In her 30 years of counseling couples, Mira Kirshenbaum has discerned 17 reasons that people have extramarital affairs. In a near majority of couples, one partner will cheat on the other at some point. In her new book, When Good People Have Affairs: Inside the Hearts & Minds of People in Two Relationships (St. Martin's), Kirshenbaum explains the reasons and offers some helpful and sometimes surprising advice on how to manage the consequences. TIME senior reporter Andrea Sachs reached Kirshenbaum at her office in Boston:
TIME: Is there a pattern in the way that affairs begin?
Mira Kirshenbaum: People say, "I never meant for this to happen." They're being honest when they say that. Typically, they're in a committed relationship, but they aren't perfectly happy. No one who was perfectly happy in their primary relationship gets into a second one. They're a lot unhappy, or maybe just a little. Maybe they have no plans to cheat. And then the other person somehow floats onto their radar screen. The image that I have is like someone who has been wandering around with a couple of empty wine glasses who suddenly meets someone with a bottle of wine. And so they want a little taste. It starts very innocently. Very slowly they get to know each other. It's often an emotional affair to begin with. Maybe they have long conversations, whatever. However it happens, eventually they realize that they've crossed some sort of line. But they realize it after they've crossed it. And it feels wonderful because it was a line they were hungry to cross. But it also feels terrible because they know it's cheating, and they know they never wanted to be a cheater. But it keeps going. Think about it. If you don't want to divorce, and there are many reasons people don't for the children, for financial reasons, they don't want the stigma of a divorce this is a way people cope. They have the illusion that no one will know. If I get a divorce, it's a public act and everyone will know that my marriage failed, that I'm a failure. But if I have an affair, I'm able to pretend that everything's O.K. and no one will get hurt. So they find themselves involved in the two relationships and it looks as though it could work. And the guilt seems manageable. And they're not really thinking about the future. They feel like they've got this wonderful, wonderful present, and it seems to solve all their problems.
TIME: Can that last?
It never lasts. It can't. Being in two relationships is inherently unsustainable. It's like a house of cards. And the longer it keeps going, the more likely it is to come crashing down. And then the pressure mounts and the central structure is that three-way tug of war. The person who is cheating is just trying to keep everything stable, the same, not changing anything. The two other people, the lover and the spouse, are putting pressure on, if the spouse knows about it. If the spouse doesn't, she still is wanting more time, more fun. She puts pressure on anyway.
TIME: Do most people get caught?
Yes. Inevitably there are slip-ups. In the stories I hear, they find a gift in a pocket of a coat and they think it's for them and they're so excited, and then they never get the gift. I mean, it's just heartbreaking. So it all blows up eventually.
TIME: Should you confess if you feel guilty about it?
No. I've got to tell you that this is very, very important. I'm a person who is just an advocate of truth. I really will do anything to tell the truth, so it took me a long time to get to the point where I say, just don't tell. Because how does it make a person less guilty to inflict terrible pain on someone? Which is exactly what the confession does. It puts the other person in a permanent state of hurt and grief and loss of trust and an inability to feel safe, and it doesn't alleviate your guilt. Your relationship is dealt a potentially devastating blow. Honesty is great, but it's an abstract moral principle.... The higher moral principle, I believe, is not hurting people. And when you confess to having an affair, you are hurting someone more than you can ever imagine. So I tell people, 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. But confessing your affair is the kind of honesty that is unnecessarily destructive. There are two huge exceptions to not telling: if you're having an affair and you haven't practiced safe sex, even if it's only one time, you have to tell. Again, the moral principle is minimizing the hurt. But this time, the greatest risk of hurt comes from inflicting a sexually transmitted disease, and I've never seen a relationship recover from that. You also have to tell if discovery is imminent or likely. If you're going to be found out, then it's better for you to be the one to make the confession first.
