In Briefs: New York Times Vows Hoopla

HOWARD MEGDAL: So: thoughts on the couple in Vows who left their spouses after meeting at their kids’ school? And what about the uproar over the Times publishing it?

LAURA ROBERTS: Hmm. A strange place to put the story, under “Vows,” as some of the commenters mention, but is it really wrong to write about these people? As the article mentions, they were honest with their respective spouses and didn’t cheat on them in order to be together. I would like to see the other side of the story covered as well: what’s going on with the dumped spouses? How do THEY feel? It’s not that one side is better or worse than the other, but that the coverage of this
story didn’t take the opposite side into account. Not very “fair and balanced” journalism here, for sure.

I think it’s interesting to see how people handle these kinds of crises in their relationships. If you love your spouse, what do you dowhen you find another person you love equally–or more? Are marriage
vows the only reason you stay together? And if so, does that mean you are doing the right thing, even if you are miserable–and potentially making your spouse and children miserable by extension? I think it’s
telling that so many people are chastising this couple for being “homewreckers,” particularly if their homes are not particularly wrecked, but refashioned (the Brady Bunch reference works).

Ultimately, I think other people have no business judging others’ marriages. They literally have no clue what goes on behind closed doors, and while it may appear one way on the surface, there are plenty of things that could be going on underneath that would completely change one’s point of view. Let’s face it: living with another person for the rest of your life isn’t always easy, or fun, or even full of love and laughter. When there are kids involved, it’s even more complicated. I think happiness is important, but so is honesty, and so is being faithful to your spouse once you’ve committed to monogamy. So this story is definitely an interesting one, but not so easy for me to label as “good” or “bad.”

HOWARD MEGDAL: And to me, your last point is the salient one regarding publication. I am addicted to the Vows column. These people chose to speak on the record about a fascinating story. The Times shouldn’t publish it? Why on earth not?
I thought it was well-written and fascinating. And I wonder how much of the angry response is just fear.

LAURA ROBERTS: I think that’s a good point, Howard. Probably a lot of the angry respondants are afraid they will be the dumped spouses! And that’s a reasonable fear, given the high divorce rate. My husband said to me, when we were dating, “Let’s never get married if we’re just going to cheat on each other and get a divorce,” and I was like “Deal!” But at the same time, how can you really predict that this will never happen?  You just don’t know what’s in store for you.

I don’t think it’s a story about lack of moral fiber, as some seem to think. Indeed, these two people at the very least claim to have behaved with integrity. I would certainly not want to be the jilted spouse here, but I think really what those people are afraid of and angry about is the concept of love not conquering all. When you have to choose between a new love and an old one, which is better? Neither
is truly better; they are just different. And our society and vows don’t allow for people to love multiple partners. Not to get all polyamorous, but honestly, do you really only love ONE person, really and truly? And if so, then how can you honestly say you love your kids, your dog or cat, your brothers and sisters and parents? Our concept of love is very, very limited. So no wonder people are threatened when they see a story that implies that that love is finite or somehow going to be replaced by other loves.

HOWARD MEGDAL: I do think it is a question worth asking. What should a person do if he/she falls in love with someone else, and out of love with his/her spouse? The answer can’t be, “Don’t do it.” That’s like the old Henny Youngman joke, “Doctor, it hurts when I lift my arm.”

EMILY SAIDEL: What was interesting to me (besides the fact that Howard reads the Vows section) was that the comments (and for PP I broke my general rule to never, ever read comments on the internet) seemed split between “Yay for love and honesty” and “This love is short term, think of the broken families.” (There was also a portion of “They have a right to their private lives but why advertise it in the New York Times” but that is a different issue.)

Are those really the two options?

LAURA ROBERTS: Americans are very diametrically opposed. Either/or. Neither/nor. Yes/no. Black/white. Night/day. It’s why I wanted to write a grad thesis on Asian philosophies, which accept more of the grey area, specifically Buddhism. But I guess that’s a very American thing to do, too: flee Christianity’s 1 god for Buddhism’s no god.

Still, I think the whole dichotomy thing is messed up. Yes, lots of things can be categorized as A or Not-A, but plenty of things can’t, because they are Both, or have shades of grey in them. Shouldn’t we be a bit more mature in our discourse, and our understanding of the universe, to say that things are not black or white, but are open to interpretations, depending on where we stand and how the light reflects.

MOLLY SCHOEMANN: Going back to Laura’s point about how she and her husband promised that if they got married, they would not cheat on each other and divorce, this is part of what disturbs me about our high divorce rate– a LOT of people promise that when they get married.  Nobody (to my knowledge) goes into a marriage thinking, “Well, this probably isn’t going to work, but oh well, here goes.”  You go into a marriage thinking, ‘This is it.’  It just hammers home how impossible it is for anything to be a sure thing.  Whenever people are all, “I know this person is The One for me,” I kind of shrug.  Given our divorce rate, even if you KNOW it’s a sure thing:  so did a lot of other people, sweetheart.  And they were wrong.  Not to be hugely cynical, I still believe in love and marriage.  My parents have been married for thirty-five years.  I know it can work out.  But I also know that you never know.

LAURA ROBERTS: I think that’s kind of the whole point of marriage: you never know, but you promise as if this person will be your end-all, be-all for the rest of your conscious waking life. That is a pretty hard thing to deal with once you’re faced with the reality that, oopsie, they’re not REALLY everything you thought you wanted. So, dealing with that is tough. But not dealing with it, and pretending everything is just fine (when it’s not) is arguably tougher.

I mean, if he falls out of love with me, that is a risk all marriages face. But if he’s just going to fuck around on me and pretend we’re still in love, then what the hell’s the point? I’ve heard of many a
marriage where it’s assumed one or both spouses will cheat, and honestly, I don’t see why those people are married at all.

Now, I think it may also depend on what EXACTLY you agreed to in your vows. My husband and I got married at City Hall, and I don’t recall any mention of “for better or for worse, til death do you part,” so
maybe there’s been some revision, or maybe City Hall offers legitimately different vows than a more religious marriage does? What exactly did I agree to? I still view my marriage as IF we agreed to those things, but ya know what? Ultimately all of this is a social contract, and as we all know, there are plenty of lawyers out there specifically devoted to dissolving social contracts.

Sad but true? Or just point of fact?

JEFF MORROW: What’s most fascinating about the story to me is two-part.

(1) It simultaneously allows for the nihilistic and the romantic aspects of love. By which I mean, the story seems to believe in Love as a true and good and real thing, but it also necessarily nods in the direction of the fact that you can’t ever actually depend on the promises of it, or necessarily know when it’s real or durable. And I happen to believe both of those things are true, but most people try not to think about them, especially the latter, because they’re terrifying. That, for most people, promises are more conditional than we would like them to be, and that even love doesn’t insulate us from that fact. Like, the article doesn’t try to suggest that this time they got it Right and This is Really Forever, nor does it suggest that there were all sorts of indications in the previous marriage that anything was wrong. We’re not necessarily supposed to believe that this, either, is forever and perfect. Just that people are happier and more in love now than they were. Which is a terrifying notion, even if it is true to human experience.

(2) The story really glosses over a terrible tragedy lurking in its background. I think the best you can say about this new union, even if those old unions were broken (and the article doesn’t get into that, so we don’t know), is that this is a bittersweet story. But people’s lives got straight-up ruined, even if temporarily, and I find it interesting the way in which the story seems to put that off to the side. Like, so few of these vows columns (I don’t regularly read them, only occasionally, so Howard can correct) have such obvious pain, messiness, and tragedy lurking just on the other side of the text.

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