Therapist is under fire for saying that cheating on your spouse can be more of a blessing than a sin
Amelia Hill, social affairs correspondent
Sunday June 8, 2008
A controversial self-help book for married philanderers claims most adulterers are good, kind people. It says affairs can help a marriage and that those who stray should never admit it because the truth can cause even more damage.
'Cheating on your spouse isn't a moral act, but most men and woman who have affairs are good people who made a mistake,' said Mira Kirshenbaum, author of When Good People Have Affairs, published this week. 'They never thought it would happen to them but, suddenly, they're in this complicated, dangerous situation. We all agree that infidelity is a mistake. But once you've crossed the line, what then?'
Kirshenbaum has been criticised by her peers for saying cheats deserve sympathy and understanding. 'Adulterers are neither kind nor good people, so what sort of sympathy are we supposed to give them?', said Leila Collins, a psychologist who has given relationship counselling for 15 years. 'A good person doesn't betray their loved ones. A good person who is unsatisfied in their relationship ends it before starting a new one.'
Kirshenbaum, clinical director of the Chestnut Hill Institute, a centre for relationship therapy and research in Boston, Massachusetts, admits that infidelity is a controversial topic to address sympathetically. 'But these people are suffering terribly and need to be relieved of their sense of guilt and shame because those emotions are paralysing,' she said.
Those who have affairs are seeking real happiness and love in their lives, believes Kirshenbaum, who has been treating couples and individuals for 30 years and has written 10 books on relationships. 'Until now, the story of these men and women has never been told,' she said. 'Shame and fear have kept it in the closet and so they haven't had the understanding that might save them from ruining the lives of everyone involved.'
She believes that society's refusal to have a sympathetic discussion of infidelity has meant that the positive sides of betraying a spouse have been ignored. 'Sometimes an affair can be the best way for the person who has been unfaithful to get the information and impetus to change,' she said. 'I'm not encouraging affairs, but underlying the complicated mess is a kind of deep and delicate wisdom. It's an insight that something isn't working and needs to change.'
Her views reflect the plotline of Adrian Lyne's 2002 film, Unfaithful, in which Richard Gere's love for his wife, Diane Lane, is rekindled by her affair with a younger man, Olivier Martinez. 'If handled right, an affair can be therapeutic, give clarity and jolt people from their inertia,' she said. 'You could think of it as a radical but necessary medical procedure. If your marriage is in cardiac arrest, an affair can be a defibrillator.'
Kirshenbaum believes there are 17 reasons why people have affairs, including the see-if affair, the distraction affair and the sexual-panic affair. To help people decide whether their infidelity should spell the end of their marriage, she lists a few that she believes do indicate the relationship is over - and those that do not. 'You should stay with your partner if your affair is a heating-up-your-marriage affair, let's-kill-this-relationship-and-see-if-it-comes-back-to-life affair, do-I-still-have-it affair, accidental affair, revenge affair or midlife-crisis affair,' said Kirshenbaum.
'But you need to think carefully about whether to stay with your primary partner if your affair is of the following kinds: the break-out-into-selfhood affair, unmet-need affair, having-experiences-I-missed-out-on affair, surrogate-therapy affair, ejector-seat affair,' she said.
Kirshenbaum is adamant that an adulterer must never confess - not even if their partner asks directly. 'This is the one area in which the truth usually creates far more damage in the long run,' she said. 'A lot of people confess because they feel they just have to be honest. Well, honesty is great. But it's a very abstract moral principle. A much more concrete, and much higher, moral principle is not hurting people. And when you confess to having an affair, you are hurting someone. If you care that much about honesty, figure out who you want to be with, commit to that relationship and devote the rest of your life to making it the most honest relationship you can,' she said.
There are two huge exceptions to not telling. 'If you're having an affair and you haven't practised safe sex, you have to tell,' she said. 'You also have to tell if discovery is imminent or likely. If it's clear that you're going to be found out, it's better for you to make the confession first.'
Another reason for not telling is that it makes it far more difficult for a remorseful adulterer to return to the fold. 'If your partner will find out about your affair, your whole future happiness together depends on whether he's basically vengeful or basically merciful,' she said.
Kirshenbaum's opinion on what constitutes a happy ending is also controversial. Divorce, she believes, can be the path to a bright future. 'Sometimes - many times, in fact - divorce is worth it,' she said. 'It plays an important function. It gets us out of misery-making marriages and we have a chance of finding happiness somewhere else.'