If you ask a person for their reason of their escapades, they may say “Well, I feel lonely when my partner is not there”, “I want to solve a sex problem”, “I want to have more communication, more intimacy or just more sex”, “I’d like to get high on all the secrecy involved in an affair”, “I’d like to get caught and patch up my marriage”, “It’s an excuse to leave my spouse”, “I’d like to supplement my marriage”, “I want to feel special, desired, more attractive or better understood” or just – pathetically – “ I don’t know”. A few seek revenge. Some are just bored. Or they crave drama, excitement or danger...
Because now they have an opportunity to be free again and they didn’t have an opportunity to be free in the relationship.
People in committed long term relationships need to find a way to live freedom and autonomy within marriage, so that desire for autonomy is not corroding their relationship.
And what about “Eros”, the “Sexual Aura” of an affair…?
Eros is much more important than the idea that affairs are about sex. It’s about feeling alive. You don’t need to have the act of sex, you need to have the energy, the erotic energy of aliveness that comes with the fantasy of this thing called an affair. A kiss that you just imagine giving can be just as powerful as hours of actual love making. It’s about desire, not about sex. The desire is about feeling important, feeling seen, feeling desired, having someone’s attention back on you, all the stuff that often gets depleted inside ones committed relationship and not by fault just of the other.
The romantic idea, which we are very much a part of and which is about 150 years old, is: I am the chosen one, I am “it”, I am “the one”. Consequently, I am irreplaceable and I am indispensable. And when I am “the one”, it means that the other shouldn’t think about or want or look at anyone else again. And if the other has everything he/she needs with me, there is no need to go looking elsewhere… Hence, if they go looking elsewhere that means that there is either something wrong with me, or with them, or wrong with us.
This is the current model for infidelity, it is a deficiency model. It only happens because something is missing.
The vast majority of people who cheat actually are not the chronic philanderers, they are often people who have been faithful for decades. And then one day they cross a line, a line which most of them never thought they would cross because they are often monogamous in their values, but plural in their behavior. They experience a conflict between their values and their behaviors. And these people often risk everything they have built up for years. For what?
Dan Savage believes, that most people cheat because monogamous commitments are a trap. Because we have extended the definition of what is cheating to such a ridiculous extent that everyone is essentially a cheater.
People cheat because all sorts of reasons. It is not always because they are not in love with their partner anymore. The reason is not that we failed monogamy, the reason is that monogamy failed on us. The talk about monogamy sets up all monogamy relationships for failure. Because what society tells people is, that the most important marker of love and commitment is of sexual exclusivity. If you fail on that, it means that the whole relationship is a failure.
Since sex within marriage stopped being just procreational sex but implied romantic love, a strong believe developed that, if you are in love you will not want to have sex with another person, ever again ! But many of us know that you can still be in love with your partner and sometimes want to be intimate with others. And this creates suffering and damages good relationships.
Many people at some point meet somebody who they get a crush on and if they really believe (as they have been told), that love and desire is a zero-sum game, in which if you want to have sex with somebody else, that means, that you are not in love with your partner anymore, they will act upon it. They undermine a monogamous commitment, destroy the relationship because of this believe.
We have to stop telling people that monogamy is the “only prove” of a good functioning and loving relationship, that you have to be 100% all of the time to be regarded as “good at monogamy”.
I like the following metaphor: If I take part in the Tour de France and fall off my bike, I'm still in the Tour de France and a good cyclist. So, a healthier believe concerning relationships could be “If you are with somebody for more than a decade, and they only cheated on you a handful of times and you also, you are both pretty good at monogamy”.
Don't get me wrong: I am not talking about a "free pass"! It is about the fact that we should redefine the quality seals of a well-functioning relationship!
Questions for Reflection
- What is monogamy for you? Where do you see the boundaries in relationships?
- Following the concept of infidelity as a model of lack: What is "missing" in your partner, in your relationship? What deficits are so great that they create a desire to seek what is missing outside the relationship?
- Where did you fall or almost fall in your personal Tour de France? What helped you restore the relationship?
In my next article I will look at the Core Energetics (body psychotherapy) approach to relationships: The unconscious "goal" of the person who is unfaithful is usually not sex or even a love story, it goes beyond that... it is about feeling alive, it is about overcoming one's limitations, the limitations of the life one has created, the limitations of the relationship one is in, the mortality that is knocking at the door. The essence of infidelity is the crossing of boundaries.
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Sources / Reading suggestions
- Pathwork Lecture 044: The Forces of Love, Eros, and Sex (https://pathwork.org/lectures/the-forces-of-love-eros-and-sex/ )
- “Mating in Captivity” - Esther Perel
- Dan Savage: writer, TV personality and an political activist; author of the sex column “Savage Love” and of Bestseller “American Savage”