The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity

Iconic couples’ therapist and bestselling author of Mating in Captivity Esther Perel returns with a provocative look at relationships through the lens of infidelity.An affair: it can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness, their very identity. And yet, this extremely common human experience is so poorly understood. What are we to make of this time-honored tabo...

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The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity Reviews

  • Kristal

    I won this book from Goodreads. This book should be read by everyone in a serious relationship or maybe before marriage. Very thoughtful and full of insight.

  • Stephanie

    Everyone in a relationship should read THE STATE OF AFFAIRS: Perel is a wonderfully engaging writer, and raises so many thought-provoking questions and opportunities for deep thought and reflection. Marriage in America has gone through so many changes in a relatively short period of time, and this book gives both those who are happily coupled language to start a conversation and those who have dealt with infidelity an incredible perspective. Not to be missed.

  • Mehrsa

    I'm a huge fan of Perel's super realistic view of marriage. I've been following her work and this book did not disappoint. I know she's a sex therapist and so her focus on sex obviously makes sense and when you are a researcher focused on one thing, you tend to think that that thing is the most important thing. But I wish she had given a more holistic view of marriage apart from the sex/desire angle. Because I think this is part of the problem with some of our modern thinking about a marriage th

    I'm a huge fan of Perel's super realistic view of marriage. I've been following her work and this book did not disappoint. I know she's a sex therapist and so her focus on sex obviously makes sense and when you are a researcher focused on one thing, you tend to think that that thing is the most important thing. But I wish she had given a more holistic view of marriage apart from the sex/desire angle. Because I think this is part of the problem with some of our modern thinking about a marriage that has to provide all things, which is an issue she highlights. But yet she keeps coming back to the importance of desire and sex as though it is of central importance. That is a culturally specific view.

  • Celine

    I appreciate the way Esther Perel has sought to truly understand her clients. I'd like to be able to channel her level of empathy and insight someday. We'd likely all be better partners if more of us did the type of self-reflection and -exploration Perel encourages in The State of Affairs. Often easier said than done though, I think.

  • Trish

    Apparently eighty percent of the population has some experience with infidelity, whether through a parent, spouse, friend, or family member. Considering how hurtful and destructive such urges are, it is amazing most of us are still standing. Esther Perel has distilled her years of marriage counseling and study of infidelity to reveal fascinating insights that make enormous sense to me. She tells us that

    Apparently eighty percent of the population has some experience with infidelity, whether through a parent, spouse, friend, or family member. Considering how hurtful and destructive such urges are, it is amazing most of us are still standing. Esther Perel has distilled her years of marriage counseling and study of infidelity to reveal fascinating insights that make enormous sense to me. She tells us that

    I would add a corollary that if the

    one who commits infidelity didn’t fear death

    they became involved in an extramarital affair, they should after, for sure.

    I love the way Perel thinks. She is such an adult. When one is in the midst of handling an exposed infidelity, it is common to experience sadness, rage, jealousy, and diminished self-worth. Perel says we can feel these things if we want, it is normal, but it is probably more worthwhile to look at why one strayed, if one has the stamina for it.

    In this way, one may find one prefers one’s spouse to other possibilities, and can renew their vows in a fuller knowledge of one another, and a fuller knowledge of what it takes to make a marriage succeed. One of the things I notice about marriage is that sometimes the people involved forget that the spouse is a mystery and basically unknowable; that the spouse is an independent sexual being; that affairs often allow us to discover a new self, rather than merely a new sexual partner. Oftentimes it is that new sexual self that is so entrancing, not the new partner after all, e.g., “I feel

    ”.

    A couple of other things Perel points to are that we keep many secrets in a marriage, and perhaps infidelity is not the most damaging of these. She thinks that sometimes admitting to an infidelity may cause more damage than not, and one has to ask oneself what one’s motives are in revealing such a thing if it is not already discovered and is unlikely to be.

    While we often hear that revenge is sweet, in fact it is frequently the opposite. There is an important lesson to know about long-lasting feelings of vengeance: “If in the process of getting even you end up hurting yourself more than you punish the other, you gain nothing.” Feelings of stress and anger can make you miserable.

