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Why do people cheat?

Relationship expert Esther Perel talks to Tony about infidelity, intimacy and the danger of expectations


Listen on iTunes


Listen on iTunes


Why do people cheat? Even those in happy marriages? And what can affairs help us understand about intimacy?

We tend to think that the act of infidelity is the ultimate betrayal. We judge those who commit transgressions. We shroud them in shame. We dismiss them, label them, categorize them as “cheaters.” And largely, we do so, without a complete understanding of infidelity.

In this episode of the podcast, Tony sits down with world-renowned couples therapist and relationship expert Esther Perel to discuss what makes relationships work, what makes them fall apart – and what we aren’t understanding about infidelity.

Esther is recognized as one of today’s most insightful and provocative voices on personal and professional relationships. A celebrated couples therapist who has helmed a private practice in New York City since 1983, she has over three decades of experience navigating the intricacies of love and desire. Her international bestseller Mating in Captivity has been translated into 26 languages. Perel is a dynamic and provocative speaker on the international stage, with two critically praised TED talks that have reached over 17 million viewers. She has consulted on the Golden Globe-winning Showtime series The Affair and is also Executive Producer and host of the Audible Original Series “Where Should We Begin?”, in which she broadcasts intimate one-off counseling sessions with real-life couples. Perel has been featured in publications across five continents, including the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, The Guardian, The New Yorker, and Vogue. She is also a frequent guest on radio and television shows, including NPR’s Brian Lehrer Show, Oprah, The Today Show, Dr. Oz and The Colbert Report.

Over the past 10 years, Esther has traveled the world, working closely with hundreds of couples who are struggling to cope with infidelity. She has seen the devastation such betrayal can cause. And she drew upon these experiences, her research and her expertise to write her latest book, The State of Affairs, where she reveals why even happy people cheat and why we shame those who stay with partners who have been unfaithful.

In this Esther Perel interview, Esther and Tony invite the audience into an honest, enlightened exploration of modern marriage. What you learn may surprise you, as they challenge assumptions, uproot conventional wisdom and offer a nuanced look at affairs from multiple viewpoints. Even if you have never experienced infidelity in a relationship, odds are you know someone who has. This episode will not only allow you to approach the subject of betrayal with much more empathy and understanding, it will give you a deeper look at our basic human needs and why we do the things we do when it comes to intimate relationships.

Esther Perel Podcast

Esther Perel Podcast Show Notes


[01:25] Tony introduces the episode
[03:05] Welcome Esther Perel
[03:55] What is different about relationships today?
[04:55] The quality of our relationships determines the quality of our lives
[05:35] The “couple” has undergone an extreme makeover
[06:15] What we’re asking of our partners
[07:45] We know very little about what goes on in a couple
[08:15] There is no school for relationships
[08:45] How social media impacts relationships
[09:15] The immense amount of choice we now have
[09:30] Choice also breeds uncertainty and self-doubt
[10:25] People are discussing the most important issues in their lives through text
[11:00] The biggest mistake couples make in this new environment
[11:25] The idea of the “soul mate”
[12:15] Love is a verb
[12:35] Esther’s biggest issues with couples today
[12:55] Do you know a couple that inspires you?
[14:30] What helps us shift from being a taker to a giver?
[14:45] People are too focused on what they will get from someone else
[15:45] Things change the moment you take responsibility for yourself
[16:45] There is power in responsibility
[17:05] The pressure to be “perfect”
[17:45] The different relationship types that come from conditioning
[18:45] How our families and upbringing impact our romantic lives
[19:35] Were you raised for autonomy or loyalty?
[20:45] Where did you learn to love and how?
[21:35] What was sexuality like in your family?
[22:45] When you came out of your childhood – what did you need?
[23:45] The “key verbs” for relationships
[24:15] The questions you need to ask for relationship insight
[25:15] How do you feel about sharing?
[25:45] Which verb do you need to practice now?
[26:45] Our attachments play a big role in our relationships
[27:45] People tend to find those with different types of attachments
[28:15] Attachment maps
[28:35] The types of attachments
[29:15] What is a secure attachment?
[29:45] An attachment to anxiety
[29:55] The “withholder”
[30:55] Often our behaviors were developed as survival mechanisms
[31:15] Desire and attachment
[31:55] The duality we experience in life
[32:30] The main responses we give
[32:55] Losing yourself in a relationship
[33:45] Fear of abandonment and the fear of being swallowed up
[34:25] The attachments Tony and Mary B. had growing up
[35:35] Who did this to you? Or who did you see do this?
[36:45] Bringing the leftovers to your partner
[37:35] How caretaking destroys passion
[38:35] To make love to someone, they must receive you
[39:35] Being drawn to your partner when they are in their element
[40:15] Being wanted vs. being needed
[40:55] To have sex is to surrender
[41:25] How men and women get turned on
[42:15] Love wants to contract distance
[42:35] Desire needs mystery
[43:35] Curiosity is the essential ingredient of desire
[44:15] Why women want to be swept away by a stranger
[45:05] How to break out of the caretaking role
[46:35] When was the last time you felt unbounded?
[47:45] The power of playfulness and breaking rules
[48:35] Create a new communication channel for only you and your partner
[49:35] Novelty breeds testosterone
[49:55] If you want passion, you need novelty
[50:05] Nothing brings us more joy that a surprise
[51:05] Learn how to make love with your clothes on
[51:55] Reconnecting with the lost part of yourself


