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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

When Good People Have Affairs

Remember Paul Simon's song "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover"?: "Just hop on the bus, Gus. Don't need to discuss much. Just drop off the key, Lee, and get yourself free."

Well, there's a new book out that bumps that up a notch. A Boston therapist, Mira Kirshenbaum, has written a book which attempts to explain why it is that people enter into adultery.

I recently picked up a copy of "When Good People Have Affairs: Inside the Hearts and Minds of People Who Have Two Relationships,". I live on a street known as "The Peyton Place of Chatham". My home and front yard seem to have developed into "the neighborhood confessional," and I'm known as a "safe person" to whom people can dump their anxieties and concerns as opposed to engaging in "gossip."

Kirshenbaum writes pragmatically, and without judgment, about the 17 reasons people cheat. She argues that these reasons are not always selfish or immoral.

I don't know whether I'm appalled or amused, fascinated or horrified or all of the above.

Kirshenbaum not only maintains that divorce may not be such a bad thing in certain circumstances (and here, my experience teaches me that she's not all wrong on this), she also advises husbands or wives who have affairs not to go home and own up, because discovery of the truth can cause more damage than concealment (I hate to agree with her but in some situations I've often wondered the same thing.)

I wish to point out that no where in the book is it even suggested that same sex marriage is the reason for the collapse of heterosexual marriage. Neither does she blame the example of "the gay lifestyle" (whatever the heck that is) as the paradigm for adultery. Imagine that!

So, what are those 17 reasons for two-timing your spouse? Andy McSmith, has written an article in The Independent UK which reviews the book. This is his summary. I couldn't have done it better.

Break out into selfhood

Kirshenbaum writes: "For a long time there are forces in your life that have opposed your being yourself, expressing yourself.

The affair is the best way you knew how to stand up for who you are." Virginia Woolf's husband, Leonard Woolf, is reckoned to have been more of a guardian than a lover. She broke out into a torrid affair with Vita Sackville-West, on whom she based the novel Orlando.


Kirshenbaum writes: "You weren't looking for it ... but you were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Vivienne Haigh-Wood married the poet T S Eliot weeks after they met. He later confessed: "To her, the marriage brought no happiness. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land." But she does not seem to have intended to betray him quite so soon. It was just that Bertrand Russell happened to drop by.

Sexual panic

Kirshenbaum writes: "You feel your sexual powers are waning and in a kind of panic, you have an affair to prove you're still as sexually able as you were." The career of John Prescott was, outwardly, a story of success, the former ship's waiter who rose to be Deputy Prime Minister, but he never got over his sense of inferiority. In his sixties, he seduced Tracey Temple, a civil servant 26 years his junior.

Let's kill this relationship (and see if it comes back to life)

Kirshenbaum writes: "The idea is that once an affair is discovered it will deliver a blow that will either kill your relationship or make it stronger."

No sooner had Napoleon Bonaparte married Josephine than he was off to war, when rumours surfaced that she was having an affair. When he returned to France, she never cheated on him again.

Mid-marriage crisis

Kirshenbaum writes: "Without time and attention marriages get stale or feel full of problems, so ... you have an affair."

David and Victoria Beckham have done well to stay together. Plenty of women would not mind a turn with the footballer, and one or two claim to have had that experience. "No one said marriage was going to be easy," Victoria admitted.

Trading up

Kirshenbaum writes: "You've moved ahead in life but your spouse has stayed behind. Having an affair is your way of being with someone you think better matches your circumstances."

Horatio Nelson was an unknown young seaman when he met and married the widow, Frances Nisbet, who already had a son. Eleven years later, in 1798, he was a national hero, after winning the Battle of the Nile, and took up with Lady Emma Hamilton. Their affair was a national scandal, and the birth of their child had to be kept secret.

Heating up your marriage

Kirshenbaum writes: "Unconsciously, you're hoping that the affair itself or your spouse finding out about it will make things more passionate..." In 1907, President Woodrow Wilson's wife, Ellen, was suffering depression when Wilson met Mary Hulbert. Whether they had an affair is disputed, but the friendship caused Ellen pain. He introduced her to Ellen; the women shopped together, and the marriage revived.

