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Unorthodox advice for rescuing a marriage

October 21, 2017

Unorthodox advice for rescuing a marriage

Eli Finkel counsels lowering expectations in hard times; Esther Perel advises grappling with adultery

The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work. By Eli Finkel. Dutton; 352 pages; $28.

The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity. By Esther Perel. Harper; 336 pages; $26.99. Yellow Kite; £14.99.

FOR Eli Finkel, the rise of speed dating was almost too good to be true. A psychologist at Northwestern University who studies relationships, he found that hooking up recording equipment at the tables where singles have brief chats with multiple prospective dates offered an extravaganza of data. The ability to follow up with participants for years afterwards helped make Mr Finkel one of the leading lights in the realm of relationship psychology.

Then, after his wife suffered two difficult pregnancies and post-partum depression, his own marriage, rewarding up until that point, was suddenly struggling for life. Love, intimacy and sex were all but gone. In his candid first book, “The All-or-Nothing Marriage”, Mr Finkel examines both how he and his wife survived the worst, and how other couples might do the same.

He argues that high expectations for a marriage greatly benefit a couple when times are good, but are counterproductive when times are tough. Mr Finkel and his wife made it through their own emotional rough weather by lowering expectations for a few years. It was instinctive at the time, but he later discovered the research of James McNulty at Florida State University which finds that couples with high expectations are almost twice as happy during easier times as couples with lower expectations—but they are also almost twice as unhappy during hard times.

Mr Finkel describes other strategies that couples can use to heal damaged marriages. Some of these are minor “lovehacks” like cultivating gratitude. Research shows that when couples regularly spend time thinking about the investments in the relationship that their partner has made, they end up feeling more committed to the marriage. And in ongoing work with his colleague Elaine Cheung, Mr Finkel is finding quantifiable value in outsourcing marital needs: seeking friends who provide something the spouse cannot, like a love of dancing or debate. Overall, he concludes that people today want their marriages to provide everything, but this unrealistic goal is often the enemy of making a marriage good enough to last.

Inevitably, some marriages face the hardest test: infidelity. Most books are prescriptive, with tips on how to prevent the crisis in the first place, or how to dump the bum and weather the trauma. As most are written for the loyal spouse, the philanderers are often cast as villains. Such moralising, suggests Esther Perel, is not helpful. With “The State of Affairs”, she hopes to inspire “a more productive conversation” about cheating.

Since publishing “Mating in Captivity” in 2006, Ms Perel has become a globe-trotting guru on sex and relationships. She has noticed that no subject fascinates and unnerves people more than infidelity—“universally forbidden yet universally practised”. People assume that affairs are symptoms of relationships gone awry; that the adulterer is always the selfish one; and that affairs are always harmful to a marriage. Ms Perel uses this sensible book to dispel these myths and to show that affairs can sometimes even fortify relationships, so long as they spur a couple to discuss what has long been left unsaid.

Just how many people stray is anyone’s guess, as few can agree on what counts as infidelity (sexting? a lap-dance?), and there are few incentives for honesty. But everyone seems to agree that the numbers are rising, largely because female philanderers are gaining on men. This may seem like a consequence of a sexually permissive age, yet views of infidelity are actually harsher than just a few generations ago. Ms Perel thinks that this is because couples who marry for love invest more of their self-worth in their relationships. When a marriage is built on emotion, rather than pragmatism or duty, it is more vulnerable to the vagaries of the heart and the temptations of Tinder. When a lover is also a best friend and confidant, betrayal cuts more deeply.

Sometimes an affair is a signal that a relationship should end. But plenty of adulterers are content with their home lives. Prising out the stories of happy people who cheat, Ms Perel learns that many adulterers are most excited to discover a new self—one that is creative, erotic and very much unlike the devoted mum who spends her days chauffeuring her children.

Ms Perel’s critics say she is soft on those who cheat, but she acknowledges the grim effects of infidelity. A betrayal can not only hijack a couple’s hopes and plans, but also destroy their sense of history. There are good reasons why discovering an affair can make someone crazy, not least because transgressions nowadays tend to leave an extensive digital trace.

How do couples move past an affair? Once the initial crisis is over, Ms Perel recommends conversations rooted in curiosity. Partners who probe the meaning of an affair are better able to bring into their relationship what might have been missing, be it candour, eroticism or an awareness of a partner’s allure to others. Although “our creative imagination seems to be richer when it comes to our transgressions than to our commitments,” Ms Perel notes that quite a few people manage to bring their new-found selves back to their partners.

Ms Perel is not suggesting that couples in a rut indulge in a bit of infidelity. “I would no more recommend having an affair than I would recommend getting cancer,” she says. But just as many people who survive life-threatening illnesses come to appreciate the pleasures of life anew, so too can couples who brave the turmoil of an affair emerge feeling invigorated.

Source: Unorthodox advice for rescuing a marriage

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