Thursday, June 25, 2009


South Carolina's Governor, Mark Sanford, has reminded us that the world in which we live is as imperfect as ever and the players in that world, more imperfect than not. While I can't say I respect Sanford's politics (he thought President Clinton should resign for Lewsinky, yet he continues on as Governor), I do respect that the man came to the podium, faced the media and his voters, and didn't drag his wife and kids out there like so many often do.

This event, while fascinating (Governor's don't just disappear), highlights and issue that I would like to spend some time discussing. Like most networks, CNN had two people on last night to comment on the Sanford issue. First came the softball of all softballs, Candy Crowley, who blathered on for a few minutes about how in America people love a redemption story and Sanford might yet rise from the dead. Never mind that the affair isn't the issue - it's the abdication of his responsibilities as Governor and potential abuse of state funds that dooms him forever on the national stage. Crowley, while likeable enough, just doesn't like to stake out too much ground. She was, after all, still saying that McCain had a chance to win the thing on November 3rd.

The second guest, and infinitely more interesting, was Dr. Drew the famous sex/relationship therapist who has a show on MTV or some such trash channel. Of course CNN wanted Drew to comment on the state of the Sanford marraige and if it could be "saved". Drew, always one to please, suggested that the marraige had "likely" been under threat for quite some time but that it could be saved. He also encouraged other couples with marraiges in trouble to try to save their marraiges through counseling (rather indirectly).

There are two issues here I will comment on. First is the issue of the affair.

My wife, being Colombian and used to a macho society where the vast majority of men cheat, have girlfriends on the side, and lie about it constantly, has told me on several occassions that sometimes in relationships people "slip up" and that doesn't necessarily mean the end of the relationship. She's right in a sense. There is a possibility for "slip ups", especially in a country like Colombia where if you are foreign and married, you're almost more attractive to the legion of single, attractive, and aggressive women out there. I could see a situation where one is drunk, alone (maybe after a fight), and falls into bed with someone who is not your wife.

Of course, I don't think any of those things are excusable. Philisophically, I have always thought that alcohol just enables us to do things that we really want when sober anyway. So even in a "slip up" situation, I think it reveals terrible fissures in the relationship which may or may not be solveable.

An affair is totally different and a thousand times worse. An affair is an active emotional, mental, and sexual replacement of the person to which you are married. It is something that has a beginning, middle, and more often than not, an ending. It has a life of its own, like all relationships, and as such, an affair is often the culmination of a failed marriage. One doesn't just fall into an affair. They grow over time and they grow because one is unhappy or unsatisfied with their significant other. So when Dr. Drew said it probably indicated that their marraige had been in trouble for quite some time, he was vastly understating the significance of this revelation.

The second issue relates to "saving the marraige". This is a common response to affairs and whatnot. Indeed, Dr. Drew said that going into counseling he encourages couples to stay together by thinking of their kids and the lives they have built. Essentially, he suggests that the material things in life value more than happiness. (Obviously children aren't material, but in this context he equates them to possessions.)

I really can't express just how much I disagree with this point of view. Fundamentally, I don't believe that counselors and therapists should enter into marriage counseling with the pre-conceived goal of "saving the marriage". The goals should start at a much more basic level - reestablishing communication, understanding the other, etc. If, after a period of reconciliation and communication, both partners decide to continue in the marriage, so be it. But "successful" marraige counseling doesn't always end in marriage. Sometimes, it ends in divorce.

Marraige is the great fetish of Western civilization. In America, we tend to worship at the alter of marriage. There is a consistent social value that suggests that marriage is sacred and should be preserved at all costs. I call bullshit. Marriage is a legal process which enables us to enjoy certain benefits and privledges. In my case, my wife gets the legal authorization to live and work in my country just as I got the legal authorization to live in hers. We also got a social blessing - marriage is more acceptable in Colombian society than just living together. The church ceremony, blessedly, was in a language I didn't understand at the time, and in the tiniest church around, another blessing because any larger and I would have suffocated. I certainly didn't need a bunch of stodgy old men who have never been married to lecture me on what to expect, on how I should never use birth control and have as many babies as "God" gives me, and on and on.
Don't get me wrong. I love being married to my wife. Every day I know that I have someone who will love and support me no matter what (excluding baby killing cannabalism). And I married her because I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her laughter and tears, her hopes and fears, adventuring and growing, and on. But, if, God forbid, we reached a point where I no longer wanted those things, I would not want to stay with her just to preserve a man made institution.

The truth is, some marraiges just aren't worth saving. Or, more pointedly, some marraiges can't be "saved". Oh, they can be preserved. Two people can make a rational decision to stay together for the "sake of the kids". They can go through the motions of mechanical sex, put on a show for friends and neighbors, and bury the truth. But it's a sham. And it's a terrible lie to foist upon your children.

It turns out, children are rather savvy. They learn stuff without even realizing it. And when kids see an example of their parents, they internalize it, it becomes part of them. Living a lie, each and every day, imprints a very specific message on children - it's ok to lie about really big stuff. It's ok to be unhappy as long as appearances are maintained. And we wonder why we have drug and alcohol problems.

I don't pay homage to the unholy fetish of marraige. And I wouldn't hesitate to walk away if that was the right thing to do. I won't begrudge others their choices. I can't walk in their shoes. But I do know that we need to take marriage off the pedestal and treat it as it should be treated. When we hear about the 50% divorce rate in the US, we hear a chorus of voices of concern. We should be concerned...about the other 10-15% that maintain unhealthy, sham marraiges and the types of messages that our children learn from those examples.



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