Relationship guru says affairs are more traumatic now than ever in history but some recover -- here's why

After more than 30 years in practice, couples therapist Esther Perel has seen firsthand the havoc that infidelity can wreak on a relationship. She's also witnessed the blossoming of new love and understanding between partners after the discovery of an affair.

Which is why, when people ask her whether she's "for" or "against" cheating, Perel answers, simply and frustratingly, "Yes."

In her new book, "The State of Affairs," Perel offers a nuanced perspective on infidelity — one that deliberately eschews labels and generalizations. In the book's first chapter, Perel writes:

"Because I believe that some good may come out of the crisis of infidelity, I have often been asked, 'So, would you recommend an affair to a struggling couple?' My response? A lot of people have positive, life-changing experiences that come along with terminal illness. But I would no more recommend having an affair than I would recommend getting cancer."

Related: Science might be able to predict divorce

7 things science says predict divorce
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7 things science says predict divorce

Getting married in your teens or after age 32

The best time to get married is when you feel ready, and when you've found someone you think you can spend a lifetime with. Don't force anything — or put it off — because a study told you to do so.

That said, research does suggest that couples who marry in their teens and couples who marry in their mid-30s or later are at greater risk for divorce than couples in their late 20s and early 30s. The risk is especially high for teenage couples.

That's according to research led by Nicholas Wolfinger, a professor at the University of Utah. After age 32, Wolfinger found, your odds of divorce increase by about 5% every year.

As Wolfinger wrote in a blog post for the conservative-leaning Institute for Family Studies, "For almost everyone, the late twenties seems to be the best time to tie the knot."

Other research, published in 2015 in the journal Economic Inquiry, found that the odds of divorce among heterosexual couples increase with the age gap between spouses.

As Megan Garber reported at The Atlantic:

"A one-year discrepancy in a couple's ages, the study found, makes them 3% more likely to divorce (when compared to their same-aged counterparts); a 5-year difference, however, makes them 18% more likely to split up. And a 10-year difference makes them 39% more likely."

Having a husband who doesn't work full-time

A 2016 Harvard study, published in the American Sociological Review, suggests that it's not a couple's finances that affect their chances of divorce, but rather the division of labor.

When the researcher, Alexandra Killewald, looked at heterosexual marriages that began after 1975, she learned that couples in which the husband didn't have a full-time job had a 3.3% chance of divorcing the following year, compared to 2.5% among couples in which the husband did have a full-time job.

Wives' employment status, however, didn't much affect the couple's chances of divorce.

The researcher concludes that the male breadwinner stereotype is still very much alive, and can affect marital stability.

Not finishing high school

It doesn't seem fair that couples who spend more time in school are less likely to get divorced. But that's what the research suggests.

A post on the Bureau of Labor Statistics website highlights a result from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (1979), which looked at the marriage and divorce patterns of a group of young baby boomers. The post reads:

"The chance of a marriage ending in divorce was lower for people with more education, with over half of marriages of those who did not complete high school having ended in divorce compared with approximately 30 percent of marriages of college graduates."

It may have to do with the fact that lower educational attainment predicts lower income — which in turn predicts a more stressful life. As psychologist Eli Finkel previously told Business Insider:

"What I think is going on is it's really difficult to have a productive, happy marriage when your life circumstances are so stressful and when your day-to-day life involves, say three or four bus routes in order to get to your job."

Showing contempt for your partner

John Gottman, a psychologist at the University of Washington and the founder of the Gottman Institute, calls certain relationship behaviors the "four horsemen of the apocalypse." That's because they predict divorce with scary-high accuracy:

  1. Contempt: Seeing your partner as beneath you. (Gottman calls this behavior the "kiss of death" for a relationship.)
  2. Criticism: Turning a behavior into a statement about your partner's character.
  3. Defensiveness: Playing the victim during difficult situations.
  4. Stonewalling: Blocking off conversation.

As Business Insider's Erin Brodwin reported, these conclusions are based on a 14-year study of 79 couples living across the US Midwest, which Gottman conducted along with University of California-Berkeley psychologist Robert Levenson. And while that particular study was small, another decade of research supports the findings.

Being overly affectionate as newlyweds

If you're not inclined to hug and kiss and hold hands as newlyweds, that might be a problem. But if you practically have to be pulled apart, well, that might be a problem, too.

Psychologist Ted Huston followed 168 couples for 13 years — from their wedding day onward. Huston and his team conducted multiple interviews with the couples throughout the study.

