The State of Affairs Summary and Review

by Esther Perel
Has The State of Affairs by Esther Perel been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. If you ask any American in a committed, monogamous relationship, they’ll probably all tell you the same thing; cheating ruins trust. It’s the lowest blow someone could deliver – the ultimate form of betrayal. And yet, millions of Americans in serious relationships continue to cheat on their significant others. Even if you could find examples of people who’ve remained completely faithful to their current partners, the number of adult Westerners who’ve never cheated is a low one. But are unfaithful partners evil, or is it possible that our prevailing beliefs about infidelity need revision? This book summary discusses these and other complex topics, offering real-life examples to provide a clearer understanding of what can be a murky subject. This book summary also explains:
  • how infidelity can threaten identity;
  • why jealousy isn’t entirely awful; and
  • that, at times, secrecy is the best policy.

Defining Infidelity

At some point, we’ve probably all wondered precisely how many people cheat on their partner? Is it a rare experience or a common occurrence? Such questions are difficult to answer because cheating is challenging to define. There’s never really been a universal consensus on what constitutes infidelity. In today’s society, however, the issue is even more complicated, thanks to dating platforms and apps like Tinder. For example, are you betraying your partner if you engage in a flirtatious online conversation? Even if you disregard the internet factors, the boundaries between fidelity and infidelity are hard to pin down. Is it cheating if you sleep with a sex worker or if you get a lap dance? What if you’re in a heterosexual relationship and you sleep with a person of the same sex? These definitional complications have resulted in varying views of infidelity in the United States. Some studies have concluded that 25 percent of the US population has been unfaithful and others state it’s closer to 70 percent. Still, most studies agree that infidelity is on the rise. This increase is owed, in large part, to a growth in women’s sexual adventurousness. In 2007, psychologist Rebecca J. Brand led a study where the definition of infidelity included romantic feelings, kissing and touching. By that description, college-aged women were determined more likely to be unfaithful than men. Despite the lack of a clear definition, it’s possible to identify a couple of elements shared by the majority of infidelities. In the author’s experience, infidelities customarily include one of the three following elements: secrecy, sexual chemistry or emotional involvement. An act can qualify as cheating even if none of those elements are present, however, more often than not, at least one of these factors is involved. Secrecy, in addition to adding excitement to an affair, is usually what hurts the deceived partner the most. Discovering that your partner kept you in the dark can be far more painful than knowing that your partner is having an affair. Actual sex isn’t necessarily part of a sexual connection. Engaging in intense flirtation can be just as sexual as having a one-night stand and can constitute just as much of a betrayal. Lastly, almost all affairs include some kind of emotional involvement. Again, the emotional side of infidelity often causes more pain than the merely physical part.

Why Infidelity Hurts 

Many people build their identities around relationships. Love, partnership, trust – without these, most of us would feel lost. Infidelity can call those things into question, shaking the foundation of our identity.  That’s exactly why betrayal hurts: it threatens our sense of self. If you spend years as a part of a couple, then your character will unavoidably get entwined with your role as a partner. That’s why people who are deceived by their long-term partners often feel like they don’t know who they are anymore. They believe the betrayal is abandonment and that they’ve been rejected because they weren’t enough. It causes people to start questioning their self-worth. Identity and partnership are more connected in America compared to many other cultures. For example, the author asked a community of Senegalese women about their thoughts on infidelity, and they said, while upset by betrayal, they didn’t feel like it posed a threat to their sense of self. To them, men simply do such things. Furthermore, they tended to secure feelings of self-worth from their community rather than from partners. This isn’t the case in the United States. Americans often believe that romantic love is life’s highest achievement, and it’s that myth that leads them to interpret acts of infidelity as a crisis of identity. However, it’s not just the deceived partner that may lose their sense of self; the betrayer tends to have a similar experience. Affairs can be fun (which is a reason why people have them); but, if found out, the person having the affair is forced to view themselves through the eyes of their partner. It’s seldom flattering and can be very unsettling. Consider the following case: the author had a client (let’s call him Costa) whose father was oppressive and unfaithful. Costa, having witnessed the pain this caused his mother, resolved to be a different type of partner. As an adult, however, he overcompensated by suppressing his passions, adopting a stiff, formal manner with his wife. It wasn’t until he met his lover, Amanda, that he could reconnect with his desires and throw away the personality he’d selected as a husband. Still, discarding his spousal identity also meant assuming a new one. He was now the opposite of the person he really felt himself to be; rather than a faithful husband, he was a cheater, like his father.
We read dozens of other great books like The State of Affairs, and summarised their ideas in this article called Vulnerability
Check it out here!