    Studies of romantic love discover that it is a physical addiction, similar in effect to cocaine or nicotine on the brain. Quoting Anthropologist Helen Fisher who has done fMRI studies on the brain in love: “weaning oneself off of obsessive thinking about a lost love…is akin to breaking a dependency on drugs.”

    Perel defines infidelity as including one or more of three components: secrecy, sexual alchemy, and emotional involvement. Towards the end of the book she explains that although women are used to being in touch with their emotional side and the multidimensionality of their sexuality (its subjectivity, its relational character, its contextual nature, and its reliance on a delicate balance of conditions), men rarely give themselves that freedom.

    There are so many myths surrounding the definition of male sexuality as being biologically imperative, uncomplicated, ever ready, and always in search of novelty but actually men and women are in fact more similar than they are different. Men may find themselves emotionally disengaging in direct proportion to the demands of their relational entanglements and the conflicting messages they are receiving about who they are and who they should be. “You don’t pay the hooker to come—you pay her to leave”—highlighting the pleasures of less emotionally complicated forms of sex.

    In the end, Perel says, it is usually a lack of real sexual communication in the midst of a loud and proud declaration of emotional transparency in modern intimacy that is most at fault for a drawing away from real intimacy. A successful marriage, I’m guessing, allows some of the mystery to remain. Two individuals agree to share lives; that they can leave at any time deepens the mystery. One needn’t do it, so when we do, there must be meaning. Communication is critical. And weathering a storm can unlock a few mysteries we tend to keep hidden, even from ourselves.

    Perel has Youtube videos of her most popular talks, and she is particularly good at cutting to the heart of relationships and fingering the sore spots. Most of us can find our own situations well-represented. Her examples of couples in treatment are diverse and distinct, and very interesting. I’d say listening to her is worthwhile even if it has never entered your mind to stray.

  • Miri

    I came to this book with some friendly skepticism; I’d heard Esther Perel on several podcasts I listen to and I found her engaging and thoughtful, but as a therapist I was a bit turned off by her use of outdated Freudian concepts. However, this book was very light on the Freud. I loved how seamlessly Perel wove in her anonymized patients’ stories along with her own theory and observations. She didn’t cite much research or anything like that, but she didn’t need to, because this is a book about n

    I came to this book with some friendly skepticism; I’d heard Esther Perel on several podcasts I listen to and I found her engaging and thoughtful, but as a therapist I was a bit turned off by her use of outdated Freudian concepts. However, this book was very light on the Freud. I loved how seamlessly Perel wove in her anonymized patients’ stories along with her own theory and observations. She didn’t cite much research or anything like that, but she didn’t need to, because this is a book about new ways of looking at things, not about the psychology or sociology of affairs.

    I was also delighted that Perel included plenty of stories from LGBTQ individuals/couples, and also paid keen attention to race, ethnicity, and other factors when discussing her patients. There was also an entire chapter at the end about nonmonogamy and how it can and can’t prevent violations of trust in relationships. So few therapists/authors dealing with sex and relationships include these topics in a culturally competent way, and Perel did so brilliantly.

  • Heather

    The funny (and probably unfortunate) thing about reading a book like this is that people automatically assume you're trying to save your marriage or something. haha. I discovered Esther Perel via Dan Savage. I love both their practical approaches to relationships. They deal with the realities of life, not idealistic dreams that often don't work in people's daily experience. Perel does not minimize the pain of infidelity. But she's a much needed voice in our culture about what infidelity means an

    The funny (and probably unfortunate) thing about reading a book like this is that people automatically assume you're trying to save your marriage or something. haha. I discovered Esther Perel via Dan Savage. I love both their practical approaches to relationships. They deal with the realities of life, not idealistic dreams that often don't work in people's daily experience. Perel does not minimize the pain of infidelity. But she's a much needed voice in our culture about what infidelity means and how it can be approached in relationships. My biggest take-away from the book is that we need to pull our judgemental noses out of the relationships of other people and stop judging them for how they choose to negotiate their lives. Stop looking down on your friend who stays when their partner strays. Stop looking down on people who view commitment and fidelity differently than you do. It's none of your business and it doesn't actually do anything to help your friend or family member.

