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”:
Here’s a common dynamic I see in marriages: The husband is in the habit of telling fibs – about whether he completed a task his wife asked him to, about what time he’ll be home, stuff like that. He doesn’t see this as a big deal in his marriage.
The wife feels differently. She believes that any kind of lie undermines trust in the relationship.
So what’s going on here? And how can you address this pattern before it becomes a real sticking point in your marriage?
(First, though, my usual disclaimer: This article is not about major betrayals in marriage, like hiding an addiction or another romantic relationship. If you’re going through a situation like this, please seek the help of a qualified professional in your area.)
If you’ve been wondering why your husband lies about seemingly minor things, a good starting point is considering the beliefs and patterns he may have picked up from his family. As we’ve talked about before, in some households, little white lies are simply a routine way to keep the peace. The highest priority in such homes is avoiding conflict. If that’s true of your husband’s family, he may think this is just how relationships operate.
No matter what the patterns were in his family, and in yours, it’s important to talk openly about where you both are coming from. If you were shaped by a family that communicated more directly, even if it created conflict, you may be just as baffling to him as he is to you! When you understand each other’s backgrounds more, both of you will also better understand that you aren’t trying to be malicious to each other when your communication styles differ. And you can more calmly and compassionately work together on a style that fits both of your needs.
Your husband may also be in the habit of little lies because he’s learned that telling the truth gets him “in trouble” or upsets you. If you’re extremely critical when he tells you truth, he may decide that a little white lie is a preferable alternative to feeling shamed. The same may be true if he’s seen that speaking his truth usually provokes a strong emotional reaction from you.
Little lies don’t have to be a deal-breaker, but neither are they something you should tolerate if they leave you feeling hurt and betrayed. You can’t control your husband’s behavior, but you can work to create a space where both of you feel safe telling the truth. Talk about the difficult things, even if that leads to some short-term conflict. When these discussions are handled with respect and compassion, greater openness should naturally follow.
We all bring positive and negative qualities to our marriages. But sometimes it might seem easier to make a list of your husband’s faults and mistakes instead of all the good things about him.
So what’s going on here? The answer has to do with a bias in your brain that you’ll have to work around in order to keep your marriage thriving.
Our Brains Like to ‘Go Negative’
Your brain isn’t exactly an unbiased observer and recorder of your husband’s behavior — or, for that matter, of anything else. Instead, it has a negativity bias, according to psychologist and author Rick Hanson. Hanson says our brains are Velcro for negative things and Teflon for positive ones. We tend to overestimate threats and underestimate resources and opportunities.
There’s a good reason we’re wired this way. Being able to learn quickly from threats helped us survive as a species. But now that most of us aren’t fighting for our lives everyday, our brains’ negativity bias can cause problems. In your marriage, it can make you vividly remember the times your husband messed up or did something hurtful, even if the general pattern of your marriage is more positive.
How to Fight Your Brain Bias
So how can you maintain positive feelings in your marriage, even though your brain is conspiring against you?
- First, simply being aware of the negativity bias can help you bring a new attitude to your relationship. Now that you know your brain is better at noticing negative things, make an extra effort to savor all the positives in your marriage. “Talk back” to your negativity bias. One idea: Set a reminder for yourself to note the best moment in your relationship each day.
- Take time to regularly reflect on all the things your husband brings to your life that you’re grateful for. If you’re having trouble thinking of any right now, look back on all the reasons you first fell in love with him. Chances are those good qualities are still there.
- Make a collection of items that inspire positive feelings about your marriage — wedding photos, love notes, souvenirs of happy times. Use these to help remind you why you’re still with him.
- Beyond noticing the positives that are already present in your marriage, you can also create some new positives. For example, if you’re feeling stuck in a rut, try some new, fun activities together.
- Understand “relationship math.” One positive interaction doesn’t cancel out a negative interaction. That’s according to researcher John Gottman, who studies the differences between the Masters of Marriage (long-married couples who still like each other) vs. the Disasters of Marriage (those headed for divorce). The Masters of Marriage have 20 positive interactions for every negative one. Twenty! Even when they’re in conflict, their ratio is still five positives for every negative. What about the Disasters group? Their typical ratio is 0.8 positives for every negative.
