‘We believe we are unique, irreplaceable and indispensable. When this grand ambition of love is shattered by something like infidelity, I think it’s fair to expect the ego to be bruised’
~ July, 2021 ~ When I was a teenager, I believed that if you loved someone intensely enough then that love would keep you together, no matter what life threw at you.It was a romantic view, but not a realistic one, and when I interviewed New York Times “Modern Love” editor Daniel Jones he summed up why: “Many relationships and long-term marriages fall apart because one person says, ‘I don’t feel in love with you any more.’ The idea that that is the reason to end a relationship? There’s got to be more than that, because feelings alone are not enough to sustain a relationship.”
The truth is, there are going to be times when you don’t feel “in love” with your partner, or when you wonder if someone else might make you happier. It’s useful to know and accept that, instead of thinking it means there is something wrong.
So when did we begin to load so many expectations on to love – that it could conquer all, or that one person could complete us? Why do we expect love to make us happy all the time? Because if we are going to think honestly about love, that means confronting the uncomfortable facets of it too: infidelity, doubt, and the ways that we can hurt each other.
To explore these questions, I talked to one of the most prominent and respected thinkers on modern relationships: author, podcast host, speaker and couples therapist Esther Perel.
Natasha Lunn: Do you think that part of our reliance on love and intimacy today is about feeling that we are special? Because I think we like to feel that we are the only person who could make our partner happy, so if someone cheats or leaves, that damages our ego.
Esther Perel: We have this romantic ideal that we will find “The One”, a soulmate, a one and only. And in this romantic union, we believe that we are also “The One” for our partner. We believe we are unique, irreplaceable and indispensable. When this grand ambition of love is shattered by something like infidelity, I think it’s fair to expect the ego to be bruised
On top of this, we are isolated. In the US, in the past 20 years, studies suggest we have lost between 30 and 60 per cent of our social connections, people who we share significant pieces of our lives with – neighbours, friends, siblings – and all this loss of social categories has been siphoned into the marital relationship.
We now look for our romantic partner to give us what a whole village used to provide. We saddle them with all those expectations. So if and when that person betrays us, we feel like we have lost everything we had.
If we were living in a more communal structure, with more than one person around us who is important to us, who we matter to and who matters to us, we would be no less hurt by betrayal, but we wouldn’t feel like we had lost our entire identity. That’s the difference. I don’t think that infidelity ever does not hurt. It hurts badly. But saying, “My whole life is a lie, my whole life is a fraud, I no longer know who I am” – that’s a different scale.
NL: Do you think the pursuit of happiness has put the pressure on committed relationships?
EP: Happiness is not a pursuit these days, it’s a mandate. You have to be happy. And you are entitled, in the name of your happiness, to do all kinds of things. So people are constantly asking, “Is my marriage good enough? Could it be better? Maybe I don’t have to deal with this, I’ll find myself someone else.”
The consumer mentality of “I can do better”… You know “good enough” is not in vogue any more, it’s all about the best. So you don’t just leave because you’re really unhappy, you leave because you believe you could be happier.
NL: How do you tell the difference between a couple who should work on their relationship and the couples for whom it’s too late?
EP: Thirty-four years of couples therapy. There is a certain intuition you do develop after decades of working. That doesn’t mean I know, and that doesn’t mean I’m right. But if I have any sense that one person still has a foot in, still has a deep attachment, still cares deeply and will help the other person fight for their marriage, then I will help them do all kinds of things to fight for it. But I don’t know that it is wise to help them to engage in fighting when I know that the other person ultimately will not come back.
Esther Perel: ‘I do think couples should have a little annual summit. Their review’ (Photo: Getty/Chris Saucedo)
NL: What do you think the couples who are able to move past an affair have in common?
EP: There are many things that make them succeed. But, in the reverse, I can tell you one ingredient that you know will prevent the success: when the person who betrayed and lied and deceived has very little empathy. That is a real giveaway of something that can’t heal.
And the same thing is true on the other end: if the person who was betrayed has no ability to engage with the curiosity to understand what the affair was about. When the only way they can think about the affair was how it hurt them, it’s a challenging dynamic. The curiosity of the betrayed is secondary, but it’s equally important.
Basically, to succeed you need each person to bring a degree of empathy and interest and deep desire to understand about the experience of the other.
NL: What do you think couples can do to sustain that deep understanding of each other?
EP: I do think couples should have a little annual summit; a review. I’m big on rituals. If you tell me, “I care about my partner,” then my second question is, “How do you show it?” The fact that you feel it isn’t enough. What do you do to let the other person know and yourself that that’s the case? If you let it go, that is the neglect.
For some people it’s a weekend away every six weeks, for some it’s beautiful letters every once in a while, for others it’s showing up at a most unexpected moment and surprising the other, or doing the thing they hate doing because the other one cares about it. It’s all these things that really say to the other person: you matter to me. And I’ll go out of my way to show you, to tell you.
