his relationship with his parents and his relationship with his wife is so strong that it leads to an unfortunate crosswiring. Hence, the feeling that sex is “wrong,” almost incestuous. When a partner starts to feel too familial, sex will inevitably be the casualty. Ironic as it may seem, at that moment the taboo of infidelity feels less transgressive than sex at home.
There is a milder version of the same thing, the tension between security and eroticism, that afflicts many if not most couples. It is the subject of Perel’s other book, Mating in Captivity. She quotes Pamela Haag:
A marriage adds things to your life, and it also takes things away. Constancy kills joy; joy kills security; security kills desire; desire kills stability; stability kills lust. Something gives; some part of you recedes. It’s something you can live without, or it’s not. And maybe it’s hard to know before the marriage which part of the self is expendable . . . and which is part of your spirit.
Humans also have needs beyond simply getting off. We have the power of imagination, which means that we always have multiple lives on our minds: the one we live, and the counterfactual ones we imagine. The allure of unlived lives and unexplored identities can push the healthiest people in the best marriages into having affairs.
Perel tells the story of Priya, a doctor and mother of three, happily married to a man she describes as “a phenom at work, fucking handsome, an attentive lover, fit, and generous to everyone including my parents.” Priya is also sleeping with a tattoo-covered gardener in the back seat of his truck. And she can’t figure out why.
Through conversations with Esther, Priya’s life story emerges:
“I’ve always been good. Good daughter, good wife, good mother. Dutiful. Straight As.” Priya comes from an Indian immigrant family of modest means. For her, “what do I want?” has never been separated from “what do they want from me?” She never partied, drank, or stayed out late, and she had her first joint at twenty-two. After medical school, she married the right guy and even welcomed her parents into their home before buying them a retirement condo. […]
Her daughters are becoming teenagers and enjoying a freedom she never knew. Priya is at once supportive and envious. As she nears the mid-century mark, she is having her own belated adolescent rebellion.
Everyday life is mundane, stressful, and predictable. Affairs are exciting and uncertain – not knowing if and when you’ll see your lover again only adds to the appeal. The fact that Priya has fallen for someone from a very different class and culture to her own only reinforces this separation setting the affair in its own half-fantasy world.
Perel notes that the imaginative aspect of affairs is the reason they rarely survive the breakup of the original marriage. The harsh light of normalization leaves little room for fantasy and dispels the transgressive nature that made the affair irresistible in the first place.
Affairs often live in the gaps left by the primary relationship, but the gaps themselves are not a solid foundation to build a marriage on. Priya values her children, husband, house, career, and reputation much more than she values the thrill of her fling. She wants dirty sex with the gardener because everything else is taken care of.
This doesn’t change the fact that in every relationship, no matter how diligently the partners live up to their vows, the gaps of unmet needs remain. They draw our attention like a missing tooth draws the tongue. They make us want more.
More than Monogamy
To recap, modern couples find themselves in a perplexing conundrum:
- People have many needs in relationships, and in the modern West, we expect that they will all be met. In fact, these needs are the very reason we enter into relationships (rather than social pressure, or the necessity of procreation).
- The modern model tells us that all these needs will be met by a single person. We spend longer than ever selecting the right partner and tie up ever more of our hopes, dreams, and identity in the partnership.
- Almost inevitably, the relationship fails to fulfill its promise. The reason is not just that we and our partners have limited capacity to meet its demands, but also that many of these are in tension: security vs. adventure, togetherness vs. autonomy, stability vs. novelty
- When needs aren’t met, people cheat. This is widely interpreted as a symptom of something being terribly wrong with either the cheater or the relationship; the default course of action in both cases is to break up.
- Starting an official and exclusive relationship with the formerly-secret lover is not a solution either, because it is not going to do much better at meeting all of one’s desires.
As the book deals with each tangle separately, it becomes apparent which single strand can untie the knot: the demand for romantic exclusivity and the moral weight we place on it. After skirting the idea throughout, the penultimate chapter of The State of Affairs makes explicit the case for consensual nonmonogamy as a possible solution to the conundrum.
