Below is my transcript of Esther Perel talking on the Scandinavian talk show “Skavlan” in the fall of 2017. (YouTube link.) My “Oh, what bullshit” comments are in a different color, interspersed throughout the transcript.
- The show’s host is Fredrik Skavlan, a Norwegian journalist, cartoonist and TV personality.
- Esther Perel is a Belgian psychotherapist who, according to Wikipedia, is “notable for exploring the tension between the need for security and the need for freedom in human relationships.” (Yeah … right. She’s also the author of “The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity.” Hmmph.)
- Peter Stormare is also on the show but doesn’t speak until the end. He is a Swedish actor, voice actor, theatre director, playwright, and musician.
Notes: This transcript is not exact. I have great respect for the linguistic skills of anyone who speaks multiple languages, and I omitted many of the occasional stammers (um, eh, ah, etc.) that seemed to arise from non-native English speakers using English for this show. I also used long dashes to indicate pauses in sentences or when the various speakers interrupted each other.
Skavlan: So welcome to the show, Esther Perel.
Perel: Thank you.
Skavlan: You’re a psychologist and you’re a couple therapist.
Skavlan: Would these be your typical clients? (He gestures off stage. I guess they had one or more couples on the show before this clip began.)
Perel: No. No, no, no. The people who are having fun, they don’t come to the psychologist. The people that come to me come to me ’cause they are bewildered, ’cause they are in a conflict, ’cause they feel guilty, ’cause they feel shame. Or ’cause they feel torn because they are in love with two people. They on the other side, they come to me because they feel betrayed because their trust has been shattered, because they wonder which life they have been living and which lie they have been living. I get the dark side much more often of this drama.
As a chump (a cheated-upon person) in my current marriage, I say fuck those who “feel torn” for loving two people. Stay in, or get out. There’s no gray area. You don’t “sort of, kinda” fuck someone else.
Skavlan: Tell me, in your book, “State of Affairs,” you talk to people all over the world about this topic and modern relationship and also infidelity. What are the differences between Europe, where we come from (he chuckles), and America?
Perel: So, Europe and America —
Skavlan: You are Belgian yourself.
Perel: — I am Belgian, yes. And Europe and America, when you’re in America, it’s Europe. When you’re in Europe, it’s different parts of Europe, right?
Perel: And the rest of the world is yet a whole other story. So I think it’s probably important to say infidelity has existed since marriage was invented. And so too the taboo against it. It doesn’t hurt any less in Sweden than it hurts here, but there may be less of a moral perspective. It is hurtful, not just wrong. It’s the difference between wrong and hurtful. And infidelity is seen as a relational betrayal. So when I travel the globe I see hundreds of people who are affected — devastated — by this experience. But that’s just if you look at the couple. If I ask this audience here if they’ve been affected by the subject in their life, I would guess that 80 percent of the people would say they have been affected by infidelity in their life. And then it’s not just cheated or cheated on, it’s the children of, it’s the friend of, it’s the sister/the brother of, it’s the legacy of secrets in the families, it’s the child of. It’s a lot of, it’s a very systemic, broad subject that isn’t just a party of two or three.
Calling society’s contempt for infidelity a “taboo” is an understatement. What I hear in Perel’s comment is an implicit judgment against people who inflict a “moral perspective” on their poor, poor cheating spouses. And infidelity is not just “seen as” a relational betrayal; it IS a relational betrayal.
Skavlan: So how would you explain, I mean, how do you define infidelity?
Perel: Infidelity is actually very hard to define, because the definition keeps on expanding today. It’s no longer just because you have a child out of wedlock. You know, you had clear proof for most of history when an affair took place. Today, is it a chat room? Is it a massage with happy ending? Is it watching porn? (Scattered laughter from audience) Is it your dating apps that you continue to check on? Is it talking with your exes that you have reconnected with on Facebook? “Where do we draw the line” is one of the big questions about boundaries today. And at the same time there are very clear markers for understanding affairs, you know. And the first and foremost is the fact that it is organized around a secret. I mean, an affair is not about non-monogamy; it’s about a violation of an agreement, of a trust, of a contract. So the secrecy is the central element. And then around the secrecy is a certain level of emotional involvement, to one degree or another. Could be hit-and-run, but that too takes an emotional involvement to make something matter nothing. And a sexual aura. And a sexual aura is much more important than the idea that affairs are about sex. It’s really about an ero —
Infidelity is pretty damned clear to me. Don’t trivialize it like this. I think cheaters know very well when they step over the line. I do agree, however, that the secrecy is a major part of the agony an affair inflicts on the other partner.