I just needed to indulge myself

Kirshenbaum writes: "It may not be noble, but the fact is that you've been working so hard that an affair is the best way you know how to give yourself some pleasure."

Poor Monica Lewinsky is fated to be remembered for the rest of her life for the misjudgement she made at 21, as an intern in the White House, by allowing herself to be the latest in the line of women to reward Bill Clinton for all his hard work. "He talked about it as though I had laid it all out there for the taking. I was the buffet and he just couldn't resist the dessert," she said in her book on the affair, ghosted by Andrew Morton.

Ejector seat

Kirshenbaum writes: "You want out of your marriage but you're afraid to just quit, so you're hoping that an affair will end things for you - either your spouse will kick you out or your lover will give you the courage to quit."

"There were three of us in this marriage," Diana , Princess of Wales, complained. Indeed there were. Prince Charles seems to have her married out of a sense of duty rather than love. A telephone conversation with Camilla Parker Bowles, as she then was, was taped and broadcast, no one knows who by. "The trouble is I need you several times a week ... Oh. God, I'll just live inside your trousers or something. It would be much easier!" he proclaimed.

See if

Kirshenbaum writes: "You're in a see-if affair if your motive is to see if what you've been missing in your marriage can be gotten with someone else and, if so, does it make as much of a difference as you'd thought."

When Ryan Phillippe appeared opposite Abbie Cornish in Stop-Loss, this year's blockbuster about the Iraq war, their professional association blossomed into romance, causing the gossip writers to observe that she looked exactly like a younger version of Reese Witherspoon, Phillippe's estranged wife. Their marriage has ended. He is certainly not the only man to find solace in a woman who looks like his first love.


Kirshenbaum writes: "Things are hard, frustrating, confusing in your life, and an affair is a way to distract yourself from all these difficulties by creating a kind of oasis of romance."

David Lloyd George was a great one for creating oases of romance after he left his simpler life behind in Walesto enter the world of high politics. His greatest love was Frances Stevenson, "my darling pussy", who became his second wife.

Surrogate therapy

Kirshenbaum writes: "You need help of some sort - maybe boosting your self-esteem - and an affair is your way of getting it."

The Austrian writer Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch had an unexciting marriage which did not suit his unusual emotional needs, so he signed a contract with his mistress Fanny Pistor Bogdanoff, making him her slave for six months, on conditions that she wore fur as often as possible particularly when she was of a mind to wield the whip. Hence the term "masochist".

Do I still have it?

Kirshenbaum writes: "You are getting older, your marriage is stale, and you wonder if you still can attract someone, get them to fall in love with you, and carry on a passionate affair."

Pablo Picasso married Olga Khokhlova in 1918, and was legally still married to her when she died in 1955, but did not let that cramp his style. He also had two children by Françoise Gilot, who left him in 1953, when he was 71. His drawings show that he now feared he had become a hideous old man, yet he managed an affair with 24-year-old Geneviève Laporte, who, in old age, made a fortune from the pictures he drew of her.

Having experiences I missed out on

Kirshenbaum writes: "You weren't in many relationships before you got married and now you feel there are experiences that are important to you that you missed out on ..."

In 1984, the newly elected Tory MP Edwina Currie, began an affair with John Major, then a party whip. It lasted for four years. They were both married. "Politicians admire the element of the devious in each other," Currie explained.


Kirshenbaum writes: "You're furious at your spouse for some way he or she hurt you, and you're having an affair as a way to get back, even if your spouse never learns about the affair."

Being abandoned by her husband, King Edward II, during a campaign against Robert the Bruce was bad enough - Queen Isabella, daughter of the King of France, narrowly missed being a prisoner of the Scots - but what she really could not stand was his homosexual lovers. So she took up with Roger Mortimer, raised an army, and overthrew the king.