  • Katie/Doing Dewey

     Although the point of this book is to broadly examine the phenomenon of infidelity, what I enjoyed most were the anecdotes that gave an unusually intimate glimpse of many relationships.

    "An affair: it can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness, their very identity. And yet, this extremely common human experience is so poorly understood. What are we to make of this time-honored taboo—universally forbidden yet universally practiced? Why do people cheat—even those in happy marr

     Although the point of this book is to broadly examine the phenomenon of infidelity, what I enjoyed most were the anecdotes that gave an unusually intimate glimpse of many relationships.

    "An affair: it can rob a couple of their relationship, their happiness, their very identity. And yet, this extremely common human experience is so poorly understood. What are we to make of this time-honored taboo—universally forbidden yet universally practiced? Why do people cheat—even those in happy marriages? Why does an affair hurt so much? When we say infidelity, what exactly do we mean? Do our romantic expectations of marriage set us up for betrayal? Is there such a thing as an affair-proof marriage? Is it possible to love more than one person at once? Can an affair ever help a marriage?" (

    ) Using case-stories from her time as a couple's therapist, Esther Perel addresses these questions.

    I have little to no sympathy for cheaters in fiction, so I wasn't sure about picking this up. It seemed like the author might be forgiving enough of such behavior that this could be a frustrating read. Instead, she carefully walked the line of trying to understand cheating without condoning it. She also clearly extended empathy to everyone she met with, which seems like being a good therapist to me. She wisely points out that if we simply condemn infidelity and don't talk about it any further, we miss an opportunity to not only learn more about why infidelity happens, but to learn more about relationships by studying them through the lens of infidelity. Having read her book, I have to agree. It was fascinating to get such an intimate look at so many relationships.

    Part of what pushed me to pick this up was having heard the author in an episode of the podcast 

    She was an entertaining speaker on the show and was equally entertaining as an author. I often found her commentary witty and insightful and the stories she told were compulsively readable. Although all the couples and individuals she talked to had been impacted by an affair, each was unique. She talked to couples who were gay and straight, from different countries and with different cultural views on infidelity. She talked to couples where the cheater was a woman and where the cheater was a man. All the stories were presented with empathy and made for interesting reading. The author used these anecdotes to raise thought-provoking questions and make smart observations about human nature. This engaging read will almost certainly be on my list of favorite nonfiction of the year.

  • Liina Bachmann

    How very limited is our vocabulary and emotional intelligence when it comes to infidelity. Quick to use the stereotyped responses and to protect the romantic ideal that, let's be honest, the a large majority of people are not able to live up to or are unhappy while doing that.

    Esther Perel gets that. She has cut through the Affair Cake with a sharp knife during her decades long practice as a psychotherapist, and she has quite a lot to tell about all the layers it hides. Her approach is refreshin

    How very limited is our vocabulary and emotional intelligence when it comes to infidelity. Quick to use the stereotyped responses and to protect the romantic ideal that, let's be honest, the a large majority of people are not able to live up to or are unhappy while doing that.

    Esther Perel gets that. She has cut through the Affair Cake with a sharp knife during her decades long practice as a psychotherapist, and she has quite a lot to tell about all the layers it hides. Her approach is refreshingly realistic. In the beginning of the book she states that nowadays our one partner has to give us so many contradictory things and the expectations for the quality of the relationship so high that it is no wonder we are having trouble living up to those standards.

    Torn between the need for security and novelty at the same time trying not to lose the sense of "self" that so often gets diluted when there is not enough space between two people - those and other causes are discussed among with different specific mechanics why people stray and in the last parts - what happens when the unimaginable has happened?How do couples go on?

    She is not a judge and does not take sides. Instead Perel is so very emphatic and humane that the tone she uses, is at least as worthy of a reason to read the book as the information it holds and the interesting case studies she shares. It is a difficult subject and one that people are very opinionated and ofter polarised about, but I think she has done a terrific job in giving a non judgemental view on it.

  • Emmy

    First read of this year and my conclusion is this – everyone should read this book. Regardless of your age, gender, relationship status, sexual or

    First read of this year and my conclusion is this – everyone should read this book. Regardless of your age, gender, relationship status, sexual orientation, previous experiences - if you are a

    you should read this book.

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