In the bad, old days, marriage was expected to be forever, and divorce was difficult and stigmatizing, especially of women. Then came the aftermath of World War II. Some husbands damaged by the war returned home greatly changed, difficult or dangerous, and intolerable to their wives (so, too, today). Some single soldiers and their sweethearts left behind hurriedly married and almost as hurriedly discovered that they were no longer so sweet on each other (so, too, today). The divorce rate soared for nearly a quarter century. In the late 60s, the feminist movement began washing away the last stigma of divorce. At about the same time, television made sensational and even attractive and commendable the divorces of celebrities. Times have so changed that the feminist movement has established a new stigma, one against wives who remain in marriages with louts or losers.
Let me be clear at the outset that the traditional grounds for divorce are reasonable ones. But the question is whether having a cause for divorce requires that spouses act on it. Infidelity is one justification of divorce, yet spouses differ in their responses; some sue for divorce, and some seek reconciliation. Decisions one way or the other reflect personal values which, in turn, reflect cultural and social influences. The question thus becomes more complex; not only is there a cause, but also is it substantial. When is enough, enough? The answer is that “enough” is getting smaller and smaller in response to changing moral, political, and social values—many not sensible for mature people.
Although the decisions are the spouses’ to make, outsiders often have opinions about them which reflect both their personal values and broader cultural influences. Liberated moderns can hardly understand the bad, old days. They still get married, they still recite wedding vows and repeat wedding rituals as before—they make mouths and go through the motions—but they do not make commitments though usually sanctioned in religious ceremonies and settings. “Enough” is just small. Thus, for decades, the divorce rate for first marriages has been fifty percent; for second marriages, sixty percent.
Likewise, liberated moderns can hardly understand spouses who choose to remain in marriages which have become unsavory, unsatisfying, or embarrassing. They can hardly understand why wives would stay with addicted, alcoholic, disturbed, unhealthy, or unfaithful husbands (I do not discuss the vice versa of this subject). As they project or accept the psycho-social deficiencies or materialistic calculations of such women, they stigmatize them for a choice which they would not make or recommend for themselves. Their standard: you are not like me, so you must be bad and your decision wrong.
Media coverage of the recent developments in the continuing story of the intertwined lives of Huma Abedin and Anthony Weiner has proven unavoidable and commentators’ responses to these development entirely predictable. In the midst of Weiner’s candidacy for New York mayor and after a few news stories about his continued sexting, husband and wife appeared at a news conference last week (24 Jul) to address this sordid issue. For many, it was an awkward, though titillating, intriguing, or disgusting, moment. They focused on what was present: creepy details, campaign politics, and political implications for Hilary Clinton because of Abedin’s close connection to her. Very few would criticize her for leaving him, but very few can understand her for staying with him. Why is that?
Commentators, especially women, were not catty in appraising Abedin’s appearance, her body language, and her actual language by Weiner’s side. However, they had a long and varied list of unflattering possible explanations for her role in the conference and her reasons for supporting a husband with a hurtful and harmful propensity, if not addiction, to obscene self-exposure. Abedin is the submissive wife, the supportive wife, the enabling wife, the calculating wife who ties her political fortunes to his (though hers are, or were, much more promising.) These women commentators speak for an unenlightened feminism which assumes victimization and seeks vicarious retribution.
Neither female nor male commentators suggested the possibility that Abedin was a long unfashionable type, the “loyal wife.” They revealed themselves socio-politically biased, culturally blinkered by ignorance of the past, and thus limited in their understanding of moral and social possibilities. They showed a sense of diversity extending only to approved types in the present, not to previous types surviving from the past. I shall come to the relevant circumstances, which almost scream for explanation, after retrieving some pertinent data from yesteryear.
In the centuries before 1800, among the well-born and well-educated, one formula for closing letters was not the now archaic “Sincerely Yours,” but the even more archaic, “In Love and Duty.” What wonderful concepts: love, duty. Moderns still talk about love, which seems to mean a student’s crush, a young adult’s romantic infatuation, or a thrill between the legs. They never talk about duty, except in a military context.
As the divorce rate suggests, liberated moderns do not regard perseverance in marriage despite hardships a virtue. They regard it as an investment, and cut and run as the losses mount. So neither they nor commentators noticed what was missing, implied, not stated, in Abedin's statement about loving her husband and deciding that her marriage to him was best for her—note: for her, and mentioned first—, their child, all three of them. What Abedin did not say, but what she so viscerally understood that she did not think to say it, was the importance of her integrity in living in fulfillment of her wedding vows in marrying her husband. The very possibility of personal integrity—that one’s word is one’s bond—is so culturally and morally alien to the sensibility of liberated moderns and commentators who so well embody and elaborate it that they do not see it.
I am too old to omit that possibility. Given the difference in backgrounds between these two intelligent people, a Muslim Midwesterner and a Jewish New Yorker, I have to think that they gave a great deal of thought, both individually and collectively (parents included or intervening, I would imagine), to their relationship, the management of their lives together, and, let us not forget, their mutual interest in politics. What, if anything, Weiner knew then about his proclivity we do not know; and, if he knew anything, what he told Abedin beforehand we also do not know. It is for them to know or discover and to address. But, undoubtedly, the media, to feed our voyeurism, will try to find out.
I would not expect a Muslim woman and a Jewish man to recite the marriage vows in The Book of Common Prayer, but I would expect them to tacitly accept what those vows articulate because they assert what is assumed in the marriage vows or rituals of their respective faiths. They “promise to love [the other], comfort [the other], honor and keep [the other], in sickness and in health; and forsaking all others, to be faithful to [the other] as long as you both shall live.” The alternative is the promise “to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part….”
I credit Abedin with the moral sense to honor, and the great strength to keep, her promise. She is, as Proverb 31 puts it, “a woman of valor.” She recognizes and accepts—difficult as it has been, as she has acknowledged it has been difficult, to accept—an obligation to work to preserve her marriage and thereby fulfill her avowed commitment of love and duty to Weiner in his sickness. It is their marriage. What matters is not what we think of him or even what she thinks of him, but what she thinks of herself and what she thinks is best for her in her relationship with him.
Modern commentators never considered this possibility. Their oversight, in its silence, speaks volumes. They imply that sicknesses which are private, like cancer, genital herpes, or Alzheimer’s disease, or even alcoholism, women should accept, but those which are or become public, like infidelity or sexting, women should not accept. They imply that who one’s spouse is as a person matters less than how one’s spouse appears as a partner. The discomfort of embarrassment counts for everything. If so, the facts of divorce imply that many care less about their spouse than about themselves and the fun, while it lasts. So they think: I know that I promised forever, but life is short; or, I do not need the hassle; or, so I lied, sue me. Such thinking is, apparently, liberated or, at least, facilely liberating.
The question is not, as liberated moderns cannot even conceive it, does Abedin trap herself by making her word her bond. The question is what does she gain by making her word her bond. The answer is self-respect. I am no absolutist; as I said above, I accept that a spouse can have a cause of sufficient magnitude for divorce because continuing the marriage would destroy self-respect. Weiner’s behavior is obviously hurtful and embarrassing, but it does not appear aimed at Abedin, whom I have no doubt that he loves. She knows as much and, to her credit, honors her word as her bond to help the man whom she loves and to whom she knows that she has the duty of love. Mature people understand and accept their commitments. I do not think of her as trapped, but as freed by her integrity from the slavery of always putting herself first. Enough of that, already.