“In every society, on every continent, and in every era, regardless of the penalties and the deterrents, men and women have slipped the confines of matrimony. Almost everywhere people marry, monogamy is the official norm and infidelity the clandestine one.”
Building upon her New York Times Bestseller, Mating in Captivity, renowned couples therapist, Esther Perel released her second bestseller in the fall of 2017, The State of Affairs, inviting readers to engage in a conversation about sexual infidelity in a more compassionate light—not as a symptom of deficient relationships, couples or individuals, but as an integral (and unavoidable) part of the institution of marriage itself. My curiosity about Perel’s books is compelled by the reality that both non-monogamy and monogamy must be considered through the terrain of the lived experience. We are humans exhibiting complex emotions within intimate relations—passion, desire, longing, jealousy, acceptance, belonging, fear, joy and betrayal, to name but a few. Intellectual considerations of sexual and intimate configurations (especially within academia) often disassociate from the corporeal bodily sensations of sexual intimacy, yet the messy, embodied experience of infidelity can reveal the unspoken truths about monogamy and the sexual ethics of Western marriage.
The State of Affairs touches on the public’s hunger to understand sexual fidelity (and infidelity) in a new light extending beyond the moralistic reductionist thinking of the past, and Perel offers a voice of compassion and insight that places infidelity in a larger conversation about love, intimacy and commitment.
Because I am interested in critical explorations of marriage that interrogate compulsory monogamy, I was drawn to read The State of Affairs as infidelity, whether we like it or not, is a specific type of non-monogamy. In the fall of 2017, my various newsfeed and podcast subscriptions, curated by sophisticated algorithms that track personal curiosities with empirical precision, were inundated with interviews of Esther Perel promoting her book with the obvious zeal of a great publicist and the personal endurance of an Olympic marathoner. Hardly a day would go by without a social media reference, news article or podcast interview about Esther Perel and/or her work in the field of couple’s therapy, sex, marriage, and of course, infidelity.
I suppose ‘infidelity’ is a sexy-topic (excuse the pun), as it both titillates and informs us about a subject that most people relate to on some level. I would be hard pressed to find someone whose life has never been touched by infidelity. Whether one has been on the giving or receiving end of cheating, or worried about being cheated on, or thought about cheating, it can be reasonably argued that people fear not only their own non-monogamous impulses, but their partner’s as well. In fact, the entire concept of monogamy cannot exist without the possibility of its violation, and in Western societies, where both emotional and financial security are predicated on maintaining a stable dyadic coupling, the linkage of sexual exclusivity with care commitment makes transgressions all the more problematic.
In popular discourse on non-monogamy, infidelity is often postulated as proof de facto of the supposed unnaturalness of monogamy. The argument is made that if humans were left to their own devices without the constraints of society, monogamy wouldn’t exist. For example, as Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, argue in Sex at Dawn, the natural state of the human species has evolved to be non-monogamous as evidenced by the cross-cultural prevalence of infidelity as well as the sexually non-exclusive proclivities of our closest genetic primate— the bonobos.
This argument is at odds with conventional scientific narratives of the nuclear family that presuppose the naturalness of monogamy, with emphasis on women’s sexual exclusivity to men in exchange for protection and resources. Science, it would seem, is a tool by which social crusaders (religious, political and otherwise) make a case for why their claims are true. But this becomes problematic when considering scientific claims about the naturalness of sexual formations. What is useful about Ryan and Jethá’s argument in Sex at Dawn is the systematic dismantling of dominant evolutionary anthropological claims that evolved in the colonial context of the twentieth century naturalizing systems of monogamy, patriarchy, sexism and racism. Ryan and Jethá force a re-consideration of the a priori of monogamy that has informed a substantial body of evolutionary anthropology.
However both pro-monogamy and pro-nonmonogamy evolutionary advocates such as Ryan and Jethá, are subject to the same critical flaw—a priori of assumption about naturalness, that leave intact many assumptions about sexuality, biology, and difference. As Angela Willey argues, when we challenge the lens through which human nature is seen as either monogamous or nonmonogamous we are forced to reconsider our investments in coupling and in disciplinary notions of the biology of bodies. Circumventing the polarization of bio-evolutionary “naturalness” of monogamy versus non-monogamy, Perel centers her discourse on “transgression” stating, “monogamy may or may not be natural to human beings, but transgression surely is.” Rather than focusing on whether humans are wired for monogamy or non-monogamy, she facilitates a broader discussion of the human experience through the lens of infidelity. As she states,
As tempting as it is to reduce affairs to sex and lies, I prefer to use infidelity as a portal into the complex landscape of relationships and the boundaries we draw to bind them. Infidelity brings us face-to-face with the volatile and opposing forces of passion: the lure, the lust, the urgency, the love and its impossibility, the relief, the entrapment, the guilt, the heartbreak, the sinfulness, the surveillance, the madness of suspicion, the murderous urge to get even, the tragic denouement. Be forewarned: addressing these issues requires a willingness to descend into a labyrinth of irrational forces. Love is messy; infidelity more so. But it is also a window, like none other, into the crevices of the human heart.
