esther calling

‘Why Does Part of Me Want to Cheat?’

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voice-mail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

The Message

I’d like to talk about intrusive thoughts in a relationship. I’ve been in a relationship for over two years now, and this person is amazing. He’s superromantic, funny, really smart, and I truly love this person. However, I am constantly dealing with this internal voice in my head that tells me I should cheat on him. It’s really, really getting hard to ignore the voice or to shut it up. I’ve never acted on this — it’s just an intrusive thought that pops up every month or so. I guess my question is, Will this internal voice ever shut up, or do I have to live with it throughout the life of this relationship?

The Call

Esther Perel: What led you to send in your question?
Caller: I’ve been trying to talk about this with someone for a couple years now.

Someone as a therapist?
A therapist and then also friends and family.

Mm-hmm. So I listened to your question. Have you had other boyfriends before?

And what happened to the battery pack?
I’ve had two serious relationships, but they were in my early 20s. Then I had a five-year gap after I went through a sexual assault. I took a few years to really focus on myself. I wasn’t dating — none of that. A few years ago, I started dating again. This is my third boyfriend.

Is this the first time that you grapple with thoughts in your head — fantasies, intrusive thoughts, as you’ve called them — or is it something that you are more familiar with?
It’s definitely the first time where it’s been so constant. I feel like in my previous relationships, I was just dating people where it was nothing serious. Situationships and all that. These thoughts would come up here and there, but they would go away. In this relationship that I feel is very stable, very serious, it’s a constant thought that comes up in my head.

How would you call the voice if you gave it a name? Because you’re also saying that it’s been there from the beginning.
I would say, like, Evil Me.

Ooh, Evil Me. So if it’s that strong, give me a snapshot of what it says to you. How does it speak to you? What does it say? Does it whisper? Does it scream? Does it bang?
It talks to me in a way where it’s obviously wanting to convince me to cheat.

Why so obviously?
It’s just for me. It’s like, He’ll never find out, so just do it.

Do what? What exactly do you want her to do?
Hook up with other people or go on dates with other people.

Because she’s bored, because the sex is lousy, because she needs to prove something, because there’s a response, a reaction that has to do with the assault that she experienced? What’s your shtick? What’s your — what’s your purpose? Since the beginning, you’re trying to make a point: Evil Voice. So what’s the point you’re trying to make? What are you telling her?
That’s what I’m trying to understand. I don’t know. It’s not that I’m unhappy in this relationship. It’s not that the sex is lousy. I don’t know why it’s constantly in my head.

What do you say? I’m actually just trying to get a sense of your voice and how you speak. Are you kind? Are you mischievous? Are you trying to get her in trouble? Are you trying to tell her she can’t sustain a relationship? Are you trying to have her hurt a man after another seems to have hurt her?
I think this voice is mischievous. It’s something that I can easily get away with, so why not do it?

For what?
I don’t think I’m trying to hurt him.

You may not be trying to hurt him, but Evil Voice may.
I’ve never thought of it that way.

I know. I see it on your face. Because the voice doesn’t tell you, “Go and hurt him. Get your revenge.” It tries to do it in this playful way: “Because you can get away with it, why wouldn’t you?” Why would you? What are you meant to find — that it’s fun? That you’re capable? That you can get away with things? What’s the purpose? And I don’t ask you for an answer. I think we can spend some time with Evil Voice together. That’s the name, right?

Is it still the name? At any point, you can change the name. It’s you and me meeting that part of you and getting a sense as to what it is, why it’s there, what it wants for you or from you, and why it’s messing with you. Because it’s not even that you say, “I have fun fantasies. I fantasize about other guys.” Many do: I imagine what life would be like with somebody else, or sex would be like with somebody else, or who I would be with somebody else, or — but they’re interesting thoughts that I entertain. They don’t gnaw at me. This voice isn’t just a fun voice of fantasy. This voice is gnawing at you and relentlessly wanting you to go and do something and convincing you that you should want to. So when you say to me, “I never thought of it this way,” what do you mean? Never thought of what?
The real me, like — the non–Evil Voice me — I try to live life genuinely, as honest as possible, as happy as possible. So I never would have thought that a piece of me would want to hurt this person that I love so much. Like you said, it might not be specifically him; it’s just he’s in that place. So he happens to be the lucky one. But I don’t know — I feel like, logically, I would have been able to separate the two, you know?

