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“Grief sedated by orgasm, orgasm heightened by grief”: Beyoncé,

“Lemonade” and the new reality of infidelity

It’s time to change the way we talk about affairs

“Are you cheating on me?” Beyoncé asks in her visual album “Lemonade,” which premiered last weekend on HBO.

She throws open a door, and water gushes forth—an apt metaphor for the flood of emotions that her question, and its implied answer, unleashes.

"Grief sedated by orgasm, orgasm heightened by grief": Beyoncé, "Lemonade" and the new reality of infidelity 

EnlargeBeyoncé in “Lemonade

As a couples therapist, I’ve sat with hundreds of women, and men, in the turbulent aftermath of infidelity. For the past decade, I’ve been traveling the globe listening to tales of betrayal from every side. What struck me about Beyoncé’s album was both the universality of its themes and the unusual way in which it presented them. Whether autobiography or simply art, her multimedia treatise on unfaithful love represents a refreshing break with this country’s accepted narratives on the topic.

In the American backyard, adultery is sold with a mixture of condemnation and titillation. Magazine covers peddle smut while preaching sanctimony. While our society has become sexually open to the point of overflowing, when it comes to infidelity even the most liberal minds can remain intransigent. We may not be able to stop the fact that it happens, but we can all agree that it shouldn’t. (Why again?)

Another thing most Americans seem to agree on is that infidelity is among the worst things that can happen to a couple. The dialogue here is framed in terms borrowed from trauma, crime and religion: victims and perpetrators; injured parties and infidels; confession, repentance and redemption.

As a European, I can testify that in other cultures, the betrayal is no less painful, but the response is more philosophical and pragmatic. Americans do not cheat any less than the supposedly lascivious French; they just feel more guilty about it, because the experience here is framed in moral terms.

As Brazilian couples therapist Michele Scheinkman has pointed out, the notion of trauma provides a legitimizing framework for the pain of betrayal, but it limits the avenues for recovery.

This clinical approach denudes the pain of its romantic essence and its erotic energy—the very qualities that must be reignited if a relationship is to not only survive but thrive. Jealousy, rage, vengeance and lust are as central to the story as loss, pain and shattered trust—something European and Latin cultures will more readily admit than Americans. Infidelity is not just about broken contracts; it is about broken hearts.

These erotic aspects of the drama are unapologetically displayed in Beyoncé’s fierce performance. She does not present herself as victim, but as a woman invigorated and empowered by love.

She even voices one of the great unspoken truths about the aftermath of affairs: the hot sex that often ensues. “Grief sedated by orgasm,” she intones, “orgasm heightened by grief.” Perhaps most strikingly, she is unashamed to announce to the world that she intends to remain Mrs. Carter. “If we’re gonna heal, let it be glorious.”

Once upon a time, divorce carried all the shame. Today, choosing to stay when you can leave is the new shame.

That’s not to say we don’t do it—research indicates that most couples will stay together after an infidelity—but we do it stoically and silently. Betrayed women only get to sing songs of rage and retribution and wield baseball bats after they’ve walked out the door.

Politicians’ wives stand mute beside their contrite husbands at press conferences, and they are judged for doing so. From nationally televised presidential debates to the privacy of the voting booth, Hillary Clinton continues to be held in contempt of the court of public opinion for choosing to stay when she was free to go. (She was No Bill President, and Not that gorgeous to blame him)

There’s no question that the cultural conversation surrounding affairs reinforces some of America’s most deeply held values: love, honesty, commitment and responsibility—values that have been the cornerstones of our society.

But the intensity of the reactions that the topic provokes can also generate narrowness, hypocrisy and hasty responses. The dilemmas of love and desire don’t always yield to simple answers of black and white, good and bad, victim and perpetrator.


adonis49

adonis49

adonis49

July 2021
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