Love and marriage

>> Thursday, June 25, 2009

Over at Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams has a somewhat sympathetic piece about Governor Mark Sanford's affair-of-the-heart. Ms. Williams writes:

There's no doubt that Mark Sanford, like Eliot Spitzer, John Ensign, John Edwards and a host of his political comrades before him, betrayed his vows to his wife and his duties to his people. What he did was stupid and selfish and hypocritical and weird and humiliating to his wife.

But somewhere in all of the schadenfreude, there's still a story of a man who fell into "impossible love" with another married person, a devout Christian who could awkwardly rhapsodize about his lover's "magnificently gentle kisses... the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light."

The thing of it is, there's a problem here, and it's not something motivated by schadenfreude: the problem is that you can't have it both ways; that is, you can't go around being a sanctimonious prig about things like love and marriage and then expect everybody to be forgiving when it turns out you were human after all and you weren't really any better than anybody else. The problem isn't that Mark Sanford fell in love with someone who wasn't his wife, the problem is that before he fell in love with another woman, he wasn't inclined to give anybody else any slack, and that he probably still doesn't really get that the simplistic, conservative family values he's spent his life espousing are really a pretty crappy guide to the complexities of human behavior.

I'm not convinced, myself, that human beings are wired for lifelong monogamy. Serial monogamy, maybe. But it really doesn't matter all that much what I think about that point: maybe lifelong same-sex monogamy works for one couple and a succession of short heterosexual marriages works for others and maybe an open polyamorous relationship works for yet another clutch of people and maybe some people are just better off alone. Polyandry, polygamy, promiscuity, fidelity, heterosexuality, homosexuality, formal, informal, legally registered, common law--it's generally not going to be my business if I'm not one of the participants.

So I don't have a problem with Mark Sanford being married and having a "traditional" family with one woman and a passionate, erotic relationship with another woman if everyone involved is okay with that. But clearly Jenny Sanford wasn't okay with it, and maybe more relevant to this post, Mark Sanford wasn't okay with it, either. I mean, it wasn't my rules and my standards that he violated, it was all his standards and rules and self-proclaimed truths, the same ones he condemned others for violating (e.g. calling on William Clinton to resign for--wait for it--having an affair and lying about it).

I wish we lived in a country where a politician could openly have an open marriage if he, his wife and his Argentinian mistress all consented. The reason we don't live in such a country is largely because of people like Sanford, people who judge others by standards they can't keep to themselves. I'm willing to cut Sanford slack for falling in love, I couldn't care less, actually. But I'm not willing to cut him slack for having to lie down in the proverbial bed he made: it would be bad enough that he lied to his aides and his aides passed the lie along to the state he was responsible for, but the even-worse fact is that Sanford had to lie because of a political and cultural climate he has spent much of his life helping create, a repressive, heartless, dysfunctional climate that chains human emotions to legal and religious relics from the Stone Age.

Maybe that's something Mr. Sanford should have thought about before he wrecked his own damn life and his wife's, left his state's citizens in jeopardy, and generally made a complete jackass of himself in front of his entire country.


Random Michelle K Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 10:22:00 PM EDT  

I'm not convinced, myself, that human beings are wired for lifelong monogamy.

Nah. I believe in falling in love for life.

Thing is, many people confuse lust and love and think that a life long relationship should be easy, and when things get tough, they bail.

I sometimes wonder if some cultures with arranged marriages don't have something we're missing: your family finds someone with whom they think you are compatible, and you then learn to love each other and make your life long relationship work.

It seems to me that attitude is a lot healthier than the twoo wuv stars-in-the-eyes prince charming sweeping cinderella off her feet love that most people in their teens and twenties seem to expect.

Doesn't mean some marriages don't fail (and fail spectacularly) and shouldn't be dissolved. But I think as a culture our expectations of marriage are out of line with the reality of being in love.

Random Michelle K Thursday, June 25, 2009 at 10:23:00 PM EDT  

Oh, I agreed with everything else, but me too seemed boring.

