The Shadow of Esther Perel

One of the peripheral yet significant influences upon Getting Real About Sex Addiction has been the writing of Esther Perel. Actually, to be honest, though I have been aware of her work for years, I didn’t get around to reading her latest, State Of Affairs: rethinking infidelity, until the period wherein I was writing my own book. Reading Perel’s now best-selling non-fiction was not central to my preparation because my research focused less on social commentary than on resources more directly relevant to our title and subject: the body of literature under the heading of sex addiction or sex addiction treatment, and because of mine and Joe Farley’s interest in psychodynamic approaches, the wider body of psychoanalytic literature that is the true antecedent of that sex addiction literature anyway. Nonetheless, I picked up Perel’s book alongside my own writing, thinking it would stir supplementary ideas (which it did) about sex and society, which I decided I wanted to comment upon after all, and still further because I’d once listened to a TED talk of Perel’s. Though I don’t quote her particularly in my chapters, much less borrow from her impressive range of commentary, I was surprised by my reactions when reading her work. I was surprised at the level of envy that her writing evoked in me—envy of a certain freedom from orthodoxy with which she practices, and that I imagine has made her writing so compelling for so many.

For a therapist who has worked with many self-identified sex addicts, practicing within a non-conformist nook aside the treatment field’s contrived standards, this has meant the following: Perel seems to exist on the periphery of sex addiction treatment, and she responds to broader range of sexual contexts than are covered via mine and my co-author’s heteronormative client base. Though a variety of sexual acting out behaviors, some habitual, are profiled in her book, the concept of addiction barely gets mentioned in it. In one passage, she lists a number of diagnoses that might possibly be assigned to someone repeatedly engaged in affair-seeking behavior, only to lightly dismiss them in favor of more sympathetic assessment language. In another, she cheekily refers to sex addiction as the “malady du jour”, implying a distrust of the term’s reductionistic meaning. How very French, or Belgian, her turn of phrase. In her view, firstly, prose is duller than poetry, and more pertinently, what may otherwise be called sexual acting out or sexually addictive behavior is more often cast as acts of self-discovery (for women especially), with betrayal serving as a secondary phenomenon, more relevant to a non-acting out but committed partner, of course. A multi-lingual practitioner with a cross-cultural perspective, Perel explores the dialectic between human needs for closeness and freedom, and how that conflict unfolds within a public debate about monogamy; she argues that western society looks upon affairs with a “no fault” attitude—indeed, this position is codified into divorce law, though she does not comment upon that angle per se. However, she observes that this is rarely the case when an infidelity is discussed in her therapy office, and in my experience, this certainly is not the case when the pretext of mental health treatment is sex addiction. In fact, in mine and Joe Farley’s book, I argue that part of the point of the addiction framework, from a non-acting out partner’s perspective—actually, what may even be attractive to non-acting out partners—is that this framework strips away the “no fault” narrative by placing singular blame for infidelities at the acting out person’s feet.

Perel goes on to espouse other ideas that sex addiction specialists would likely bristle at but which speak to ever changing mores governing ever altering configurations of intimate relationships. Among others things, she suggests that sexual ethics have been profoundly impacted by rates of divorce over recent generations, and that social media and protean technology have revolutionized dating norms. Contrary to prostitution, affair-seeking has never before seemed so widespread, so easy, and perhaps, she dares to suggest, so acceptable. Amid this backdrop and regarding the secrets that affair-seekers keep, she doesn’t necessarily recommend honest disclosure, full or not, to impacted partners, thinking that such confessionals, while potentially healing for those partners, invariably shift and even constrict dialogues between couples. Discussions of betrayal take over from those of meaning—what was the meaning of the affairs, for example. I agree with Perel’s critique. Breaking from ethical standards that influence the practice of couples therapy, at least in The United States, Perel also suggests that therapists might keep secrets of individual partners within couples therapy, as long as a couple agrees ahead of time to this prospect. Perel argues that this can allow a therapist to hear of a secret from one partner and explore its meaning with that person separately, while simultaneously working with the other partner, and possibly hearing secrets from that person also. This is a compelling divergence from American psychotherapeutic orthodoxy even though I am not quite persuaded to abandon my own adherent practice in this area. Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Perel further suggests that the currently popular focus upon impacted partners’ trauma with respect to infidelity obscures an older and more salient (her view) discussion of good old-fashioned jealousy.