But you haven’t. Allow yourself for a moment to really understand what Evil Voice is after. Why is it so angry? What is it angry about? And what is it looking for to restore something inside of you?
I don’t know if it’s angry?

Take your time. Stay with it. Because it’s so weird, right? How can I be so angry? How can a part of me want such revenge when I’m in the best relationship I’ve ever had? How is it that it’s coming up right now? It makes no sense — and yet it has a logic of its own.
I think it would tell me that men are objects, in a way, where I can just hook up with this person and this other person doesn’t need to know. It’s not emotion-driven. Or it might be angry at my past and I’m trying to get revenge, in a way, or to get even. Because it’s not like I’m emotionally attached to anyone in terms of like, Oh, I should hook up with this person. I don’t have any connection with them emotionally — like, none of that.

If they’re objects, then you don’t. If they’re replaceable objects, we do have a transactional relationship. Just to know that you can, maybe. An object that you just take and toss.
Yeah. From my time off of dating and trying to focus on myself and realizing what I truly want in life, I feel like I grew. I didn’t realize that it’s still in here, you know? Sorry.

No “sorry.” You’re being very courageous because this Evil Voice has tricked you. I mean, it’s so vague that all you know is that it’s relentless and you don’t know why it doesn’t stop. And suddenly we find a reason for why it’s there. It’s not just there because you can’t be faithful or because you have fantasies of other men — it’s there because it’s holding on to a piece of you that may have been somewhat resolved when there was no partner. But the very presence of this loving partner has reawakened the difference between feeling like a woman — loved, desired, cherished — and how much of an object you felt like. And I know nothing about the assault, but an assault is an assault. I’m not asking you to tell anything about it. But that feeling of being tossed, used, demeaned, degraded.
Yeah, it’s definitely coming out in this way. I definitely see it now. I’ve never felt like I needed to get revenge. I’ve never felt like I needed to get even. So it’s really interesting how it’s coming out like this right now, so late in my 20s.

It’s a part of you, Evil Voice, but that’s not all of you. You have another part of you that is so happy to be with him and to create something and build something together. It’s not this versus that. They live together. Different parts of you have different things that they’re working out. 

Go further a moment. When it says, “You can use them; you can fuck them” — and then what? I want to hear because you call it a voice, so it speaks to you. Can you imitate for me how it speaks to you? Does it have an accent? Does it have a particular timbre? How does it talk?
I’ll set the scene for you: Let’s say I’m at the gym, and one time I locked eyes with someone and my partner was states away. I was visiting family, and the voice was like, Just go for it. You know you want to. Just do it. He’s not gonna find out. Just cheat on him. It sort of talks to me in a way where it’s so obvious or just common sense — like, “Duh, might as well. The door’s open.” That’s what confuses me, because it doesn’t have a malicious voice or anything. It’s talking to me like it’s factual.

Do you remember the first time you met it? Or heard it?
It was in the beginning of the relationship, before we made anything official, so I was still dating other people. He was seeing other people. But I really started to like him. And then I remember the voice said, Just hook up with someone else. Like, I know you like this person, but just hook up with this other person that I was seeing.

So that … and then finish the sentence. Hook up with this other person so that
I guess so that I don’t get so attached to him.

Because if I get attached …
If I get attached, I’ll get hurt, like how I was hurt years ago. If I get attached, I make myself vulnerable to him, which I haven’t done in a while.

How much, if any, have you spoken with him about any of this? Or even about your experience?
None of it.

Does he know anything about the assault itself?
Yes, he does.

But just the facts, or what your experience has been?
I think the facts … I don’t think I’ve ever talked to him about how difficult it was for me, moving on.

And he’s never asked?

Would you want him to ask you?
I don’t think so. I think it’s because, before this call, I believed I’d moved on from this. So him asking me, I feel like …

But you may have … I want your definition of what you call “moved on.” That’s such an American expression. What do you imagine moving on looks like, feels like?
For me, moving on feels like I’m no longer crying myself to sleep. I can trust men again. I’m comfortable in my own skin. I’m happy — that’s a major one. I’m, like, really happy. And I realized what I truly want in men: Back then, I used to go for physically attractive. Now, for me, it’s deeper — someone that I can feel this mental and emotional connection with. Someone that respects me. I feel like I moved on from the old me, from the person that used to choose men that would take advantage of vulnerable girls.

