Esther Perel and ‘The State of Affairs’

If you haven’t experienced Esther Perel’s work yourself yet, you’ve probably heard someone you know talk about it — and likely express some very strong feelings.

Perel is a psychotherapist and a bestselling author. Her 2006 book, Mating in Captivity, touched off a flurry of discussions and debates about eroticism and desire in long-term relationships. Her most recent book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity is perhaps even more provocative. In it, she offers insights and advice about infidelity that challenge many of the assumptions of our culture.

So what’s all the fuss about? Here are a few of the key ideas that Perel promotes.

1. Affairs aren’t about What We Think

We tend to assume that extramarital affairs are all about lust — that the straying partner is driven by desire for another person. But Perel believes there’s often something deeper going on: An unfaithful spouse is actually sometimes seeking a lost part of herself or himself. As she said in a recent interview on NPR:

When you pick a partner, you pick a story, and that story becomes the life you live. … And sometimes you realize, after years of living those parts of you, that there are other parts of you that have virtually disappeared. The woman disappeared behind the mother. The man disappeared behind the caregiver. The sensual person disappeared behind the responsible person.

And there is an expression of longing and yearning. Longing for connection, for intensity, for a sense of “aliveness,” which is really the word that many people all over the world would tell me when they are having an affair. They don’t talk about sex and excitement and titillation, actually. … What they say is they feel alive — as in vibrant, vital; as in a reclaiming of something that had gotten lost.

 When the desire for lost or forgotten parts of ourselves collides with social media, infidelity can be the result, Perel says. Facebook and other social networks mean we can stay in touch with people from different eras of our lives — people who remember those “lost selves” we yearn to rediscover.

2. Affairs are More Painful Than Ever

Infidelity has been around as long as marriage has, but it feels even more devastating today because of our contemporary views on relationships, Perel says.

In the past, we had different expectations about marriage, Perel believes. It was more of a pragmatic alliance. But Western couples today want more from their unions. She writes:

We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.

 We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.

Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that our spouses should be our primary source of validation, community and companionship. We expect one person to provide everything we once got from our extended families, our communities, our houses of worship. As our worlds get smaller, infidelity feels like a larger betrayal.

3. Marriages Can Survive Infidelity

 While she doesn’t downplay the pain of infidelity, Perel doesn’t believe that an affair should automatically lead to the end of a marriage. The crisis of infidelity can drive couples to talk more honestly about who they are and what they need from the relationship. Of course, though, it’s much easier and less painful to have these conversations before cheating happens in a relationship!

Whether you agree with Perel’s ideas or not, consider what you can learn from them. One valuable takeaway is to remember to cultivate yourself and your own interests, both for your own wellbeing and the health of your marriage.

I invite you to explore Perel’s work further through the videos and links I’ve shared in this article. You can also enjoy her TED talk: “Rethinking infidelity…a talk for anyone who has ever loved”:

 

What are You Tired of Tolerating in Your Marriage?

Your husband is great. Really. Well, except for a few little things.

But, now that you think about it, these “little” things are actually weighing on you. They might be habits like these:

  • He seems oblivious to housework, and you’re tired and stressed from trying to take care of it all.
  • He overspends, and while you’re not headed for bankruptcy, it’s slowing your progress toward the financial goals you both agreed upon.
  • He habitually runs late, which frustrates you and embarrasses you when you’re going somewhere together.

We can describe these kinds of issues in a marriage as tolerations. They’re somewhere between the minor quirks or annoyances you can easily shrug off and major problems like infidelity or addiction. Because they’re not deal-breakers, sometimes we hesitate to discuss them. Airing your concerns might seem like making a big deal out of a relatively minor issue. In the rest of this article, I’ll explain why the opposite is true, and I’ll tell you the most effective way to approach your tolerations.

Why Do We Tolerate?

First, though, let’s look some of the other reasons we often avoid talking about our tolerations. Which of the following are true for you?

  • You’re a perfectionist. You think should be able to push through or put up with anything. But all of us have physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual limits.
  • You have low self-worth. And you think you must make constant sacrifices to keep your relationship.
  • You’re conflict-averse. You fear conflict, or you think that it doesn’t happen in “good” marriages. Many people cope with difficult, or even merely uncomfortable, situations by avoiding them.
  • You’re tired of trying. In her book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Dr. Sue Johnson describes a common pattern in marriage. You criticize and demand connection; he gets defensive and withdraws. Eventually, you give up and withdraw, too, leaving both of you distant and resentful.