John the Scientist Friday, June 26, 2009 at 8:57:00 AM EDT  

I'm with Michelle. And the ethics are not Stone Age. They evolved since the Stone Age, and they evolved for a reason - to raise healthier children. That is the reason for humans pairing up, all else is bleed-over into other circuits in the brain.

Because of technology, we can somewhat change the ethics involved, but back when Syphilis was a death sentence and there was not enough resource to go around giving Child Welfare Services to to every bastard kid abandoned by a shithead father, these morals were what kept society together.

People as recently as 100 years ago, except in the upper classes*, could not afford to confuse love and lust.

And if, in a shit-hit-the-fan world, if Peak Oil Energy shortages or nuclear war, or some other disaster, suddenly birth control and anti-biotics are not widely available, you're going to find that the people who really believe in Sanford's world view will be best adapted to survive.

(And it's a truism that the people who get up on stage espousing that view are usually charlatans, because they forget all about the stuff in the Good Book about humility, so no politician or TV preacher is likely to actually believe what he's saying)

Don't dismiss all ancient moral codes so easily, at least some of them are responsible for us being in a technologically advanced enough society where we can thumb our nose at them.

*And even they had issues. Would Lenin have been as much of a bastard, and lead the way for Stalin, if he'd not had syphilis?

Eric Friday, June 26, 2009 at 10:36:00 AM EDT  

John, the fact that some ways of structuring society or circumscribing individuals' lives was useful 500 or 1000 or 5,000 or 10,000 years ago doesn't really say much as to whether those values are worth keeping now.

(Nor does their former utility address whether those values were "good" in a non-utilitarian sense; one might appreciate, for example, that stoning religious outsiders to death is a useful way to preserve social cohesion in a tribe that is utterly horrifying from a empathic perspective. There are other social customs--including marital customs--that were enlightened once and seem repressive now. E.g. Islam, which is widely regarded in the West as being oppressive to contemporary women, was undeniably an improvement in the treatment of women during Mohammed's era, and marked a revolutionary, progressive step in guaranteeing women property rights and relatively equitable treatment in marriage. Times change.)

I would have to agree, John, that should an event like a nuclear war reduce humanity to a Stone Age-like existence, people who cling to Stone Age values or lifestyles would have an easier time adjusting, although I suspect that's not what you meant to argue. Social technologies aren't any different from other technologies, by the way: post-apocalypse, people who still own oxcarts are likely to be in a better survival position, too. I don't think recognizing that "traditional" modes of marriage may be an obsolete solution to an obsolete problem is necessarily more radical than recognizing that oxcarts have been rendered obsolete in much of the world by motorized tractors and trucks; nor do I think much of an argument that oxcarts ought to be cherished because a global collapse will restore the oxcart to its forgotten glory.

One has to wonder if a value that so few can adhere to is worth preserving as a social value or forcing down the larger population's throat. Had Sanford and those who share his worldview simply made their values a matter of personal preference and refused to condemn those who don't share that preference, his failings would be merely personal ones and truly between himself, his family, his mistress, and perhaps his deity. I have no more problem with a person deciding to have a "traditional" marriage between a man and woman 'til death-do-them-part than I do with a person deciding to have a different kind of marriage--it really shouldn't be any of my business, and if Sanford hadn't made the personal political, it wouldn't be. Since he did, I have no problem pointing out that Mark Sanford is clear proof that the values he himself espouses aren't for everyone--they're not even for him.

John the Scientist Friday, June 26, 2009 at 11:49:00 AM EDT  

But those social values also held society together in era much closer to our own - Salvarsan initiated the current age of sexual freedom, discovered in

You have to reach back really far to find the stoning argument. Society got more tolerant. A global collapse will not return to the oxcart - but it may return us to the era of steam. But even 100 years ago, at the end of that era people who could not keep their hands to themselves were socially shunned, and I myself avoid people who've done things I don't agree with. I would not hire a known adulterer to be on my team, were I a team leader. I don't think that's going too far. The military actually court martials people who cheat with the wives of other service members.