Oh, and saying an affair is “not about non-monogamy” is laughable. It’s all about sexual tension and the fostering of it and acting upon it outside of the primary relationship.
And one more thing: FUCK people who idealize “sexual auras.” What about “good character auras”?
Skavlan: — What do you mean by a sexual aura?
Perel: When you ask people all over the world — that I can tell you — if they have been affected, if they have experienced affairs and how they experienced it, the one word you hear is that they feel “alive.” Affairs are fundamental acts of transgression in which people break rules, sometimes their own rules, sometimes their own boundaries that they have spent years putting together. And the aura means that you don’t need to have the act of sex. You have to have the energy, the erotic energy of aliveness that comes with the fantasy of this thing called an affair. So the kiss that you only imagine giving can be just as powerful as hours of actual lovemaking. It’s about desire, it’s not about sex. And the desire is about feeling important, feeling seen, feeling desired, having someone’s attention back on you, feeling that you matter — all the stuff that often gets depleted inside one’s committed relationships, and not by fault just of the other.
To cheaters: How about if I slap the shit-eating grin off your faces and knee you in your balls? Are you feeling “alive” now?
What self-indulgent bullshit it is to refer so lovingly to “the erotic energy of aliveness.” What about the quiet self-pride that comes from being a person with integrity? I guess I groove on a different track than cheaters and their supportive therapists.
Skavlan: (stammers) Could infidelity then happen in a happy relationship as well?
Perel: We tend to think … it goes like this: If I find you and you’re my one-and-only, then I no longer should be interested in anybody else. And especially today, when I have such a paradox of choice, and thousands of people to choose from in the West, when I finally find the one-and-only — the one that’s gonna make me delete my apps — then I should be free from all of this. And I should have everything I want with this one-and-only. Therefore, if there is an affair, there must be something missing. And either there is something missing in our relationship, or there is something missing in you. (She gestures outward.) And this symptom model defies the true stories of people. Because the majority of people who have affairs are not chronic philanderers. They are actually often people who have been faithful for decades. And one day they cross a line that they never thought they themselves would cross. And so you wanna ask “For what?” And what starts to happen is this: Often, when you are attracted by the gaze of another, it isn’t just because you want to leave the person that you are with. But it is because you want to leave the person that you have yourself become. And it isn’t just that you want to meet somebody else, but you want to meet another self. There is no greater “other” than a different version of yourself.
Why does Perel refer so dismissively to the concept of having a “one-and-only”? I get that we could all end up with several different people. The difference between cheaters and people of integrity is that the good people HONOR THE RELATIONSHIP THEY ARE IN. OR THEY END IT BEFORE STARTING ANOTHER. There shouldn’t be anything too onerous about that concept.
Oh, puh-leeze. “The true stories of people”? You don’t have to be a “chronic” philanderer to be in the wrong. Doing it once and devastating your partner is enough to earn you the label of a shitty, shitty person. Pity the poor wanderers who … *sniffle* … “cross a line.” They need a swift nut punch; that’s what they need. No sympathy here. They made VOWS.
And Perel really gets hip-deep into happy horseshit territory when she says you want to leave yourself, to meet another self. Actually, you want the ego boost of having someone else chasing your tail or letting you choose theirs. It’s not about self-actualization; it’s about entitlement and self-justification.
Skavlan: And this goes for men and women? Would we —
Perel: — Yes.
Skavlan: — Do we cheat for the same reason, men and women?
Perel: Look. This what I just told you, goes for both. Traditionally, we have arranged it very neatly. First of all, let’s be very clear: Men, practically, throughout history had a license to cheat — you know. And they had all kinds of theories that came to justify that they are natural roamers, you know. So we have all these evolutionary theories and biological theories to explain why men are not by nature monogamous, whereas women are these domesticated creatures. (Skavlan nods.) We don’t know what women would do if they were given the permission to do the same without the consequences that they face, which are very different than the one of men. What we know is that men and women lie — men lie by exaggerating and by boasting and by inflating, and women lie by denying and by minimizing because that is what is expected from them, culturally, worldwide. (Skavlan nods. Audience oohs and there is a smattering of applause. Perel smiles. The applause intensifies. There’s a second or two of unintelligible murmuring by Skavlan or Stormare.) I didn’t think I would be clapped, but (laughs).
