I first wrote this take down of Esther Perel’s bullshit in 2014. She’s only gone on to greater fame and word salad, which is striking when you consider we live in a #MeToo moment and Andrea Dworkin is being rediscovered as a prophetess. (I’d like to shamelessly point out I was ahead of this zeitgeist — I lovingly drew Dworkin with twigs in her hair for my book.) Today Perel’s minor celebrity gets her on NPR’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! (Oh, the irony… Do tell me. What’s the secret? Clap?) She’s got a newer chump-blaming book to sell, and spoons her poison so winsomely.
Newbies — welcome to my literary grudge match.
Esther Perel can bite me.
I know that’s not the level of erudite discourse called for when debunking a pre-eminent Belgian psychotherapist. Perel is the best-selling author of “Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence.” I mean, who am I to quibble with “one of the world’s most original and insightful voices on personal and professional relationships“?
Who dares to question the great and powerful “organizational consultant to Fortune 500 companies”?
Do I have a “keen cross-cultural pulse”? No, I am a chump. Very average. My pulse is about 80 beats per minute.
Do I ever say “paradigm shift”? As a former think tank editor, I hate the language of turgid academic pretentiousness. I would never commit such word salad crimes.
“Esther shifts the paradigm of our approach to modern relationships. She is regularly sought around the world for her expertise in erotic intelligence, couples and family identity as well as corporate relationships and team collaboration.”
Okay, maybe I’m just jealous because Nike and Johnson & Johnson aren’t seeking me out for my erotic intelligence. (“Her clients and platforms include companies such as Nike, Johnson & Johnson…”) Alas, I’m on no one’s corporate retainer. And no one taps me on the shoulder at cocktail parties inquiring about butt plugs. But I probably don’t travel in the right circles.
Neither do I have long, silky blonde hair, or a European sex kitten persona, or a masters in art therapy. I’m a squidgy, middle-aged woman with weird hair and a masters in African history.
But I can say with utter authority:
Bite me, Esther.
Bite my squishy, 47-year old, monogamous, married in captivity ass. I’ll inquire intelligently afterwards if that was erotic for you.
Why does Esther vex me so? She’s just the latest pseudo intellectual to make cheating cool. We’re all too judgy. We need to stop “demonizing” infidelity.
She’s written this lovely little essay on “Changing the View on Infidelity.” (Why not “shifting the paradigm,” Esther? Did you get an editor?)
And you all know what that means — it’s time again for the patented Universal Bullshit Translator.
A first step towards understanding why affairs happen with such frequency and across cultures, and towards understanding those involved in affairs, is a move away from demonizing the act itself, both in our personal lives and, for those of us in the mental health professions, in our work. In addition, rather than treat every affair as indicative of a deeply flawed relationship, we can consider the possibility that in some couples, this may not be the case.
Yeah, God forbid we demonize people who spend our 401Ks on Russian hookers or prostitutes on BackPage ads. Or demonize people who waste years of our life and risk our health. Or who break up our families. Or imperil our pregnancies. Or decimate our finances. Or compel us to paternity test our children. Or who leave us with trust issues, herpes, and a twitch. God, we suck. We’re so judgmental.
But Esther, you totally have a point on affairs as not being indicative of a “deeply flawed relationship.” The relationship has nothing to do with it. Affairs are indicative of deeply flawed individuals — cheaters.
In America, infidelity is described in terms of perpetrators and victims, damages and cost. We are far more tolerant of divorce with all the dissolutions of the family structure than of transgression. Although our society has become more sexually open in many ways, when it comes to monogamy, even the most liberal minds can remain intransigent. When discussing infidelity, we use the language of moral condemnation. And it isn’t only the act that’s reprehensible; the actor, too, is judged by the strictest standards. Adultery becomes a moral failing as we move to a description of character flaws: liar, cheater, philanderer, womanizer, slut. In this view, understanding an act of infidelity as a simple transgression or meaningless fling, or a quest for aliveness is an impossibility.