The Cost of Toleration

If you’re tolerating in the name of being a “good wife,” know that this mindset isn’t actually helping your marriage. A toleration is like a stone in your shoe. It will annoy you, adding to your stress and depleting your energy – energy that could be going toward making your relationship more alive and authentic.

You may also think that you’re helping your marriage by not making mountains out of molehills. But that’s not what happens. Instead, unaddressed tolerations can spiral into major issues. The scope of the problem might grow. For example, the overspending might worsen so that you’re now missing house payments. Or the feelings you’ve held in might explode, and you end up having the very thing you tried to avoid: a hurtful, relationship-damaging confrontation.

Stop Tolerating and Start Communicating

It’s a lot healthier to address small tolerations before they become big problems. But I know this can feel like a big, scary step if you’re not used to communicating openly and directly. Here are few things to remember that will help make things easier.

  • Conflict is normal. All couples have points of disagreement or annoyance. Despite what it might seem like from your social media feeds, no one has a perfect relationship or is in synch with her partner 100 percent of the time.
  • Conflict is healthy. The amount of conflict in a marriage isn’t an indicator of how healthy it is. It’s all in how the couple handles that conflict. Respectfully working together on addressing tolerations is a way to make your bond stronger.
  • Directness is loving. Believe it or not, many men are unclear on how to please their wives. Your own husband almost certainly wants you to be happy, but he can’t read your mind. You’re helping him by telling him what’s important to you.
  • Timing is key. It’s kinder and more effective to bring up your tolerations when you aren’t irritated, tired or stressed. This is one reason why it’s best to have these discussions before your emotions get unmanageable.
  • Openness doesn’t have to be hurtful. Are you hesitant to talk about your tolerations because you don’t want to hurt your husband’s feelings? Remember to focus on the behavior rather than the person. There’s a big difference between “I’m feeling stressed because you regularly exceed the personal shopping budgets we agreed on for ourselves” and “I can’t believe you went shopping again! You’re so irresponsible!”

This week, think about what you’re ready to stop tolerating and how you can work together with your husband to address what’s bothering you. My book Strong Women, Strong Love can give you some additional strategies on communication and healthy conflict.

How Attachment Styles Affect Your Marriage

Is insecurity or withdrawal — by you, your husband or both of you — an issue in your marriage? Today, I’ll give you some insight into what might be going on. I’ll explore different attachment styles and how they play into your relationships.

Your family is actually the very first place you learn about relationships. The experiences you have with your caregivers have a strong influence over how you relate to other people in your life. Understanding your particular style of connecting helps you see what strengths and vulnerabilities you bring to your marriage.

What Is Your Attachment Style?

If you’re lucky, your early caregivers were loving, responsive, and reliable. If so, you learned that you can trust people and developed a secure attachment style. You’re probably comfortable with emotional intimacy and depending on others, which, as you can imagine, makes it easier to be in a relationship. About 60 percent of people have this attachment style.

But what if your parents or caregivers weren’t so consistent? Maybe they were there for you sometimes, but other times were physically or emotionally unavailable when you needed them. These experiences can lead to an ambivalent/anxious attachment style. It’s characterized by feeling unsure whether someone will actually love you and worried that they may leave. People who are clingy or very sensitive to rejection often have this style.

Children of parents who were regularly unavailable or unresponsive can develop an avoidant attachment style. They learn to take care of themselves at a very young age. This independence can cause them to have trouble seeking emotional closeness with others. A person with this style may seem like an aloof or uncaring partner.

Finally, there’s the disorganized attachment style. It can arise in children who suffer abuse or neglect, or whose parents frighten them because of their own unresolved trauma. These children grow up to become adults who struggle with trusting others, managing their emotions and even feeling safe at all.

In reading the descriptions of the different attachment styles, you probably have a sense now of what your own might be. This quiz can also help you pinpoint your attachment style.

Working With Your Attachment Style

If both you and your husband have a secure attachment style, that’s great news for your marriage. You have a sound foundation for weathering a relationship’s normal ups and downs.

