She saw that the tree was beautiful and its fruit looked delicious, and she wanted the wisdom it would give her. So she took some of the fruit and ate it. Then she gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it, too.
-Genesis 3:6b, NLT
An article by Esther Perel recently appeared online for The Atlantic, October 2017 issue. It is entitled: “Why Happy People Cheat: A good marriage is no guarantee against infidelity.”
Like the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, Perel’s writing style is very alluring, and the “wisdom” she offers in her article is enticing. However, I argue taking a bite from her ideas comes with similarly disastrous results.
I have entitled my review of Esther Perel’s recent article:
“Please, Do NOT Drink Perel’s Potty Water!”
I write as an expert on emotional and spiritual care for infidelity survivors, an adultery survivor myself, and an ordained evangelical minister. The following are some of my own thoughts* and reactions to various lines in Perel’s article.
Her article is rather long. So, I will only be responding to bits here and there. Let’s begin with this observation by Perel:
In contemporary discourse in the United States, affairs are primarily described in terms of the damage caused. Generally, there is much concern for the agony suffered by the betrayed.
I wish this was the case. Having tens of thousands of visitors to this blog, I can assure my readers such concern “for the agony suffered by the betrayed” is the exception rather than the rule.
Sure, a superficial “concern” for the damaged done to the faithful spouse is fairly common. However, that usually is quickly set aside for an exploration of how the faithful spouse “drove” the cheater to cheat and/or abandon them.
I write a lot about “The Shared Responsibility Lie” on this website because this lie is active and VERY commonly held in the United States–if not around the world. It is a lie that says the faithful spouse is to blame (at least, in part) for the sins committed against him or her.
This is a lie because we are taught by Scripture that we alone are fully responsible for our own sins–i.e. actions and decisions we do in defiance of God (see Mark 7:21-23 and 2 Corinthians 5:10).
A little later in the article, Perel states:
One of the most uncomfortable truths about an affair is that what for Partner A may be an agonizing betrayal may be transformative for Partner B. Extramarital adventures are painful and destabilizing, but they can also be liberating and empowering.
We can learn a lot about human depravity and psychology by studying serial rapists. And they likely view their rape sprees as “liberating and empowering.”
Yes, this is an uncomfortable truth. It is properly understood as an uncomfortable truth about human moral depravity, though. Facing wickedness and evil has a way of making one uncomfortable.
But I suppose that is just me adhering to a moral standard held by all major world religions that dare call adultery wrong.
Let me assure you that I do not approve of deception or take betrayal lightly….But the intricacies of love and desire don’t yield to simple categorizations of good and bad, victim and perpetrator.
What if I changed one word in that quotation? Instead of “betrayal,” I would substitute the word “rape.” (By the way, I am not claiming Perel has this view on rape/sexual assault.)
Now, read the quote with “rape” there.
Would you really believe Perel isn’t promoting “rape” from what then follows?
If you were sexually assaulted, would you want a therapist who took this sort of position on “rape” in general?
Would you feel safe trusting professionals who treat such ideas as “wisdom?”
Adultery is soul rape. We become one in marriage. A cheater brings their spouse unwillingly–hence, it is called rape–into every sexual encounter with the affair partner(s). That is an implication of such oneness.
Just as there is a perpetrator and a victim in a rape, there is a perpetrator and a victim in soul rape–i.e. adultery. To deny the later is just as despicable as denying the former!
For those who missed all the ancient, major religions’ teachings on this matter, the perpetrator is the one who commits adultery (and thereby–according to the Bible–rapes the soul of the other spouse). The primary victim is the one who was cheated upon and thereby had their soul raped. It really isn’t that complicated.
Blurring the moral lines on this matter is not an advance in morality and human relations; rather, it is a return to an unenviable state of nature described in the Book of Judges where “…everyone did as they saw fit” (21:25b, NIV).
She then tries to have it both ways. Hiding behind the guise of professionalism, Perel tries to convince her readers that she does not condone infidelity.
Not condemning does not mean condoning, and there is a world of difference between understanding and justifying. My role as a therapist is to create a space where the diversity of experiences can be explored with compassion.
Esther Perel is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT). She has made a name for herself through popular TED talks on infidelity and sex. In other words, she is a prominent voice in her profession.
She is Exhibit A for why I caution faithful spouses to be careful in selecting a therapist.
Can you imagine a sexual assault victim going to a therapist who spouted such views about rape and took such a morally neutral stance towards the rapist?!
The fact such ideas and the person promoting them could rise to such prominence in her profession is troubling to me. Even though I know good LMFTs exist (they do!), I have little trust that such a credential is worth its paper in light of how highly regarded Perel’s ideas regarding infidelity are.
I am all in favor of learning and gaining understanding. However, I find it an odd–bordering on morally bankrupt–priority to put the perpetrator of the soul rape at the front of the compassion line while their victims are emotionally hemorrhaging.
Let me illustrate the oddity of this priority with an analogy:
If your friend was brutally mugged and ended up in the Emergency Room along with her arrested assailant who had minor scrapes from the encounter, wouldn’t you have a problem if the nurse focused her compassion and care upon the mugger as opposed to your friend who he beat nearly to death?