Is Jealousy Necessary for Love?

Literature is abundant with love and betrayal and, naturally, jealousy. Jealousy drives the plots of numerous classics, from Euripides’s Medea to Shakespeare’s Othello. So why do Western self-help books that mean to discuss all phases of love and betrayal omit this crucial component? Well, in Western society, jealousy has grown to be a taboo subject. In Western countries, betrayed partners tend to concentrate on the betrayer’s shortcomings and immorality, drawing attention to the duplicitousness and deception that cheating involves. They rarely talk about jealousy, because admitting to such a petty sentiment would be to cede the moralistic high ground. Contrast this to the way that jealousy is dealt with in various non-Western countries. Couples’ therapists Michele Scheinkman and Denise Werneck, who both work in Brazil, state that jealousy is customarily the centerpiece of counseling sessions for Brazilian couples dealing with infidelity. Unlike most Westerners, Brazilians often assume and accept that people lie. Moreover, betrayed partners hardly position themselves as being morally superior. Instead, they question whether their partners still love them and what the conflicting lover is providing that they aren’t. Prior to around 1970, jealousy was also viewed as normal in the West. Women were expected to hide their jealousy and avoid arousing any related feelings within their husbands, but men were able to display and act on their jealous responses. Yet, as women grew to be more sexually and socially liberated, and the notion of equal partnership took hold, jealousy became viewed as a shameful emotion for both sexes. This isn’t necessarily a healthy aspect, however. Jealousy isn’t a sentiment that Westerners learn to embrace, but we’d do well not to completely reject it. If you love someone, and you invest time, hope and trust in your relationship with them, it’s common to feel vulnerable. What’s more, a touch of jealousy – a small, and healthy dose – can really strengthen partnerships. Recognizing that your partner is somewhat jealous is a kind of proof that they love and care for you. If someone approached you in a flirtatious manner, you’d expect your partner to be jealous. Remember, jealousy can also be a symbol of love.

Should We Reveal or Conceal Affairs?

In the West, love, and lies are usually regarded as mutually exclusive. If you’re in a committed relationship, you shouldn’t lie to your partner, and especially not about unfaithfulness. It might be unpleasant, but, no matter what, it’s your ethical obligation to come clean. This, at least, is what we’ve learned to think, yet it’s seldom so cut-and-dried. Consider Lina, who found herself in a moral dilemma when several months after getting engaged, she got drunk at her college reunion party and slept with an ex-boyfriend. Lina was reluctant to tell her fiancé because his ex-wife cheated on him with his best friend. Admitting the booze-fueled infidelity may have caused an untimely end to a promising relationship. Would it truly be worth it? Another example is Yuri, who fought with his wife often. Their conflict only stopped when he started a secret affair. Yuri’s infidelity actually improved his sex life with his wife. He not only stopped bothering his wife for more sex; they also had a more relaxed time and enjoyed sex when they both felt like having it. Exposing his affair might have threatened that positive arrangement, so would being honest be the right thing to do? It’s difficult to say. However, there are cases where it’s definitely more beneficial to maintain secrecy. For example, envision a man on his deathbed. His wife, who’s taken care of him while he had cancer, is at his bedside. Understanding that he’ll soon be gone, he gets an urge to finally reveal to his wife that, throughout most of their lengthy marriage, he was having an affair. If he acts on the urge, he’ll be putting his wife in a terrible position. Not only will she be mourning his death but she’ll have to grapple with the awful revelation that, for all those years, he had a mistress too. Telling the truth can sometimes be selfish or even cruel. It’s essential to know precisely why you want to be honest. Do you have your partner’s best interests in mind, or are you only seeking to relieve your individual guilt?

