Infidelity as a Growth Opportunity
I watched a TED talk by therapist and author Esther Perel this afternoon about infidelity. I read her book "Mating in Captivity" some time ago, and since then I have paid attention to what she has to say (after I originally wrote this blog post, she has published another highly recommendable book: "The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity").
This TED talk felt like a constant stream of provocative and insightful ideas: we tend to place unrealistic and omnipotent expectations on relationships; the definition of infidelity is blurry and ever changing; affairs are less about sex than about desire.
However, there are two themes that stood up to me. Infidelity is unquestionably a betrayal that exacts a huge psychological and emotional toll, but it can also be seen as an opportunity for individual and relationship growth.
Infidelity can be an opportunity to redefine ourselves
Halfway through her talk, Perel made a statement that I think was very profound:
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.
This is a very useful way to understand the meaning of infidelity as an existential attempt to redefine our sense of self. It encourages personal responsibility, as opposed to blaming it on the partner or on something lacking in the relationship. And it does so in a non-shaming way that goes beyond the actual behavior. Affairs are acts of betrayal but, according to Perel, "they are also an expression longing and loss."
In this sense, infidelity can be a source of personal growth for both parties. For the person who committed the infidelity, it represents an opportunity to understand his or her longing, get in touch with the root of the desire, and find new ways to define his or her identity.
For the deceived party, infidelity represents a traumatic threat to his or her sense of self, as it brings to question everything that the relationship was thought to be about. As Perel suggests, it can also be an opportunity "to recapture lost parts of ourselves or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy".
Every affair will redefine a relationship
The couple can gain a new perspective after an affair, so it can also be a growth opportunity for the relationship as a whole. Perel indicates that...
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.
The betrayal of infidelity will completely disrupt a relationship. However, that upheaval can be an opportunity, even if painful, to reexamine its underlying dynamic. Moreover, it may constitute an opportunity for the couple to redefine its identity and increase intimacy in different ways:
It creates a space to have open and honest conversations that the couple never had in the past
It can help unearth other types of betrayal present in the relationship, including rejection, neglect, or contempt
It may allow conversations about sex that rekindle lust, passion, and desire in the relationship
It can increase each partner's understanding of the other's reality, through what Perel calls 'investigative questions' (e.g., what did this affair mean for you? What were you able to express or experience there that you could no longer do with me?)
An affair redefines a relationship, as it signals a clear before and after. It can be a traumatic yet transformative experience. The transformation may require redefining the terms of the relationship and creating a new vision and identity for the couple. The pain and loss of transformation can engender growth and intimacy.
Infidelity is a form of betrayal that is disruptive and traumatic. However, it can constitute an opportunity for each partner, and for the couple as a whole, to get in touch with disowned parts of themselves and to redefine their identity. This does not mean that an affair is 'recommended,' but if it occurs and there is sincere and loving repair, it can be a source of intimacy and growth.