I would argue the analogy here is not strained.
Plenty of faithful spouses–present company included–considered killing themselves to end the pain caused by having their soul raped. Yet the soul nurse therapist–i.e. Perel–wants us to be more concerned and compassionate towards the perpetrator of such violence and wickedness.
Intimate betrayal feels intensely personal—a direct attack in the most vulnerable place. And yet I often find myself asking jilted lovers to consider a question that seems ludicrous to them: What if the affair had nothing to do with you?
The twisted truth behind this quote is that adultery is never about the other partner in the sense of what caused it. Ever. It is about what is in the heart of the one committing the sin. That is what Jesus says (see Mark 7:21-23).
Having said that, this truth is twisted in the sense that adultery can be anything less than personal to the faithful spouse who is the victim. They have been violated in their deepest parts–namely, their soul. I would say that qualifies as personal!
Telling a (soul) rape victim not to take it personally strikes me as particularly cold-hearted!
Perel goes on in the article to explore the motivation behind a particular cheater’s infidelity, Priya’s. She traces it back to the role the cheater felt forced to play in her family system:
Now she is left with a nagging question: If I’m not perfect, will they still love me? A voice in her head wonders what life is like for those who are not so “good.” Are they more lonely? More free? Do they have more fun?
Discovering and addressing such family of origin (FOO) issues is the work of good therapists with their clients. Plenty of spouses are doing such work and growing as individuals without ever cheating on their partners.
In other words:
You do NOT need to cheat on your spouse to make such discoveries and address them!
There are other and healthier ways to deal with an identity crisis than betraying one’s spouse. Dare I suggest such an identity crisis could instead serve as a catalyst to a finding a deeper and more vibrant relationship with God?
Do you really want a therapist who treats infidelity as an acceptable path to self-discovery or would you prefer one who points out how inferior and unhealthy that path is? I side with the later.
The quest for the unexplored self is a powerful theme of the adulterous narrative, with many variations. Priya’s parallel universe has transported her to the teenager she never was. Others find themselves drawn by the memory of the person they once were.
Agreed, adulterous affairs are narcissistic enterprises–purely selfish sin. By the way, presenting committing adultery as a noble or legitimate avenue of self-knowledge looks an awful lot like advocating for adultery.
True noble pursuits of the self do not involve raping another person’s soul and tearing apart a community with your sins, deceptions, and gaslighting abuse.
Perel then voices a temptation as old as sin:
Bucking the rules is an assertion of freedom over convention, and of self over society.
Actually, “bucking the rules”–and especially violating the Ten Commandments–is actually living in full rebellion to the God of this Universe. It is living by the flesh. And it is the path to eternal destruction (see I Corinthians 6:9-10).
Perel is presenting a worldview diametrically opposed to Christianity. She sweetens her words with the idea that a cheater is merely flouting stodgy convention and rules. Yet the focus on rule breaking is misleading.
The reality is cheaters are breaking relationships!
The marriage relationship. Relationships with their children (who are betrayed as well). Relationships with friends. And MOST IMPORTANTLY, the cheater’s relationship with God.
To be clear, Perel denies such relationship destruction. How do I know? Look at what she writes here:
I also think back to a poignant scene in the movie A Walk on the Moon. Diane Lane’s character has been having an affair with a free-spirited blouse salesman. Her teenage daughter asks, “You love [him] more than all of us?” “No,” the mother replies, but “sometimes it’s easier to be different with a different person.”
What is the teenage daughter supposed to think? Her mother is putting her family’s well-being at risk to have an illicit relationship with this salesman. The mother’s actions are saying the continuation of her affair is more important than loving her family.
That said, I think the mother is correct. She does not love the salesman more than her family because her love affair is with herself. Cheating is a self-centered enterprise.
The title of this review: “Please, Do NOT Drink Perel’s Potty Water!” reflects the disgust and contempt I have for the article’s content. Her slippery neutral position on infidelity is thoroughly unchristian.
My final exhortation is to consider the victims of adultery. The victims whose existence she claims in one breathe do not exist and in the other, for whom she feigns compassion.
How would you feel if you were one of those victims reading her article?
-Would Perel’s clever insight into a cheater’s psyche really soothe the aching heart of a grieving parent burying a faithful spouse who despaired of the pain caused by the cheater?
-Would understanding the cheater got a thrill and felt free in the adulterous act really help the faithful spouse dealing with the STD that same selfish cheater passed along to her?
-Would the assurance that she just liked being different person with someone else heal the heartbreak of a husband learning he did not actually “father” their children?
I would never wish the trauma of adultery upon my worse enemy. It is deep, soul-level pain. Adultery is soul rape.
Denying the existence of adultery victims is just as despicable as denying the existence of rape victims. Never forget that.
While committing adultery may no longer be treated in Western Civilization as a crime, that does not change the fact it is wrong and utterly destructive to society.
Can you learn interesting tidbits from this article?
Yes, you might find some turd free water in the potty if you look hard enough. But I would not drink it, personally.
*A reminder that these are my own opinions and views. I do not speak for any of the institutions or organizations to which I belong.