And just out of curiosity — not because I think you should — how come you’ve never talked about any of that with him, if you can trust him? If you know how much he values and respects you? I’m not talking about Evil Voice. I’m talking about how one recovers from trauma, how one learns to feel beautiful again, desirable, loving, happy, not crying, not ashamed, trusting — all of those pieces that are part of overcoming a traumatic event like this.
I’ve never told him, because I never thought it was necessary to bring it up.

So you let Evil Voice do the talking?
I guess so. The logic for me is I told him the facts, what happened, how long ago — but not how long it took me to “move on” from that. I just didn’t think it was necessary to go into that dark hole and tell him.

Actually, it’s not the story of a dark hole. It’s the story of how you discover light again. And hope. And love. 

But can you imagine that, at the same time that you thought it’s not necessary, there may be a part of you that actually wonders how come he never asked?
Um … no.

Unless you made it so that he shouldn’t. You may put out a message, an aura that just says, “Don’t touch.” But there may be a part of you that may also have wanted him to say, “What has it been like for you to allow yourself to be with me, to trust again, to be touched, to be hugged?”
I’ve never questioned it, and I’ve never really wanted him to ask. So it’s never really been, like, an issue. I think I’ve always chalked it up to he never really asks for details; he takes things as they are.

He helps you not go back to the dark corner because he doesn’t ask. He takes things as they come. You present it as you do, and therefore he doesn’t push — and you find that very alleviating.
Yeah, in a way. When I finally told him, I think it was four months into our relationship. I felt relieved. Like, Okay, it’s over. I can breathe now. He knows my history and then now we can move on with this beautiful relationship.

Right. He knows an event in your history, and he knows very little about the woman who processed this event in order to arrive to another stage of her life. To know an event of someone’s history is not the same as to know the person. You get that. My mind is going in so many directions as I feel you through the screen, so to speak, you know, and it’s as if I’m Evil Voice. I have no idea if what I say fits you. So you tell me: Hot or cold? 

But there’s a part of me that imagines Evil Voice is trying to say, “Go. You can get away with it because he knows nothing. He doesn’t look at the details.”
He doesn’t ask. Wow. I think that’s why Evil Voice thinks it’s easy to get away with it. That’s why he would never know if I did it.

But I’m not sure that that’s what you really want, is that he never knows. There’s a hostility there, right? There’s hostility in that sentence of some sort. “I can do this, because, in any case, you don’t ask, so …” That’s how my Evil Voice translates yours.
That’s so true.

And when I say this, I experience a certain hostility. I’m mad when I say this. I’m not soft and sweet.
Yeah, like, Why doesn’t he ask?

How does that land on you? Because this is my twisted mind.
When you say that, like, I think on my relationship with him, and I’m always the one asking questions about his family, about his past, about his cousins, his friends. And he never really asks me questions about that. I just willingly share. I never thought that it bothered me. I always thought, Okay, cool. I just shared things with him, and he doesn’t question them. Nice!

And I’m not suggesting it does, but I have a feeling that Evil Voice minds.
I always took it as, He accepts me for what I’ve done and for what I’ve gone through.

That’s there, too. But he accepts me without knowing me. He accepts me, but there’s a little part inside of me that would like him to know who he’s accepting — that would like him, when I bring something up, to ask a question about it. Not to pry, not to be invasive, just to not leave me all alone with how much I say. “I notice that very often, I ask questions, and probably you don’t because you wanna respect that I say what I want and how much. But, in fact, I would love it if, on occasion, you asked me something, too. I feel deeply accepted, but sometimes I think that you don’t necessarily know who you are accepting.” 

I would be very curious to know, depending on how this conversation unfolds, what happens to Evil Voice. Evil Voice — I’m not even sure it’s the right name anymore.
What would you name it?