A common objection to polyamory is: “There is enough drama and difficulty with just two people, now you want to multiply that?” One possible answer is that drama arises from the number of unmet needs, not the number of people involved. Given the conundrum of Modern Model Monogamy, it may be easier for people to deal with a polyamorous relationship that makes them happy than a monogamous relationship of perpetual internal conflict. After all, by the logic of this objection, we should all go volcel and avoid the drama altogether.
Perel starts the chapter on polyamory with a warning: people who think that it disposes of infidelity are soon disappointed.
Monogamy may or may not be natural to human beings, but transgression surely is.
Every relationship, from the most stringent to the most lenient, has boundaries, and boundaries invite trespassers. Breaking the rules is thrilling and erotic—whether those rules are “one person for life” or “sex is okay but no falling in love” or “always use a condom” or “he can’t come inside you” or “you can fuck other people, but only when I’m watching.” Hence there is plenty of infidelity in open relationships, with all of the ensuing turmoil. If the desire to transgress is the driving force, opening the gate will not prevent adventurers from climbing the fence.
But if the goal is not to avoid cheating at all costs but to live a happy and fulfilled life, Perel recounts many nonmonogamous arrangements that meet that goal quite well.
People who value independence and autonomy often have don’t-ask-don’t-tell open relationships that simply allow for casual engagements on the side. Others are happy to share the burden of meeting their partner’s needs, and so form close friendships with the extended group of their lovers’ lovers. Yet others look for additional partners to meet very specific needs, like BDSM.
Poly people are also quick to point out that exclusivity is just that, it is not a synonym for loyalty or commitment or devotion. Dan Savage asked after a five-times-married woman accused him of not being committed because he and his husband of twenty years are nonexclusive: “Which of us is more committed?”
Monogamous couples often rely on implicit assumptions that are not actually shared by the two partners, or that are simply wrong. A couple can have very different ideas of what actually counts as infidelity (porn? chatting with your ex? swiping on Tinder for fun?) but these differences are never discussed until a boundary is transgressed. Another common assumption is that both partners have the same needs and desires, although some very monogamous people have also figured out that it’s often not the case.
In contrast, polyamorous people are known for explicitly negotiating the wants and boundaries in their relationships. It is hard to tell which comes first: do nonmonogamous people have to discuss everything because there’s no default playbook for polyamory, or does thinking explicitly about relationship design makes one likely to do away with exclusivity?
Personally, I endorse conscious relationship design whether or not polyamory is the end result of the design process. Like Geoffrey Miller, Perel sees today’s polyamorists as beta-testers of a new relationship playbook that future generations could follow. I sometimes wonder if any playbook will end up doing more harm than good once it becomes popular enough that people copy it wholesale instead of thinking of their own circumstances and personalities. Still, a new playbook can’t do much worse than the old one.
What today’s love seekers need more than a finished playbook are opportunities to learn and improve, and those are scarce. People who want to improve at a craft or skill can study the detailed training guides of top performers. Students of business pore over hundreds of case studies of corporate decisions and their consequences. But with all the demands and expectations of modern marriage, it’s hard to know where to turn for exemplars.
Perel likes to ask people if they have couples whom they think of as relationship role models; most struggle to name any. We have the example of our parents, perhaps a few friends, but even there we may not be getting the full and honest picture of what the relationship is like beneath the surface appearances.
This is the main thing that The State of Affairs offers: an opportunity to learn from the thousands of couples Esther Perel worked with, their fuckups and their triumphs, and Perel’s own unparalleled insight. The book is fun enough to read as a collection of stories of love and betrayal, but it would be a waste not to use it as inspiration to reflect on your own relationships.
In the next post, I will list the lessons I took from The State of Affairs, the advice I would give myself and others based on it. In the meantime, I encourage you to pick up a copy and rethink infidelity for yourself.