But if one of you doesn’t have a secure attachment style now, that hardly means your marriage is doomed. It’s possible to shift your attachment style. If you happen to have found a secure partner, that may help you to eventually develop a secure connection too.

The most challenging situation is when both of you have insecure attachment styles. It’s common, for example, for ambivalent/anxious and avoidant people to couple up — and drive each other crazy. One will cling, and the other will try to get away. Just understanding where each of you is coming from can be helpful. But you may need to seek counseling to protect your marriage and to develop healthier ways of relating.

If you’re looking for more insights to help you better understand how your attachment style affects your marriage, I highly recommend Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love by Amir Levine, MD and Rachel Heller, MA.

Check Your Relationship Health

 

There are two times in a marriage when couples are most likely to split. The first comes around the seven-year mark. The second comes at around 12 years. Whether or not you’re near one of those milestones, it’s always good to monitor your relationship health. Here are a few tips to guide you through a marriage checkup.

Managing Conflicts

In the seven-year danger zone, splits happen because of conflicts. Not surprisingly, this time frame is when many couples are starting a family and dealing with all of the associated stresses. The warning sign in this time period isn’t how often you fight. It’s whether you fight the right way.

Specifically, look at whether your conflicts are characterized by Dr. John Gottman‘s “Four Horsemen.” Gottman gave these behaviors such a dramatic name because their constant presence in a marriage strongly predicts which couples will divorce.

The Horsemen are:

  1. Defensiveness
  2. Criticism
  3. Stonewalling
  4. Contempt

If you don’t like the behaviors you’re bringing to conflicts with your husband, you might need to cut yourself a break and focus on self-care. When we’re stressed (as most of us seem to be constantly), we get more controlling, rigid and judgmental in our relationships with others.

Staying Close

At 12 years, couples tend to split because they’re becoming alienated from each other. Again, our stressed and busy lives play a role. It can be tricky to nurture your relationship amid everything else you’re juggling, but it’s vital.

To keep your bond strong, consider questions like these.

  • Is the amount of physical intimacy in your relationship satisfying for both of you? Your physical relationship strengthens your emotional relationship.
  • Do you treat each other with the same consideration that you’d treat good friends?
  • Do you take advantage of opportunities to show love and appreciation — such as greeting each other warmly after your work days?
  • Do you practice deep listening (making eye contact, summarizing what the other said, etc.) with each other?
  • Are you curious about each other? In other words, do you ask yourself questions like “He seems tense. I wonder what’s going on with him?” instead of leaping to conclusions?

Whether you’ve been married one year or 50 years, look through this blog for more tips and insights to improve the health of your marriage. Although your relationship may feel fine right now, doing a regular checkup can be an important part of keeping things on track.

When You’re Not in the Mood for Sex

You know that look in his eyes or that certain touch. He’s feeling amorous. But you’re just not in the mood for sex. Everyone feels like saying no to sex sometimes. But it’s important to do it in a way that respects your partner’s feelings and that maintains the overall health of your relationship.

Some Myths About Sex and Marriage

It might ease your mind to know that there are some common misperceptions about sex and marriage. The big one is that there’s some “magic number” — the amount of sex you’re supposed to be having. That’s not just true. The number of times you have sex in any week, month or year isn’t important. What is important? That both of you are satisfied with the amount of sex you are having. Frequency of sex varies a lot among happy couples.

We also tend to have a very limited definition of what sexuality can be in a relationship. If you aren’t doing “the deed,” it doesn’t mean that your marriage isn’t sexual. A sexual connection is about more than intercourse. It can also mean holding hands, feeling an emotional bond, making loving contact or sending sexy texts. At times in a marriage where intercourse naturally wanes — such as after the birth of a child — it’s good to have this expanded vocabulary of sexual acts to draw on to keep your bond strong.

Be Honest about the Underlying Cause

Sexuality is an important part of your marriage. If your desire is misaligned with your husband’s, start by looking for possible causes.

There could be a physical reason you’re just not in the mood for sex lately. Health issues, medications, hormonal changes, aging … they can all put a damper on your libido. Consider getting a checkup if you suspect a physical cause for your lack of sexual desire.