Exploring Alternate Identities In Happy Relationships 

If you’re unfaithful, there has to be something wrong with your relationship right? Perhaps you and your partner aren’t a perfect match. Otherwise, why would you stray? It might appear counterintuitive, but cheating isn’t always a sign of an unhappy relationship. In fact, you could be contentedly partnered and still have an affair. Consider the instance of a woman we’ll refer to as Priya. Priya and her husband, Colin, have a nice family, lots of friends and they’re both successful in their careers and satisfied. Colin is a great lover and husband; their relationship is very happy. Nevertheless, Priya started having an affair. After a hurricane hit the neighborhood, an arborist came to clear the fallen trees. He drove a truck, was covered in tattoos and looked exactly like the type of stereotypical handyman you’d expect a successful wife to have an affair with. For Priya, part of what made her affair with the arborist exciting is that he is in a relationship as well. That means rather than occurring in his apartment, their sexual encounters normally take place in one of their cars, or a movie theater. The possibility they may get found out is thrilling, but it’s terrifying as well because being exposed could ruin Priya’s marriage. Why would she jeopardize her happy relationship with Colin? Affairs can be a means to explore other identities. Priya’s sessions with the author made it obvious that, early in her life, she’d took on the role of the “good” girl. She never went against her family’s expectations and did well academically, professionally and romantically. And while she’s content with how it’s turned out, she recognizes now that she prioritized what other people wanted for her, rather than what she desired for herself. Priya’s affair is her means of exploring her desires and identity. It’s a way of experiencing the life she chose not to lead.

The Coexistence of Love and Sex 

It may sound unusual, but it’s not unheard of: an otherwise exemplary spouse, instead of having sex with their loving partner, starts visiting sex workers. Why would someone in a seemingly harmonious relationship pay for sex? For some, love and sex don’t effortlessly coexist. Look at Garth, a man in his third marriage who continues having the same discouraging experiences. The marriages start with fire and passion but, before long, he stops desiring his wife. He loses the ability to get an erection and begins feeling like having intercourse with her would almost be wrong. So he starts visiting sex workers. Now, this is not a mere waning of sexual passion that most couples endure sooner or later. Garth doesn’t feel mild indifference toward his wife; he feels a strong aversion. That’s because, for him, sexual contact and intense emotional attachment are mutually exclusive. As is the case for most people with a related problem, Garth’s incapability to have sex with the person he loves originated from his childhood. His father was a violent alcoholic, who’d regularly beat his family. When this transpired, Garth tried to defend his mother and younger brother by getting between them and his father’s fists. That harmful environment led to Garth becoming overly involved with his mother’s emotional life. He felt like it was his responsibility to protect and care for her. According to Terry Real, a psychotherapist who wrote an article on this subject in 2017, such cases are commonplace. Men in these circumstances later project that mother-son dynamic onto their adult relationships with women. This is what Garth does; he feels a disinclination to sexual contact with partners that he loves because it feels incestuous, and that response only grows stronger as he gets closer to them. Such trauma doesn’t have an easy remedy. There might not be a cure at all. Unfortunately, Garth’s third wife left him, just like the previous two did. She couldn’t support his unfaithfulness, nor did she believe he would ever change.

