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Literature / The State of Affairs

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Love is messy; infidelity more so. But it is also a window, like no other, into the crevices of the human heart.

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity is the 2017 work of couple's therapist Esther Perel. It is a look at Your Cheating Heart, drawing from real-life stories of her patents, psychology, and cultural analysis.

For the short version, see the Ted Talk "Rethinking infidelity ... a talk for anyone who has ever loved".


  1. A New Conversation About Marriage and Infidelity
    • Good Adultery, Bad Adultery
    • The Unfair Sex
      Contemporary discourse about the topic can be summed up as follows: [...] Men cheat out of boredom and fear of intimacy; women cheat out of loneliness and hunger for intimacy.
  2. Defining Infidelity: Is Chatting Cheating?
    • Secret Relationship: In the question, "What constitutes cheating?" Esther Perel points to secrecy as one of the cornerstones:
      For me, infidelity includes one or more of these three constitutive elements: secrecy, sexual alchemy, and emotional involvement. Before I go any further, I want to make clear that these are not three rigid criteria; rather, a three-sided prism through which to view your experience and assumptions. [...] Secrecy is the number one organizing principle of an infidelity. An affair always lives in the shadow of the primary relationship, hoping never to be discovered.
  3. Affairs Are Not What They Used to Be
  4. Why Betrayal Hurts So Much: Death by a Thousand Cuts
  5. Little Shop of Horrors: Do Some Affairs Hurt More than Others?
    • Bedroom Adultery Scene
      The moment of revelation often leaves an indelible scar. How did you discover the affair? Did you find your husband’s email address in the Ashley Madison data dump? Did someone else make sure to inform you? Or were you treated to a full-frontal view? Simon walked in on his wife and the contractor in his own bed. He hasn’t slept in it since.
    • A Family Affair: One of the stories relayed is that of a boy who's first love cheated on him with his brother, who he trusted implicitly.
      When it is someone in one’s own social circle, a member of one’s own family (in all its intergenerational permutations), or a person in whom one placed one’s trust (nanny, teacher, clergy, neighbor, doctor), the rupture is exponential. Where do we turn? I have heard more than one story where the friend and confidant turned out to be the lover. The more synapses of coherence are snapped, the crazier people feel and the longer it takes to recover.
    • Old Flame: Affairs with exes have a unique allure and a unique pain.
  6. Jealousy: The Spark of Eros
    • Green-Eyed Monster: Particularly in Anglo-Saxon cultures, jealousy has become politically incorrect. It is both needy and aggressive, making it a vice we cannot admit to.
  7. Self-Blame or Vengeance: The Dagger Cuts Both Ways
  8. To Tell or Not to Tell? The Politics of Secrecy and Revelation
    • Brutal Honesty
      Truth can be healing, and sometimes fessing up is the only appropriate response. When counseling her patients about the wisdom of truth-telling, my colleague Lisa Spiegel uses a simple and effective formula: Ask yourself, is it honest, is it helpful, and is it kind?
      Truth can also be irrevocably destructive and even aggressive, delivered with sadistic pleasure. On more than one occasion, I’ve seen honesty do more harm than good, leaving me to ask, Can lying sometimes be protective? […] Sometimes silence is caring. Before you unload your guilt onto an unsuspecting partner, consider, whose well-being are you really thinking of? Is your soul-cleansing as selfless as it appears? And what is your partner supposed to do with this information?
  9. Even Happy People Cheat: Mining the Meanings of Affairs
    • Forbidden Fruit: One of the big takeaways is that transgression is part of human nature, and for most the forbidden will always hold an allure.
    • Happily Married
      The “symptom” theory goes as follows: An affair simply alerts us to a preexisting condition, either a troubled relationship or a troubled person. And in many cases, this holds true. Plenty of relationships culminate in an affair to compensate for a lack, to fill a void, or to set up an exit. Insecure attachment, conflict avoidance, prolonged lack of sex, loneliness, or just years of being stuck rehashing the same old arguments—many adulterers are motivated by marital dysfunction. And plenty has been written about trouble leading to trouble. However, therapists are confronted on a daily basis with situations that defy these well-documented reasons. How are we to interpret these?
      The idea that infidelity can happen in the absence of serious marital problems is hard to accept. Our culture does not believe in no-fault affairs
  10. An Antidote to Deadness: The Lure of the Forbidden
  11. Is Sex Ever Just Sex? The Emotional Economics of Adultery
  12. The Mother of All Betrayals? Affairs Among Other Marital Misdemeanors
    • Domestic Abuse
    • Married to the Job
      Julie wrote to me that her husband had been “emotionally unfaithful for twenty years.” But she wasn’t talking about another woman. “He stood me up for concerts, dinners, vacations—always putting his work first. My sister says, at least he didn’t cheat on me, but his job was more demanding than any mistress.”
    • Sexless Marriage
      How are we to think about those situations when the marital bed might as well have a no entry sign on the headboard? I don’t mean a general decline in frequency to once a week or even once a month. Some degree of waning desire is natural over the course of a relationship, and differences in libido are to be expected and managed. I’m talking about partners who have steadfastly been unresponsive to the sexual advances of their mates for years or even decades, even while they remain affectionate and close. Nobody wants to return to domestic rape or duty sex, but we also need to acknowledge that when one partner unilaterally decides there will be no (or very little) sex, that is not monogamy—it’s enforced celibacy.
  13. The Lover’s Dilemma: Conversations with the Other Woman
  14. Monogamy and Its Discontents: Rethinking Marriage
  15. After the Storm: The Legacy of an Affair

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