Your lack of desire might also have an emotional component. You might be bringing some other issues into the bedroom. If, say, you’re super-resentful that he doesn’t do more around the house, it’s hard to feel too frisky. It’s important to deal directly with the problem that’s dampening your desire.

Or you could just be plain exhausted by the frantic pace of our lives today, so you stop having sex as often. Unfortunately, the less frequently you have sex, the less likely you are to want it (use it or lose it). If your sex life has fizzled out because you’re busy and tired, try scheduling some time to get intimate when you’re not so worn out. This doesn’t sound very romantic, but it actually works.

If You Do Need to Say No to Sex

When you do turn your husband down, communicate what’s going on with you. For example, “I’m exhausted after these past two days at work” or “I just can’t stop thinking about my mom’s illness right now.” He needs to know that he’s not the reason you’re not in the mood for sex. It’s also helpful to suggest another time the two of you can possibly connect sexually.

Taking a pass on sex will feel a lot less charged if your husband isn’t the only one who ever initiates it. If he’s always the one who has to risk rejection, he could just stop asking. Make the first move sometimes.

Consider Saying ‘Yes’

Sometimes you really, really are not in the mood for sex. When it’s just not happening for you, don’t hesitate to say no. But sometimes your mood might be more “eh” than “no.” Or maybe you know that you tend to get more into things once sex gets started. If that’s the case, consider giving him the thumbs-up. But this should not become the pattern in your relationship.

For more advice like this, check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love. I wrote it to help busy couples enhance both physical and emotional intimacy.

Tips on Speaking the 5 Love Languages

With Valentine’s Day near, it’s a good time to talk about the work of The 5 Love Languages by author Dr. Gary Chapman.

Chapman’s book has sold millions of copies, and with good reason. His 5 Love Languages framework is a helpful way of understanding how you and your spouse express and feel love. The idea is that once you know which Love Language each of you speaks, you will be more effective at making each other feel loved.

Let’s take a quick look at each of Chapman’s Love Languages.

1. Words of Affirmation

If this is your Love Language, it’s extra-important to you to hear your partner say that you are loved and appreciated. Really, though, who couldn’t use a few more kind words and compliments? Remembering to express appreciation or to praise each other builds up goodwill in your marriage. Your words of affirmation don’t have to be elaborate or flowery. The important thing is to share them when they come to you. Of course, if this is the Love Language for either of you, be more deliberate about expressing loving compliments or bragging about your spouse to others.

2. Acts of Service

Some people show their love by doing things for the people they care about. Traditional husbands often speak this Love Language, but their message may be missed if their spouse speaks a different Love Language. For instance, your husband may be doing things for you, but you may not feel loved until he compliments you or gives you gifts. Of course, this can go the other way too. You may be the one whose always bending over backward to take care of your husband and end up feeling unloved if he does not help you around the house without being asked.

3. Receiving Gifts

There is a strong emphasis on giving gifts in our society, and days like Valentine’s Day often place tremendous pressure on husbands to find the right gift. If  this is your Love Language and you have your hopes set on a particular gift, be sure to speak up. It’s much more effective to be direct with your husband about what you want instead of dropping hints or assuming he should “just know” what you like. Remember, he wants to make you happy, so he’s not likely to get his feelings hurt if you point him toward the gifts that make you feel treasured. Your directness will spare you unnecessary disappointment.

4. Quality Time

So how are you supposed to speak this Love Language when both of you are crazy-busy? One way is by offering undivided attention when you can. Even something as simple as acknowledging each other with a warm hello when you get home goes a long way. That being said, if this is the primary Love Language for either one of you, you must make spending regular quality time together a high priority.

5. Physical Touch

Humans need loving touch. It helps us feel safe with each other. Some people need more touch than others, so if that’s the case with you or your spouse, look for ways to be physically expressive with your love. Perhaps add a kiss and a hug to that post-work greeting or hold hands when you’re sitting on the couch. Remember, though, that touch isn’t always synonymous with sex. It’s not uncommon for parents to go through sex droughts because of a lack of time or privacy, but expressing physical affection can keep the fires burning till you can get back in the groove.

Talking with your husband about your respective Love Languages can open up new intimacy in your marriage. Take an online quiz and discover which Love Languages the two of you speak! Apply what you learn, and see how it draws the two of you closer.