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  • Why do we cheat?

  • And why do happy people cheat?

  • And when we say "infidelity," what exactly do we mean?

  • Is it a hookup, a love story, paid sex, a chat room,

  • a massage with happy endings?

  • Why do we think that men cheat out of boredom and fear of intimacy,

  • but women cheat out of loneliness and hunger for intimacy?

  • And is an affair always the end of a relationship?

  • For the past 10 years, I have traveled the globe

  • and worked extensively with hundreds of couples

  • who have been shattered by infidelity.

  • There is one simple act of transgression

  • that can rob a couple from their relationship,

  • their happiness, and their very identity: an affair.

  • And yet, this extremely common act is so poorly understood.

  • So this talk is for anyone who has ever loved.

  • Adultery has existed since marriage was invented,

  • and so, too, the taboo against it.

  • In fact, infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy,

  • so much so, that this is the only commandment

  • that is repeated twice in the Bible:

  • once for doing it, and once just for thinking about it.

  • (Laughter)

  • So how do we reconcile what is universally forbidden,

  • yet universally practiced?

  • Now, throughout history, men practically had a license to cheat

  • with little consequence,

  • and supported by a host of biological and evolutionary theories

  • that justified their need to roam,

  • so the double standard is as old as adultery itself.

  • But who knows what's really going on under the sheets there, right?

  • Because when it comes to sex,

  • the pressure for men is to boast and to exaggerate,

  • but the pressure for women is to hide, minimize and deny,

  • which isn't surprising when you consider that there are still nine countries

  • where women can be killed for straying.

  • Now, monogamy used to be one person for life.

  • Today, monogamy is one person at a time.

  • (Laughter)

  • (Applause)

  • I mean, many of you probably have said,

  • "I am monogamous in all my relationships."

  • (Laughter)

  • We used to marry,

  • and had sex for the first time.

  • But now we marry,

  • and we stop having sex with others.

  • The fact is that monogamy had nothing to do with love.

  • Men relied on women's fidelity

  • in order to know whose children these are,

  • and who gets the cows when I die.

  • Now, everyone wants to know

  • what percentage of people cheat.

  • I've been asked that question since I arrived at this conference.

  • (Laughter)

  • It applies to you.

  • But the definition of infidelity keeps on expanding:

  • sexting, watching porn, staying secretly active on dating apps.

  • So because there is no universally agreed-upon definition

  • of what even constitutes an infidelity,

  • estimates vary widely, from 26 percent to 75 percent.

  • But on top of it, we are walking contradictions.

  • So 95 percent of us will say that it is terribly wrong

  • for our partner to lie about having an affair,

  • but just about the same amount of us will say

  • that that's exactly what we would do if we were having one.

  • (Laughter)

  • Now, I like this definition of an affair --

  • it brings together the three key elements:

  • a secretive relationship, which is the core structure of an affair;

  • an emotional connection to one degree or another;

  • and a sexual alchemy.

  • And alchemy is the key word here,

  • because the erotic frisson is such that the kiss that you only imagine giving,

  • can be as powerful and as enchanting

  • as hours of actual lovemaking.

  • As Marcel Proust said,

  • it's our imagination that is responsible for love, not the other person.

  • So it's never been easier to cheat,

  • and it's never been more difficult to keep a secret.

  • And never has infidelity exacted such a psychological toll.

  • When marriage was an economic enterprise,

  • infidelity threatened our economic security.

  • But now that marriage is a romantic arrangement,

  • infidelity threatens our emotional security.

  • Ironically, we used to turn to adultery --

  • that was the space where we sought pure love.

  • But now that we seek love in marriage,

  • adultery destroys it.

  • Now, there are three ways that I think infidelity hurts differently today.

  • We have a romantic ideal in which we turn to one person

  • to fulfill an endless list of needs:

  • to be my greatest lover, my best friend,

  • the best parent, my trusted confidant,

  • my emotional companion, my intellectual equal.

  • And I am it: I'm chosen, I'm unique,

  • I'm indispensable, I'm irreplaceable,

  • I'm the one.

  • And infidelity tells me I'm not.

  • It is the ultimate betrayal.

  • Infidelity shatters the grand ambition of love.

  • But if throughout history, infidelity has always been painful,

  • today it is often traumatic,

  • because it threatens our sense of self.

  • So my patient Fernando, he's plagued.

  • He goes on: "I thought I knew my life.

  • I thought I knew who you were, who we were as a couple, who I was.

  • Now, I question everything."

  • Infidelity -- a violation of trust, a crisis of identity.

  • "Can I ever trust you again?" he asks.

  • "Can I ever trust anyone again?"

  • And this is also what my patient Heather is telling me,

  • when she's talking to me about her story with Nick.

  • Married, two kids.

  • Nick just left on a business trip,

  • and Heather is playing on his iPad with the boys,

  • when she sees a message appear on the screen:

  • "Can't wait to see you."

