Few life events are more devastating than catching a cheating spouse. Accusations fly, trust crumbles, and divorce papers are drawn up. Ask a sample of people how many have been affected by infidelity, and about 80 percent coyly raise their hands. But what, asks sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, if we stopped viewing affairs as a bad thing?
Savage, the man behind the weekly Savage Lovecast podcast, spends his days discussing alternatives to the one-size-fits-all heterosexual marriage. Convinced that people are more likely to be unfaithful than not in a long-term relationship, he encourages couples to discuss the virtues of being “monogamish”—an agreed-upon arrangement where partners forgive each other for their erotic urges.
“People conflate monogamy with decency,” he tells the Georgia Straight on the line from his studio in Seattle. “That’s not the way sex works. In my opinion, people have very unrealistic views of themselves and their sex partners. Convention says that love means you don’t want to sleep with other people. And then couples spend the rest of their lives in a committed monogamous relationship, policing each other for evidence of what they know to be true: that of course you want to fuck other people. Of course your partner wants to fuck other people. Dragging your wife over the coals because she’s masturbated over fucking her personal trainer or dragging your husband over the coals because of a way he looked at a barista just generates conflict in a relationship that we should be able to sidestep. That isn’t to say that monogamous relationships are futile and that everyone should give up. It’s guidance about how to do that monogamous thing without driving each other crazy.”
Relationship advice comes in many different forms—and while Savage reaches partners through his columns and podcast, therapist and author Esther Perel counsels couples from her couch. One of the most respected voices on erotic intelligence, she views sexuality as a lens through which to examine the progressive or conservative forces at work in a society. Having exclusively studied infidelity for two years as she completed her latest book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity, Perel helps partners overcome the aftermath of deceit.
“We have a romantic model that makes us look for the one-and-only,” she tells the Straight on the phone from New York. “We call that one-and-only our soulmate. With them, we want to experience meaning, belonging, transcendence, and ecstasy. This is the language we used to use when describing God. It used to belong to the world of the divine. Today, romantic love is the new religion.”
The fact that couples are meant to see their other half as infallible, Perel says, makes infidelity so damaging.
“If I’m the one-and-only and you are such to me,” she imagines, “when you cheat on me, it means that I’m not unique, not indispensable, and not irreplaceable. And if so, what am I? You’re supposed to be my best friend, my trusted confidant, and my passionate lover, and you betray me. Who am I now?”
Savage and Perel agree that although there are many reasons why individuals two-time, infidelity often has nothing to do with the relationship itself. For Perel, the increased likelihood that men and women will have affairs in our current climate is down to sociological change. While in the past people were told that happiness was the reward in heaven after suffering on Earth, individuals now feel entitled to pursue their desires and have been granted permission for selfishness. Savage suggests that many affairs are the result not of being unsatisfied with a partner but being unsatisfied with themselves. Rather than looking for a new relationship, they’re searching for a new self.
Although Perel doesn’t condone having an affair—and Savage supports it only in certain situations—both advice givers can see positives that arise from infidelity.
“Sometimes the discovery of an affair destroys a couple because the relationship was dying on the vine and would never have continued,” Perel says. “Sometimes they break a relationship that could have carried on. And sometimes they can be used as a powerful alarm system that lets people become accountable and work out what happened to the relationship. It’s a new starting point that allows couples to renegotiate the dynamics in their relationship to be more satisfying for them both.”
“I’m the dangerous lunatic who’s told people in long-term relationships that there are circumstances under which cheating is the least-worst option,” Savage says. “There is, absolutely, virtue in infidelity. My mother was Catholic, and shortly after my parents divorced, which was not my mother’s choice, she was sleeping with a married man. People hear the outline and they’re shocked and appalled at what a horrible thing my mother was doing to this man’s wife. And then you add the details that the man’s wife was an invalid, she was bedridden, they hadn’t had sex for 20 years, they had a caretaker-patient relationship, and that he was intensely loyal to her and would never leave. He, through my mother, got the intimacy and release that he needed, and that helped him stay and be the husband that his wife now needed him to be. I think infidelity in certain circumstances can be virtuous as fuck.”
“Relationships are complex,” Perel agrees. “The rules are changing very fast, and we need to make up our own rule book. We need our own principles and unique ways of thinking.”
The Savage Lovecast Presents: Dan Savage With Esther Perel is at the Orpheum on Friday (October 13). The show will be taped and aired as an episode of Savage Lovecast. The evening concludes with a book signing by Esther Perel. Tickets and more info are available here.
Follow Kate Wilson on Twitter @KateWilsonSaysMore