That’s the reason why I think America is more tolerant of divorce than of infidelity. Because divorce basically says, you hurt me, I am wounded, and therefore I will dissolve our relationship. And the relationship is seen primarily as one between two individuals. The more traditional you go, the more people’s sense of self is embedded within a larger network of connections. And therefore to dissolve the marriage isn’t something that you are just doing to the two of you, you’re doing it to your children, to your parents, to your larger network. And it’s in the name of that network that sometimes you will keep things together.
I think America sometimes has a romanticized or overly vilified view of how other societies deal with infidelity. I was in Argentina recently and one of the strong markers of social change at this point is female sexual infidelity. Because it is the challenge to traditional male privilege and status quo. It’s happening en masse, it’s a social phenomenon. It’s a way to do away with the double standard. As women gain economic independence and no longer want to just suffer through, basically they cheat as a marker of emancipation and autonomy and power. But it is seen as a social phenomenon, not as a private, individual, or couples matter only. And that’s what’s interesting. Infidelity has many meanings and in this particular context, infidelity has a social change meaning.
America is the only country where infidelity really can become a matter of national political agenda. It really has another meaning, it’s very interesting. Why more than other topics this is the one that gets the blood boiling? More than other forms of betrayal. After all, people betray each other in multiple ways.
So is putting sexuality or desire at the center of relationships a bad thing? Would we be better off tying relationships to property dealings, or something else external and concrete?
The problem is not just that we put sexuality at the center of our committed relationships, we put it at the center with tremendous ambivalence. America has a very ambivalent attitude about sexuality. It goes back and forth between repression and excess. Between abstinence campaigns and gluttonous over-sexualization. It tells us that sex is dirty, keep it to the one you love. It’s makes sexuality important in ways that are not necessarily positive.
This is a complex question and I don’t know that I have one or any definitive answers, it’s something I’ve really pondered. Laura Kipnis in her book Against Love talks about this a great deal and very thoughtfully.
I do think it has something to do with the importance of marriage. America is the western country where people marry the most at this point. Americans marry. They divorce and then they remarry. And most Americans at this point will have two or three marriages in their adult life. And some of them will do it with the same person.
And then I wonder if it has something to do with the idealization. In one way you could think that people who divorce are the disillusioned. But in a way you can think that they are the true idealists. They’re the ones that think, I chose the wrong person, next time I’ll choose better and really find someone with whom I can have everything.
The concept that you can have everything with somebody, and that if you don’t it’s because you didn’t work hard enough, that it’s a matter of will and hard work, set your mind to it. That pragmatic view defies the fact that maybe some things are not achievable or they are intermittently achievable. There’s a real idealism here about marriage and relationships.
Can I ask you a bit about your training. I was interested to see that you have a background working with traumatized populations. Are there things you bring from your trauma training to couples sex therapy?
When I work with traumatized populations, and in the community that I grew up in, which was a refugee community, I always thought in some way there were two groups of people: those that didn’t die, and those that came back to life.
Those who didn’t die were those who often lived tethered to the ground, with all their energies invested in seeking security and safety and not being able to trust and often not being able to enjoy or to experience pleasure and certainly their children often struggle to experience pleasure without guilt.
Those who came back to life were those who had been able to reconnect with a sense of vibrancy, of aliveness, of creativity, of playfulness. Those who were able to once again leave the base, like the child who jumps off your lap to run into the world to explore and to discover and to experience their freedom. And those people had an ability to show me how you maintain a sense of aliveness and vitality and erotic energy.
When couples complain about the listlessness of their sex life, they sometimes want more sex, but they always want better sex. And the better sex that they long for is to reconnect with that quality of aliveness and vibrancy and exuberance. With the sense of renewal and connection and playfulness that sex used to afford them. I see couples who have sex, the act, but what people want is to reconnect with the eroticism of sex, with the poetics of sex, and that’s very different and that’s why I’m much more interested in looking at eroticism than at sexuality per se.
Eroticism as an antidote to death. As a way that people fight deadness inside themselves and inside their relationships, in their life. And how they maintain that sense of aliveness and how sexuality plays into that. And when you work with traumatized people that distinction is very clear.
I’m really interesting in that re-living, that reconnecting with aliveness because I think that that’s what people long for in their lives and their relationships. If you want to link it to infidelity, I think that’s one of the prime reasons people go to experience relationships outside of their own. It’s to beat back that sense of deadness that has creeped in on them.