One of the things that surprised me most about Perel’s book was her systemic integration of consensual non-monogamy (and other non-normative sexualities) free of the constraints of biological heteronormativity and universalizing naturalization. Relying heavily on personal narratives gleaned through her extensive clinical practice and speaking engagements, Perel successfully decenters heterosexuality, takes strides in decentering the “couple,” and without naturalizing one over the other, takes on both monogamy and non-monogamy as a contested site of intimate-partner negotiation. She refuses to moralize sexuality through the lens of acceptable versus unacceptable, focusing instead on revealing the complicated ways infidelity challenges prescriptive narratives of marital sexuality and personal identity within a broad range of romantic configurations—straight, gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, dyads, triads, open and closed.
The thread of consensual non-monogamy is woven into the very tapestry of her thesis sharing equitable conceptual space with consensual monogamy. As opposed to most mainstream texts that treat non-normative sexualities such as consensual non-monogamy as afterthoughts to address in the spirit of inclusiveness, Perel unapologetically normalizes such configurations challenging readers to consider the lived experience of transgression in both monogamous and non-monogamous configurations.
Many proponents of consensual non-monogamy have argued it to be an ethically superior practice that prioritizes honesty, communication, transparency and consent, thus mitigating the risk of infidelity. While acknowledging that the current model of monogamy is not a universal fit for everyone, and marital innovators should be granted the social space to develop new configurations, she argues against ascribing consensual non-monogamy with the transcendence of infidelity. As she explains, “it does not follow that [consensual non-monogamy] is a safeguard against betrayal […]. You may think that affairs don’t happen in open relationships, but they do. […] Every relationship, from the most stringent to the most lenient, has boundaries, and boundaries invite trespassers.” Throughout her text, she illustrates her themes grounded in the personal narratives of both traditional and queer unions refusing to moralized as inferior or superior traditional and non-conforming relationships. This facilitates a radical discussion of intent and expectation regarding sexual autonomy that moves beyond the competing claims of ethical superiority espoused by proponents of both monogamy and consensual non-monogamy. Both types of relationships involve ongoing negotiation. Both types of relationships invite transgression.
In consideration of polyamory, Perel offers the insight that within the modern ethos of individualism that leaves many people feeling isolated, beleaguered and uncertain, polyamory provides a new communal context that aspires to greater freedom of choice, authenticity and flexibility. Elizabeth Brake’s notion of “minimal marriage” (as discussed in an earlier blog) wherein individuals are empowered to “select from the rights and responsibilities exchanged within marriage and exchange them with whomever they want, rather than exchanging a predefined bundle of rights and responsibilities with only one amatory partner,” partners nicely with Perel’s consideration of infidelity. If ‘sex’ were to be listed under the column of ‘rights and responsibilities’ independent of marriage, then the default setting of monogamy would be disrupted, and sex or the expectation of exclusive sex would be negotiated territory.
Drawing upon the experiences of gay men and the sensibilities of Dan Savage, a LGBTQ advocate with a syndicated sex advice column, Perel argues that if monogamy was ‘opt-in’ rather than ‘default’ then individuals would be empowered with choice, and a larger conversation about sex and the explicit expectations of sexual exclusivity could ensue. As Perel explains, “rather than penalize those who fail monogamy’s standardized test, we should recognize that the test is disproportionately difficult […] Having feelings and desires for others is natural, and we have a choice whether to act on them or not” (emphasis in original). Polyamory disrupts sexual exclusivity as the sole marker of devotion and allegiance. It forces a reconsideration of sexual autonomy and the expectation of ownership over another’s erotic self.
Marriage has always been about sexual control, or more specifically about determining the legitimacy of children resulting from sex for the purpose of wealth management and transfer. However, technological advances mitigate sexual exclusivity as a means of controlling and determining paternal lineage, opening up the possibility of a larger conversation that considers “fidelity as a relational constancy that encompasses respect, loyalty, and emotional intimacy [… that] may or may not include sexual exclusiveness, depending on the agreements of those involved.”
I realize that this may be an uncomfortable prospect to wrap one’s head around, and that as Perel noted, negotiating sexual non-monogamy does not insulate one from the possibility of transgression, but it is a point of departure in a larger conversation that deconstructs marriage as a technology of governance. Marriage and erotic love are highly prescriptive in western culture, and it is through the violation of norms such as infidelity and consensual non-monogamy (and the personal and public discomfort that ensues) that we are able to disentangle the taken for granted assumptions of marriage and monogamy.
- Perel, Esther. 2017. The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. New York: Harper Collins at 3-4. ↑
- Ibid at 6. ↑
- Ryan, Christopher and Cacilda Jethá. 2010. Sex at Dawn. New York: Harper Collins. ↑
- Willey, Angela. 2016. Undoing Monogamy: The Politics of Science and the Possibilities of Biology. Durham: Duke University Press at 23. ↑
- Ibid at 3. ↑
- Perel Surpa note 1 at 257. ↑
- Ibid at 14. ↑
- Perel admits that her client base is not a representative sample. ↑
- Ibid at 276-277. ↑
- Brake, Elizabeth. 2012. Minimizing Marriage: Marriage, Morality and the Law. Oxford University Press at 156. ↑
- Perel Supra note 1 at 266. ↑
- Ibid at 264. ↑