On the flip side of your argument, just because we can discard something does not mean we should. And we certainly diverge on our worldview in that something that is hard for people to do should be discarded. Like teenage sex, just because they do it, doesn't mean I have to condone it, and if I do condone it, they'll do it more and on average more negative consequences will result, even if some given individual comes out with no harm.

Just because people fail does not mean something's not a goal worth shooting for. It's not about any individual's path, it's about average rates and how many broken families can society absorb before it begins to degrade. I can't answer that because the feedback loop is far too slow, but I see the difference in my kid's class between those from broken homes, and those with stable parents.

These essays sort of get at what I'm talking about.

Eric Friday, June 26, 2009 at 12:44:00 PM EDT  

John, there are several problems with the case you're trying to make.

First, I'm certainly not arguing that certain social mores may have had value in the past. I am arguing that some mores are functionally like a booster stage on a missile--useful in getting to a certain altitude, and then dead weight from there on.

Second, there's a certain number of apples, oranges, and miscellaneous other fruits in your last comment. There is, for example, a difference between an individual personally choosing to disassociate with someone (a decision I'd disagree with in the example you cite, by the way), and somebody advocating that personal stance as a public policy. Nor is your decision in a personal or even a private-sector professional capacity necessarily relevant to what the Armed Services might be obliged to do to maintain efficiency, cohesion and discipline (hence folks in the Armed Services can be disciplined and/or court martialled for all sorts of things that might well be unobjectionable when done by a civilian).

Third, there's a difference between accepting and condoning behavior, or condoning and encouraging. I don't condone someone cheating on his wife, but I don't judge him for it. I don't condone teen sex, but I can accept that teens have sex regardless of what I have to say about it, and I can try to discourage them from having it while encouraging them to do it safely if they're going to ignore my advice. As to whether declining to judge adulterers or advocating safe sex will increase such activities, there's two issues: first, that this is largely speculative, and second, that even if such behaviors did increase, would that actually be a worse outcome? (I.e. more teens having safer sex resulting in fewer pregnancies and transmitted STDs might be an acceptable outcome; as might more people committing adultery in a sexually saner, less hypocritical, less judgemental, more open society.)

Fourth, the matter of broken homes is just as appley/orangey: first, because you have a number of uncontrolled variables (e.g. broken homes are frequently combined with issues such as financial hardship or poverty), second because "broken" may indeed have multiple meanings that are separate from "traditional"--most people would consider a traditional nuclear family with an abusive alcoholic parent to be broken while not thinking to apply that same label to, say, a wealthy single parent who adopted a child or paid for in vitro fertilization or surrogacy.

Fifth, there certainly are aspirational values that are worth holding onto even if they're difficult or perhaps impossible--a feeling of peacefulness and goodwill to all persons comes to mind as one, the willingness to forgive enemies comes to mind as another. I have no doubt that many of Sanford's values, including many he draws from his faith, are there are almost certainly many values he and I share. But many of Sanford's values connected to marriage are clearly dubious, and have been for a long time. However one may date "the current age of sexual freedom," Western Civilization bears a lengthy historic record of adultery, cuckoldry, and even bigamy (e.g. accounts of 19th Century Americans entering common law or even licensed marriages while the status of an earlier marriage remained dubious or even plainly in effect aren't that hard to find). The reality, when we're talking about the "institution of marriage," is that for a good bit of the past several centuries it's seemingly been a custom "honored in the breach."

That isn't to say that if two people want to indulge in the custom, they shouldn't; nor is it to say that if they do so, they're doomed to failure. Plenty of people do, indeed, remain in faithful traditional marriages for decades, 'til death does them part, and more power to them.