Ah, I am not the author of your voices. I don’t title them. You will come up with a different one. Because it has a purpose. The voice is trying to tell you something. It’s trying to make you look at something that you have not wanted to see. There is a piece of revenge. There is anger that stays. Understandably so. It doesn’t mean that you haven’t moved on. To the contrary, these things coexist. It’s not that one eradicates the other. It is trying to say this thing about “He doesn’t ask; you can do what you want — he will never notice,” which may not necessarily be what you like so much. So it keeps coming back all the time because it’s waiting for you to take action — not to take action by cheating on him necessarily. If you told me that — what you’re drawn to about other people, what you miss, the kind of experiences as a woman you’d like — then I would say, “Yes, this is about transgression and attractions and desires for others.” But I’m not hearing any of that.
Yeah, I’ve never acted on it. It wants to come out and show that it bothers me that he doesn’t ask questions. I called it an intrusive thought because I also let my intrusive thoughts win sometimes with him. Let’s say we’re at the grocery store and I put bread in the basket and then I get a heavy can of corn or something. I’ll throw it on top of the bread. In those instances, I let my intrusive thoughts win, just to get a reaction from him. A little giggle on the inside. I do those small things that really bother him but make me laugh, because it’s sort of the same thing where he doesn’t ask, “Why do you do this?” He’s just like, “Stop doing this.” It’s never “What makes you want to do this?”

Tell me how that sounds to you: “I love feeling accepted. I would love it even more if I felt more of your curiosity.”
I love that. I’ve never asked him about his curiosity — why it’s not there, why he doesn’t question things. He’s always accepted the hand he’s given.

And that’s a neutral statement that’s not critical. Very simply, “I am very curious, and I wish there was more curiosity from you. I welcome it. In case you wondered if I would react negatively, I welcome it. I experience it as interest, as care, as depth, as something to bounce off of. Otherwise, I end up having conversations with Evil Voice, because there’s a whole chunk of conversations that we don’t have.” If you’ve been together two and a half years, then hopefully the relationship is strong enough and it’s an invitation. It’s not a criticism.
Definitely. I think he would take that so well. He wouldn’t take it as criticism at all.

Does he know you’re here?
No. I’ve never thought of telling him about this because if I haven’t acted on it, if I haven’t cheated on him, then why worry him?

Oh, but that’s not why you’re here.
I know, I know. But I felt like I’ve never mentioned any of this to him because it’s my internal battle. But I didn’t realize that it’s originating from his lack of curiosity.

At least what you experience as such. You can tell him, “I want to take you on a little trip, inside of me, with you, that also takes place inside of you. It’s a trip we’ve never taken. It’s a conversation we’ve never had.” Then one day you’ll play it to him. And you’ll say something to the effect of “This is where I had the idea of having this little conversation, trip, with you. One day, in the middle of the week, I got on the phone with this woman and we started talking, and one thing led to another, and I realized.” I don’t know if this is the whole thing, but this is a place to start.
I guess my concern with starting this conversation with him is that, rather than being curious about the conversation and curious about how he can be more curious, I feel like he’s going to just accept …

Be defensive.
Either — yeah, either be defensive or just accept that these are my thoughts about him. And if I bring up the Evil Voice, and if I tell him that …

Not necessary.

No, and certainly not in the beginning. But you could imagine that you say to him, “Are you open?” And then you say, “Do you have any idea how to be more curious with me? Or do you feel like you understand what I’m saying, but you have no idea where to begin?” If it goes in that direction, then I could imagine you putting all over the house little pieces of paper with questions on them. So when he opens the cabinet for the coffee mug, he has a question. And when he goes to the bathroom, on the mirror is a question. And when he goes to the laundry, there’s a question. And it becomes a playful way of basically telling him 25 questions that you would love for him one day to ask or questions you have for him. Examples, expressions of curiosity. 

The Evil Voice, you don’t have to — that’s yours. You’re still trying to figure it out. We basically began to think of it differently from how you’ve thought of it for the last two years, and try to see, if it’s so relentless, constant, what’s it really wanting from you? What is it about? That is not a conversation with him. But one thing we know is that it is saying to you, I want him more curious. I want him to ask. I don’t want to just feel like I can live with somebody who will never notice. I want him to notice. There is power in the noticing — there is care; there is attention; there is love; there is energy. I want more of his noticing.

I call it curiosity because it’s a nice word to attach to it. That’s what you lead with when you go to talk to him.
Yep. I like that.

Okay, is this a good place to stop?
Yeah, definitely. Thank you so much.

Esther Perel: As the session ends, I am left perplexed. She talks about fantasizing affairs, but affairs are erotic plots. I don’t hear any of that in what she’s trying to figure out for herself. I hear a completely different train of thought that has way more to do with the consequences of assault than it has to do with erotic fantasies of other lovers. So I need to see her again. I feel the need to complete this conversation to see where it goes. 

So I invited her for a second session, and she accepted. Read the second part here.

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‘Why Does Part of Me Want to Cheat?’