NL: After 34 years of couple counselling, do you think marriage still has value as an institution?
EP: Yes, but it’s not the only model. When it comes to marriage we have a rather monolithic model and there can’t be a one-size-fits-all. We have reinvented family many times. We have nuclear families, extended families, blended families, single parent families, accordion families, gay families… we have really allowed for a rich variation of family models, but we have not done the same when it comes to coupling.
I think people want a couple – nothing has changed about that – but they need more of a variation as to different forms of couplings, relationships and relational contracts.
We have opportunities today that never existed before. When in history did a person at 55 have the opportunity to marry for the first time and have a whole new family and have children? Our longevity and our flexibility have offered us new options and I think that we’re going to see more new relationship models.
Europe is filled with people who have long-term contracts without marriage [from civil solidarity pacts in France (PACS) to civil partnerships in the UK]. People have commitment ceremonies, but they don’t go through the traditional, legal piece of marriage. In the US, where there is very little social welfare, marriage is also a sort of welfare state too. People really want you to marry here because then the state won’t have to help you with anything. It’s not about monogamy.
NL: And also people are marrying later, which changes things?
EP: People are marrying later, marriage has changed and, like every other institution, it will survive if it can be adaptable and flexible. Every system in nature, every living organism in evolutionary history, either adapts or it dies.
So marriage has adapted throughout history: the marriage of farmers on the land is not the same as the marriage of the industrial age, which is not the same as the marriage of entrepreneurs, which is not the same as the marriage of the 40 per cent of American couples where women out-earn men. That is a whole new picture. That is a change in marriage because that is a change in the power structure, and marriage is a power structure like any other organisation.
NL: You often talk about the fact that we don’t address infidelity until it happens. So do you feel at an early stage in our relationships we need to sit down and be honest about what it means to us? Whether it includes sexting, an emotional affair or sending flirtatious emails?
EP: I think that a lot of people do not have some of the conversations that are very important to have. That doesn’t mean they become contracts, but they are conversations. The openness of your relationship depends on the openness of your conversations. If you don’t talk about any of these things ever, you basically invite the concealment because you start to say: “I can’t talk about that, this will upset him or her, this would create problems, this would lead to tension.” And you make an assumption that that is not part of your communicative space.
An adult relationship is one in which people negotiate disclosure, intimacy, openness, what is together, what is apart. Some couples live in completely overlapping circles where everything is shared and there is very little individual space. That’s their model. Other couples live in a much more differentiated style and they have a small overlap. They share some very important things, but they have an entire world of their own.
Both models can be equally fertile but it is totally clear that, in the aftermath of an affair, one of the most common sentences you’re going to hear – not with everybody – is “we are having conversations that we haven’t had in decades”. And you wonder: what have you been talking about all these years? Somehow, in an affair, the dam is broken. There is nothing to lose, and people actually open up, and you know for the first time they have conversations about the quality of their sexual relationship, about all kinds of things they haven’t wanted to discuss because they wanted to avoid conflict.
NL: You’ve been with your husband for over three decades. How have your studies changed the way you approach your own relationship?
EP: I think we talk. Obviously there’s no taboo subject for us about this, and the myriad things that happen in long-term relationships. We are well aware that, around us, half of other couples are no longer together, and after 35 years it’s almost like a relic! When you say you’ve been together for 35 years people almost want to clap. But longevity is not the only marker of success.
You know, I think we have invested in our relationship and we apply our understanding to it. We understand that you need renewal, you need new experiences, you need adventure. You need to do new things that are outside of the comfort zone. For us that is an important piece – a relationship that grows and stays fresh.
Part of what brings that is the creation of new experiences. We apply what we see and learn from working with people, from research and data. We say, “We should do this, this is important.” And occasionally we say, “Do we really have to?” And then we say, “Yes, we actually do,” in the same way as, “Do we have to go to the gym?” We can afford not to go for a week or two, but afterwards we’re going to feel it.
And have we ever regretted it when we’ve gone, or when we did something that was good for us, that showed that we were putting effort into us? No, never.
NL: What do you wish you’d known about love?
EP: What would I say to my younger self? Keep your feet well planted. You know it’s not just about who you find, it’s also who you’re going to be. Love is not a state of enthusiasm. It’s a verb. It implies action, demonstration, ritual, practices, communication, expression. It’s the ability to take responsibility of one’s own behaviour. Responsibility is freedom.
Sometimes it’s amazing, this thing called love. One day you just think, I’ve had it, I’m out of here, I’m so done with you, I can’t take another minute of this. The next morning you wake up and you squeeze the person and say, “I’m glad I’m waking up with you.”
It’s this bizarre thing, it just comes and goes, and it’s really complicated. So invest in it. Learn about relationships, don’t just read about everything else. Because you learn how to be in a relationship – it’s not a given.