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  • Writer's pictureTing-yi Huang

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity

Esther Perel. (2017). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

I came across this book as it was recommended by the Peninsula Therapist Book Club. Personally, I was exposed to two very different approaches when it comes to affair:

1) In the Eastern culture that I first came to contact with is judgement:

* We blame the cheater: "She or he is so disrespectful and disloyal."

* We blame the one being cheated: "She or he is not giving what the partner needs."

* We blame the lover: "She or he is disrespectful to meddle in the marriage."

2) In the Western culture that I came to contact with is somewhat dismissiveness:

*"People have the right to pursue what makes them happiest. What's the big deal?"

*"The marriage is suffocating and dying anyways. So why not?!"

*"What right do we have to judge other people? People can do whatever they want"

The author Esther Perel offers an alternative to the above two approaches: compassionate for all the parties involved.

For the partner who commits to extramarital affair, one pressing question is: "do I tell my partner?" Ms. Perel highlights a general rule of thumb for consideration, which encompasses:

* Is it honest?

* Is it helpful?

* Is it kind?

For the partner who has been cheated on, one common desire is to know the truth. Ms. Perel cautions about differentiating between detective questions and investigative questions, with the former further damages the relationship and the later aims to restore the relationship. An example of a detective question is "how many times did you sleep with him?" whereas an example of an investigative question is "help me understand what the affair has meant for you (pp.145-146)."

For the lover, Ms. Perel underlines the dilemmas that the hidden partner commonly face: "Yes, the lover gets the lust without the laundry, but she lives without legitimacy-a position that inevitably erodes self-esteem and confidence. She feels special because he goes to such lengths to see her, but devalued by remaining unseen by others. She vacillates between feeling adored and feeling ignored (p.245)."

I appreciate to have read Ms. Perel's work because it reminds me how important it is to re-examine the biases instilled by the premature exposure to the cultural assumptions about affairs. Ms. Perel sends a powerful message to me that if I am to effectively support clients facing with the issue of an affair, I need to remain objective in considering the issue from multiple angles. This entails that I hold a space of compassion for all parties involved in and impacted by the affair.

In parallel, I reflect back when I was first trained, and now my clinical specialty, in anger management counseling, I was so biased towards the victim, to the extent I was feeling guilty when I sensed my own empathy towards the perpetrators or the individuals struggling with anger management issues. Please note that, just as Ms. Perel has in no way any intention to advocate for affairs, I am not condoning the violent behaviors. Rather, to effectively reduce the violence in our communities, It is of equally paramount importance to hear the perspectives, not just from the victims, but also from the perpetrators, as well as from the others impacted by the violent behaviors. After all, how can we expect a reduction of violence in our communities when no one models empathetic empowerment to the victims, empathetic listening to the perpetrators, and empathetic validation to the individuals inadvertently impacted by the violence?

When I work with anger management clients, I always use the analogy of getting a cold. Getting angry is like getting a cold. When person A and person B both get a cold from the same source at the same time, it takes person A two weeks to recover, but two days for person B. This cold is signaling to person A that he or she might need to take better care of him- or herself. Same thing holds true for anger. When an identical incident triggers anger in Person A, but not in person B, this anger is signaling to person A that there are some visceral needs that are being unfulfilled. Anger management counseling is a process where I support client to identify these unfulfilled needs, and work on having these needs met positively. Similarly, an affair might have different meanings for the partner who cheated, the partner who is being cheated on, and the lover. Professionally speaking, Ms. Perel's work has helped me, as a therapist, to look at affair not from a right-or-wrong lens, but with an inquisitive and non-judgmental mentality of what meaningful insight could all the involved parties grow out of the affair per se.

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