Book Review: When Good People Have Affairs Part III

When Good People Have Affairs
By Mira Kirshenbaum

This is thethird installment of a 3-post review.

The Midlife-Crisis Affair

“There’s only one distinctive feature of the midlife-crisis affair: It happens because you realize that you’re aging, you’re eventually going to die, and it’s now or never.
It’s just not true that people have an affair as a kind of necessary accompaniment to a midlife crisis. But when people see themselves age and suddenly feel a kind of panic around the question “Is this all there is?” sometimes the best way they know how to deal with it is to have an affair.
…Being in a panic about aging is a kind of piñata, It’s not so much a thing in itself as a container for a variety of things. You need to figure out what your panic about aging really means, Fear of death? But why would you suddenly be so afraid of death? Fear of your powers being diminished?? Well, are your powers diminishing? And if so, why? Fear of losing your looks? Fear that you’re running out of time to get something you’ve always wanted, so you’ll probably not get it?
…It’s quite possible that you’re also having a break-out-into-selfhood affair or an unmet-needs affair. They are the most common affairs we think of as midlife-crisis affairs, except for the two I’m about to mention: the sexual-panic affair and the midmarriage-crisis affair.
And in case you’re wondering, if you are going through a midlife crisis and you haven’t had an affair, buy the sports car and skip the affair. It’s a lot cheaper. On so many levels. (p. 68-70)”

I agree with her ending advice—buy the sports car and skip the affair and I agree that her description of the selfhood and unmet-needs affairs fit common MLC affair profiles, but then why this additional label? I don’t understand the point.

How is she defining MLC? She seems stuck on Elliot Jacques initial ideas of MLC as reported in 1965 in which MLC was quite specifically about a fear of death and/or aging. But the idea of MLC has been refined and a fear of death or aging is not the only symptom and it is not a required symptom.

Her book is speaking directly to the betraying spouse, but an MLCer lacks awareness and avoids self-reflection. An MLCer lacks the insight to answer her questions about what the affair might mean for them or to recognize deep reasons for their fear and panic—instead they blame externally. The typical MLC affair is an emotionally-bonded affair—that means the partners think they are soul mates. In addition the affair partner is often an affair down, this may simply be due to that person also being in MLC and running away from self-reflection as well.

Children & Divorce

Kirshenbaum claims the work of Judith Wallerstein in The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce is flawed because a study sample needs a control group for comparison (p.170-171). Wallerstein had the sort of control group Kirshenbaum implied was missing and her conclusions were in line with Kirshenbaum’s argument. It is not universally true that children are better off in intact marriages rather than broken marriages. But it is true for more than it is not true. Children from low-conflict marriages are better off if their parents remain married, but children in high-conflict marriages benefit more from divorce. Approximately two-thirds of divorces in the United States are among low-conflict spouses. (Paul R. Amato and Alan Booth, 2001. “Parental Predivorce Relations and Offspring Postdivorce Well-Being,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 63(1): 197ff.)


In her admirable effort to be nonjudgmental and earn the trust of the betrayed spouse, Kirshenbaum diminishes the damage and pain of an affair by calling it a mistake, but not yet a disaster. She says a person can turn it into a disaster if they make it a bigger deal than it is (p. 53). Kirshenbaum is addressing the betraying spouse, not the betrayed, but how does she feel about the betraying spouse? Are they also not to make a big deal out of it? Speaking as a formerly betrayed spouse, it’s a big deal and if my husband had dismissed it as not a big deal, that would have been disrespectful, dismissive of my feelings and to me it would have shown a lack of empathy as well as a lack of insight regarding his actions. Does Kirshenbaum think it is only not a big deal while it remains undisclosed?

The good intentions and occasional good advice and information are not enough to overcome the dangerous flaws in the book. Kirshenbaum promotes and encourages avoidance. Don’t confess because it will cause your spouse pain. Don’t feel shame and guilt because it will cause you pain. She is so focused on intentions—I’m good because my intentions are good—that she glosses over the damage caused by those good intentions—since thinking about the damage would hurt and hurt does no good. Pain is not always bad. As Buddha said, all life is suffering. It is through adversity that we become stronger and shape our character.

Series NavigationBook Review: When Good People Have Affairs Part II


Book Review: When Good People Have Affairs Part III9 Comments

  1. Thank-you RCR for the really interesting writing, refreshing perspective, and informativeness of this article. Always much appreciated.

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