Boy, I never thought of it that way, Esther. When I discovered my ex-husband had been cheating on me during our entire relationship, and had financially defrauded me and moved me to a no-fault divorce state, I should have recognized this as a Quest for Aliveness! I suppose we must attribute my dim-witted reductionist view that pathological lying is a “character flaw” to the fact that, yes, I am an American (and of Puritan stock somewhere way back there).
Yes, I believe at some point in the narrative I have said that I am a “victim” of infidelity. Because I believe in victims, Esther. I think if someone holds you up at gunpoint and takes your wallet, you’re a victim of crime. I think if someone rapes you, you’re a victim of sexual assault. And I think if someone fucks around on you and risks your emotional and physical well-being that yes, you are a victim of infidelity (and probably emotional abuse as well. Most people don’t cheat without a good measure of lying, gaslighting, and blame-shifting). “Victim” implies that a bad person did a bad thing to you against your will. I put cheating in that column, but my mind is intransigent that way.
Am I tolerant of divorce? Hell no, Esther! I’ve had two of them. They sucked epically. But I’m more intolerant of being played for a chump. Nice little turnaround, there. It’s a mindfuck we’re all familiar with here at Chump Lady. It’s not what I did, it’s your reaction to it that’s the problem. It’s not the cheating that’s the problem! It’s your reaction — the divorce — that’s the problem. You live with a cheater, an addict, a person who won’t treat their mental illness — and you get back to me on that “dissolution of the family structure” shit. I raised my son mostly as a single parent and he’s turned out quite splendidly, thank you very much.
An affair sometimes captures an existential conflict within us: We seek safety and predictability, qualities that propel us toward committed relationships, but we also thrive on novelty and diversity. Modern romance promises, among other things, that it’s possible to meet these two opposing sets of needs in one place. If the relationship is successful, in theory, there is no need to look for anything elsewhere. Therefore, if one strays, there must be something missing. I’m not convinced.
Religious prohibitions aside, the meanings and motives of infidelity transcend monolithic interpretations, yet we therapists overwhelmingly respond to affairs with an entrenched set of beliefs and practices. The majority view is that affairs can never help a marriage or be accommodated; they are always harmful. Whether disclosed or hidden, lasting a night or a lifetime, they are bound to shake the very foundation of a relationship. They are potentially irreversible and can demand an immediate call to the lawyer.
Boy Esther, I WISH shrinks were telling people to call their lawyers. I thought that was against the whole shrink code of ethics of telling people what to do, and not arriving at these conclusions themselves. If there were a bunch of other monolithic interpreters of cheating as Bad and Something You Should Run Away From, it sure would make my job a lot easier.
The current view is that infidelity depletes intimacy and is a breach of trust and commitment, both emotional and sexual, that can never be fully recouped. Even the psychological literature focuses almost exclusively on the ravages of infidelity. I’d like to offer a view that challenges this premise and encompasses both growth and betrayal at the nexus of affairs.
Though affairs often result in deep emotional crisis, deception and betrayal are not the prime motivation.
Really? Deception isn’t the prime motivation? Than why keep this shit SECRET, Esther? If not for the power trip and the whole “you’re not the boss of me!” sexual hijinks? Cheaters just don’t think they’re going to get caught — but they’re quite happy to adopt one set of rules for their special selves and let us chumps do the monogamy thing. Newsflash — the “deep emotional crisis” is a reaction to being betrayed and deceived.
Right, but that’s not how the affair was intended. I didn’t intend to hurt you! Every chump has heard that, Esther. And you know what we concluded? That cheaters did the cost-benefit analysis on hurting us and fucking around won out over honesty every time.
I suggest we look at infidelity in terms of growth, autonomy, and the desire to reconnect with lost parts of ourselves. Perhaps affairs are also an expression of yearning and loss.
So when Anthony Weiner sent pictures of his junk on Twitter, this was an expression of “yearning and loss”? I just thought it was pervy, and really disrespectful to his wife, but I’m judgmental that way.
