How Much is too Much? Further Reflections on the Mark Sanford Story

To what lengths will we go to avoid divorce?

Posted Aug 13, 2009

People‘s values about the meaning and obligations of marriage vary greatly. For a person who regards marriage as a religious commitment or sacrament, the fact that the marriage vows have been violated by their husband or wife may not release them from their own promises. Other people, who believe marriage is more of a personal contract of love and commitment, have different ideas about what trespasses or disappointments legitimate leaving a relationship.

It is clear in the case of Mark Sandford, that both he and his wife have religious values that tether them to what is now a famously broken bond. Sanford did not just have sex with another woman, he did not even just have an affair; he declared that he had found "the love of his life" and his "soul mate". In other words, he created, admitted and broadcast a momentous love with someone else besides his wife and then, in pursuit of that love, humiliated his spouse and his family.

Onlookers watching this wreck of a marriage may shake their heads at what they think is Mrs. Sanford's incomprehensibly masochistic acceptance of her husband's betrayal. Even people who believe in the same religious sanctity of marriage that the Sanfords subscribe to may believe that this level of abandonment is too much to conquer. I certainly am sympathetic with that point of view.

What is interesting, however, is that Mrs. Sanford is hardly unique. While some people decry how blithely couples divorce these days, I think it is quite the opposite. I am impressed how much people will suffer before they leave rather than lose the person they love- or the family they love. (These may work together or separately). I have seen partners hold on for dear life when their spouse has emotionally kicked them out of their lives. I have seen people swallow being humiliated and disowned-and still hope for reconciliation. Sometimes the motivation is love, sometimes dependency and sometimes attachment to a way of life or the needs of the family. But the urge to resist dissolution, even when under terrific pain and emotional assault is awesome among the truly committed.

But is this good? What have the Sanfords got left? Their family? Maybe. Sometimes children will be able to forgive their errant parent's trespasses-and sometimes not. It is possible they will find a way to normalize family life-but it is not at all clear that will happen. Sanford's children probably feel loyal to their mom and angry about her position. Moving away may be necessary, and it is most certainly symbolic that the children went with her.

And what about the marriage? Can Mrs. Sandford get over hearing her husband publically pine for his lost mistress? Should she? How much can one ego take before it is just crushed? Can she ever feel truly loved by her husband again? She is not facing an errant husband who had a fly by night sexual adventure. She has a man who loves someone else and now is dutifully returning home. Who wants to be her?

I am not for marriages breaking up lightly. There is so much hope, love faith, history and practical concerns that if a marriage can be saved, it should be. But how much should we ask one person to take? Should Governor Sanford lose the love he sacrificed, his wife, family and maybe his career to have? Should Mrs. Sanford lose the chance to have someone who truly loves her and whose loyalty she can count on? Maybe all this can be fixed with a skilled marital therapist and the determination of the two spouses... but I am dubious. Our emotional flexibility has its limits- we are not intellectually capable of willing ourselves back in love-or regaining our respect and trust for someone who has badly betrayed both.

There are many people, including some therapists, who think a marriage and family system should be kept at all costs. I respect that opinion-but I don't subscribe to it. Sometimes a marriage deserves to end.