Her expertise has limits, obviously. My husband wasn’t boastful; he was a real “trickle truth” operator who tried to deny, deny, deny and then minimize, minimize, minimize. He has only admitted to the most inescapable of truths about his four-year affair.
Skavlan: But according to you, it it doesn’t have to be the end of the relationship.
Perel: No. No, I learned that by working with so many couples who — of course, those who come to me are not the ones who go to the lawyer. So they come to me because they want to know, “Is there hope?” Today, in the West, most of us are gonna have two or three marriages or adult relationships. And some of us will do it with the same person. And so it may mean that this affair means the end of your first marriage; would you like to have another one, together. And that gave people a dignified way to understand that you can go through a big crisis, and that some affairs are breakups, but some affairs are make-ups. Some affairs will ring an alarm in the relationship about stuff that people had become complacent about, lazy about, neglectful, and they realize that they stand too much to lose. And so they brace themselves. And some affairs just basically invite the relationship to say, “Okay, this happened. It’s beyond painful — let’s never minimize this — but there is a way back from there.” And actually, it’s like in Chinese — the word “crisis” means “danger” and “opportunity.” Maybe from this we can rise and create something that may even be better than what we had.
It doesn’t mean the end of the relationship if the cheated-upon chump is good with eating shit sandwiches for the remainder of the relationship. Unfortunately, “hope” is the last thing to die. “Trust” goes first.
I feel extreme contempt for the concept that you can (*chirp, chirp*) have a NEW marriage with the cheater. Also, I’ve got a boatload of contempt for Perel’s presumption that affairs happen because the chump is complacent, lazy or neglectful … when instead it’s the cowardly partner who cheats instead of addressing marital issues forthrightly, like an adult.
Sure. A marriage can be “better” when one person’s self-esteem, trust and world view is shattered. Like hell it can.
Skavlan: So when you get someone that says, “I can’t stand it anymore,” your advice would be the same as Chris Rock, “Yes you can.”
Perel: No. I wouldn’t say, first of all, “Yes you can.” That’s not a therapist’s response. (She and Skavlan chuckle.)
Skavlan: He wouldn’t be a good therapist. (Chuckles)
Perel: (chuckles) I would say, “You know, what is the pain point for you, what is the thing that you are most upset about? And what is the bare minimum that you need from your partner?” I mean, in the aftermath of an affair, it’s very clear what you need from your partner. The first thing you need — which is the condition, by the way, for making it or not — is you need a partner who can acknowledge how badly they hurt you. If they can’t acknowledge that — if they minimize it, if they justify it, if they explain that in fact you drove them to do it — you’re done. Because even if you don’t feel guilty about the experience of the affair itself, you do have to feel remorse and guilt about how it hurts the other person. (Skavlan nods.) That is a sine qua non. That’s a condition. And then, from there, there is the “What did it mean for you?” So I’ve always said today we need a dual perspective. Affairs are about hurt and betrayal. But they are also about longing and loss and self-exploration. It’s “What did you go to look for there? Why did this happen to you?”
Her initial two questions here are actually good ones, particularly the last one. But I would also add: “Why would you even contemplate accepting “the bare minimum” from a relationship that should enrich your life?
For the record, my husband pays lip service to the pain he caused me. He won’t change the behavior that fed his contempt and unhappiness (his cowardice to address problems and peeves), which led to the affair, but he sure does real pretty lip service to “remorse.”
One of the reasons I practically made my husband go to his own individual therapist was so that he could work through his “longing and loss and self-exploration” with someone who didn’t want to choke the living shit out of him every time a pained wince crossed his face.
I don’t CARE “what he went to look for” or “why his affair happened to him.” I care that it did happen. (Or to use language that implies actual responsibility, I don’t think his affair “happened.” I think “he had an affair.” Own it, asshole.)
Skavlan: How should we behave in our relationship, not to get betrayed?
IT’S NOT THE FAULT OF THE BETRAYED PARTNER. The flaws in the relationship can be attributed to both parties, but the affair itself? That was the cheater’s shitty choice.
Perel: What is it that you do to make your partner feel that they are special — that they are the one you still choose every morning when you wake up, that they are the one that you want to be there with — the next morning and the next morning? How do you manifest your love, your appreciation, your admiration for your partner? Have you shown up? (Speaking directly to Skavlan) You know, you work here, you’re very invested in this project, you’re super attentive to me, you’re charming, you’re funny; when you go home, is this the guy that goes home, or is it the leftovers that you bring home?