Eric Friday, June 26, 2009 at 12:48:00 PM EDT  

I have no doubt that many of Sanford's values, including many he draws from his faith, are there are almost certainly many values he and I share.

...that should read:

"I have no doubt that many of Sanford's values are such aspirational values, including many he draws from his faith, and I'm sure there are many such aspirational values that he and I share."


ntsc Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 8:42:00 AM EDT  

People seem to forget that the US Theocratic morals are not the ones most of the world has.

They are not the ones of the Old Testament, they are not the ones of pre statehood Mormans, they are not the ones of the Muslim world and certainly not those of France much less a bible belt 19th century farming community.

I've been in two marriages, one, so far of almost 30 years duration, totally faithful (yes I look at other women with lust in my heart - my wife points them out to me from time to time). The other open from the time we started dating through the last time I saw her, a few month before I met my now wife. It was interesting, certainly fun, but really not who I am. It was who she was, and still is, so far as I know.

I followed you via Stonekettle from Whatever and from Ruhlman, via a possible intermediary blog or two.

Jim Wright Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 10:55:00 AM EDT  

Ha! Excellent post, Eric.

However, like Michelle, I do very much believe in lifelong monogamy. But I think it depends on the person, some may be wired that way, some not. I certainly am. Of course, I also believe that you should choose your mate very carefully and for the right reasons.

Personally I could give a rat's ass about Sanford's fidelity. I'm not even remotely surprised - every single one of these conservative hypocrites seem to end up the same way. The louder they scream at the rest of us, the more spectacular their ultimate failure. This is why I'm utterly convinced that the GOP assholes who condemn homosexuality the loudest, are all, each and every one, secretly gay themselves.

Here's my problem with Sanford - the guy is a governor, he has a security clearance, he has access to sensitive national intelligence, he's privy to US government information especially economic, and he's having an secret and undisclosed intimate affair with a foreign national from a non-allied nation, and in fact a nation that is at odds with one of our closest allies. Sanford is a member of the US AF Reserve, the US military, and as such has access to confidential military information. As governor he helps to shape trade policy and is in a position to advise both state and federal entities.

Sanford is a senior member of the US government - and he traveled abroad without security escort or proper notice to the State Department or his staff or even his own family - all in order to get laid. And in fact, he did this before as part of an economic summit - which certainly raises the question of where his loyalties where during the negotiations.

Sanford's actions constitute a major security breach, piss poor judgment, criminal failure to properly execute the responsibilities of his office, and a degree of selfish self-centered stupidity that simply boggles the imagination. It also raises the question of how a senior member of the US government could get past TSA, State and Federal security, and Homesec without raising any flags whatsoever.

This entire affair is a failure on so many levels, his hypocrisy and infidelity is the least of it. This idiot needs to be prosecuted to the maximum extent of the security laws he approved as a congressman prior to becoming a governor.

As to the women he was down there dipping his wick in, wanna bet she ends up having ties to her government's intelligence apparatus?

Eric Saturday, June 27, 2009 at 11:52:00 AM EDT  

Welcome, ntsc! I'm not on a regular schedule right now because of a broken wing, but I hope you'll make yourself at home.

* * *

Sanford's actions constitute a major security breach, piss poor judgment, criminal failure to properly execute the responsibilities of his office, and a degree of selfish self-centered stupidity that simply boggles the imagination. It also raises the question of how a senior member of the US government could get past TSA, State and Federal security, and Homesec without raising any flags whatsoever.

Good points Jim, and ones the prss doesn't seem to be doing enough with. Whether the girlfriend turns out to be a spy or, indeed, a post-op trannie, Sanford's lack of judgment in how he conducted his affair is a helluva bigger issue than the affair itself.

ntsc Sunday, June 28, 2009 at 7:00:00 AM EDT  

Probably the press hasn't picked up the security issue because nobody in the press knows about such things.

I was in the media for 30+ years and until Jim mentioned it had forgoten the travel restrictions myself. I've been released from them, except possibly Cuba, since 77.

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