Here's one fascinating finding, from the resulting paper that was published in the journal Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes in 2001: "As newlyweds, the couples who divorced after 7 or more years were almost giddily affectionate, displaying about one third more affection than did spouses who were later happily married."

Aviva Patz summed it up in Psychology Today: "[C]ouples whose marriages begin in romantic bliss are particularly divorce-prone because such intensity is too hard to maintain. Believe it or not, marriages that start out with less 'Hollywood romance' usually have more promising futures."

Withdrawing during conflict

When your partner tries to talk to you about something tough, do you shut down? If so (or if your partner is guilty of that behavior), that's not a great sign.

A 2013 study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, found that husbands' "withdrawal" behaviors predicted higher divorce rates. This conclusion was based on the researchers' interviews with about 350 newlywed couples living in Michigan.

Meanwhile, a 2014 study, published in the journal Communication Monographs, suggests that couples engaged in "demand/withdraw" patterns — i.e. one partner pressuring the other and receiving silence in return — are less happy in their relationships.

The lead study author, Paul Schrodt at Texas Christian University, says it's a hard pattern to break because each partner thinks the other is the cause of the problem. It requires seeing how your individual behaviors are contributing to the issue and using different, more respectful conflict-management strategies.

Describing your relationship in a negative way

In 1992, Gottman and other researchers at the University of Washington developed a procedure called the "oral history interview," in which they ask couples to talk about different aspects of their relationship. By analyzing the conversations, the researchers are able to predict which couples are heading for divorce.

In one study, published in 2000 in the Journal of Family Psychology, Gottman and colleagues put 95 newlywed couples through the oral history interview. Results showed that couples' scores on certain measures predicted the strength or weakness of their marriage. Those measures included:

  1. Fondness for each other
  2. "We"-ness: How much each spouse emphasizes unification in the marriage
  3. Expansiveness: How much each partner elaborates on what the other is saying
  4. Negativity
  5. Disappointment in the marriage
  6. How much the couple describes their marriage as chaotic
SEE ALSO: 13 facts about divorce every couple should know before getting married

When she visited the Business Insider office in September, Perel described the paradoxical regrowth of affection and intimacy that often happens after someone is caught straying:

"It's a reevaluation of what happened: How did we become so estranged from each other? How did we lose our connection? How did we become so numb to each other? And the galvanizing of the fear of losing everything that we have built sometimes brings us back face-to-face, with a level of intensity that we haven't experienced in a long time. …

In the aftermath of the revelation of an affair, some people stand to have a level of depth and honesty and openness in their conversations with each other that they haven't had in years. As well as a reconnecting of an erotic intimacy with each other that also had gone flat. Something about the fear of loss makes us take action about what we really want to hold onto."

In other words, the process of recovery in the wake of infidelity can be just the jolt a relationship needs. That said, no one should wish the devastation and emotional exhaustion that accompanies this process on themselves, or on anyone else.

Related: Occupations and divorce rates

High-paying jobs with the worst divorce rates
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High-paying jobs with the worst divorce rates

10. Actuaries

Divorce rate: 17 percent

9. Physical scientists

Divorce rate: 18.9 percent

8. Medical/Life scientists

Divorce rate: 19.6 percent

7. Clergy

Divorce rate: 19.8 percent

6. Software developers

Divorce rate: 20.3 percent 

5. Physical Therapists

Divorce rate: 20.7 percent 

4. Optometrists

Divorce rate: 20.8 percent

3. Chemical engineers

Divorce rate: 21.1 percent

2. Directors (Religious activities and education)

Divorce rate: 21.3 percent

1. Physicians

Divorce rate: 21.8 percent


Other therapists take a similar approach to cheating — despite Americans' generally Puritanical attitudes toward sexual immorality.

In a 2013 Slate article, Hanna Rosin describes therapist Emily Brown's work with one couple affected by infidelity. Specifically, "Brown has to quickly move the affair off center stage and get to the underlying issues." The husband learns that the wife (who strayed) has been lonely, but also that she doesn't want the marriage to end.

Here again, the effects of infidelity can transform a marriage in a positive way, bringing couples closer than they've been in years. But that doesn't negate the trauma they cause.

Perel likes to describe the post-affair recovery process with one particular image, which she shared with Business Insider: "Many of us are going to have two or three relationships in our adult life or marriages. Some of us will do it with the same person. Sometimes an affair means the end of the first marriage with each other and perhaps the beginning of a second one, with each other."

NOW WATCH: Here’s how people in happy relationships can wind up cheating

See Also:

SEE ALSO: The surprising reason why people in perfectly happy relationships end up cheating

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