Could I ignore a cheating partner?
That's what Carol Hunt wondered when she read a thought-provoking book on dangerous liaisons
'What kind of an adulterer are you?" No, no, don't turn the page in a panic; I'm not accusing you of anything. This was actually an intriguing headline I noticed in last weeks' UK Independent newspaper. It concerned a controversial book, just published by American author Mira Kirschenbaum, called When Good People Have Affairs.
On first glance it would seem that if ever there was proof we are living in an era which avoids personal responsibility for our less than savoury actions, this book is it. And no, it wasn't funded by the Clinton Foundation.
But a closer read shows an understanding and a humanity from Kirschenbaum, which is not contained in a brief response by another psychologist, Leila Collins. "Adulterers are neither good nor kind people," she said. "A good person who is unsatisfied in their relationship ends it before starting another one."
Yes, in theory that's all very well but in real life things don't tend to be quite so simple -- not a bad thing for all those couples (and their children) whose relationships have survived the trauma caused by the extra-marital affair.
Ms Kirschenbaum suggests that there are 17 basic reasons for infidelity. Yes, 17. And she doesn't even include the "I was drunk and somehow ended up in her bed, Your Honour" or "I felt like a shag and I knew I'd get away with it" excuses.
Kirschenbaum's 'reasons' include: "breaking out into selfhood", "sexual panic" and "mid-marriage crisis" among others. She writes: "For a long time there are forces in your life that have opposed you being yourself, expressing yourself. The affair is the best way you knew to stand up for who you are". Or "You weren't looking for it ... but you were in the wrong place at the wrong time". And "You've moved ahead in life but your spouse has stayed behind. Having an affair is being with someone you think better matches your circumstances". (This is one of the few reasons where Kirschenbaum suggests you have a think about divorce).
Matters of sexual passion, whether in or out of marriage tend to be complicated affairs (excuse the pun), but with 30 years as a sexual therapist under her belt Ms Kirschenbaum feels she has the authority to tell adulterers not to worry: you are still a good person even if you cheat on your partner and in most cases infidelity shouldn't mean the end of your marriage.
Discussing adultery openly is still a fairly new experience for the Irish. We may talk about our sexual practices with a nonchalance that is on a par with Sex and the City's Samantha Jones, but adultery is still considered a private matter and one which involves quite a bit of shame, both for the sinner and the sinned against.
In matters of adultery the $20 million question is: should a penitent adulterer confess their misdeeds in the interest of trust and honesty? Or should they keep their little secret and hope no one tells on them. Also, should you tell if you know your friend's wife/husband is having an affair? Or keep your mouth shut and hope it will blow over? And what if your friend discovers you knew all along? Oh dear, it's a minefield, isn't it?
So, what does the expert say?
Kirschenbaum is adamant that an adulterer must never confess -- not even if their partner asks them directly. "This is the one area in which the truth usually creates far more damage in the long run," she says.
A controversial opinion one must admit, as many people who discover that they have been cheated on say it wasn't the actual infidelity that hurt them but the lying that accompanied the betrayal. As Hillary Clinton said, "There are worse things than infidelity", and, by God, she should know!
Bill Clinton was impeached not for sexual misbehaviour in the Oval Office but for lying about it. And he continued to lie to Hillary until he knew the game was totally up. Was he just following the rules of adultery a la Kirschenbaum? Does that mean him saying "I did not have sex with that woman" was not an offence, but actually the duty of a caring husband?
Well, no. Because Kirschenbaum does say that there are two exceptions to the 'not telling' rule: "If you're having an affair and you haven't practised safe sex, you have to tell". (Cigars in strange places, stains on dresses? You may be reading this over breakfast so let's not go there).
"You also have to tell if discovery is imminent or likely". (Your wife reading about it in the newspapers may cover this).
But Kirschenbaum does make the valid point that if you care that much about honesty, rather than confessing all, you should "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".
Wise words. If we consider that statistics show somewhere between 50 and 70 per cent of married men cheat on their wives at some stage and between 30 and 50 per cent of women cheat on their husbands, it's obvious that there are many people who are happily ignorant of their partners extra-curricular activities. And even more perhaps, who may suspect adulterous behaviour but do not want it confirmed. Some have owned up to the fact that they are benefiting no one by remaining in an adulterous relationship, did what they believed was right and separated.
But many people have forgiven or ignored an affair by their partner and gone on to experience happy, fulfilled marriages. While reading Kirschenbaum's book the thought struck me: "Could I be one of those people?"
I've been with my present husband for 16 years, (Mother-of-God, is it that long?) would I know -- or want to know -- if he was (or had been) playing away? The opportunity to find out arose when he asked me what I was researching. t
"Adultery," I answered.
"Oh", (eyebrows rise). "Are you planning on having an affair?" he asked.
"No, but tell me ... " I fix him with my calmest 'whatever you say I'll understand and still love you' look: "Have you or would you ever consider having an affair?"
He gives me the rolled-eyed response that usually follows the question, "Do I look fat in this?"
"Only with Nicole Kidman, and we agreed that before we got married ... but I've sort of gone off her lately," he says turning back to the TV.
"But would you tell me the truth if you were?" I persist, perhaps unwisely.
"Oh for God's sake, I'm not, I never have and I think that's an inappropriate question, it suggests that there's a lack of trust between us."
The fact that I believe him is beside the point. If he's up to date on adulterous theory he'd know to deny everything, as Kirschenbaum advises.
But apart from anything else I don't believe -- or don't want to believe --that he would be stupid enough to risk throwing away our marriage on an affair.
Then again I'm not sure if I'd throw it away either, even if I discovered he'd had one.
Which I think is what Kirschenbaum is trying to say. She's not advocating adultery as a lifestyle. She's just making the point that people make mistakes -- even good people -- for all sorts of reasons, and it doesn't always have to end in divorce.
But that's just Kirschenbaum's opinion and if anyone thinks that this gives him or her leeway to behave badly I leave you with the following observation from a man who read her book: "I had an affair with my wife's sister. We enjoyed it very much until my wife found out. The affair cost me a broken jaw (my wife was in the Marines), a divorce and every penny I had then. Three years later I can proclaim with utter confidence that your (Kirschenbaum's) advice really sucks".
Don't say you weren't warned.