We tend to joke about how marriage gets boring after a few years.
But it’s actually no laughing matter.
Researchers have found that boredom may be even more damaging to a marriage than conflict is. Psychotherapist and a bestselling author Esther Perel even sees a link between boredom and infidelity:
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
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.
And what is boredom if not the opposite of aliveness?
You Feel Alive?
If you have kids, I bet you invested in classes, camps or other
activities for them this summer — and not just to keep them supervised while
you were at work. You wanted them to learn, to try new things, to have
experiences that would enrich who they are.
As good parents, we do this for our kids. But we often neglect to
do the same thing for ourselves. But, just like your kids, you need to stretch,
grow and have new experiences. And your marriage will be better when you do.
So now that the kids are back in school, what’s one thing you can do that makes you feel more alive? This doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. Revive your yoga practice. Take an online class. Make a list of things you’ve never done in your town, and start doing them. Reconnect with a friend you love spending time with. Whether you do something as a couple or on your own, you’ll be bring some new energy into your relationship. Over time, that energy multiplies, and boredom vanishes.
Are you looking for more ways to keep the spark in your
relationship even after you’ve been married for years? Pick up a copy of my
book Strong Women, Strong
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”:
You have a great friend at the office. You enjoy working with him and sometimes you even grab lunch together. He’s funny, considerate and easy to talk to. So easy to talk to, in fact, that you find yourself sharing things with him that you don’t share with your husband.
You’re in dangerous territory.
Emotional infidelity can be a stepping stone to a full-blown affair. And even if it doesn’t turn into one, it can still damage your marriage.
When Does a Friendship Cross the Line into an Emotional Affair?
It’s fine, of course, to have friends outside your marriage, but it’s important to know the difference between a friendship and an emotional affair.
One of the first signs you might be engaging in emotional infidelity is that you’re talking with your friend about things you don’t discuss with your husband. The following questions can also help you determine whether you might be crossing the line. Ask yourself:
Would you talk with your friend about the same things if your husband were present?
If your husband doesn’t know your friend, would you feel comfortable introducing them? If not, why not?
Can you honestly say that you don’t have any feelings other than friendship for this person?
Are the two of you communicating secretly, either on the phone or in person? Why?
Worried that you might be drifting into an emotional affair? You can take a quiz on the website of Dr. Shirley Glass, an expert on the topic, to see if your friendship has become an emotional affair : Just Friends or Emotional Affair Quiz.
The Cost of Emotional Infidelity
One common reason that people commit emotional infidelity is because they feel an emotional disconnection from their spouse. Addressing that sense of loneliness or estrangement is hard work. It can seem easier to avoid issues between you and your husband and distract yourself with attention from someone outside your marriage — all the while rationalizing that it “doesn’t count” because it’s not physical.
But it does count. An emotional affair can be a slippery slope to a physical affair. But even if the relationship never becomes physical, it still harms your marriage because of the secrecy and betrayal that is often involved.
People who find out about their spouse’s emotional affair may feel just as devastated as those who find out their partner is having a physical affair. In fact, some would even argue that emotional betrayal is worse than physical infidelity. Sometimes it can hurt more to find out your spouse is physically present, but deeply emotionally connected to someone else.
Putting the Brakes on an Emotional Affair
Lots of aspects of our lives today make us vulnerable to emotional affairs. Working long hours can lead to more closeness with your “work husband” than your real husband. And Facebook puts old flames at our fingertips.
If you are having an emotional affair, consider it a signal that you need to put your marriage front and center again. Ask yourself what’s driving you to look outside of your relationship to get your needs met, and see if you can address that problem directly. If it’s that you don’t feel good about yourself, get some counseling and work on yourself. If you’ve become resentful of your husband and feel distant from him, work on your marriage.
You can find more advice on the factors that lead to infidelity in my book Strong Women, Strong Love. Don’t wait to address this critical issue in your marriage.
Infidelity is the ultimate betrayal. But does it have to be? Relationship therapist Esther Perel examines why people cheat, and unpacks why affairs are so traumatic: because they threaten our emotional security. In infidelity, she sees something unexpected — an expression of longing and loss. A must-watch for anyone who has ever cheated or been cheated on, or who simply wants a new framework for understanding relationships.
An interesting new study confirms something you perhaps knew intuitively. The findings? When someone forgives and stays with a cheating spouse, we tend to think less of that person, especially if he or she is in a leadership role.
I think there’s definitely a societal expectation to dump a spouse who is caught cheating. Just look at how many more popular songs there are about taking revenge on philanderers vs. taking them back!
At the root of that expectation might be some self-righteousness. People tend to think that an affair would never happen in their marriage. But I can tell you as a psychologist that affairs happen to all types of couples, and that some people who have affairs are the last people you’d ever suspect. Affairs don’t just happen to serial philanderers or die-hard cheaters. They happen to people who love their spouses, care about their marriages and never intended to cheat.
We’re all vulnerable sometimes in our marriages. Dr. Janis Abrahms Spring, a leading expert on the topic of affairs, confirms that there are often external stressors preceding an affair, such as the birth of a child, career success, or job loss. In our busy lives, meeting each other’s needs takes work. And sometimes opportunity lines up with unmet needs and disconnection in a way that leads to an affair.
Infidelity brings pain and distrust to a relationship, but if both partners still care about the marriage and each other, it doesn’t automatically mean the end of the relationship. (Again, we’re not talking about serial philanderers here — that’s a bigger problem and a very different situation than the average affair.)
How does healing happen? First, the partner who cheated has to be transparent. He must be willing to admit what he has done and acknowledge the hurt it caused. This process goes a lot deeper than just saying “I’m sorry, now let’s move on.”
The unfaithful partner also has to be willing to help the hurt spouse heal. She must answer questions, be with the partner through the considerable pain that comes after an affair and do what she can to help her spouse trust her again. This process can be lengthy and very emotionally difficult.
As scary as it may be, the hurt spouse has to be open to the repair attempts of their partner. Although there is a natural tendency to want to make your spouse “pay” for what they’ve done, in the long run doing so sabotages your attempts to heal. Opening your heart to your partner knowing there’s some risk of being hurt again can be terribly frightening, but if your partner seems genuinely remorseful, know that taking these risks is a critical part of the healing process.
At some point, it’s important for both parties to see if there is anything that made their relationship vulnerable to the affair. Infidelity can be a indication that something else was going wrong in the relationship. According to relationships expert Dr. Sue Johnson, affairs often take root when partners are disconnected or feel unappreciated.
Even though the trust in the marriage has been heavily compromised, the wronged spouse can’t constantly play watchdog. Although shattered trust may never be fully repaired, it doesn’t mean you can’t rebuild a strong, emotionally-close relationship. I’ve seen some clients’ relationships become healthier in many ways after an affair because it forced them to finally deal with their issues.
I wish I could tell you that the path back from infidelity is an easier one, but, contrary to what popular opinion tells us, there is a path there.