In this season of Thanksgiving, I hope that you’ll try some of these ideas to cultivate gratitude and positivity in your relationship. My book Strong Women, Strong Love has additional strategies that you can explore.
What happened to your relationship?
You and your husband rarely focus on each other anymore. Instead, you’re at work, on your phones or wrapped up in the kids’ activities. You aren’t really sure what’s going on in each other’s lives – and you’re not interested enough to ask.
It’s all so different from when you first fell in love and couldn’t get enough of each other.
If one or both of you are emotionally checked out from your marriage, it doesn’t mean that passion and deep connection are gone forever. But it does mean that it’s time to give your relationship some TLC.
What Happened to the Spark?
There are some good reasons you and your husband were so irresistible to each other when your relationship was new. You gave each other your undivided attention, made each other feel important, and did interesting things together. It probably didn’t hurt that you were also at the mercy of powerful hormones that filled you with desire and made you emotionally open.
But in every lasting relationship, those intense feelings eventually subside. Because novelty eventually wears off, all the things that attracted you to each other at first seem routine now.
On top of that natural evolution, unrelenting work and family commitments can pull you away from each other: it’s hard to connect with anyone when you’re distracted, tired, and just need to decompress.
How to Check Back In
But here’s the good news: Even though passion and connection aren’t automatic anymore in your relationship, they can still flower again with some cultivation. Here’s how to do it.
- Prioritize you marriage. I get it: You have lots of other priorities. It’s hard to find time for your relationship. But it’s imperative that you do. Otherwise, you’re at risk of slipping from distraction into complete disconnection. Investing in your marriage pays off. When your marriage is strong and you feel connected to your partner, it’s easier to face life’s other challenges.
- Change things up. As I mentioned above, one of the reasons people emotionally check out of their marriages is that everything feels routine. Even a small change — like vacationing somewhere new — can reignite a sense of novelty and intrigue. If your husband isn’t game to explore something different right now, do it yourself. The energy you’ll get from taking a class or pursuing a new hobby should rub off on him and get him onboard.
- Get curious. False assumptions about each other might be behind your disengagement in the marriage. For example, maybe it seems like your husband works constantly to avoid time with you. You might be right, but it’s also possible there’s something else going on. Maybe he’s putting in extra time because he’s nervous about his job security. Take some time to plug back in and find out the real stories behind each other’s behaviors. My blog post about curiosity can help you get started.
- Tame your phone addiction. Those little devices can be a huge distraction in a relationship. Your phones make it easy to keep each other at arm’s length. Try some gradual shifts to change your phone habits. For example, make it a point not to glance at your phone when you’re talking with your husband.
- Seize every moment. You probably checked out of your marriage gradually over time. In the same way, rebuilding your connection is also a process. Even if you have just a few minutes each day to focus on your relationship, they can be powerful if you are truly present for each other.
If you’d like to further explore the ideas from this blog post, check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love. It has many more strategies for maintaining a connection with your partner amid our busy, stressful lives.
Miscarriages are heartbreakingly common. According to the Mayo Clinic, about 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in miscarriage.
Although we are becoming more open in talking about pregnancy loss, the topic is still sometimes surrounded with anxiety and misunderstanding — even with the people who are closest to us. That can include our husbands.
There’s not a universal way that men deal miscarriages, of course. But oftentimes women feel hurt and confused when their partner seems unemotional or indifferent about the loss.
Take a look at these posts from an online forum about miscarriage:
“Since my husband is the only person who knows about the miscarriage, I am seeking comfort from him, but he is not giving much!!”
“When we lost Michael, my husband had no reaction whatsoever.”
“It freaked him out and he wanted to be like my cheerleader and just make it go away and pretend nothing was wrong, etc. and carry on life ‘as usual’.”
Trying to Hide His Hurt
So why do some men react this way to miscarriage? Believe it or not, it’s often out of a desire to protect their partners. If you’re going through this with your own husband, realize that he might be hiding his feelings because he believes that sharing them would only add to your burden. You can see this pattern in some of the responses Cosmopolitan magazine got when it asked men to talk about their experiences with miscarriage:
“I’m trying to be strong and put my feelings on the backburner to be there for my wife.”
