Modern times: Unfaithfully yours

You've sympathized with Elizabeth Edwards, tsk-tsked at Jon and Kate. But what's the right way to deal with infidelity?

This spring, a wedding-cake store opened near my house. I watched the windows blooming in time with the neighbourhood flowers, brightened daily by pink icing and tiny spun-sugar birds. I saw a young woman through that window, her eyes dancing as she thumbed through a plastic-sleeved cake book, lost in her bridal possibilities.

And then the other spring arrived, a cloud of public infidelities and shattered marriages. Elizabeth Edwards, the wife of the former U.S. presidential hopeful John, published a slim memoir called Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities, recounting, in part, the personal assault that was the affair her husband admitted to last summer. The week of her angry Oprah appearance collided with the more lowbrow tale of Jon Gosselin, the titular reality-TV dad of Jon & Kate Plus 8, who’d been spotted leaving a nightclub with a 23-year-old. (TV executives nervously began preparing a sequel: Jon Plus 8 Every Other Sunday at Chuck E. Cheese.) In Italy, Veronica Lario asked for a divorce from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, only a few days after a newspaper published a letter she wrote demanding a public apology from her husband for his extramarital flirting.

All three women had allegedly been the cheatees, which should warrant at least some sympathetic murmurs, and yet the sound that emerged from the media maelstrom was more of a collective heckle. Several backlash columns followed Edwards’ appearance on Oprah. JAKP8 viewers pointed out in online chatrooms that Kate had been treating her husband like a dung beetle with mini-van skills for years, and bloggers posted variations of “You brought it on yourself, lady.” And Italy? Well, it rolled its eyes and returned to its espresso.

The unsympathetic response is beyond simple sexism: In North America, at least, the very subject of infidelity causes a mass recoiling. It may be the salacious stuff that brings down politicians, but unless it’s on your doorstep, unfaithfulness is what happens to other people. Cheating is an unnerving threat in a culture that loves weddings, but doesn’t much celebrate marriage; it’s the stick that topples the buttery tiers.

The average Canadian wedding costs about $25,000. How much will a couple spend on learning how to compromise, how to fight fair, how to live in companionship, equally and with grace? We assume that life together comes as easily as the vows, but the tension between the romantic aspirations we celebrate on the day of the wedding and the practicality of a long-lasting, long-lived relationship is the ongoing struggle faced by any couple. We start out on the wings of sugar doves, we end up fighting about finances. Along the way, our animal natures crouch in waiting, eager to betray us.

Yet in Canada, infidelity isn’t the main catalyst for a split. In one survey, it’s cited as the fourth most common reason for divorce; the most common, tellingly, is “different values and interests.” According to a 2007 book called Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity from Tokyo to Tennessee, four percent of married American men and three percent of women reported having a non-spousal partner in the past 12 months, about the same as those allegedly free-wheeling French.

Edwards’ memoir quivers with the devastation of discovering one’s life partner has violated the covenant. It is a book of keening written by a woman shocked to find an ugly crack in the foundation of her life. Edwards makes frequent use of the language of labour to describe – respectfully, lovingly, mournfully – her marriage: a thing built carefully, day by day, over 30 years, that’s now broken.

But in the end, the book isn’t really about her husband’s deception, it’s about the uncommon amount of sadness she’s endured throughout her adult life.

Her 16-year-old son died in a car crash; she was diagnosed with breast cancer. And that’s why I believe that Resilience would be a very good gift to bring to a bridal shower.

True, it might not go over as well as a Bodum. But every bride should be reminded that Plato’s romantic ideal of union – the story of a human who is split apart, and becomes complete when that other half is found – is only true for a couple of hours a day, if you’re lucky. Edwards’ story shows the breadth of a lifetime as part of a couple. Even together, we all, inevitably, exist separately, shouldering our own pain and happiness.

No slighted wife better embodies this idea than Hillary Clinton. Having endured the most famous act of infidelity of the past 100 years, Clinton’s decision to remain in the marriage never struck me as weak, or as a cynical political move. In staying, she declared that the affair would not be the first line of her obituary. She went forward, carving an identity in politics beyond that of the First Lady. Clinton’s staying seemed coiled to the long view that can only come with years of marriage: We fail. We make peace. We try.

Some philandering wolves, of course, are too wolfy for the long-term, and some marriages need to end. But somewhere between the Euro-cliché of the mistress at the graveside, and the all-or-nothing Puritan fantasy of the modern wedding, there must be a way to comprehend infidelity and temptation, if not exactly to prepare for it. Participating in this institution of marriage – gay, straight, common-law or otherwise – isn’t only a romantic act. Marriage, the day-to-dayness of a life with another human being, is as real as it gets. American author Anne Roiphe writes in her book, Married: A Fine Predicament, “If the marriage is to hold, the belief in the unbreakable bond needs to be internal, not simply imposed by an outside authority…The forever-after part cannot be tentative, just until the weather turns.”

I want to tell the bride in the cake shop to throw away her bridal magazines and checklists. To consider, instead, the words of these women whose wedding days are behind them, who can warn of the weather up ahead, in all its beauty and torment.