Why do happy people cheat? In this month's Atlantic, Esther Perel argues that cheating is not so much an abandonment of the partner, but of our inauthentic selves. And why not? This logic is meted out to us on the reg, the natural fruit of self-fulfillment mantras.
It’s not that Perel thinks the partner doesn’t matter. The piece is clear: the pain to the other is real, and the cheating partner in “happy” relationships knows this intensely, guiltily. However, it feels more imperative to say "yes" to the self unconstrained than "yes" to the face of the beloved. As Perel writes, “So often, the most intoxicating “other” that people discover in an affair is not a new partner; it’s a new self.”
Intoxication is right. As I was chewing on this article, I was reminded of Miranda July’s fiction piece in the September 4 New Yorker, titled “The Metal Bowl.” In this story, the married female narrator describes her sexuality this way: “To explain my sexual orientation; I was oriented around myself in that video and anyone who’d seen it.” The video, dear reader, is a pornographic movie of just the narrator that she starred in for desperate rent money. The image becomes the controlling sexual moment of her life.
She experiences continued disconnect from her husband because he doesn’t know about this video - a pivotal part of her. The story hinges around a bizarre moment of tenderness she experiences with a married neighbor, while both of their spouses are away. At first, she thought this neighbor knew about the video. But he didn’t. With him - to her surprise - she was able to experience her real self without that, new and fresh and exciting. She decides to keep it secret from her husband, and plots further connections with her neighbor. This lines up with what Perel has experienced in her practice of helping clients process their cheating.
And this is where July’s story, like Perel’s article, could have remained predictable, another entry about the bland heroism of selfishness.
Instead, the narrator encounters her neighbor recreating their secret tenderness with his own wife. This is her reaction: “Joel had taken the exquisite energy of our experience and plowed it back into his marriage. How wise. This option had never occurred to me. I had always detonated each thing in the very place where I found it.”
These sentences blew me away. I would not recommend July’s full story, because it is sexually explicit in ways that are distracting; frankly, if I had known about them ahead of time I probably wouldn’t have picked it up at all. But this observation was pure gold. The story finishes with the narrator being able to share with her husband about the video from long ago, and his overture (best not written about here) to show that he accepted her, loved her, and wanted a real marriage with her.
What Perel is talking about in her article is that very detonation July’s narrator describes. Perel’s clients know that their choosing of self and the energy of newness will completely explode their lives, which they do in fact love. Yet they persist. Our flesh, the world, tells us that this energy we feel so very powerfully MUST be obeyed. The Holy Spirit tells us that this energy, so very real, must be redirected, or properly applied. I’m thinking of the call to be intoxicated with one’s own wife in Proverbs 5, to marry rather than burn (now there’s an image of detonation) in 1 Corinthians 7, and the drastic measures Jesus calls us to to fight sexual sin in the Sermon on the Mount.
God is not unaware of how difficult marriage is between sinners, or of how powerful the sexuality is that he gave us. How could he be? He engineered its raw vitality to reflect, even dimly, the joy of intimacy between himself and his people. Miranda July, as far as I know, does not know the Lord, but she named her wise neighbor Joel, which means, The LORD is God. In her story, Joel plows that energy back into his marriage. In our story, we often feel unable to do this, but we are not left orphaned. The LORD is God; he has given us all we need in the Spirit to live as he did on earth. Seek him, seek his strength, and he will provide.