Terence Blacker: Yes, good people do indeed have affairs

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The Independent Online

With impeccable timing, a book which explains and excuses infidelity has just been published. Traditionally, early summer is a happy, anguished time for adulterers, seasonal erotic restlessness coinciding with the availability of longer, warmer daylight hours for illicit walks and picnics. Over the past few days, conversation among these unofficial lovers may have turned to Mira Kirshenbaum's new book, When Good People Have Affairs.

Kirshenbaum believes that there are 17 basic reasons for infidelity, ranging from "mid-marriage crisis" and "unmet needs" to the rather less convincing "accidental". Her argument prompted this newspaper to run a feature headlined: "What kind of adulterer are you?" It seemed faintly presumptuous, but I suspect that fewer people than one might imagine will have huffily turned the page at the implication contained in the question.

According to the new book, 47 per cent of married men are likely to be unfaithful and 35 per cent of women, but these figures may be on the modest side. A few years ago, when Edwina Currie first went public about her affair with John Major, I wrote about the issues raised and was surprised by the response of readers.

The usual gang of public moralists had delivered predictable verdicts on the affair, apportioning blame with the subtlety of a Victorian Penny Dreadful.

The case was straightforward, apparently: there was the ruthless mistress, the weak, easily tempted husband and victim-wife. In fact, I suggested, none of these people could possibly know the truth of what had happened in the marriage, why the affair took place and what its effect, bad or good, might have been. Sometimes, affairs were genuinely tragic, and those caught up were often selfless in their love. Matters of passion and affection tended to be complicated.

The reaction was interesting. I received quite a few messages, most of them rather sad, from people caught up in affairs. Many readers, it turned out, were living double lives and it seemed that very few of them had been unfaithful for the reason not included in Kirshenbaum's 17: "I was feeling randy and thought I could get away with it".

Yet, whenever affairs involving public figures have been revealed in the past, whether involving Edwina Currie, David Beckham, Prince Charles or John Prescott, they are treated as subjects of ridicule, contempt or humour. Satirists, comedians and journalists – not a professional grouping known for high personal standards of morality – move into bullying mode, adding to the misery and humiliation of those involved by treating them as if they were involved in some sort of ghastly bedroom farce from the West End stage.

There are probably a few affairs that have the plot-line of a Carry On film, but not many. Most involve people who are feeling unhappy in some way, unfulfilled, in a muddle. Yet the reaction given to Mira Kirshenbaum's book reveals that even those who have been exposed to moral complexity are unsympathetic. "Adulterers are neither kind nor good people," said a psychologist. "A good person who is unsatisfied in their relationship ends it before starting a new one."

So simple, so stupid. The new book's title is right: good people do have affairs. Its claim that now and then an affair can help, or even save, a marriage is sensible. When the next great public adultery scandal breaks, it is worth asking from where the fierce moral certainties of the rent-a-gob moralists derives. Could it possibly be that they have something to hide?

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