“Of course I was disappointed and bummed, but I had to be the support system because my wife was 10 times worse. I was so focused on being there for my wife that I never really dealt with it myself.”
The irony is that when a husband hides his grief over a miscarriage in an effort to spare his wife more pain, he can end up adding to her hurt by making her feel more alone.
It’s also important to remember that your grief may be different simply because the miscarriage happened in your body. Both the pregnancy and its loss affected your entire being. If his grief seems less profound and visceral than yours, it doesn’t mean that he doesn’t care about the loss — or that he doesn’t care about you. He just had a different connection to the pregnancy.
Getting the Support You Need
I can just about guarantee you that your husband wants to help you with your grief. But he may not know how to do it. The most loving thing you can do for him and for yourself is to be very clear about the support you need. Tell him you need to talk about the loss without him trying to fix you. Ask him for a hug or reassurance. It may feel strange asking him to do things that seem so obvious to you, but give it a try.
Others who have experienced miscarriage can also be a source of comfort. Don’t be afraid to reach out to them. If you would rather learn more about coping with pregnancy loss on your own, consider reading A Silent Sorrow: Pregnancy Loss-Guidance and Support for You and Your Entire Family by Ingrid Kohn, MSW and Perry-Lynn Moffitt.
Overall, strong marriages are built on honesty and being authentic with your spouse. But is it ever OK to tell a little white lie to your husband? What about withholding information?
Two spouses can have different, but equally valid, ideas about honesty and boundaries in marriage. The key thing is recognizing and working with your differences. Here are a few key things to remember.
Your Past Is Yours
For some people, intimacy means that partners are open books to each other. They want to share all the details of their past and want their partner to do the same. But other people may be less forthcoming. And that’s fine.
You should, of course, be honest and share with your husband information that affects your marriage (and expect him to do the same with you). For example, if your first marriage ended because of your ex’s infidelity, being aware of that helps your husband understand who you are in your relationship with him.
But being honest doesn’t mean you are obligated to reveal every detail of your past. If the discussion about your ex turns to your sex life with him, you’re within your rights to keep that information private between you and the other person.
Think Before You Critique
Here’s another way that couples can have different ideas about boundaries and honesty in marriage. Let’s say you have a blunt, let-it-all-hang-out philosophy. You were raised to “be real.” You don’t hesitate to tell your husband he loaded the dishwasher wrong or that his brother’s political views are crazy.
While this type of openness may have been normal in your family, your husband might interpret your behavior as an attack on him or his family. When it comes to honest critiques of your husband, it’s possible to tackle even a big issue – like the fact that you’re doing more than your share of housework – with kindness and respect. And consider letting the little stuff (like his quirky dishwasher-loading technique) slide.
The same holds true when you give your honest opinion about others close to him. You’re in emotionally charged territory here. There might be a time when you do need to call out one of his family members (“When your brother was talking about politics, he said something really sexist and disrespectful to me.”), but be careful about being “brutally honest.” Your husband might be perfectly fine rolling his eyes about his brother’s latest theories right along with you…or not. In any case, if you need to set a boundary of respect, go ahead and do it honestly, clearly, and respectfully.
Answer With Care
So we know unsolicited feedback can be risky. But what about when your partner asks you a question and you know your honest answer won’t make him happy? The cliche example of this situation is a wife asking her husband if an outfit makes her look fat, but either partner can find himself or herself on the receiving end of a tricky question. Before you answer, think about why your partner is asking the question in the first place. Chances are, he’s seeking affirmation or reassurance from you. Think about how you can answer the question with kindness and gentleness in addition to honesty.
You can use this article as a springboard to talk with your husband about how each of you approaches honesty and openness in situations like these. Does talking about past relationships make you feel intimate — or uncomfortable? Would you rather know what’s on each other’s minds, even if it’s hard to hear? Again, there are no right answers. The important thing is that you’re curious about understanding each other and committed to navigating differences in communication styles and openness.