Forms of Betrayal

Infidelity tends to be perceived as the apotheosis of moral failure. The Bible states, “Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” No other sin operates in this manner. Infidelity is the solitary transgression you can commit by simply thinking about it. Westerners inherited that Judeo-Christian ethic; we often consider infidelity the ultimate form of betrayal. This is undoubtedly the case in the United States. According to a 2013 Gallup survey, 91 percent of Americans consider infidelity morally unacceptable. No other similar action was so thoroughly rebuked. For instance, divorce, which used to be very frowned upon in the United States, was disapproved of by only 24 percent of the population. However, is infidelity really the worst form of betrayal? In a relationship, betrayal can take on many forms, some of them far more unpleasant than infidelity. Paying little or even no attention to your partner is a type of betrayal, as are unreasonable demands, like asking soemone to give up their career plans or close friends to be with you. Mona was married to Dexter for many years and is a case in point. Dexter bullied her constantly; he’d plan vacations with their children that involved long flights, because he knew Mona was afraid of flying and, therefore, wouldn’t be able to go. He’d regularly make her feel foolish and boring, taking every opportunity he had to insult her. He always financially provided for the family, but that kept Mona on a short leash too because she depended on him. It wasn’t until Mona met Robert, her lover, that she realized how kind men could actually be. Being around him, she felt interesting and deserving of genuine love. When Dexter discovered the affair, he called her terrible names and told her that she was to blame for the end of their marriage. But who had really betrayed whom in this situation? Dexter made Mona emotionally miserable for years, while Mona only was drawn toward an extramarital source for the love and affection that Dexter wasn’t giving her.

Consensual Non-Monogamy 

The term “relationship” often implores images of a moderately traditional arrangement: two people, exclusively committed to one another and who sometimes struggle to remain faithful. But that is by no means the only model possible. Many have offered alternatives to the monogamous approach and one of the more popular counter-proposals is consensual non-monogamy. Consensual non-monogamy operates as follows: the relationship still consists of two primary partners, but each is permitted to have sex with other people, and they’re both open and honest about it. Consensual non-monogamists will say monogamy is a myth. We might all pretend to be faithful, but, in reality, many people cheat through actions, and arguably everyone cheats through their thoughts. Why be hypocritical about it? Why not simply admit that people aren’t naturally wired for monogamy and just allow and discuss that irrefutable desire to sleep with other people? Okay, the monogamists say: if you want multiple partners, why not stay single? Marriage requires a full commitment. The non-monogamists counter that one can be committed to various people. Think of friendship; you don’t have to pick one friendship at the expense of all the other ones. Yes, say the monogamists, but love and sex are not the same so the comparison to friendship is misleading. Fine, the non-monogamists reply, but if everyone is either currently cheating or considering it, why not be upfront about it? Well, the monogamists answer – and the debate rages on. There’s presumably no one-size-fits-all approach to a partnership. However, if you elect to give consensual non-monogamy a try, you shouldn’t be naive about it. It’s not a fail-safe resolution to infidelity. Remember, cheating isn’t a simple undertaking. It’s often as much about breaking the “rules” as it is about sleeping around. Furthermore, relationships, no matter what form they may take, require regulations. For instance, even if you and your partner resolve that it’s okay to have sex with other people, the rule may be that you’re not permitted to get emotionally involved, and falling in love is a strict no-no. But transgression is tempting, and it’s not unusual for someone in a non-monogamous couple to fall in love with a third party. The author witnessed it countless times, and it is just as much of a betrayal as infidelity is within a monogamous relationship.

In Review: The State of Affairs Book Summary

The key message in this book summary: Infidelity is almost universally viewed as a breach of valuable trust. It’s considered by many as the most damaging sort of betrayal. But we tend to not give adequate attention to the subject of cheating. Sometimes it might be more of a betrayal to expose an affair than to hide it, and other behaviors, like making your partner’s life miserable by putting them down, can be far greater disloyalties than a one-night stand. Infidelity can even be positive for a relationship if it ignites a touch of healthy jealousy. Actionable advice: Be monogamish. Many think that you have to choose between monogamy or non-monogamy: you can either go fully one way or completely the other. Author and sex advisor Dan Savage took issue with that binary and offered the term monogamish – an arrangement that allows you to formulate your own version of somewhat tempered monogamy. This standardly includes remaining mostly dedicated to one person, while allotting for particular freedoms. Talking about what is allowed can produce clarity and avoid feelings of betrayal. Consider it as a couple: is fantasizing about other people permitted? What about flirting or porn, occasional hookups or sexting? Devise your definition of monogamy together, so at least you both know what you’re talking about when accusing the other partner of cheating.    
Suggested further reading: Find more great ideas like those contained in this summary in this article we wrote on Vulnerability