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The John Edwards imbroglio: please hold the sanctimony!

It’s for the best that lovers don’t know, as they take their marriage vows before their friends, their family and whatever gods there be, how severely their commitment will be tested. If they could look into the future and hear the blistering words, see the dismissive looks, feel the tightening knot of rage at the small daily disappointments that with time can become monumental, they might never find the courage to declare that they will stand together for better and for worse, forsaking all others, til death do them part.

And what if one of them—let’s say the bride, because this particular brand of marital anguish is still better known to women—were to learn that he will not forsake all others, that behind her back he’ll sneak off to a hotel with someone else who has caught his fancy? Most likely she’d decide that he doesn’t deserve her love. Her friends would say she’s well rid of the lying, cheating scumbag.

In fact many couples quietly discover that an affair, while most assuredly a crisis, is not the worst calamity a marriage can face. The never-ending deceit of addiction is worse. Repeated assaults on self-esteem, physical or verbal, are worse. And while neglecting one’s spouse is perfectly acceptable, if not exactly admirable, the loneliness of a withering marriage is also worse. Yet somehow the notion persists that there’s no greater marital sin than infidelity.

ElizabethedwardsEver since last Friday, when John Edwards finally admitted his long-suspected affair with the woman who oversaw his campaign videos, moralists have been denouncing the former presidential contender as the worst sort of scumbag. Not only did he cheat on the unfailingly gracious and loyal Elizabeth, he had the gall to do so while she was terminally ill with cancer—to point out in an interview with ABC television, as if it were a mitigating factor, that she was in remission while he cheated on her.

Cyberspace is abuzz with sanctimony. No surprise there, I guess. We’ve seen variants of this tawdry drama before, notably with Eliot Spitzer and Bill Clinton. So rigid are the standards for sexual behaviour in the corridors of power that Hillary was loudly dissed by other women for staying with her man instead of dumping the slimeball as as they would have done. (My response: It’s not your marriage, honey, so butt out.) Yet I still have to ask why the public is so ready to denounce John Edwards for failing as a husband, when the truth is that every married person fails, frequently and often grievously. As for Edwards’ failure as a presidential candidate, let’s not forget that F.D. R., widely viewed as one of the greatest presidents the U.S. has ever had, carried on a long affair with his wife’s social secretary (who was with him when he died, compounding Eleanor’s grief).

The Roosevelts’ story, which has fascinated me since I toured the Roosevelt family homestead on the Hudson River two years ago, shows what a mystery every marriage is to those outside it. Few people would want a marriage like the one Franklin and Eleanor had, yet in its bizarre way it worked for them. He got her forward thinking and compelling public presence; she got the freedom to pursue her passion for reform.

In every marriage there are two bargains: the public one when the vows are taken, and the private one, which must be renegotiated again and again as circumstances change, highlighting the weaknesses of one or both partners. The real power and glory of a good marriage is not the pleasure of life unfolding as planned, but the challenge of adapting when the plans blow apart. At least most of us get to do this behind closed doors. Political couples have to keep themselves together while the cameras roll and headlines hint of further nasty revelations to come (as we’re seeing now in the Edwards debacle).

It’s not my place to know what kind of bargain John and Elizabeth Edwards have made, and I can barely imagine the struggle that faces them now. Yet as I watched the Edwards interview, which has been heatedly lambasted by the self-appointed guardians of probity, I saw no reason to doubt the former candidate’s contrition. Elizabeth was not beside him on camera, he explained, because she shouldn’t have to protect him from the consequences of his actions. He also said, “She understands what I understand, which is that I am imperfect.” For me, after 37 years of married life, this statement rings absolutely true. Loving your spouse for the flawed human being he really is, and not for the fairy tale prince of your imaginings, is the essential task of marriage.

Click here to read my post about Hillary Clinton.


Posted by Rona

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