One of the greatest dualities of the human experience is the need for security and the need for freedom. While one pulls us toward one another, the other pushes us away. It is our need for security that fulfills our desire to love and be loved, to have an intimate connection with someone with whom we feel a sense of belonging. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, it is our need for freedom that fuels our innate response to run away from anything that constrains or imprisons us mentally or physically. In a typical relationship, these two concepts rarely exist together in harmony.
Yet, it is estimated that there are nearly 115,000 weddings every single day throughout the world. When two people make the decision to commit their lives to one another, positive emotions like passion, adventure, and hope are typically present. However, research suggests that this idyllic state is not sustainable over the course of a lifetime. The stressors and difficulties of life, such as raising children, managing financial stress, intense work schedules, and emotional and physical illness, do not promote an environment where passion, adventure, and hope can survive. We know that well over half of marriages end in divorce. And we know that infidelity is listed as one of the most common reasons for filing. So why are we still pretending that our traditional approach to relationships is working?
Esther Perel, a celebrated psychotherapist and New York Times Bestselling author, is not afraid to break the silence on relationships’ most taboo topics. In fact, she wrote the book on it. In her avant-garde page-turner “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity,” Perel points out some major discrepancies between what actually goes on in relationships and what society is trying to portray. She shared that when she would present to large audiences, she would propose the following question: Who here has ever experienced an affair? Of course, not a single hand would be raised. No explanation as to why is necessary. However, when she would ask the audience who had ever been affected by an affair, a sea of hands would illuminate the space. Perel estimates that 80% of the people she comes in contact with have somehow had their life impacted by infidelity. This includes the children who witnessed their parents’ experiences, friends who provided support for the distraught spouse, the outside lover who participated, the unfaithful partner themselves, the parents who witnessed their adult children make the same mistakes they did, etc. The contradicting responses of the two similar questions exposes that things do not quite add up in how we portray our lives and the reality of how we live them, particularly when it comes to relationships.
Rejection, resentment, loneliness, need for approval, sexual frustration, power imbalance, unresolved trauma, deep insecurity, lack of communication—the list of factors that can lead to infidelity are endless. And yet, sometimes, as Perel explains, it happens for none of these reasons at all. Sometimes, it is simply the result of human’s capacity to love more than one person at one time. We also have a profound craving to feel alive, feel energized and vibrant. And for many, erotic desire ignites that.
Additionally, our marriage ideals of the modern world are exceedingly optimistic and nearly impossible to live up to. We want our partners to be our confidant, passionate lover, provider, intellectual equal, economic stabilizer, perfect parent to our children, emotional protector, coach, inspiration, caretaker, our entire support system. We expect them to provide predictability and reliability while giving us mystery and adventure. We ask one person to satisfy the endless and diverse needs that an entire army of partners would struggle to fulfill.
Is it possible for one person to satisfy the every need of another for an entirety of a lifetime? It is Perel herself who suggests that this is neither tangible nor healthy. In fact, one of her top rules for a successful marriage includes NOT relying on your partner to fulfill all of your needs. The excruciating pressure that we place on our spouse with this expectation will almost always lead them to believe that they are not enough, which generates a whole separate chain of interpersonal consequences for both partners and the marriage itself. So, perhaps it’s time to rethink the rules of marriage. Instead of condemning independence, time apart from one another, individual interests, and separate relationships—embrace them. If you could write your own rulebook for your marriage, what would it say?