The rest simply cannot be controlled.
Yet apropos of Valentine’s Day, it’s worth considering something The Daily Beast reported recently, a remark made by philanthropist (and Edwards supporter) Bunny Mellon regarding John Edwards’ indiscretions: “All young men do it.” Really? Do two new memoirs from women scorned by dreamy husbands—Elizabeth Edwards and Jenny Sanford—stand in concert or opposition to another new book on why women need to lower their expectations (“settle”)? Has love’s place in the Marriage Equation been subtly downshifted?
Anecdotal evidence insists it has, but the more things change the more they remain the same: the heart wants what it wants when it wants it. While the adulterer society most highly prizes remains the attractive, powerful male (his appeal, ironically, often increasing in parallel, rather than in inverse proportion with, his sins), crimes of the heart are committed across sexual and demographic lines. It is the presence and weight of love that shifts according to the story, and to the person telling it.
Jenny Sanford is beautiful, cool, and accomplished. Not unlike former French First Lady Cecilia Sarkozy Attias, Sanford seemed at the least a match for her husband, former South Carolina Governor Mark, and perhaps more than that: perhaps she was even smarter than he was, and perhaps she recognized the flaws in someone so many others held up as perfect. There is a model for this: Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Sanford, unlike Clinton, elected not to stand by her man. But Sanford, unlike Clinton, saw that her man had likely left—at least emotionally—for good.
The reviews of Sanford’s new book, Staying True, are in accord on one count: Sanford is no Jane Austen. But does the literary quality of this kind of book matter? What we want from these memoirs is the thrill of transgressive detail alongside the experience of aligning with the one in the right. We want to consider adultery within the framework of standing at a safe remove from committing it. We want to remember the reasons why we elect, in our own lives, not to make the same choices Mark Sanford made.
Lori Gottlieb is beautiful, cool, and accomplished, too. Her story is an interesting corollary to Sanford’s, as is her book, reviewed in today’s New York Times Book Review: Marry Him: the Case for Settling for Mr. Good Enough. In it, she expands on her March 2008 article for The Atlantic, and in time it might well merit a sequel: The Emotional Consequences of Settling. She proposes, but does not follow, a strong argument.
Gottlieb is not married. She will not have the pain Sanford had. But not having married has brought her another kind of challenge, and this is what she warns against. She knows that most aspects of sustaining a marriage—staying faithful as much as moving gracefully through the affectionate boredom of monogamy—require strength, sacrifice, and ingenuity. She thinks it is worth is. And she thinks girls expect too much.
In her original piece, Gottlieb ends with this admission:
I know all this now, and yet—here’s the problem—much as I’d like to settle, I can’t seem to do it. It’s not that I have to be dazzled by a guy anymore (though it would be nice). It’s not even that I have to think about him when he’s not around (though that would be nice, too). Nor is it that I’m unable to accept reality and make significant compromises because that’s what grown-ups do (I can and have—I had a baby on my own).
Even knowing intellectually that we should lower our ambitions does not mean that we can easily give up longing. Because what we’re longing for is not the perfect marriage but the perfect love. Whether we accept advice from Ms. Gottlieb or Mrs. Mellon (they are essentially saying the same thing in different ways), there is increasing evidence—and an increasingly long list of titles telling us—that marriage is a model with infinite variations, and that the most important pact is the one kept privately between two people.
We might all say similar vows, we might all suffer diverse consequences—and joys. Adultery aside, there are very few rules to the game. There is this one: love matters.