Infidelity. It’s been the subject of exploration numerous times in psychology, psychiatry, fiction, biographies, essays, film, and television. There’s always a desire to understand why it happens, why so many people are tempted to stray even if they’re in happy relationships. The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel attempts to give the often frowned upon topic of affairs a different perspective.
Perel has plenty of experience writing about relationships, both personal and professional. Her previous book, Mating in Captivity, tackles the often unattainable balance between domesticity and sexual satisfaction. But with The State of Affairs, Perel wants to dissect the other side: what happens when a relationship has been breached by betrayal?
“Love is a mess; infidelity more so,” says Perel, which is an obvious and undeniable fact. Once trust has been lost due to an affair, is there truly a way to get it back? This is just one concern that the book tries to address by portraying the stories of real couples and their experience with infidelity, couples whom Perel has personally advised. What is unique is that Perel doesn’t try to hand out empty advice on how to prevent an affair, but instead offers possible ways to proceed after the affair has taken place, which in some cases, may not necessarily mean rescuing the marriage.
Perel states that the discovery of a spouse’s betrayal in many cases, can mimic the same reactions as physical trauma: “The shock of discovery galvanizes the reptilian brain, triggering a primal response: fight, flight or freeze. Some just stand there, dumfounded: others can’t get away fast enough.”
No one goes into a relationship expecting to be betrayed, but there is always the risk that it can happen in even the happiest marriages for any number of reasons. Perel offers that a death in the family, the loss of employment, or financial instability may bring forth betrayal into the relationship, if only for no other reason than to escape a stressful reality.
But as Perel says, “Every betrayal was once a love story,” and if we operate based on this premise, then there may be a chance of recovery. Perel clarifies that this recovery may happen “either together or apart,” which gives couples a view into a painful possibility: recovery doesn’t necessarily mean saving the relationship. It’s this type of realistic analysis that makes The State of Affairs a book to be taken seriously and not just as another self-help drivel with vacuous advice.
Fiction of course relays tales of affairs to readers all the time, but some of the stories told are of a different variety of extra-marital trysts. Jay McInerney’s Brightness Falls trilogy follows a Manhattan yuppie couple, Corrine and Russell Calloway through the decades as their marriage begins to crack under the pressure of miscommunication, financial strains, loss of intimacy and finally, infidelity from both sides.
In The Arrangement, Sarah Dunn’s main characters Owen and Lucy decide to open their marriage to make it more adventurous and to serve as a release from the pressure of caring for a special needs child, establishing one boundary that is not to be crossed: don’t fall in love. When Lucy breaks the rule and falls for the man she’s having a relationship with, it’s painfully clear that emotions are difficult to compartmentalize when romantic love, as Patel puts it, “ literally is an addiction, lighting up the same areas of the brain as cocaine or nicotine.” From classic literature to modern fiction, infidelity plays a huge part in too many plots to discount it as just another narrative ploy.
If you’re looking for Perel to offer a formulaic justification for the reasons behind affairs, you’ll be disappointed. Not because Perel doesn’t establish a wide array of possibilities behind the decision to engage in a relationship on the side, but rather because the reasons are too varied and too personal to even attempt a “cure” against infidelity, much less guarantee that by reading this book your relationship will be safeguarded. What Perel does is to give a voice to both the betrayer and the betrayed and even to the lover, so we can perhaps understand where all sides are coming from.
“Why do people stray? is a question I have been asking continuously for the past few years,” Perel says and she is undoubtedly not the only one for whom this is a dilemma worthy of deep examination. But if The State of Affairs doesn’t give a blunt, straight answer it’s because there isn’t one. Humans are complex, fickle beings and therein the difficulty in answering this impossible question. What the book does well is to present real people, whose lives may resonate with our own, and perhaps lead us to see ourselves reflected in their stories of betrayal and their survival of it.
So what can we do to avoid infidelity? Is perhaps monogamy not inherent in human nature? The State of Affairs offers no magical solution or a one-explanation-fits-all type of revelation. But there are revelations, important ones that can if not conclusively prevent infidelity, at least help us understand some of the reasons behind it.
That in itself is very much worth our time and our attention.