First, the Gores break up. Then our local Minnesota Congressman and first Muslim in the House of Representatives Keith Ellison files for divorce. Normally I might look to a high profile wedding as a sign of hope, but the week ended with 59 year old Rush Limbaugh’s fourth marriage, this one to a 33 year old woman whom he met during the divorce of his third wife. For his fourth wedding he went over the top, hiring Elton John, (a strange choice for entertainment given Limbaugh’s public concerns about gay marriage), who performed for 400 guests for a reported one million dollars. When asked about marrying someone 26 years her senior, the bride told the press, "I'm sometimes not able to relate to the average person my age." Age is the least of the issues.
Rush Limbaugh's multiple marriages is a 21st century American story. As sociologist Andrew Cherlin documented in his terrific book The Marriage Go Round, we Americans are crazy about both pair bonding and breaking up. In comparison to Europe, American's cohabitate and split up more easily, we marry and divorce more frequently, and we go on to remarry and re-divorce more readily. I’m not against hope or against trying again for a permanent union. But as a marriage therapist what I find depressing is people churning through multiple marriages without learning very much—except that they married for the wrong reasons or married the wrong person (but now it’s different) or that the love went away.
In his public comments about his marriages, Limbaugh seems to fall right into this conventional pattern of explanation for marital failure. For his first divorce: "I was doing what I thought I had to do. There was romance in the idea of being married. It was just the wrong reasons." For his second divorce, “The love had just vanished. We’re still friends.” (Sound like Al Gore? See my blog about the Gore divorce.)
Real insight into a divorce involves understanding one’s own role. Limbaugh at one time did show potentially deeper insight into why he was not good love material. “I’m too much in love with myself,” he said once between marriages. I wonder if his new wife saw that quote, or this one: "If you want a successful marriage, let your husband do what he wants to do," he once said.
It’s easy for liberals like me to beat up on Limbaugh for being a family values hypocrite. Someone once said that hypocrisy is a necessary thing in this world because it means that there are some commonly held values worth espousing in even if we don’t always practice them. I am less troubled by human failures and contradictions than by how we explain them publicly. The Gore divorce is sad but what troubled me most is the bland “we grew apart but we’ll still great friends” story line. That diminishes the marital relationship by making it like a business partnership that had profitable years but should not be pushed past its prime.
The same with the new Limbaugh marriage: What seared me at the end of a troubling week is the public story line that it’s wonderful to keep trying to find a lifelong mate despite any evidence that the newlyweds have learned squat from past divorces. I hope the new marriage succeeds again the odds. But to celebrate this kind of union does a disservice to marriage and increases public skepticism about the institution. I wonder what were the guests thinking?