The aftermath of an affair can be brutal to a marriage. The reasons behind why someone cheats are complex and unique to their own experience. It’s not always “black or white”, “right or wrong”, “your fault or theirs.” It’s not as simple as “she was lonely,” “we never have sex anymore,” or “he wasn’t happy.” Guess WHAT: even happy people cheat!
At least that’s what world-renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel has learned as she traveled the globe studying infidelity. She’s interviewed and treated thousands of couples who were touched by infidelity.
In her famous TED Talk “Rethinking Infidelity”, which has garnered almost eight million views, Perel poses a series of questions in her quest to explore the nature of infidelity.
“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?”
Throughout this talk, the stories of Perel’s clients are woven in, sharing the complex reality of a topic that she agrees, is so poorly understood. She challenges our assumptions, noting that no one person can agree on the exact definition of infidelity.
“Sexting, watching porn, staying secretly active on dating apps…there is no universally agreed-upon definition of what even constitutes an infidelity.”
But even if we managed to nail down the definition of infidelity (which is different for everyone), we still need to get to the root of “WHY.” In her talk, Perel explains that when a person has an affair, it has less to do with their partner and more to do with themselves.
“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.”
Now, I’m not a fan of excusing bad behavior simply based on mental health issues, but as it pertains to the military community, Perel might be on to something here where she says:
“It isn’t always our partner that we are turning away from, but the person that we have ourselves become…it isn’t so much that we’re looking for another person, as much as we are looking for another self.”
As military spouses, we all experience things that make us question who we are and what we’re doing. Our community experiences loss and tragedy that can shake even the strongest individuals to their core. We experience lengthy separations from our husbands and wives regularly, and they experience things that sometimes even we aren’t privy to know, especially after 16+ years of war.
If Perel is right, then it would be safe to assume that infidelity does exist at a higher rate in the military community. So what then? Does that mean that military couples are forever doomed to be labeled unfaithful? Does it mean military divorce will be on the rise? Does it mean we’ll all don a uniformed scarlet letter for the rest of eternity?
Probably not. But infidelity in military marriage DOES deserve more than a second glance, and we could all stand to ask the hard questions without judgment…starting with our own marriages.
Whether it’s dealing with marital infidelity or some other struggle that changes our identity as a couple; we’re all going to hit a rough patch or two along the way. Some of those struggles will redefine our marriages and some will redefine us as individuals.
Perel suggests most of us are going to have two or three marriages in our lifetime…and some of us will do it with the same person.
“Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?”