And autonomy is for single people, Esther. Interconnectedness, reliance, and trust are for those married saps who agreed to it.
I believe that not all affairs point directly at flaws in the marriage. Affairs are motivated by a myriad of forces— tainted love, revenge, unfulfilled longings, and plain old lust. Yet, as it happens, plenty of adulterers are reasonably content in their relationships. While sometimes the result delivers a devaluation of a couple’s emotional stock, at other times individual growth brings about a new energy to the marriage. In other words, infidelity can be an economy of addition.
Oh God please. Another proponent of the Affairs Can Make Your Marriage Stronger school of bullshit. Yeah, affairs can make your marriage stronger the same way shooting off your kneecaps improves your tennis game. Marriages are based on trust and respect. And when someone deceives you to get some strange, yeah, it does have a way of “devaluing” the ol’ “emotional stock.” It makes you sick with grief, Esther. It makes you puke, and lose sleep with mind movies, and run out for an STD test, and ask yourself every day if you can live with having been played, conspired against, and humiliated. It fucking SUCKS, Esther.
I’m glad adulterers are “reasonably content” in their relationships. Bully for them. After discovery, chumps are not content — they’re devastated. And it’s cold comfort to hear that gee, we don’t suck completely! Our cheaters were reasonably content! I mean, I couldn’t be a smorgasbord of pussy, but I was pretty okay. Good to know, Esther. Thanks!
The lamentations I hear most include feelings of loneliness and emotional deprivation. There comes a point when one no longer can tolerate feeling devalued and taken for granted. Lack of attention and the sense of having become a function rather than a person can instigate a wish for escape. Sexual boredom and frustration, or plain sexlessness, can lead to what Steven Mitchell dubs “acts of exuberant defiance.”
Cheaters feel devalued and taken for granted? Lonely and emotionally deprived? Then SPEAK UP! Have an honest conversation or call a divorce lawyer. Or do both. But there is no excuse for cheating. And dressing your Ashley Madison profile up as some kind of noble quest for self actualization is insulting. Acts of exuberant defiance?! Fuck that noise.
Yeah, the minute someone equates being married to me to be oppressed by a hegemonic monogamous regime — consider yourself unshackled. Your freedom will be granted immediately. Don’t disrespect me by fucking something strange and endangering my health. Just GO.
Sometimes, we seek the gaze of another not because we reject our partner, but because we are tired of ourselves. It isn’t our partner we aim to leave, rather the person we’ve become. Even more than the quest for a new lover we want a new self.
The men and women I work with invest more in love and happiness than ever before, yet in a cruel twist of fate it is this very model of love and sex that’s behind the exponential rise of infidelity and divorce. We ask one person to give us what an entire community once provided —and we live twice as long. It’s a tall order for a party of two.
This is your argument? Let’s blame cheating on longevity? How do you explain the people fucking around in their 20s and 30s? Or their whole lives? They don’t know when they’re going to die, they just cheat! My ex cheated through three entire marriages (probably more by now). Dude got lots of variety and fresh starts. And yet he couldn’t keep it in his pants.
But gee, I guess it takes a whole village to raise a marriage. WTF? What are you saying “We ask on person to give us what an entire community once provided”? People cheat because no one goes to the Elks club anymore? I think you’re reaching here, Esther. It doesn’t become an internationally recognized, foremost relationship expert to come up with such hare-brained theories.
Let me lay a theory on you — people cheat because of poor character and narcissism. That’s it. They’re perfectly happy to agree to a set of rules they have no intention of following because they’re special sausages. And they’re very happy to have the chumps in their life abide by monogamy and continue to extract value from chumps, because it serves their purposes to do so. That’s why the secrecy. It’s not shame or American puritanism or WTFever — it’s gaining advantage over another. It’s kibbles and centrality. It’s greed. It’s ugly, absurdly grandiose, and it hurts innocent people — yeah, VICTIMS.
No one forces anyone into monogamy, it’s not “a cruel twist of fate” — it’s a choice.