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Couples and Infidelity

Esther Perel
October 22, 2012

Infidelity. What comes to mind? Someone you know? A great movie or novel set in some war-torn not-so-distant past with beautiful costumes and sexy actors? You’re probably thinking of something pretty specific. And emotional.

For years, I have worked closely with couples of all walks of life. My clients have been married, partnered, gay, straight, bisexual, and have come from all over the world. In each passport at least one stamp in common: the painful experience of infidelity.

While the thinking varies cross culturally, one thing is universal: Infidelity hurts. On the spectrum of interpersonal injuries in adult intimacy, this one tops most. Adultery has been historically condemned, yet universally practiced.

As a therapist, I most often meet couples in the immediate aftermath of a revealed or discovered affair. Most of my focus with these couples is the crisis at hand. In order to assess the “results” of our work together, I wanted to know what happens in these couples who make the choice to stay together 2, 5, 10 years down the road. I wanted to know how these couples ultimately deal with, address, and process the experience of infidelity.

For this reason, for several years I've been contacting couples I've treated to find out more about the long-term impact of the infidelity that brought them to therapy. For those who have remained together, it’s a chance for me to learn about how they’ve integrated the experience into the ongoing narrative of their relationship. What were the useful shock absorbers that sustained the couple? Did they think that therapy had helped?

Specificities notwithstanding, I’ve identified three basic patterns in the way couples reorganize themselves after an infidelity--they never really get past the affair, they pull themselves up by the bootstraps and move on, or they are able to reframe it as a positive and transformative event that bonds them and reignites their passion for one another.

In the first pattern, the affair isn't a transitional crisis, it’s a black hole trapping both parties in an endless round of bitterness, revenge, and self-pity. Endlessly gnawing at the same bone, these couples circle and recircle their grievances and mutual recriminations. They blame each other for their agony.

A second pattern is found in couples who remain together because they honor values of lifelong commitment and continuity, family loyalty, and stability. They want to stay connected to their community of mutual friends and associates or have a strong religious affiliation. These couples can move past the infidelity, but they don't necessarily transcend it. Their marriages revert to a more or less peaceful version of the way things were before the crisis, without undergoing any significant change in their relationship.

In the third pattern, the affair becomes a transformational experience. A catalyst for renewal and change, this outcome illustrates the potential for couples to reinvent their marriage. Through some combination of therapy and their individual strengths and willingness to forgive, this third pattern mines the resilience and resourcefulness each partner brings to the table and the result is a vibrant, dynamic, healthy marriage.

Psychologist Esther Perel is recognized as one of the world’s most original and insightful voices on couples and sexuality across cultures. Fluent in nine languages, the Belgian native is a celebrated speaker sought around the globe for her expertise in emotional and erotic intelligence, work-life balance, cross-cultural relations, conflict resolution and identity of modern marriage and family. Her best-selling and award-winning book, Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic, has been translated into 24 languages.

Join Esther in her nuanced workshop, Unlocking Your Erotic Potential, this October 26-28th at The Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, NY. Centered on personal exploration, this weekend retreat will provide individuals and couples with tools to create a more satisfying erotic life. For more details, click here.

Esther will also be speaking at Council For Relationships' Annual Conference on November 2nd, where she’ll present Rethinking our Clinical Attitudes Toward Infidelity. This one-day workshops is for professionals. For more information, please click here.

For more relationship advice, check out our Archive of Relationship Tips.

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