Mid-life crisis

Kirshenbaum writes: "These are rare because true mid-life crises are rare. What people think of as this can be explained by one of the others, such as the surrogate therapy or the mid-marriage-crisis affair."

John Profumo was 25 when he was elected to Parliament, and was the youngest of the Conservative MPs who brought down Neville Chamberlain. But by 46, he was still only a middle ranking minister when he and his wife met Christine Keeler, then 20. After a few torrid weeks, he ended their affair. Unfortunately, for him, she could not keep a secret.

Unmet needs

Kirshenbaum writes: "Whatever it is you need, you're not getting it from your partner. An affair is your way of getting those needs met."

Catherine the Great was an innocent German princess when she was sent to Russia to marry Grand Duke Peter, heir to the throne. He was a disaster as a husband, and as a tsar. She loved sex and needed to produce an heir. Having had Peter murdered, she took uncounted lovers, the most famous of whom was Grigori Potemkin, reputedly endowed with more than just a first-class brain.


Paul Davison said...

My wife and I have often been amused by the idea that someone else's same sex marriage would threaten ours. When we hear such a claim on the news, our usual response is to look at each other and say (sarcasticcally), "I feel SO much more threatened now, don't you?"

Shaykh Rattle 'n' Roll said...

Granted, Mira is a therapist, but her motivations for writing such a book are suspect. What underlying idea is she expressing? Which idea ties her together with her readership, and possibly to the wider society?

I'm sure we've all heard people say "I'll try anything once", or that they want to "find themselves", "express themselves", or that they’re "just having a laugh". A marriage - a binding relationship between two people - surely is a detriment to that desire to be free. It limits the couple to a commitment, to only having sex with their husband or wife. Their expression and exploration is confined, leading to the phrases "ball and chain" and "settling down", or even "trapped" when referring to marriage. The last minute drunken visits to the stripper on a stag night make a lot of sense when a freedom-loving individual is facing the condemnation of a lifetime of responsibility and restriction.

Mira, on the other hand, is giving them a way to do what they feel they must, and to fulfill that urge. Of course she says it is good - it ties into her raison d’être.

Anonymous said...

Having 'cheated' on my partner before with a escort girl, (a blow job) and passionately kissed a girl, I have taught myself a very hard lesson when it comes to the disrespect and sheer guilt I have experienced in the last year. On a personal level I am comforted by Miras book. WHile I have not had sexual intercourse with anyone, I feel my act is a form of cheating and I wholly regret what I have done. I know full well I cannot tell my fiance. It would hurt her too much. I love her and the two offs have made me realize just how much. I will never 'cheat again'. I dont want to.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well done. Sometimes, guilt is not a bad emotion. It helps us to know when something is wrong. Sometimes that's within us. Sometimes not. Always good to explore.

Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

Not telling your fiancé is unfair because in essence you are making a decision for her. She needs to know what's on the table for her to make an informed decision of whether or not to move on with the relationship don't you think?

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Please leave your name when you leave a comment. Thanks.

To respond to your post - I'm not sure if you are right. Ideally, I'd say 'yes' but not everything in life is ideal. Not for me to judge.

Anonymous said...

nice analysis,

I have seen that sometimes an affair is cry of the isolated person in a couple where other one is making all decisions.

Anonymous said...

I am having an affair. I have been doing so for 6 months. This is my second affair, my first was 9 years ago and the entire world found out, or it felt like it. My marriage was saved, we had another child and things have been fairly good since then, we have had struggles, but continue on. Recently, I got an email from a person that I was once emphatuated with, but never acted on. This person told me the same. That is how it started. Now, 6 months later we fight like a real couple and have an incredible passion for each other, but I know that one of these relationships needs to end soon. I am an emotional wreck and can feel my life spinning out of control. I just don't know what to do next. I am obsessed with wanting to be wanted and told I am beautiful and sexy. This affair started out as a long distance affair, but now relocation has brought us within an hour of each other. No one knows about this affair. I need help to figure out where to go from here and stop hurting the ones I love.

Jeanne McIsaac said...

The longer it goes on the more it will hurt in the end