Esther Perel: How Can Couples Rebuild Trust After An Affair? Affairs can completely rock a marriage. But psychotherapist Esther Perel says that while infidelity can shatter trust, it doesn't mean couples can't find a way to rebuild their relationships.

How Can Couples Rebuild Trust After An Affair?

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Our show today, Trust and Consequences. So up until now, we've been talking about how vital trust is in democracies and corporations, in any situation where people have to create something together. And then, the most basic and powerful kind of trust - the trust between people who love each other.

ESTHER PEREL: It is one of the most magnificent experiences one can have. It's an experience among friends, it's an experience from a child to a parent and a parent to a child later on.

RAZ: This is Esther Perel. She's a psychotherapist and a writer.

PEREL: It allows me to know that I'm not alone. That is one of the fundamental experiences that come with trust, is I am not alone. In archetypal language you could say that once we're thrown out of Eden, we are on a quest for trust, for that solid ground, for that sense that tomorrow will arrive when today ends.

RAZ: Right. I mean, trust allows us to live our lives and just accept that things that will function, right?

PEREL: Yes. Yes because trust is our ability in some way to live with what we will never know, but to somehow tolerate that unknown enough that we can move and take risks and love, and all of those things.

RAZ: Love and marriage and intimacy - that's what Esther specializes in. And lately, she's been studying one of the main things that can destroy all of that - having an affair. And it can take that powerful bond you've built up over time and just shred it in an instant, maybe forever. But when you lose trust like that, you can also learn a lot about it. Here's Esther giving her latest talk on the TED stage.


PEREL: Why do we cheat? And why do happy people cheat? 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. This extremely common act is so poorly understood. 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.


PEREL: So how do we reconcile what is universally forbidden yet universally practiced? We are walking contradictions. So 95 percent of us will say that 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.

RAZ: So but, Esther, I mean, it's wired into us. Like, if that happens - if our partners cheat - it has an incredibly powerful hold on us. It's like, it captures our feelings and our senses so - so completely.

PEREL: Yes, it is often seen today as the ultimate betrayal, but it's a violation because we don't expect it. We marry with the promise that this would never happen. When marriage was an economic arrangement that was more of a production economy of children and paychecks, then you trusted your partner for that. And if your partner cheated, it may be really hurtful. It may be painful, but as long as they fulfilled the mandate of coming home at night, as long as they fulfilled the mandate of not being violent, as long as they fulfilled the mandate of taking care of the children, you trusted them for what you thought was the essence of marriage. But the essence of marriage has changed. We cannot understand modern infidelity without locating it in the massive, extreme makeover that marriage has gone through.


PEREL: 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 intellectual equal. And I am it. I'm chosen. I'm unique. I'm irreplaceable. I'm the one. And infidelity tells me I'm not. 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. Can I ever trust you again, he asks, can I ever trust anyone again?

RAZ: I mean, that speaks to how powerful and then how fragile trust can be.

PEREL: Yes, I would say infidelity has always been painful, massively painful. But by definition we trust our partner for certain things and not for other things. I mean, if you ask people, they don't have necessarily a blind trust toward their partner. Some people would never trust their partner with their children. Some people never trust their partner with money. Some people never trust their partner with the car. But we do expect that they would not do something that would rupture the bond between us.

RAZ: But what about after an affair? Like, have you ever seen in the people that you work with trust totally restored after that?

PEREL: I will change your question a little bit. I would say, can we rebuild trust? Yes. And the trust that is rebuilt is different from the trust we had before. For many of us, it will be maybe a more mature trust, less of this primal trust that almost reached a level of naivete. And it's more rooted in reality. It's not that we continue to live with a sense of dread all the time because then you're not trusting. But it is that we once again have the ability to tolerate the unknown, to live with what we will never know.


PEREL: The fact is, the majority of couples who have experienced affairs stay together, but some of them will merely survive and others will actually be able to turn a crisis into an opportunity. They'll be able to turn this into a generative experience. And I'm actually thinking even more so for the deceived partner who will often say, you think I didn't want more? But I'm not the one who did it.

But now that the affair is exposed, they too get to claim more and they no longer have to uphold the status quo that may not have been working for them that well either. I've noticed that a lot of couples, in the immediate aftermath of an affair because of this new disorder that may actually lead to a new order, will have depths of conversations with honesty and openness that they haven't had in decades. And partners who were sexually indifferent find themselves suddenly so lustfully voracious they don't know where it's coming from. Something about the fear of loss will rekindle desire and make way for an entirely new kind of truth.

RAZ: So in the couples that lose trust because of an affair but still end up staying together, I mean, what are they doing that allows them to stay together?

PEREL: It takes a process. So if you explain to me why this happened, you help me understand the meaning and the motives of your affair. Then it frees me a little bit of having to do the scavenging, the detective questions I call them, the mining for the sordid details. Knowing what happened and knowing the facts isn't really what helps restore trust. Moving the affair from what you did to me to when we went through this crisis together is the switch in narrative that you see in most of the couples who have been able to restore trust.


PEREL: Every affair will redefine a relationship and every couple will determine what the legacy of the affair will be. Betrayal in a relationship comes in many forms. There are many ways that we betray our partner - with contempt, with neglect, with indifference, with violence. Sexual betrayal is only one way to hurt a partner. In other words, the victim of an affair is not always the victim of the marriage.

Now, you've listened to me and I know what you're thinking - she has a French accent, she must be pro-affair.


PEREL: So you're wrong. I am not French...


PEREL: ...And I'm not pro-affair. I look at affairs from a dual perspective - hurt and betrayal on one side, growth and self-discovery on the other. What it did to you and what it meant for me.

And so when a couple comes to me in the aftermath of an affair, I will often tell them this - today, in the West, most of us are going to have two or three relationships or marriages and some of us are going to do it with the same person. Your first marriage is over. Would you like to create a second one together?

Thank you.


RAZ: That's psychotherapist and author, Esther Perel. Her book about relationships is called "Mating In Captivity." And by the way, it's true - she's actually not French. She's Belgian.

Hey, thanks for listening to our show, Trust and Consequences, this week. Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Bachman, Meghan Keane, Neva Grant and Jinae West, with help from Barton Girdwood and Daniel Shukin. I'm Guy Raz and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

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