My husband had his affair during a period when we had a runaway child, when I was in several major health crises, when I was having severe trouble coping with my job, and while I was angry at him for fucking up our finances so badly that we lost our house and went into bankruptcy. He took on two extra jobs (over my objections) and then got mad at me for “not appreciating” how hard he was working to un-fuck what he had fucked up. What was I supposed to do, just chirp happily at him? Take responsibility. Give me something to work with here.
Skavlan: (Blank, vaguely guilty look toward the audience, who laughs and claps. He waves bye-bye and blows a kiss to them, smiling.)
Perel: (Gestures to Stormare) The question goes to you too. (She chuckles.)
Stormare: But then how do you control your life then? Because in life you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
Perel: That’s correct.
Stormare: How do you know with this commitment that you have met the one that Higher Power have placed in, you know —
Perel: — I don’t believe in that —
Stormare: — in conjunction with you —
Perel: — I don’t believe in that.
I’ll agree with her on this. I don’t believe in a higher power, and even if one exists there’s no evidence of such, and so it’s not relevant to my life.
Stormare: So you can meet somebody when you’re 16 years old, and marry and say, “This is gonna be my partner,” and then all of a sudden when you’re 44, something happens. What do you do in this situation? I just wanna hear, because I’m a believer, and it happened to me, that I just met somebody and she’s sitting here and it just happened.
What is he saying? Was he the cheater, or the cheated upon?
Perel: That’s why I don’t buy the idea that there is a one-and-only. We used to marry “til death do us apart.” Today, we marry “til love dies.” (Audience oohs.) We used to marry and have sex for the first time; today you marry, and you stop having sex with others. (Louder audience oohs and a smattering of laughter.) You used to have monogamy, one person for life, and today monogamy is one person at a time, and everybody says, “I’m monogamous in all my relationships.” (Skavlan chuckles.) And it’s implausibly makes sense. The norms are changing so fast. There is nothing you can do when you leave a person than to tell them how — especially if it was not bad — that you are so sorry that you are hurting them, and you have loved them deeply and you wish them the best and you thank them for everything they have given you, and you wish for them the best … and yet you are going to go. And it is just raw pain. You can’t circumvent that. Heartbreak is heartbreak.
She made me chuckle (sourly) at her clearly ironic comment that one can be monogamous in “all my relationships.” People can be so NON-self-aware, and I think she at least realizes this, with this comment.
The bullshit “I love you but I don’t want you to hate me but I’m still leaving” goodbye she describes is about neck deep in happy horseshit, though.
Stormare: What about children being … do you talk to the children?
Perel: Of course I talk to the children.
Stormare: Yeah. And the children always (lies? lives? It’s hard to tell what he says. He stammers a bit then.) And parents usually say, the parents I met, “Oh, the kids are so much happier now” —
Perel: — Oh yeah, that’s bullshit. (Derogatory look at Stormare) —
Stormare: — You know, when you ask a kid, 9 years old, you have your new dad, a new mother, you know, separated, married the neighbor’s wife and —
Skavlan: — It wasn’t their choice. —
Stormare: Yeah, sure. And “The kids are, they are so much better off now, they’re so happy.” What are the kids saying? Because, I mean, we really make a lot of kids, and then we just leave them behind.
Perel: Yes, and you make many more children in Sweden than we make in America.
Perel: But, here’s the thing. We live in an individualistic culture, in the West. This is no different from U.S. to Sweden. And that individualistic culture has done a few things amongst all the other things I have just named. It has really brought happiness down from the heavens and it has made it a mandate. Happiness used to belong for the afterlife. You suffered on Earth, and then you could be rewarded afterwards. Now we want to be happy, and it’s not like we have more desires than your grandmother had, but we feel much more entitled to pursue them. No, it’s not for the kids. If you ask the children, unless it’s impossible in the house, the children would rather have their parents stay together, because that’s the story that they’re born into.
She is correct that too many people today feel entitled to feel screw over others if they get a little burst of pleasure out of it. I mourn the death of integrity. Why not pursue your own happiness with someone else AFTER you leave the committed relationship? How shitty is it to keep the partner on the hook, as a backup, while you “explore other opportunities”? I want to tell all cheaters they are spineless, weasley little fuckers.
Skavlan: Esther, I think we’ve triggered a few conversations back in the sofas now. Thank you so much, Esther.
Perel: My pleasure.