“Marriage means different things to different people,” at least so claims Alison—a local waitress from Montauk who recently lost her only child—to Noah—a man on the verge of a midlife crisis—in episode two of Showtime’s The Affair. The two characters’ infidelity is central to the show’s plot, and this quote is what made me, a licensed therapist and a show producer, drawn to working on the series.
It’s a seemingly straightforward concept on one hand—of course marriage means different things to different people because we’re all individuals with unique backgrounds. But its subtext also addresses how two people grappling with desire may see themselves: as the kind of people who cheat, or the kind of people who remain faithful. Yet the very nature of Noah and Alison’s conversation about what marriage means suggests that something has already happened between them. It’s that something that I think is at the heart of this story. It signals a shift in the cultural conversation surrounding infidelity—certainly in the field of psychotherapy, but also widely represented throughout the arts.
The genesis for the The Affair was a question that Co-creator and Executive Producer Hagai Levi kept asking himself: “What happens if you consider yourself a good person, and you lose that image of yourself?” As a trained therapist, I see this as an important question that directly points to how we process and construct our life’s narrative, given the myriad (sometimes contradictory) experiences with which every individual contends. On set, my psychotherapy training greatly deepened the experience I had working with the writers, cast, and crew. Scenes elicited intimate comments from the cast and crew about whose perspective solicited more empathy or felt more realistic. All of us had experienced the euphoric prospect of connecting with another, the searing betrayal of love gone wrong, or the exhilarating high of emotional and physical transgressions. The deeper Co-creator and Executive Producer Sarah Treem got into writing the episodes, the heavier the conversations became on and off set. No one could agree on which side they felt was more truthful or believable, and the answers kept changing. Even the actors wrestled with finding a place for Noah and Alison that lived outside rigid definitions of good and bad. For me, that’s the burning brightness of The Affair. This show triggers. It wants us to question, it wants us to not know, and it asks us to tolerate ambiguity, which isn’t a comfortable feeling. In the world of Google, where all information feels tangible, people think they deserve to know everything.
There are certain patterns of infidelity that history has asserted as fact: that it’s normal for men to have affairs; that men have more affairs than women; that if women had more sex, men would stray less; that affairs happen only in bad relationships, not in good ones; that an affair can never improve a relationship; and that an affair is not something from which one can recover. Many of these outdated ideas no longer fit modern society. We’ve come a long way from the Puritanical era—think Hester Prynne in her scarlet letter, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet (separate bedrooms), The Dick Van Dyke Show (same bed), to the nation’s bashing of Jimmy Carter after his Playboy interview divulging “lustful thoughts” in the 1980s, to serial philanderer Tony Soprano, to Don Draper’s conquests on Mad Men, to the firestorm over Congressman Anthony Weiner sexts and racy tweets, and finally to The Good Wife (now in its fifth season), which chronicles the endless fascination of the humiliated politician’s wife who stays. The public conversation about infidelity has undoubtedly become more nuanced.
Esther Perel, one of several psychotherapists who has made a career writing and speaking on this topic, and who consulted on our show, talks about infidelity as one of the great recurring themes of the human experience. She challenges the one-person-fits-all model: the idea that one person could or should be our everything, every day, for our whole lives. Instead, she advocates for a major shift away from a morally-driven condemnation of affairs. “It’s not our partner we seek to leave with the affair, it’s ourselves,” she claims, offering the experience of the affair as one that could potentially lead to positive self-discovery. Perel aims to abandon the common cliché of the faithless, bored husband with the sexless wife as the only relationship type in which one might engage in transgressive desire.
Dan Savage, author of the the sex advice column "Savage Love" and whose sex-positive efforts in the LGBTQ community I greatly admire, argues for a more flexible attitude within marriage. He wonders if treating monogamy as the primary indicator of a successful marriage puts unrealistic and harmful expectations on people and their partners, and surmises that it may actually break more families than it saves. Savage has been discussing monogamy for more than 20 years and, like Perel, offers more than a judgment of right or wrong, moral or immoral.
The existence of dual perspectives is a key stylistic component of the storytelling in The Affair, in which the events in each episode are told twice: once from Noah’s perspective, and then again from Alison’s. Embracing co-occurring and equally-valid points of view is where I believe the conversation surrounding infidelity will continue to shift. What if an affair, like in the case of The Affair, as Treem says, happens to good people who love their spouses? What if an affair is a process of positive self-discovery rather than selfish carnal impulses? What if it’s both? When we ascribe an outdated moral righteousness to whether the person who betrays is “bad” and the person who remains faithful is “good,” we neglect so many opportunities for communication. We lose out on important conversations that might help us construct the very meaning in our lives that we require in order to feel safe, secure, and validated. I want to know why my partner violated our monogamy and I also want to know what they discovered about themselves in the process. I want to know how this could happen and what’s changed, and what hasn’t changed and how we might begin to rebuild trust and renegotiate the parameters of our relationship.
I’m often reminded within my work, whether on set or in a therapy session, that love is the ultimate reflection of the self. Our ability to feel seen is truly dependent on being in relation to someone else. The Affair is the ultimate reflection of being seen because it invites viewers to see the whole story, with unreliable and contradictory narrators. I love The Affair for bravely reflecting back to us that murky grey area of not knowing.