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Is infidelity always bad for a marriage?

Infidelity is always bad for a marriage, right? Not necessarily, according to Esther Perel, who challenges conventional wisdom about marriage and sex in her controversial book Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic and the Domestic. Babble spoke with the New York-based therapist about the changing notions of infidelity – especially online – and what it means for parents in particular.

What misconceptions do people have about infidelity?

People assume that having affairs points to a flaw in the marriage and that it’s a symptom of something gone awry, that if the relationship was fine, this wouldn’t happen. But there are multiple meanings and motives for infidelity. Some of them are the consequence of dissatisfied or even abusive situations and bad relationships. But there are a host of infidelities that have nothing to do with the relationship. The majority of adulterers are reasonably happy in their marriages.

Why do parents, in particular, seek sex outside of marriage?

One of the things that defines modern couplehood is that we believe there is one relationship for everything and that one person is going to give you what an entire village used to provide. In marriage, we’ve always wanted to have children and a family life, to have companionship and economic support, and, on top of it, we also want the same person who gives us all that to give us a sense of mystery and excitement and novelty that will help us cross over the mundane and the ordinary.

But here’s the problem: What provides stability and consistency is not necessarily what provides surprise and change and risk, which is a key part of erotic intensity. What eroticism thrives on is what family life defends against. Family life thrives on the predictable, and predictability kills desire for most people.

What advice do you have for parents who are finding it challenging to kindle their erotic relationship after they’ve had kids?

The ironic thing is that sex makes babies but babies spell erotic disaster. Sometimes people feel enhanced with the children, but diminished with their partner. It’s important for parents and committed couples to maintain an erotic space, but that’s very difficult when the needs of the children trump everything else.

Couples need to make sure they maintain a relationship beyond parenthood. Parents need to continue to feed their own erotic selves so that they feel a sense of aliveness. One of the primary reasons some people are unfaithful is to beat back a sense of deadness.

On the long list of what your kids need are parents with a healthy sex life. For a family to survive, you need a couple that is thriving, and if you want it to thrive, you need to keep an erotic connection.

But can erotic connections really happen on “date night”?

Do something that breaks the routine, something unpredictable, not dinner and a movie. When you’re at home, be sure to put away the Legos and Playmobile. Couples need to make sure to maintain a couple relationship beyond parenthood – a place where they meet as lovers, not as partners in Management Inc.

How has the Internet changed the notion of fidelity?

When you meet someone online, you’ve got two people who may have never met, they are fictitious characters, but they’re in a real relationship. The emotions they’re feeling are deep. The Internet has allowed people to bypass the traditional standards of attraction. Many times people have relationships online that are more intimate than the ones they have with their partner because it’s free from the routine of letting in the plumber and picking up the children.

You have said that infidelity can help a marriage. How?

Sometimes people engage in an affair as a way to improve their relationship. They don’t want to destroy their family, they adore their partner as the mother or the father of their children, but there’s a certain kind of erotic intimacy they’re missing so they try to find it elsewhere. If they can bring that energy home, that can energize the marriage.

Any last words of advice for parents on how to reconcile the erotic and the domestic?

I tell couples to have private email accounts that are totally private and where they’re not allowed to talk as mom and dad. This becomes erotic space where they’re just a man and a woman.

For more Esther Perel, read Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence

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