Around the time of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary, I turned to my father at the dinner table one night and said, "It's amazing, Dad 50 years, and you never once had an affair. How do you account for that?"
He replied simply, "I can't drive."
Watching the governor of South Carolina cry like a little girl because his sexy e-mails got forwarded to his local newspaper, the State, made me wonder whether the real secret to a lasting marriage lies in limiting your means of escape. Whether you're putting the Buick Regal in reverse or hitting Send on a love note, you're busting out of your marriage, however temporarily, and soon enough there will be hell to pay.
During the press conference in which he admitted his affair, Mark Sanford warbled that he had broken "God's law," a sentiment that served only to emphasize the narcissism that had gotten him in trouble. Wrestling with God's law had apparently been the subject of many sessions of his Bible-study group, a seminar that may have spent a little too much time on the Song of Solomon, given Sanford's e-mailed encomium of his lover's physique: "I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night's light." Finally a bit of prose that makes us long for the clinical precision of the Starr report. Sanford told reporters the affair had begun "very innocently," which reveals that he still hasn't been honest with himself about the willfulness of his actions. When a married man begins a secret, solicitous correspondence with a beautiful and emotionally needy single woman, he has already begun to cheat on his wife.
Just a week before, another blue-blazered elected official Senator John Ensign of Nevada was forced to make a similar confession, although he left God out of it, which must have been a nice break for the Almighty. Ensign had done "the worst thing" in his entire life, he confessed: "I violated the vows of my marriage." The mood on both occasions was funereal; it might have been touching to see two such buttoned-up guys welling with tears if the corpses weren't their political careers.
The one thing both men refused to admit was that, back in the heyday of these affairs, they must have been having a blast. These were two middle-aged, conservative Republican men who had said, To hell with being part of the Cialis generation (midlife sexuality depicted as an aging husband and wife reclining in ... side-by-side bathtubs? What is the drugmaker worried about that randy Pa might jump in Ma's bath and break her hip?). Their actions were so willful and blatantly self-centered that the two of them could have credibly fashioned themselves as rebels, possibly even as heroes, if they could have just stopped crying. They weren't a couple of tools stuck in sexless marriages and making up for it with Internet porn. These guys had embarked on dangerously erotic rampages with real-life, unencumbered women, women who decidedly weren't ... Jenny and Darlene. The long-suffering wives, Fun Busters in Chief.
In the e-mails exchanged between the governor and his girlfriend, they trip over themselves to praise the other's virtues. She was "special and unique," "glorious"; he was a man of emotional generosity who "brought happiness and love to my life." These two humanitarians were engaged not only in worshipping each other's high-mindedness but also in destroying another woman's home, hobbling her children emotionally and setting her up for humiliation of a titanic proportion. The squalor and pain that resulted from the Sanford and Ensign midlife crises make manifest a bleak truth that the late writer Leonard Michaels once observed in his journal: "Adultery is not about sex or romance. Ultimately, it is about how little we mean to one another."
And so two more American families discover a truth as old as marriage: a lasting covenant between a man and a woman can be a vehicle for the nurture and protection of each other, the one reliable shelter in an uncaring world or it can be a matchless tool for the infliction of suffering on the people you supposedly love above all others, most of all on your children.