Perel’s avoidance of the addiction paradigm in favor of the old infidelity model may signal a reactionary trend. Has sex addiction had its day as a concept? Has the zeitgeist past, at least? Perhaps too many people look at pornography on a regular basis these days, or “hook-up” with multiple partners on a regular basis, or have so-called emotional affairs or clandestine connections via social media with old girl or boyfriends. Maybe they want and can effect threesomes or foursomes with their neighbors; want to engage in “kink” behaviors, or more plainly, want aggression in their sex lives as long as it’s consensual, however that’s arranged. If this abundance of options coupled with altered rules is the new norm then addiction—a concept meant to denote that which is out of the norm—won’t apply to those who are habituated to these norms and not inclined to self-criticism. Novelty-seeking and excess are in the eyes of beholders who don’t expect novelty; who think limits, and even sacrifice of pleasure-seeking, are normal by-products of a healthy and mature life. So Esther Perel may be right to avoid labels that represent standards that are out-of-date for many—however scary that may seem to some. She has the privilege, it seems, of not being bound by a sex addiction paradigm: to not practice, say, amongst strident peers or unctuous pundits who assert protocols of intervention, or who proclaim standards of assessment upon which subsequent interventions are predicated. She has no doubt earned her voice of independence, but imagine what would be different were she a relative novice training at a sex addiction treatment clinic. She might be tight-lipped with words like “reductionist”, which critiques diagnostic thinking, but find traction with the term “agency”, which indicates empowerment. Or, she might absorb words or terms like “paradigm” or “paradigm shift”, which are popular with those who like to think they’re starting revolutions in care standards. She’d likely adhere to an approach that posits addiction as a behavioral disorder whose deeper or subtler meaning is of secondary importance to managing crises that tend to be cyclic, and perpetual. When treating partners, she’d likely be schooled into an understanding of their trauma or induced trauma, and be cautioned against pathology-insinuating or “victim-blaming” suggestions of jealousy. Lastly—and this is a viewpoint I shall privilege in my next entry—in a field that has hitherto dominantly aimed its labels of addiction and narcissism at heterosexual men, she might further adopt the condescending, anti-male bias that sex addiction treatment quite pervasively represents.

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One response to “The Shadow of Esther Perel

  1. Heather

    I see nothing in this commentary that addresses the anger problems, abusive treatment and breakdown in the relationship that happens in sex addiction. If we are talking about expanding our ideas about sexuality, that’s fair and interesting – if it’s done honestly and with consent.

    What is not okay to the non-acting-out partner, is the life or death potential of STDs and the narcissistic traits, anger and abusive behavior that emerge when addiction becomes the primary relationship and the addict will throw their partner and children under the bus to protect their addiction. This is when a household becomes scary and it’s no longer about pleasure or good fun. It’s scary and abusive.

    Experts can talk all they want about definitions of normal sex, pleasure, etc. But until we address what happens to a person and their family in the stronghold of addiction, these are irresponsible discussions.

    If one wants to healthfully have sex outside what was intended to be a monogamous relationship, they should do so openly and honestly with their partner. If the partner does not want an open relationship and the couple cannot reconcile their sexual compatibility, it’s up to them to decide to honestly part ways or separate. Bringing STDs and drama, and eventually abusive behavior into a relationship is not healthy sexuality. It destroys the addict and their family. Family finances can be devastated without the non-acting-out partner’s consent as well.

    It’s time to stop acting like sex addiction doesn’t exist. When you live in a household with someone who changes as an addiction takes hold and you watch your spouse become a scary, angry, abusive person with narcissistic traits…we’re not talking about pleasure and different standards of pleasure. We’re talking about addiction becoming the primary relationship and the potential destruction of the family.

    The time to discuss shifting perspectives on pleasure is in sex education in schools, in couples therapy that is not affected by addiction, or between the couple to create healthy sexuality based in honesty and comfort expressing each other’s needs.

    All this secret-keeping is ridiculous and guess what? It’s not sexy. Sexy is getting your needs met honestly and people need to learn to do that. Harming the ones they claim to love is not sexy. It’s cowardly and often leads to shame. Why add that into something that’s supposed to be pleasurable?

    I’m so over this whole debate. The experts should try living in a household with an abusive addict keeping secrets and frittering away the family finances and tell me the how it could ever be considered a conversation about definitions of pleasure.

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