[01:23] Ana introduces the episode
[02:25] Novelty and surprise create moments of passion
[03:30] The lost parts of yourself
[03:50] In passion, what works is a disaster
[04:00] The differences that make a relationship passionate
[04:20] How Tony found happiness in his first relationship
[05:10] Constantly changing and becoming a pleaser at home
[06:00] The toughest decision of Tony’s life was also the best decision
[06:20] Asking yourself what you really want
[06:40] Why Esther wrote The State of Affairs
[07:00] Getting inspiration from failed relationships
[08:00] Having many marriages with the same person
[08:30] What we do in the name of growth and change
[09:00] The vast majority that has experienced infidelity in some capacity
[09:30] Everybody has been impacted by affairs in some way
[09:55] Why affairs are so common
[11:00] The definition of affairs is ever-expanding
[11:30] How everybody lies about infidelity
[12:10] The triggers for affairs today
[12:25] Neglect, contempt, loneliness, sexual frustration
[13:00] Why not get divorced instead?
[13:20] Even in happy marriages, people cheat
[14:20] What it’s not about
[14:35] Experiencing a different “part” of yourself in an affair
[15:00] Why an affair makes someone feel “alive”
[15:25] They want to leave the person they have become
[15:45] The dual perspective of affairs
[16:15] The need for certainty vs. the need for variety
[17:15] Why a woman who had it all cheated
[19:00] People will violate their own values to fulfill their needs
[19:45] Understanding and fulfilling your partners’ needs
[21:15] Why are people willing to risk everything for an affair
[22:10] How to recover (if you can) from an affair
[22:20] The acknowledgment of the wrongdoing
[23:20] Proving how much you want to stay – giving back your partner’s value
[24:00] Honesty after an affair
[24:50] What you really want to understand after an affair
[25:05] Hating and loving someone all at once
[25:40] The social implications of staying in a relationship after an affair
[26:15] The Hillary Clinton example
[26:50] Now women have an option
[27:00] Infidelity shatters the grand ambition of love
[27:30] In the U.S. people are more judgmental of cheating
[28:15] Infidelity in France
[28:50] Getting both sides to understand their contribution to the affair
[29:40] A new conversation about infidelity
[30:15] Many partners who are also not participants
[30:20] The impact death has on mentality
[31:00] No-fault affairs
[32:30] When you discover they are having an affair…
[34:30] How to communicate after an affair
[35:50] Do you want the answer to the question, or do you want your partner to know you have the question
[36:40] The questions to ask
[38:00] Crimes of passion
[39:00] Do not make decisions in the beginning
[41:10] Why Esther started her podcast
[42:50] When you listen to others, you are looking into a mirror
[44:15] Divorce your story and marry the truth
[45:00] Where to find resources: podcast, Youtube, sessions with Esther
[47:00] Applying this knowledge to cofounder relationships
[48:20] The quality of your life is the quality of your relationships
[48:50] This isn’t something that just happens naturally
[49:50] The greatness that can come after the hurt of infidelity
[51:00] We tend to give to others that which we want to receive ourselves
[51:30] Learning how to give your partner what they uniquely want
[53:00] If you want something more you have to invest in it
[54:30] You are fully invested when you stop trying to simply avoid conflict
[55:00] The beauty that can come after a healed affair
[55:45] It’s not just about healing, it’s about rebuilding
[56:00] Turning a crisis into an opportunity
[57:30] You want to change another person then change yourself
[59:00] When you ask a question, ask the ones that help you understand who your partner is
[59:50] Trust is an active engagement with the unknown
[60:35] There are two forces: fear and faith
[62:00] Listening to your partner at times when you are most polarized
[63:30] When you think you are punishing someone else you are really just punishing yourself

Love as a verb

In this episode, Esther Perel stresses that love is a verb and that to have an affair-proof marriage, you must create a robust relationship that incorporates all parts of yourself. You need to learn how to play, how to give and receive, share and refuse, and how to ask for what you want.

Reconnect with yourself

Do you struggle with seeing your relationship in these terms? Then it may be time to incorporate another suggestion that was talked about in this Esther Perel interview: reconnecting with yourself. To truly be yourself in a relationship and be loved for all you are, you have to know and love the deepest parts of you. It’s important to take time to enjoy the activities you love, develop your interests and talents and feel complete. It’s only when you can accept all parts of yourself that your partner can as well.

Giving vs. getting

This Esther Perel interview with Tony stresses the importance of giving love and affection in your relationship versus trying to get love from your significant other. Being gentle with your partner, offering support during stressful times and listening without judging are all ways for you to offer your love without focusing on what you’ll get in return. Esther states that we tend to give to others what we want to receive ourselves, but this sometimes sets up dangerous expectations. Because relationship expectations are subjective, biased and differ from person to person, thinking your partner is always going to respond how you would respond – or how you’d like them to respond – is a recipe for conflict.

Creating a healthy relationship is a key part of our happiness and this conversation points out that regaining this type of relationship after an affair is possible.

Further reading

Life is happening for me – When it comes to pain, we all have the choice to live in a negative emotional space, or we can choose to see the good it creates in our lives.

Stop punishing your partner – There is no love in punishment, only hurt, pain and neglect, which drives a deeper chasm in your relationship than before.

Keeping the spark alive – Six ways to cultivate and sustain intimacy, passion and joy in your relationship.

Team Tony

Team Tony cultivates, curates and shares Tony Robbins’ stories and core principles, to help others achieve an extraordinary life.

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