  • Strange, she thinks, we just saw each other.

  • And then another message:

  • "Can't wait to hold you in my arms."

  • And Heather realizes

  • these are not for her.

  • She also tells me that her father had affairs,

  • but her mother, she found one little receipt in the pocket,

  • and a little bit of lipstick on the collar.

  • Heather, she goes digging,

  • and she finds hundreds of messages,

  • and photos exchanged and desires expressed.

  • The vivid details of Nick's two-year affair

  • unfold in front of her in real time,

  • And it made me think:

  • Affairs in the digital age are death by a thousand cuts.

  • But then we have another paradox that we're dealing with these days.

  • Because of this romantic ideal,

  • we are relying on our partner's fidelity with a unique fervor.

  • But we also have never been more inclined to stray,

  • and not because we have new desires today,

  • but because we live in an era

  • where we feel that we are entitled to pursue our desires,

  • because this is the culture where I deserve to be happy.

  • And if we used to divorce because we were unhappy,

  • today we divorce because we could be happier.

  • And if divorce carried all the shame,

  • today, choosing to stay when you can leave

  • is the new shame.

  • So Heather, she can't talk to her friends

  • because she's afraid that they will judge her for still loving Nick,

  • and everywhere she turns, she gets the same advice:

  • Leave him. Throw the dog on the curb.

  • And if the situation were reversed, Nick would be in the same situation.

  • Staying is the new shame.

  • So if we can divorce,

  • why do we still have affairs?

  • Now, the typical assumption is that if someone cheats,

  • either there's something wrong in your relationship or wrong with you.

  • But millions of people can't all be pathological.

  • The logic goes like this: If you have everything you need at home,

  • then there is no need to go looking elsewhere,

  • assuming that there is such a thing as a perfect marriage

  • that will inoculate us against wanderlust.

  • But what if passion has a finite shelf life?

  • What if there are things that even a good relationship

  • can never provide?

  • If even happy people cheat,

  • what is it about?

  • The vast majority of people that I actually work with

  • are not at all chronic philanderers.

  • They are often people who are deeply monogamous in their beliefs,

  • and at least for their partner.

  • But they find themselves in a conflict

  • between their values and their behavior.

  • They often are people who have actually been faithful for decades,

  • but one day they cross a line

  • that they never thought they would cross,

  • and at the risk of losing everything.

  • But for a glimmer of what?

  • Affairs are an act of betrayal,

  • and they are also an expression of longing and loss.

  • At the heart of an affair, you will often find

  • a longing and a yearning for an emotional connection,

  • for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity,

  • a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves

  • or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.

  • I'm thinking about another patient of mine, Priya,

  • who is blissfully married,

  • loves her husband,

  • and would never want to hurt the man.

  • But she also tells me

  • that she's always done what was expected of her:

  • good girl, good wife, good mother,

  • taking care of her immigrant parents.

  • Priya, she fell for the arborist who removed the tree from her yard

  • after Hurricane Sandy.

  • And with his truck and his tattoos, he's quite the opposite of her.

  • But at 47, Priya's affair is about the adolescence that she never had.

  • And her story highlights for me that when we seek the gaze of another,

  • it isn't always our partner that we are turning away from,

  • but the person that we have ourselves become.

  • And it isn't so much that we're looking for another person,

  • as much as we are looking for another self.

  • Now, all over the world,

  • there is one word that people who have affairs always tell me.

  • They feel alive.

  • And they often will tell me stories of recent losses --

  • of a parent who died,

  • and a friend that went too soon,

  • and bad news at the doctor.

  • Death and mortality often live in the shadow of an affair,

  • because they raise these questions.

  • Is this it? Is there more?

  • Am I going on for another 25 years like this?

  • Will I ever feel that thing again?

  • And it has led me to think that perhaps these questions

  • are the ones that propel people to cross the line,

  • and that some affairs are an attempt to beat back deadness,

  • in an antidote to death.

  • And contrary to what you may think,

  • affairs are way less about sex, and a lot more about desire:

  • desire for attention, desire to feel special,

  • desire to feel important.

  • And the very structure of an affair,

  • the fact that you can never have your lover,

  • keeps you wanting.

  • That in itself is a desire machine,

  • because the incompleteness, the ambiguity,

  • keeps you wanting that which you can't have.

  • Now some of you probably think

  • that affairs don't happen in open relationships,

  • but they do.

  • First of all, the conversation about monogamy is not the same

  • as the conversation about infidelity.

  • But the fact is that it seems that even when we have

  • the freedom to have other sexual partners,

  • we still seem to be lured by the power of the forbidden,

  • that if we do that which we are not supposed to do,

  • then we feel like we are really doing what we want to.

  • And I've also told quite a few of my patients

  • that if they could bring into their relationships

  • one tenth of the boldness, the imagination and the verve

  • that they put into their affairs,

  • they probably would never need to see me.

  • (Laughter)

  • So how do we heal from an affair?

  • Desire