Before I did this research, I really thought that affairs were fatal for relationships, but they're not. It all depends on how you deal with it, and that's why I have two sections in the book on how to repair and rebuild and heal the hurts. You need all of that. But if the person who has been cheated on has a talent for forgiveness and the cheater is truly sorry this is one of the surprising findings many, many people are able to use the affair as a wake-up call and end up so much happier with a relationship that gives them what they need, instead of just being on automatic and pretending that everything's O.K.
TIME: Do people who decide, during an affair, to leave their marriage often end up staying with the person they cheated with, or is that just a way of getting out of the relationship?
There are 17 reasons people have affairs, and you've just talked about one of them. I call it the Ejector Seat affair. People use the relationship as a way to get out of the marriage. That is a real reason. They're afraid to leave the marriage, and they're hoping that an affair will end things. Either the spouse will kick them out or the lover will give them the courage to quit.
TIME: Let's talk about some of the others. What is the 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 thought, then you're in a See-If affair.
TIME: What about the Heating Up Your Marriage affair?
This is subconscious for people. They don't actively say, "I'm going to go and heat up my marriage." But unconsciously they're hoping that either the affair itself or their spouse finding out about it will make things more passionate in the relationship.
TIME: Is that a good strategy?
Well, none of these are great strategies, but you have to assume that there's a hidden wisdom. People are coping. People are doing the best they can. There's something they're hungry for and they're not getting it in life. And an affair is a way for people to try to get what they're needing.
TIME: What about the I Just Needed to Indulge Myself affair?
Look, it may not be noble, but the fact is that some people work so hard and they really don't know how to take care of themselves and give to themselves. And an affair occurs to them as the best way they know how to give themselves some pleasure. You don't really think very highly of someone like that, but there are people like that.
TIME: I'm intrigued by the Let's Kill this Relationship and See if It Comes Back to Life affair. What is that?
This happens unconsciously also. The idea is that once an affair is discovered, it will deliver a blow that will either kill your relationship or make it stronger. And it often does. The sex becomes much more passionate for some people.
TIME: The Having Experiences I Missed Out On affair?
This is true for a lot of women who weren't in many relationships before they got married men as well [who] feel there are experiences that are important that they missed out on. And an affair is the best way they can think of to get those experiences.
TIME: Let's take the last one. How about a mid-marriage crisis affair?
Without time and attention, marriages get stale or feel full of problems. They're tired and frustrated with their marriages and not knowing what else to do. You have an affair. It's about the stage the marriage is in. And the way we live today. Everyday life is terrible for love. Love needs time, and time is the air love breathes, and people have no time. On the weekends, they're running around schlepping, doing all kinds of things. And where do you have the time you had when you were falling in love? It just doesn't exist for people anymore.
TIME: What do you say to someone who comes to you and says, "I can't choose; I don't know who to stay with"?
If you want to work with me, O.K., first accept the fact that your view of your lover and your spouse are both skewed. Things always seem great with the lover, it's always so romantic and sexy, special, sporadic and, most of all, new and exciting. But guess what? New gets old. I wish I had a nickel for everyone who married their lover and found they replicated what they had with their spouse, with the added poverty of a post-divorce lifestyle. And in the same way, spouses are usually not as bad as they seem. After all, the person who is cheating is withdrawing energy from their marriage and has alleviated their guilt by bad-mouthing or bad-thinking their spouse. But when people work on their marriage and put the lover by the wayside, they're often very surprised at how much things can improve. Another piece of advice I'd say is, lovers are often little more than the crowbar you needed to get out of your marriage, but you don't need to marry the crowbar. That's a mistake a lot of people make. They feel so guilty, they then marry the person they had the affair with.
TIME: Are you still optimistic about marriage after hearing so many bad stories?
Oh, sure. Just because people have problems doesn't mean they can't solve their problems. It's a terrible way to have to wake up, but I work with so many couples who've gone through all of the stages and come out the other end in a much better place than they ever were, especially if they don't tell. And the problem with telling is that you're then taking all of the time in therapy and in your life where you should be focusing on making the relationship the best it can be. You spend it just talking about the past. [But] no one can change the past.