Much of the public discourse about the recent revelation that Arnold Schwarzenegger fathered a child with another woman while married to Maria Shriver and raising a family with her has centered on Arnold. Is he a narcissist? A womanizer? Drunk on power? Why would he do such a thing, columnists, commentators and men and women on the street have wondered, and what made him think he could get away with it?
Not that we're not interested in Maria's situation. Why, the public asks, did she tolerate his womanizing and the more or less flagrant indulgences of his libido for so many years? After all, his peccadillos were an open secret among the California and national political cogniscenti, and nearly doomed his gubernatorial bid. Until Maria publicly stepped up to quash them, stand by her man, and help propel him into office. What on earth were her motives? we ask ourselves. Was she in the dark? Was this a case of knowing and not knowing? Did they have some sort of "deal," Arnold and Maria?
Less have we spoken about the third person in this private and very public scenario-the Other Woman. In the coming days the media and we, the public, may cast her as deceptive ("She worked in their home! For twenty years!"), pathetic, or simply a bad woman and a bad person. Time will tell. What we might do, in addition to judge, is simply ask ourselves whether there is a reason, beyond personal pathology or personal choice, that she might have done what she did.
Behind every high-ranking male like Arnold, John Edwards, Vito Fossella (the former U.S. Congressman) and Francois Mitterand who fathers a second family on the DL is a woman who chooses him as her mate. Why would a woman have an affair and a child with a man who is already married and a father?
As I researched and wrote my book Stepmonster and considered examples of stepmothering in other cultures, including pre-industrial ones, I spoke with anthropologists, evolutionary biologists and human behavioral ecologists who studied polygamy, the practice of having more than one spouse. We are used to thinking of polygyny (men with several wives) and its statistically rarer cousin, polyandry (when women have more than one husband) as relics of "primitive" or "other" cultures. But evolutionary biologists believe that pre-industrial foraging societies are actually a time capsule of sorts, providing the best possible clues about how we all likely lived throughout much of our evolutionary prehistory. That means that, when conditions were right, we were polygynous. And so, some anthropologists further suggest, divorce and remarriage with children in developed western cultures might be considered "legalized polygyny." Human behavioral ecologist Steven Josephson, who intensively studied a cohort of Mormons, suggests that we may consider our way of life "serial monogamy that is arguably slow-motion polygyny." Men have a wife and kids, divorce, remarry, and have more kids. What, these anthropologists ask, makes this practice completely distinct from having several spouses simultaneously?
There is a whole sub-field of anthropology dedicated to studying actual polygyny, and what its risks and rewards might be for men, women, and families. One popular hypothesis is that "half a husband with resources is better than no husband at all." Another is that polygamy benefits a man's reproductive fitness, but is ultimately disadvantageous for the women and children of his union/s. A third hypothesis, confirmed by Josephson's data, is that while the children of women in polygamous unions might have fewer resources, and the women might be at a disadvantage themselves, relatively disempowered in the household or union, their grandchildren seem to benefit. And this, Josephson says, is a measure of a mother's reproductive success. Polygamy, in his cohort, broke in favor of the second and third wives, even if their success took two generations to manifest.
The larger point, Josephson and anthropologists like him suggest, is this: the fact that women choose to have children with men who already have wives and children suggests that, when it comes to polygyny and our evolutionary history, "the software is still in there."